Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Chemistry Sets and Comic Books

I had both. My favorite comic book series was the Legion of Superheroes and after Star Trek I never even considered a romance novel. On the other hand, I've also read a Brief History of Time. Every word, complete with requisite headache.
The Real Reason Children Love Fantasy - Kids aren't escapists, they're little scientists. By Alison Gopnik: "This is why theories are so profoundly powerful and adaptive. 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. And for human children those possibilities are unconstrained by the practical exigencies of adult survival.

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.

Still, we might ask, why do children explore the far and fantastic possible words instead of the close-bysensible ones? The difference between adults and children is that for most adults, most of the time, imagination is constrained by probability and practicality. When we adults use our everyday theories to create possible worlds, we restrict ourselves to the worlds that are likely and the worlds that are useful. When we adults create a possible world, we are usually considering whether we should move in there and figuring out how we can drag all our furniture with us.

But for human children, those practical requirements are suspended, just as the jungle laws of tooth and claw are suspended for young wolves. Children are as free to consider the very low-probability world of Narnia as the much higher-probability world of next Wednesday's meeting—as free to explore unlikely Middle-earth as the much more predictable park next door. "
My friends Laura, Sabrina and I would sit around and while I spun my own Star Trek stories (usually involving a half vulcan female named Dallas who had sex with Spock, while for some reason I never understood they liked Kirk) that were grand adventures on different worlds with creatures that later appeared in Star Wars. Even in my fantasy world I maintained that it would be impossible for planets to have humans that looked exactly like us. I loved the Horta and thought there would be more aliens like the Gorn.

I listen to my brother get excited about some of technology's advances and he can't seem to understand why I think it should have been done already, but I digress. Fantasy helps you to see the future. Plain and simple. This isn't about being Peter Pan, it is about the ability to envision something different and make it come true. We spend so much time trying to get kids to conform and pass tests while never giving their minds a chance to fly on their own and then wonder why they can't entertain themselves without drugs or video games.

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