Notes from The Buffer Zone: Escapist Fiction

It’s been a hell of a last six months or so. Not only was the American election a nightmare of screaming and fighting—not just among the candidates, but among the voters as well—and in 2017, the acrimony has grown worse. To make matters even worse, celebrities, icons, and just plain marvelous folk have been dying at the rate of two and three a day.

The news isn’t just bad on a daily basis. It’s stress-inducing, sad, and often terrifying. And our usual comforts—our friends and family—have discovered that they don’t agree about everything, so they’ve joined the screaming as well. Blogs, etiquette watchers, advice programs warned us not to discuss politics over the holidays. When the holidays ended, that advice carried into the Super Bowl, for heaven’s sake, and will probably, by the time you read this, cover other social gatherings as well.

The death and destruction and general stress levels have sent me in search of comfort in my entertainment. I don’t read reviews of movies, so that I can see them in the theater as a blank slate. So, after the first of the year, when I finally freed up some time for movies, I saw Passengers, which had this dicey and somewhat icky (but very sf) ethical quagmire in the middle, and then I saw Rogue One.

I hadn’t expected a lot out of Rogue One because of my dissatisfaction with Star Wars movies since Empire Strikes Back (which is still my personal favorite), but…














. . . Seriously? Everyone dies? Everyone??? All those characters we met and cared for died because someone said in a movie made forty years ago that “many people died to get these plans.” We knew that. How come we watched this group of heroes? Why not the ones in the cool ship that crashed into an Empire ship (and everyone dies) or some of the volunteers who joined our heroes on their doomed mission? What makes these people special?

We’ll never know. Because that story was told incorrectly. Too wedded to the concept—which is cool: they need to tell side stories in the vast Star Wars universe—without thinking about the impact on the fans.

A friend of mine told me his reaction after seeing the film on opening day. He knew nothing of the ending, of course, and as he and his wife walked out of our ice-cold local theater (They don’t pay for heat in the winter. Yeah, I know.) into the even colder December rain, he said to her, “Well, I guess that’s the type of Star Wars movie we deserve this year.”

Discouraging. Disheartening. Beautifully done, but there’s no uplift. None. And to make matters worse, Carrie Fisher died unexpectedly. Fascinating woman, great writer, force of nature. Gone.

And with her General Leia Organa (because if they CGI General Leia, I will have to find my own personal lightsaber and head down to Disney Studios and suffice to say, it won’t be pretty).

I’m writing space opera right now, wrestling a big project to the ground. Writing often provides an escape for me. I’m finding some escape in my favorite TV shows—although, good heavens! what is with all this darkness? And why did someone think of making Archie Comics dark and moody? I hear Riverdale works, but jeez, I’m tired of dark and moody right now. That’s why I find myself reading Regency romances late at night.

I believe that Regencies, by the way, take place in this marvelous fantasy universe, where everyone is wealthy and a member of some unknown aristocracy and outside of politics and war and death—and good heavens, if Mary Balogh’s latest novel is correct, even orphanages aren’t that bad, not really. If you’re the right sort.

Yes, I need that kind of thing right now.

And as I recognized that in myself, I realized that other people must be feeling the same way. So, I wrote this on Facebook (because, social media, natch):

Need help for a column I’m planning. What’s your favorite sf world to escape into? I prefer novel/series suggestions, but will consider TV/movies as well.

I figured I’d get a few responses. Instead, at last count, I got more than 200 responses and they’re still going strong. When someone would mention a series or a writer, others would respond, and have a mini-discussion about what they loved. Many included fantasy worlds, which was just fine with me.

What impressed me was how many I hadn’t read yet, and meant to. I know the folks on this website find that Eric Flint’s books fit that category—and more than a few folks on that random assortment of Facebook followers did too.

Here are a few others that got several mentions:

Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, Terry Prachett’s Discworld, Frank Herbert’s Dune, David Weber’s Honorverse, Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld, Wen Spencer’s Tinker series, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner universe, all of Robert A. Heinlein, all of Andre Norton, Larry Niven’s Known space, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings… and it goes on and on.

A few surprises for me were that very few folks mentioned Game of Thrones (guess it’s not comfort reading) and a couple of people said they stopped some stories, like near future dystopian works, because of what’s going on right now.

There was a lovely discussion of fiction buried in the middle of it, about the need for conflict in fiction and why dark fiction works as comfort. Lovely stuff, none of which I’m going to quote without permission. You can see the list in progress on the public post on my site at

The lovely part of all of this is that no one questioned my query’s premise. Everyone jumped in, and discussed fiction as an escape, and then recommended escapes for other people.

Because most of the discussion was on my personal page (which I used as a professional page back in the days of fan pages, before I could have my own page), I personally knew a lot of the respondents. These folks come from all sides of the political spectrum, and from all points of view.

For a brief little post, they set aside their differences and talked fiction.

I firmly believe that we have more in common as human beings than we have things which divide us. We just forget that at times of great strife.

We’re in one of those times.

I think it’s good for all of us to take a breath and remember what unites us, to respect each other’s point of view, even if we don’t agree, and perhaps ask why someone else has that point of view.

However, if we can’t have a rational discussion, and in today’s climate, we often can’t, we can still discuss fiction, which allows us to see other viewpoints and other worlds and other people in a whole new way.

Fiction might not change our opinions, but it does broaden our horizons.

If nothing else, it allows us to have at least one thing in common with someone we would normally believe we would never talk to.

And I love that.

I also love the list of books I received (and am still receiving as I type this). More reading is always a good thing.

If only I could figure out how to have more time.…



One thought on “Notes from The Buffer Zone: Escapist Fiction

  1. Mike Watson

    And then there’s the unending stream of Zombi/Vampire/Werewolf dreg and is so incredibly bad. As a flegling writer I can escape into my own private worlds and plots.

    We’re under constant assault, it seems, and we have to make our own defneses, wherever they may be.

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