Mon
Dec 15 2008 4:50pm
I’m Just a Traveling Man

Travel
v.
1. To go from one place to another, as on a trip; journey.
2. To be transmitted, as light or sound; move or pass.
3. To advance or proceed.

My young, hot wife (she made me say that, but it’s true) and I are currently in the process of moving from one of these United States to another. It is a considerable distance, and all the accompanying aches and pains of selling a house, finding a rental, and notifying everyone about our change of address are causing us no little stress. Not to mention packing up over 2,500 books. (Okay, so I’m bragging a little).

But one good has come of it. All of this has gotten me to thinking about travel as it appears in our much beloved genre of science fiction and fantasy. Tolkien, as we know, wrote an entire trilogy that encompassed one very massive and difficult journey in which Frodo and his companions get from Hobbiton to Mordor, with several detours in between. Star Wars and Star Trek use fancy names (hyperspace and warp) for what is essentially faster than light travel, and their spaceships can cross vast distances in a mere eye blink giving the reader or viewer vast new worlds to explore with every “Engage” out of Jean-Luc Picard’s mouth.

But no matter the method or route, one thing is true. There is always some form of travel in a story.

Characters move from point A to B, sometimes stopping off at points C and D along the way. This might take place on the physical plane, or it might even be a journey of the mind. Sometimes that travel is forced upon them, such as when the evil overlord forcibly seeks a character’s destruction and he is forced to flee. Or sometimes it is a choice, as when a young boy finds his destiny is to be something greater than the pig boy he always thought he was through the intervention of a friend or good-natured wizard. What usually ensues is a lengthy journey, fraught with danger.

Even tales that seem to take place in only once city or region often have travel. The characters may not move from city to city, but they do move from quadrant to quadrant, house to house, room to room. Admittedly, these are not necessarily huge aspects of a tale, but they do happen. And of course, there is always the journey of the mind. Even stories which seem to take place entirely within one character’s skull have flashbacks or move from image to image in their mind, with different locations for each.

Even stories which seem to be static in time are traveling somewhere. Paranormal fantasy actually moves both forward and backward. It looks into history to find things like vampires and werewolves, the creepy crawlies of the imagination that mankind has devised, and brings them forward to our present era. Even stories like Harry Potter travel backward in time to when we as a race believed in true magic, and gives it a modern context.

Travel is important because without it, stories would be static, dull and boring. We need for characters to move from place to place, to see new sites, to traverse into the unknown. This is especially true for science fiction and fantasy. Why? Because these two sub-genres are by their very nature in motion. Science fiction looks to the future, how we as a human (or not-so-human) race are moving forward into the future. Fantasy, on the other hand, often looks backward, traveling in a historical direction, reliving romantic ideals of bygone ages.

And then within the stories of these genres there is another level of travel. The hero or heroine grows and matures, using the physical journey that is major part of any story and its new experiences to change into new character. And it is not the end result of that change or reaching the end of the route that we love so much in our stories, it is the process of getting there. As much as you love Frodo or Samwise at the end of The Lord of the Rings, the best part of the story is not the conclusion (which is satisfying), it was watching them get there.

This is exactly why we are always looking for more stories. If we were wholly content to see a character at the end of his story, we would never go looking for more. We pester authors with requests for more stories about a beloved character, not because we were dissatisfied with the ending to a tale, but because we want to that character to embark on a new set of travels, to go forward in space and time and become someone different in the second trilogy from who he or she was in the first.

Travel, the movement forward or backward in time, space, or even in the soul, is therefore at the very root of science fiction and fantasy. Without it, our favorite tales could not exist, and life would be very dull indeed.

12 comments
Jason Henninger
1. jasonhenninger
"Because these two sub-genres are by their very nature in motion."

Nicely put. I 've been thinking about this topic a bit lately as well, partly because of what I've been reviewing.

I used to think the travel aspect of modern fantasy was due to travel narratives such as Marco Polo's account or Pliny's writings, which have fantastical or excaggerated elements. But now I think that those accounts, with dollops of fiction in them, remained popular because they had the momentum you mention.
Dot Lin
2. fangirl
liked this thoughtful essay. I always thought of
traveling in fantasy as .. wonderful places that I'd never get to visit - as evidenced by Irene's post on Razer's illustrations:
http://www.tor.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=blog&id=10324

Good luck with your own "traveling"!
MarkHB
3. MarkHB
Dissatisfaction is the route of all progress, it would seem. We - as SF readers - are unsatisfied with out lot, and feel that we - as a species - could do more. And, the grass is always greener over the wormhole interstice.

So of we trot - because wherever we may end up, at least it ain't here! So yes, onwards, forwards or at least sideways - let's see what's out there.
R O T
5. rogerothornhill
And then there's the old universalist theory of narrative that all great stories begin with an arrival or departure, a disruption in what seems to be a stable environment. Like all great generalizations, it's both too simplistic and highly suggestive.
MarkHB
6. LizUK
John - what a lovely thoughtful essay. I really enjoyed that - good luck to you and your (hot) wife and your own big moves. Hope all goes well.

L
MarkHB
7. Jake Freivald
Great initial column! Looking forward to more thoughtful posts.
Ben R
8. sphericaltime
Hopefully you'll forgive if I don't share your enthusiasm about the travelogue of Lord of the Rings. While I agree that there were bright points, I'm not a huge fan of Tolkien.

I agree that there is travel in most sci-fi and fantasy, but isn't there travel in most fiction? Ahab's hunt for the Whale? Caulfield's journey of self-discovery through NY city? Huck Finn's river voyage and Tom Sawyer's exploration of the cave? Frank Chambers' arrival and departure from the California diner.

Mystery novels are often even about the travels of the detective through the dark underbelly of the apparently happy lives of the suspects.

Yeah, there's travel in science fiction often of types beyond our current understanding, but I don't think that it defines the genre more than the travel in Cold Mountain defines the genre of historic epics.
Satima Flavell
9. Satima
The true beauty of travel in a story, I think, lies in its ability to stand as metaphor for the inner journey. I guess that's why we all relate to it so easily. In this context, every journey is the Hero's Journey. It's just that spec-fic is, perhaps, more upfront than most other genres about this parallel, because it has sound precedents in folklore and fantastic literature of earlier times.
MarkHB
10. edifanob
Awesome first essay. I like it.
John Ottinger III
11. graspingforthewind
Spherical time - I wasn't saying that travel is the only thing that defines SF, but that it is an essential part of its nature, more obviously that in most other genres.
Ben R
12. sphericaltime
John @ 11: Spherical time - I wasn't saying that travel is the only thing that defines SF, but that it is an essential part of its nature, more obviously that in most other genres.

Ahh, but now you've made me want to write a sci-fi novel, perhaps just a story, in which there is no travel at all, just to point out the flaw in your "always."

:)

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