Does Fiction Make You Think? – Guest Post by Jaq D Hawkins…

I like to read science fiction and speculative fiction, among other genres, and it often comes up in discussions and on blogs that a lot of the old classic science fiction stories, rather than answering questions, actually made readers think about the deeper questions of life.

For example, can an android have a soul? Is a military republic a good form of government? If you lived in a world with dragons, would you try to saddle-train them?

One blog pointed out that Heinlein wrote dystopian stories to shock people into thinking. This brings to mind movies like Soylent Green, which brings up a lot of questions about how to deal with overpopulation. How far do you go to try to control population growth, or to feed the existing masses?

I started extrapolating this idea across other genres. Yes, even those ‘feel good’ novels that don’t present the reader with an overt message. Obviously mystery stories present a puzzle to solve and get the old grey matter going. I presume this is the appeal for those who read a lot of this genre. I don’t like stories about murder so that limits my reading in this particular genre, though I do enjoy some that present a mystery without a body to explain.

How about the romance genre? A lot of romance readers will say they enjoy it as an escapist fantasy and that’s fine, but I started thinking, does it also present the reader with examples of how relationships might work in a variety of situations and perhaps teach readers without a lot of experience beyond their own relationship with their spouse about the dynamics of interpersonal communication?

Okay, maybe I’m stretching that one. When I see books about marrying a Billionaire, which in real life would most likely land some poor girl with an old, fat, pig of a man rather than a young supermodel type, maybe I have to concede that some stories are pure fantasy with no need for a ‘message’.

However, as I look across genres, I see a lot of “What if?” in the same vein as speculative fiction. Historical fiction actually brings up a variety of questions. Whether the story is about an actual historical figure or about a fictional character set within a period of history, there are the “What ifs? about what if a major personality who affected that period was never born, or if some random sequence of events happened differently.

Then there is also social commentary and the questions that arise from that. Dickens comes to mind immediately because he is well known for bringing to public attention the dark side of his era; the workhouses and pickpocket children practically living on the streets of London while the affluent classes carry on completely oblivious to the other side of life.

Does contemporary fiction sometimes do the same? Spotlighting the challenges of modern life, many of them financial in a world where stay at home mothers are no longer the norm and families have to rely on two or more incomes to survive rising costs, not to mention single people who routinely live with roommates because the average income doesn’t provide enough for even a small place of their own?

What about social commentary on changing lifestyles and alternative options? Negotiating one’s way through the dating scene these days could provide plenty of fodder for unusual plots where a protagonist is attracted to someone who might believe in polygamous relationships, harbour a desire for a sex change, turn out to be a closet racist or go through periods of depression and even self-harming. The possibilities are many and varied, far more than they were when Victorians wrote from within a societal framework with rigid rules.

How about thrillers? There is a vast array of scenarios within this genre, but I believe it is in human nature to speculate on what youwould do in that situation. This could translate over into Horror as well, especially where zombies or other monsters are involved. Do you run from danger? Hide? Fight? Facing some of the very real dangers in a world riddled with terrorist attacks, could these novels actually save your life by making you think out how you would handle immediate peril?

How many current politicians read Superstoeby William Borden in high school and were inspired towards a career that included manipulating the voting public? As a voter, this one made me think and start paying attention to political manoeuvring.

A book doesn’t have to intend to convey a message for it to stimulate deeper thinking. In many ways, stories allow us to experience lives other than our own and can become a practice run for real life, even if real life monsters aren’t as fantastical as a novel might depict. It doesn’t have to ask philosophical questions to make us think of some of our own. Reading stimulates the mind. That much is a given.

In what ways does your favourite genre make you think, beyond what the author, who may have been just writing a story, might anticipate?

Jaq D Hawkins

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