But light, too, can defamiliarize our everyday experiences. Shine too bright a light on something you’re used to and suddenly you’re forced to take a really good look.
I think that’s one of the generally accepted purposes of speculative fiction, particularly science fiction—to shine a light on real life (particularly social) problems precisely by setting the stage for these issues in new or alternate contexts, societies, worlds, and realities, making them unrecognizable until we realize what they are. Shklovsky argues that beyond art’s purpose (to reveal objects as they are perceived and not as they’re known) is its technique, to make known objects unfamiliar and forms difficult, increasing the difficulty and length of our perception of them, through which we (hopefully) arrive at knowledge.
It sounds very aesthetic and theoretical and it is, but Shklovsky’s concept is also quite scientific, I would say. There’s a formula behind it, and other critics have learned it and plugged in their own variables.
Rosemary Jackson claims the whole point of horror, for example, is to turn our lived experience, our known reality, on its head. To make it strange. Take King’s The Dark Half. Yes, it’s possible to accept the story at face value as a strange reality in which brain tumors birth arch nemeses and evil twins. However, reading a bit deeper, that weird world has really familiar roots if you’re a writer or artist of any kind: that other personality which lives within you, which you love and hate and fear because it is part of you but separate, your creative energy, the womb of your creative expression, and which might at any time turn against you or (worse) disappear completely.
“Don’t Look Now” does a similar thing with the Venice of this reality, filling romantically twisting canal- and pathways with secrecy and menace, murderous dwarves and ghosts in red capes. Monsters may lurk here, but du Maurier’s tale never underestimates the power of parents’ grief over the loss of their child.
Back in the day Suvin made a similar point about sf which, he says, creates “cognitive estrangement” between the perceiver and the thing perceived. Restoree might make you hate the aliens who treat the book’s heroine with apparent savagery, and you might struggle to understand the scientific and logical principles underpinning the world McCaffery has thrown you into … until you consider the way our own society still strips women of their skin and rebuilds them bodily to meet its ideals. It’s no longer 1967 but the little cover blurb still rings true: “She knows she’s human, but does anyone else?” Shklovsky probably didn’t imagine his conception of defamiliarization would stretch to so many galaxies far, far away, but I think that no genre engages in as deep and complex a process of defamiliarization as horror and sf.
But what about fantasy? I don’t really have an answer, and there are valid points on all sides of the debate. One might argue that the complexity of the process of defamiliarization as it happens in fantasy is obvious in our need as readers to assign familiarity to the fantastical worlds we encounter in these narratives, thereby restoring the unfamiliar to some semblance of known reality. For example, critics and readers alike can’t help but see post-war Britain mirrored in classic series like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. And how many theories abound about just exactly what—abuse, schizophrenia, trip gone bad?—Alice’s adventures are trying to tell us?
Yet I can’t help but feel this is wrong simply because, to me, saying that fantasy defamiliarizes what is known precludes the worlds of fantasy from being worlds in and of themselves. If fantasy defamiliarizes the “real” world, no matter how deep and complex that process may be and how strange it may make things and how much it forces us to accept as familiar this unfamiliar new world, then fantasy becomes simply a rearrangement and reshaping of images that we already know. In this scenario, reality is the sole reference point for understanding the world of the narrative rather than one possible world in a multiverse of possible worlds. In other words, if fantasy only defamiliarizes this world, then there are no other autonomous worlds; this becomes the only world, and the worlds of fantasy do not exist apart from it.
Some fantasies of course include elements of this world, but if I made a coherent argument about this, it would include something about string theory and peeling back the layers and mirrorverses that are only mirrors because the human mind is incapable of comprehending realities beyond the plane of our own. The toffee tree in The Magician’s Nephew, for example, is literally a tree that grows from a toffee candy. The process seems to mirror the logic of the same process in our world: trees grow from planted seeds just as this tree grows from a planted toffee candy. It feels familiar. But being familiar doesn’t make it the same and, I would say, the toffee tree operates on a whole other level of logic separate to the one governing the growth of trees on this Earth. In the world of the toffee tree, it can only grow from a toffee candy. Simply superimposing our known and understood logic onto what we perceive doesn’t turn it into something we know and, in fact, exploring the roots (pun intended) of the toffee tree further actually makes the whole thing even stranger and more unfamiliar. It’s an impossibility that can’t happen here, only there.
Lord of the Rings, you’re saying, it’s WWII though. But is it? Or do we want it to be? Tolkien wrote a seminal essay in which he kind of scolded a bunch of critics who were only reading Beowulf as a historical document reflective of religious tensions between pagan and Christian Anglo-Saxon culture, and told them to start looking at the monsters. The world of the poem seems to operate upon the tenets of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture, and I won’t get into an analysis of the superimposition of Christian and historical beliefs and references centuries after the original composition; but if we listen to Tolkien and put the monsters in the middle, we’re in a completely new world where the logic we want to assign to it doesn’t hold water. If it did, Grendel’s mother would have killed Beowulf long ago. Or Hrothgar would’ve given her a bunch of gold and jewels and that would’ve been that.
What’s the point of fantasy, then? Is it not art/Art? Well, yes, and perhaps the most supreme (and that’s a lot to say coming from a diehard horror lover) because, whereas horror and sf and other stories shine a light on our reality by making us think about it further and then bringing us back to it, fantasy takes us to completely new worlds where the logic and rules and truisms of our known world do not apply. The worlds of horror and sf operate on the principles we know because the real world is their reference point: they are logical extensions of what could be possible, and in the end (most of the time) balance is restored.
Pure fantasy, on the other hand, restores an internal balance that just doesn’t exist in this world. The toffee tree can’t exist here, because fantasy isn’t just what’s possible. Fantasy is what is, the things that exist beyond the realms and abilities of our perception, laws and rules and realities unto themselves, with no points of reference here, except those we create to help us understand.
Because at its heart, even with its rules and its own internal logic, a world of fantasy is its own world, revealing the tenuous nature of this reality, its existence as only one possibility in a multiverse of unknown and incomprehensible experiences.