Creating Alternate Worlds…why we need stories

Sun God's castle

Why do we need stories? In one of her most quoted remarks Joan Aiken explains:

Locus Interview Alternative worlds

Jan Pienkowski, who died this year explained that his pictures helped him transform images of horror in his mind into stories he could control. He lived through invasion and terror as a child in the 1940’s in his native Poland, but re-created and conquered the fearful situations in his storytelling and illustrations, making the uncontrollable situations manageable for a child – the hideous Baba Yaga becomes Meg the silly witch, or in the version taken by Joan Aiken from his native folktales, in The Kingdom Under The Sea, she is seen as a selfish fool, easily outwitted by her own child. The idea of the witch might be scary, but it becomes manageable when viewed through a story, or a picture in a book read in the safety of home.

Baba Yaga Jan

    Another of the great creators of alternate worlds was Ursula Le Guin, whose recent death brought not only a celebration of her writing, but a recognition of the importance of fantasy, and speculative fiction as it has come to be known. Both Le Guin and Joan Aiken resisted the label ‘Science Fiction’ for their fantasy writing – in an interview for The Paris Review LeGuin talks about the importance of ‘trying on’ other ideas::

“I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own.

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.”

Joan Aiken acknowledged that “writing a full length fantasy novel made out of pure invention is the very hardest kind of children’s book to write successfully…Ursula Le Guin has done it in her Earthsea books…it can be done, but it is a considerable challenge.”

Through reading and writing about other worlds we can confront and deal with the faults in our own. Joan Aiken only attempted a full scale dystopian novel once, in her novel The Cockatrice Boys, addressing the ‘sleep of reason’ which has threatened our own world with climate change and devastation – through stories, Aiken wrote, you can help children deal with the unanswerable question ‘Why?’

Cockatrice The Sleep of Reason

You can read more about what she and others called The Sleep of Reason,

or the failure of the imagination, here.

Generally she preferred to base her kind of fantasy on folk tales, an age old form of storytelling which could be adapted, often humorously, to comment on our own world. The illustrations by Jan Pienkowski above come from their collection of stories based on traditional European tales which he knew as a child – re-told for him by Joan Aiken –  The Kingdom Under the Sea.

In this story three boys set out to make their fortunes, but despite the good advice of the Sun God, about caring for those who have loved and cared for them, they  become distracted by the voices of darkness and become so lost to the world around them that they have to be rescued by their wiser grandfather:

Somebody sat on the steps of the castle weeping, with his face hidden in his hands.The old man called, across the white cloud and the pink cloud.
“What is the trouble, my child?”
The weeper lifted his head, and they saw that it was Yanek.
“The sun-god won’t let me into his palace,Grandfather,” he answered, “because I did wrong to leave you.”
Tears ran down the old man’s cheeks when he heard that. He turned to Martin and Mihal and said to them, “Go back to the forest, my children, live rightly, and never let the sacred fire go out. I am going to help Yanek.”

Sun God ending

     We must teach our children that we depend utterly on our imaginations, we need to cross over into fantasy, into the unknown, and make the attempt to imagine what if…?

We ignore this opportunity at our own risk. What we fail to imagine has a dangerous habit of coming true.

   *   *   *   *   *

Coming soon to the SciFi Gateway site at Orion

Some of Joan Aiken’s Ghostliest Stories, including The Cockatrice Boys

Click here to visit

Find more about the Joan Aiken Jan Pienkowski stories here

Read another fascinating Blog on Joan Aiken and some more Alternate Worlds here

And find the incredibly useful Internet Speculative Fiction Database here


3 thoughts on “Creating Alternate Worlds…why we need stories

  1. Thank you for this! I know the LeGuin appreciations are pouring in from many sources, but it’s wonderful to see Aiken and LeGuin together, in the same “sentence” as it were — two authors who created memorable worlds I love revisiting.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! As you say so many tributes pouring in, and I wanted to find Joan’s own words – an appreciation from one writer to another.
      Jan Pienkowski was another fellow artist for whom Joan expressed her admiration and gratitude, and who has also been hugely mourned and celebrated on social media since his recent death. Wonderful that their work is still with us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Creating Alternate Worlds… — Joan Aiken – Earth Balm Creative

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