21 December 2006

Humanity's Wish List

At last night's writers group, several of us had different discussions about whether a particular way of looking at a story made it a fantasy. The discussion heated up; I blame a particular member (John) and the evening's moderator (John). But be that as it may, it got me thinking about fantasy at its most basic level.

As I've written before, I don't think stories have to be set in magical realms or concern magical creatures to be fantasies. For me it's just as fantastic for humans to achieve some widely desired but impossible powers, such as:

  • living forever, remaining or becoming young again
  • curing loved ones of disease or injury
  • seeing into the future
  • reading other people's minds
  • seeing distant or hidden things
  • making one's inamorata quickly fall in love with you, or controlling other people's behavior in any other way
  • being invisible
  • going back into the past with the power to change things
  • (for kids) becoming an adult or gaining adult powers overnight
  • creating or finding unlimited wealth or food
  • discovering perpetual motion, or any other system that produces more energy than it takes
  • having immense strength or resilience
  • flying like birds
  • swimming like fish
  • conversing with animals and/or beloved objects
  • having a child after that had come to seem impossible, or having a child of a particular sort
  • changing our physical shape to be either unrecognizable or more beautiful
  • making machines to do our labor
What more have I forgotten? I guess there's a whole ’nother set of fantasies which involve things we fear, and gaining power over them: fierce animals, ghosts, the weather, etc. But let's stick to powers.

Human beings have been trying to do all these things, or fantasizing about being able to do them, for millennia. Many religious leaders have promised their adherents some variation on these desires. But, at least until very recently, we've never succeeded in attaining them, at least consistently and reproducibly. Wishing to do these things and not being able to thus seems to be a basic part of the human condition.

Naturally, there are many stories, new and old, about what it would be like to attain each of those desires. To me, those stories are inherently, undeniably fantasies. And it's interesting to consider that a lot of them are cautionary tales about the downside of actually getting what one wished for. By downside I don't mean what I once heard Ellen Howard (I think) call "the price of fantasy": the cost of something magical that keeps a story interesting. I mean a real "Be glad you're an ordinary human" type of story.

Flying? We've got Superman, and we've got Icarus. Machines to do our work? On the one hand, Tik-Tok the Mechanical Man; on the other, the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Cassandra, Dorian Gray, Midas, Gilgamesh, Tom Hanks in Big--storytellers have created a slew of characters who show us how hard it might be to actually attain one of these human desires.

In recent decades (a mere blip as far as the human condition is concerned) we've come a lot closer to achieving some of those desires, particularly those I left to the end of my list. We may thus start to live in a fantasy world. Will those discoveries change what it means to be human?

For example, remember when a pregnant couple didn't know that they were having twins, or the sex of their child-to-be? That was once part of being human. Henry VIII split his church out of frustration at not having a legitimate son; George MacDonald's The Light Princess starts with a king voicing the same complaint ("I feel ill-used."). But now technology can promise a couple that they'll have a boy or a girl. Doctors warn that using fertility technology that way would be unethical, but perhaps it would be merely inhuman.

1 comment:

Kelly Fineman said...

Very thoughtful, and I've been pondering it since yesterday although I've nothing to add.

Thanks, though. I do so love to ponder.