Friday, July 24, 2009

I've been thinking about...

escapist books. At least, there used to be something, a genre, that we used to call 'escapist'. These days most of what we see on the bestseller lists seems to be 'escapist' which makes the term redundant. I don't mean only in the SF/ fantasy sense. But historical fiction too. Any book designed to carry the reader away to another place, another timezone, an alternate reality. What I'm attempting to bring to light is the dearth of fiction written these days set in the here and now, or at least, the recent past, say the last twenty years. Blame Harry Potter. Blame The DaVinci Code too. It appears that this is what readers want. Books that will take them to other time periods, alternate worlds, or fantastical scenarios of various kinds. It is not, incidentally, what I want, which appears to make me 'old fashioned'. These thoughts dovetail interestingly with a CBC radio piece I heard today on the meaning of GPS, Global Positioning Systems. They have become so ubiquitous, on cellphones and as a standard feature in cars, that articles have started appearing attempting to parse out what it all means. One writer suggested that she had to compete with the GPS for her boyfriend's attention in the car. She called the GPS, 'the other woman'. Dump the shmuck immediately, I say. But I was also thinking that it meant something worthy of further scrutiny. Perhaps it signals that we are becoming less attuned to our immediate surroundings, shunning positioning ourselves in the here and now, locating ourselves by what we experience and notice in the real world, in favour of a kind of virtual existence, being a dot on an electronic map. If technology is to be completely trusted - and increasingly it appears to be the only trustworthy mode of existence - as we are wont to do in this technological age, what happens when a conflict arises with physical experience? It's probably an urban legend, but I've heard of a GPS commanding a driver to turn right on a bridge. He did as he was commanded with tragic results. And even if that's only an urban legend, it bespeaks a paranoia and concern. All to say - connecting books and GPS - we seem to be losing our sense of being in the here and now, noticing landmarks, trusting our senses, and caring about our surroundings. If books are any indication, we don't seem to want to be where we are at the moment, rather, we don't care to know, to seek meaning, to glean understanding from our circumstances, our ordinary daily struggles etc. We'd rather be fantasizing about vampires and demons and magic and farfetched conspiracies. Who can blame people for craving escape in a world that teeters on the edge of political and economic bankruptcy? On the other hand, isn't that what literature's all about? To make sense of a world on the edge? Maybe we need those stories more than ever?!

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