Could fiction motivate us to fight the climate change? Yes, say researchers of fiction and fan culture.

Maria Ruotsalainen and Tanja Välisalo are involved in the global Game of Thrones Research Project, which investigates the reception and sensemaking of fantasy. It is an extension of earlier research projects where similar themes were addressed in the context of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies.

“We are considering especially what the role of fantasy is in our society,” Välisalo says. “Through fantasy we can think of ways to influence society and also use it as a mirror to reflect our own relationship to society.”

Fictional worlds can bring difficult and seemingly distant issues closer to us, making them more approachable. For example, the famous phrase from Game of Thrones, “Winter is coming”, is often interpreted as an allegory for climate change.

“Talking about climate change can be seen as futile when people think that they can’t affect it anyway,” Ruotsalainen says. “Fiction can lower the threshold for speaking about these big issues; it makes them personal.”

Fiction can also bring collective force to back up a cause when people get a chance to share their ideas with other fans. Hence, fiction can bring people together and make them engage in joint action.

Ruotsalainen states: “People invest in and are committed to things that they find meaningful and feel enthusiastic about. If these commitments are transferred to the political and social issues of the real world, we become more easily active in those issues as well.”

A good example of this comes from Thailand. In 2014 the opposition to the military regime took on as its unofficial symbol a hand signal used in The Hunger Games. This gesture, familiar from fiction, gave people a sense of belonging.

Many people find that a small individual rising against the establishment is also a central theme in The Hobbit films. Especially Bilbo’s character has been seen as empowering: If the slightly fearful Bilbo can make it, maybe I can also dare and be able to overcome some obstacles!

Modern fantasy explores the limits of humanity

Fans’ enthusiasm may lead to social activity, but real-world phenomena can also be reflected in fan cultures. In recent years, political issues on how gender and ethnicity are presented in fiction have been highlighted. 

“In fan communities it is typical that active fans seek to influence productions, such as how females are represented in fiction,” Välisalo says. “Related to this, there have been a great number of critical campaigns by fans on how fiction should better represent their life and society.”

It is true that fantasy can serve as a channel for personal desire to change the world, examine different perspectives and look at things from other people’s perspectives. This applies especially to fans who are also engaged in productive fan activities.

What kinds of interpretations are coded into fiction, or how the recipient decodes them, depends on the era. Remakes of old films and series provide a fascinating comparative view on how society has changed during the time elapsed between the older and newer versions.

For example, the first versions of Battlestar Galactica and Westworld dealt thematically with threats posed by technology and space aliens, whereas the new versions are rather considering the limits of humanity; who has human value, or whether a robot has a soul.

Välisalo explains that these themes portray their respective eras. In the earlier versions, the Cold War is visible, when the world was overshadowed by the fear of nuclear war and technology was indeed a concrete threat. On the other hand, humanity is acutely present in many contexts today, such as in immigration issues.

Issues of humanity can also be seen in the interpretations of Game of Thrones. One of the central settings of this series, the Wall, with the related notion of exclusion, makes many people think of refugeeism and immigration, in particular.

“Many people see connections to the present day in this series,” Ruotsalainen says, “not least in terms of people’s capacity or incapacity to maintain some kind of order. The characters of the series only focus on playing their games for the throne and are blind to what is really happening around them and to what the big issues actually are.”

Accordingly, fantasy today typically questions the superiority of humans.

“I would see this as a positive, particularly in view of fighting climate change. People are woken up to think about how we treat our environment and the other living things on this planet”, Välisalo says.

“There will be no dawn for Men,” declared Saruman in the film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. In Tolkien’s world Saruman was wrong. Perhaps we could prove this prediction wrong in the real world as well.

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