Tuesday, December 20, 2005

An eloquent essay on fantasy and childhood

A theory not only explains the world we see, it lets us imagine other worlds, and, even more significantly, lets us act to create those worlds. Developing everyday theories, like scientific theories, has allowed human beings to change the world. From the perspective of my hunter-gatherer forebears in the Pleistocene Era, everything in the room I write in—the ceramic cup and the carpentered chair no less than the electric light and the computer—was as imaginary, as unreal, as fantastic as Narnia or Hogwarts. The uniquely human evolutionary gift is to combine imagination and logic to articulate possible worlds and then make them real.

Suppose we combine the idea that children are devoted intuitive scientists and the idea that play allows children to learn freely without the practical constraints of adulthood. We can start to see why there should be such a strong link between childhood and fantasy. It's not that children turn to the imaginary instead of the real—it's that a human being who learns about the real world is also simultaneously learning about all the possible worlds that stem from that world.

The link between the scientific and the fantastic also explains why children's fantasy demands the strictest logic, consistency, and attention to detail. A fantasy without that logic is just a mess. The effectiveness of the great children's books comes from the combination of wildly imaginative premises and strictly consistent and logical conclusions from those premises. It is no wonder that the greatest children's fantasists—Carroll, Lewis, Tolkien—had day jobs in the driest reaches of logic and philology.


Which begs the question: what about adults who engage in fantasy, either as readers, movie-goers, or gamers? What are they exploring? Is it personal identity? Fiction has long been used by readers and college professors as ways to explore personality and relationships without engaging in possible harmful behavior. Science Fiction has often been called "the literature of ideas", both by its proponents and detractors. Yet the mainstream has often derided Science Fiction and Fantasy as trite and not worthy of exploration, though that has been changing in recent years.

My personal theory as to why fantasy (and stories of magic and spells and wizards) seem to appeal to a significant fraction of computer scientists is that in many ways our craft is extremely similar to wizardry as portrayed by fantastic literature. The code we type into our computers do seem little more than incantations by non-programmers (or, if the code is enigmatic enough, even by practitioners of the art). And the results do seem in many ways magical. What could be more magical than a photo of a loved one appearing thousands of miles away in a split second? Or having all the music you've ever heard in your lifetime in the palm of your hand? Perhaps that fantasy is a allegory for the very real or unreal world of bits and bytes that we find ourselves immersed in, day after day.
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