It was Memorial Day, and I sat in the living room with my brother-in-law, who was visiting from Illinois. Our wives were busy in the kitchen with Parmesan and garlic, spinach and asparagus, flank steak and potatoes. While the smells of spices and seared beef floated through the house, we occupied ourselves with work, he on a project for a client, myself on a short story. "What are you doing?" he asked at one point, catching me staring off into space. I tried to explain how the premise I was trying to pen related to a chance encounter with a clerk. He squinted at me a moment, then said, "I don't think your mind works like mine."
That wasn't a revelation for either of us. My brother-in-law has an advanced certification in an especially complicated offshoot of statistics and can make reams of data turn cartwheels for him; I barely survived "Intro to Quantitative Analysis" and break out in a sweat if I can't find a calculator when it comes time to balance the checkbook. But it isn't just different aptitudes. If you have ever tried to discuss speculative fiction with someone who doesn't enjoy it, you know what I'm talking about: Such people balk at leaping into imaginative gulfs.
Why the hesitation? Well, speculative fiction is odd in its approach. Not that one needs to apologize for it. Dr. Leland Ryken of Wheaton College notes that both fantasy and poetry share a penchant for the unorthodox. Indeed, it seems the very soil out of which they grow. "[Poetry] speaks a language of images," he says. "It prefers the figurative to the literal and is, in fact, a form of fiction and often fantasy, as we signal by our phrase 'poetic license.' ... It possesses, to use a formula of J.R.R. Tolkien, 'arresting strangeness.'"
Such strangeness is, of course, intentional for genre authors. It catches readers' attention in ways other things cannot. We may not pick up The Federalist Papers to ponder human depravity's effects on society or peruse Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics to discover the nature of bravery. But we'll read The Lord of the Flies and Watership Down and, in reading, remember. Strangeness moves us beyond analysis to experience, and it can make us see if only we will let it.
(Picture: CC 2006 by spoon )