Updated: Mar 31, 2020
Written by Rikke Schubart, Associate Professor at University of Southern Denmark and Research Leader of the Imagining the Impossible network group.
As we in the West see the world reacting to the spread of the corona virus, many turn to fiction to find stories that can help us understand what is happening.
The most pirated film with more than 18,000 downloads a day is Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film about a virus from China that causes a pandemic in the US. At the end of the movie scientists find a cure, quite unrealistically, given the short time from the first are infected and a cure created. It has a happy end, like Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak from 1995.
I am an academic and my research is in the fantastic. I, too, continued from the news to Contagion (my first choice of fiction), World War Z, and I am Legend to find stories that provided maps for what was going on.
This blog entry is not intended as a comment on the corona virus that started in Wuhan, China. The worldwide pandemic is hard to fathom and ten days ago I was planning a conference in May at the University of Southern Denmark, “Utopia and Dystopia” about fantastic fiction, when overnight dystopia became a reality.
This website was designed before corona came to the West and is meant to share research on the fantastic. This first blog entry is written in the conviction that fantastic fiction still matters, that it speaks about our world, and that fantastic genres serve to help us make sense of our world. Fantastic stories are not a cure, but they are deeply meaningful.
Fantastic fiction creates visions of the impossible, both good and bad, utopian and dystopian. Evolutionary psychology says humans have this unique ability to imagine impossible, unrealistic, and not–yet–existing scenarios so we can prepare for the unpredictable future. Fantastic fiction functions as maps in unknown territory and have done so from religious images of heaven and hell to today’s visions of human civilizations in outer space or disasters on planet Earth.
Fantastic imaginations are often driven by fear: What if a zombie virus spread, as in The Walking Dead, the most popular tv–series in history on US cable tv? What if pollution made the Planet inhabitable, as in the Mad Max films? What if technology killed most of mankind as in the Terminator films? What would it look like? How would we react?
Tolkien believed fantasy could inspire hope in times of war – this was during WW2 – and used the cliché “happy end” of fantasy in Lord of the Rings to protest oppression. He called such a happy end in catastrophic times an eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophe is “miraculous grace,” it is hope when hope is impossible.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty–Four (1949) were also protest, one a political satire and the other a dystopian science fiction novel, the first written in 1943–44 when the UK was in alliance with Stalin, which Orwell thought wrong.
But fantastic fiction can also provide care and comfort. Research in fairy tales document how children in the camps during WW2 used fairy tales to keep up hope and where survivors told that these tales were lights in the utter darkness*. And recently, Guillermo del Toro has used the fantastic to depict innocence and vulnerability in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) set in the Franco’s Spain after the civil war and The Shape of Water (2017) set in an American fantasy dystopia.
I was reminded of care in the fantastic when a few days ago a young woman in a café asked if she could hug my Golden Retriever. “It’s wonderful to be allowed to hug someone,” she said and put her arms around Stella. The next day Denmark closed all cafés and restaurants. In the park, where I can still walk my dog, children ask to hug her. I say yes and hope it is okay.
These hugs reminded me of I am Legend (2007), one of the films I re–watched.
I am Legend is a sentimental version of Richard Matheson’s classic post–apocalyptic novel I am Legend (1954), which is truly dystopian. The film has a different feel and storyline, and I was moved by the intimate relationship between survivor Robert and his dog, the German Shepard Sam. Sam protects Robert against the mutant survivors, they sleep together at night in the bathtub, and Sam runs on a fitness machine next to Robert’s. Robert’s daughter handed him the puppy Sam moments before she died. Sam is Robert’s only friend in the world. At a critical point Robert calls the dog Samantha, and we understand she is female, a twist on the films with a man and his dog in the post–apocalypse. I am Legend is no masterpiece, but the relationship between an animal, the dog Samantha, and Robert resonated in me. It made me think of care and life and the destructiveness of the antropocene age.
Countries around the world close borders and ask citizens to stay at home.
In Denmark people emptied grocery shops of toilet paper. In the US the news says people queue to buy guns. I wonder what for (did they watch The Purge (2013, 2014, 2016,2018). But the news also tells how people volunteer to help and how hospital staffs work overtime in hospitals to do their utmost to slow down the effects of the virus. Fear is a strong instinct telling us to care only for ourselves and our family, but the instinct for doing good might be stronger, and civilization is precisely civilization because it holds compassion and collective action.
To those in the West who have not experienced war or a pandemic, present events may look like a movie. Indeed, the internet is right now full of recommendations for end–of–the–world films to watch. I think this is not escapism but a way to deal with what is happening.
Fantastic stories give images and narrative structure to the unimaginable, they provide visions of what we think is impossible. Fantastic stories are not meant as “means” to repair the world. Fantastic stories are canvases where we can share images, where we can communicate. Different kinds of fantastic stories – catastrophic, post–apocalyptic, fantasy, fairy tales – are visions we use to understand and interpret our world. Some of these visions strike fear and depict the worst, while others have lights of hope. Most fantastic fiction, even one as bleak as The Road, wants to make the world better. Whether they are dystopian or utopian, I believe they serve the same function, which is to let us imagine so we can relate to our world. And try to change it in the future.
Did you find this blog entry interesting? Find more publications by Rikke Schubart here.
*Haase, Donald. “Children, War, and the Imaginative Space of Fairy Tales.” The Lion and the Unicorn 24, no. 3, September (2000): 360–77.
–––. “Overcoming the Present: Children and Fairy Tales in Exile, War, and the Holocaust.” In Mit den Augen Eines Kindes: Children in the Holcaust. Children in Exile. Children under Fascism, edited by Viktoria Hertling, 86–99. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.
Photo credit: Will Smith in I am Legend (2007, director Francis Lawrence) copyright Warner Bros.
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