A while back, Lady Geek Girl and I got to talking about how most worlds we read about in sci-fi and fantasy are dystopias. Other than maybe Narnia, I can’t think of a single fictional world that’s utopian. And even then, when Lucy first travels through the wardrobe, Narnia is blanketed in an eternal winter and ruled by a malicious ice queen. It doesn’t surprise me that fantasy worlds are often dystopias. After all, our characters need some powerful evil force to fight against, and many of the issues our heroes come across in dystopian worlds are things we can relate to—sickness, prejudice, racism, sexism, extreme poverty, so on and so forth. Yet, despite how horrible a fictional world may seem, we as consumers still use these worlds as a form of escapism.
When we read or watch these stories, we expect things to turn out well in the end. Fantasy is, after all, an escape from the horrors of reality. We like to see solutions to the problems we face today. Over the past so many years, however, fantasy has become darker and darker, and especially in a series like A Song of Ice and Fire, there’s no real promise that things will look up in the end. Even once the Others are defeated and summer comes again, our characters will still be trapped inside a patriarchal society filled with many of the same problems the series started with.
While A Song of Ice and Fire is great to read, Westeros is not a world many of us want to escape to, and it hasn’t helped that Game of Thrones used the entirety of its past season to turn every bad thing in Westeros into shock value, while neglecting anything that could have made those moments significant. So why do we still like to follow fantasy stories in dystopias, even when a happy ending doesn’t look possible? Well, one reason is that the problems in dystopias are still things we can relate to, and we can definitely relate to the possibility of those problems being there our whole lives. Another reason is also probably because the real world is boring.
It doesn’t matter how horrible a place like Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry really is; in the end, we all still lament not getting our owls when we turned eleven. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is going on adventures so epic and righteous against a government so corrupt that we forgive the story for its faults—especially since, if we are politically minded about the real world, it might be something we wish we could do in the real world to our government. And in The Inheritance Cycle, even though Alagaësia is filled with slavery, ruled by a corrupt king, and is under threat by a terrorist organization, we all still wish we had pet dragons.
One of the differences between worlds like Westeros and Alagaësia and places like Hogwarts and Coruscant from Star Wars is that the characters don’t see Hogwarts and Coruscant as horrible places, despite what the narrative tells us. Hogwarts is magical and otherworldly, and Coruscant is a utopia of wealth. Ahsoka Tano doesn’t live in poverty in the lower levels of the city, and Harry Potter is not a slave trapped inside a painting. Because our point of view is limited to what the characters see as well, we as the audience are just as likely to be tricked into believing these fictional worlds are better than they actually are. And since the real world is boring, who doesn’t want to be a Jedi going on epic space adventures?
The movie Coraline talks about this directly, by comparing a boring real world with a magical other world. When our titular character Coraline moves to a new house in Oregon, the world is dark and dreary, and she doesn’t want to be there. However, while exploring her new home, Coraline finds a secret passage into the Other World—a world that mirrors the real world. Immediately, the Other World comes off as more appealing to Coraline, because the Other World is vibrant and colorful, magical and inviting. It seems so much better than the monotony of the real world that Coraline willfully keeps returning to the Other World despite repeatedly being warned not to, and she doesn’t see what a horrible place the Other World is until it’s nearly too late and she almost becomes trapped there as a result. In the end, Coraline makes it back home safely and she develops a new appreciation for the real world.
What I love so much about Coraline is the message the movie leaves us with in the end. The story teaches us there are things to look forward to in the real world and that the real world doesn’t have to be as bad as it initially seems. This is important, because even though fantasy worlds help us explore our own real-world issues, sometimes they don’t give us happy endings. Or they leave us with messages that we don’t like. Other times, the characters will defeat the big bad, but they won’t address all of the socio-economic issues in the story. Sure, at the end of Harry Potter, Voldemort is gone for good, but by the time the epilogue rolls around, we still know that the school continues to encourage segregation among its students and house elves are more than likely still slaves. And at the end of A Song of Ice and Fire, Daenerys or whoever wins the throne probably isn’t going to be able to erase all the injustice faced by the people of Westeros.
That’s not to say that these stories are not powerful and cannot be used as escapism. We enjoy these dystopias because we watch individual characters overcome their personal struggles. However, a dystopia doesn’t always become a utopia because a good guy triumphs in the end. So yes, the real world might be boring, but as Coraline teaches us, the real world can still be better than what we read about in our stories.