Ah, theme. That elusive concept that our eighth grade English teachers hammered into our tender brains. “What is the theme of A Tale of Two Cities?”
As if a complex masterwork can be adequately explained by a thirteen-year-old’s understanding of the gap between the aristocracy and the peasantry and the political woes that arise as a result. Books just don’t break down that easily—yes, theme is present, but usually in the form of several interwoven-threads that often make a very specific or a very vague point. And literary critics will tell us that the themes we find often say more about us than about the work we’re interpreting.
But we can’t escape it. Writers are so often asked, by people who don’t really care, “What is your book about?”
These people don’t usually want to hear, “Well, it’s about this middle-class, average graduate student, who decides to throw away her huge research grant and, instead of focusing on the social practices of rapidly disappearing indigenous people in northern Asia, decides to go on a quest—both academic and actual—for the origins of a dragon myth. And then she finds that dragons aren’t real, but the myths may stem from a race of dragon people who live in the hills and mountains and are rapidly becoming extinct.”
Some people might want to hear that (it does sound pretty cool, even though I made it up to be ludicrous), but most people want to hear something like, “Well, I’m writing a novel that explores the relationship between those who study native cultures and members of the culture itself.”
That makes you, the writer, sound smart, and the listener can either nod interestedly and walk away or can nod sagely and contribute some nugget of wisdom on the topic.
So not only is theme inescapable, it’s also useful and can help you focus on what is really important in your book.
I’ve digressed so far from what I actually wanted to write about today that I’m going to call this paragraph a transition, and move onto what I really wanted to discuss.
My fiance and I frequently discuss what we’re reading, and I’ve noticed a pattern in his sci-fi books and television lately: the theme that any given race will want to uplift or be uplifted by another race. It’s the myth of progress, but in a disturbing cultural form, not unlike the “white man’s burden.” It assumes that some form of existence is fundamentally better than others, and that all other forms will want to aspire to be like it.
That’s pretty disturbing, actually.
It got me thinking about common themes in sci-fi and fantasy in the last two decades. I’m not much of a sci-fi person, but I can talk about fantasy fairly well. It seems that there’s been a shift from the 80s/90s fantasy that focused on individual quests, the a hero’s journey that saves the world but is ultimately about becoming fully-actualized self. Nowadays, it seems more like (traditional) fantasy is often about human-on-human atrocity: the wonder is that we’ve made it this far at all, not at how far we can make it.
Are sci-fi and fantasy in the depressive ditch of a manic theme swing? Or is my post-colonial class rearing its ugly head and telling me more about my own education than about the books I’m reading? What are some other themes appearing in contemporary sci-fi and fantasy?