Fiction can be incredibly empowering. It helps us to tackle real issues, both as a society and on a personal level.
Sometimes, doing that directly works well. Judy Blume’s books helped a generation of young readers to cope with adolescence.
But sometimes a subtler approach works better. By tackling issues indirectly, you reduce people’s defensiveness at having their views challenged. You also display more subtlety as a writer.
This is where genre fiction and the power of metaphor come into their own.
Historical Fiction and Modern Society
We’re used to looking for comparisons with the modern world in history. This makes historical fiction a fruitful format for reflecting on modern society.
One example is S. J. Parris’s murder mystery novel Heresy. Set in the sixteenth century, it presents tumultuous times. Religious, national, and personal identities are tangled together. Foreign agents are a menace and fear of outsiders has everyone on edge. Innocents come under cruel scrutiny because of the things they have in common with public enemies.
For many readers, a historical novel like Heresy becomes a springboard to exploring history and considering its connections with the modern world. If you do your research, you can find a slice of history comparable with any issue you want to explore, from the religious sectarianism of 1970s Ireland to the foreign interventions and struggling republic of first century BC Rome.
Westerns, Politics, and Corporations
The western’s larger than life style allows characters to become clear symbols, as heroes of ancient mythology did.
Westerns have a long history of political and social engagement. High Noon was famously a metaphor for the anti-Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy hearings. A lone man continues to fight for what is right, even as fear and social pressure lead others to back down.
The metaphor is often less direct in a western than in other historical fiction. You don’t need to find a time and place comparable with what you’re after. Just look at the relationship you want to explore create an imaginary frontier community around it, as Carl Foreman did in scripting High Noon.
If you want, you can pick a more directly relevant part of the old west. Both Shane and its retelling in Pale Rider show large companies as a threat. Pale Rider even connects this with environmental devastation.
Fantasy and Religion
Fantasy is all about metaphors, some more subtle than others. Its freedom to show the miraculous and break the bounds of reality lends it well to explorations of religion.
J. R. R Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories were relatively subtle about this. Struggles against darkness, both internal and external, are there, as are miraculous interventions, personal sacrifice, and the afterlife as reward. But in its symbols and structure, it shows as much of pagan culture as of Tolkien’s own Catholicism.
Tolkien’s friend and fellow-Christian C. S Lewis was less subtle. His Narnia stories are full of direct Christian allusions, most famously in the lion Aslan as Christ. This made his meaning more accessible to some, but created a backlash in other readers.
Phillip Pullman, in the His Dark Materials sequence, offered a challenge to Christianity no more subtle than Lewis’s defence. The shelter of fantasy let him tackle a controversial topic and reach a far wider audience than a straightforward book on doubt and religious defiance would have done.
Fantasy can let you tackle the most controversial of subjects by creating distance from the real world.
Science Fiction and the Other
By extrapolating the present into the future, science fiction also allows imaginary situations to become metaphors. John Scalzi’s Lock In creates a new disease whose medical and social implications ripple through society. Using this, he explores complex issues of health care funding, disability, and the scapegoating of others.
As with historical fiction’s reflection on the past, science fiction’s reflection on the future can create a very clear comparison. And because it asks about where we might really be going, it forces people to face the implications.
If you want to explore an issue at its most extreme, projecting its possible future often helps.
Take a Metaphor, Any Metaphor
Any genre that creates distance from our current world can help you to explore an issue. Whether it’s werewolves as mental health in Zoe McAuley’s short story Damage Control or the corruption of power in George R. R. Martin’s epic Game of Thrones, any genre work can reflect upon the real world. And it can do so as powerful as direct discussion.