I’m embarking on the project of writing a fantasy novel. It was a given that I would write fantasy; that’s just my genre. But now I am wondering why.

I suppose it goes back to a childhood passion for science fiction. I spent hours soaking up Star Trek, The Outer Limits, Lost in Space, and all those good old movies. I grew up in a very science-positive household, and it was taken for granted that the future of humanity involved exploring outer space, and that was bound to be very exciting stuff.

As a teen, I moved on to reading it: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Ursula K. LeGuin – well, just about anything I could get my hands on really. I found the fantasy genre at this time too. Tolkien changed my world forever. I became immersed in the depth and beauty of his creation.

This stuff is still like comfort food for me. (When we need to put on a movie at the end of a hard day, Karen goes for old Katharine Hepburn, I go for anything with elves, spaceships, or quests through an enchanted forest.)

The sobering thing about resolving to write an actual book is that you realize simply reliving the books that excited you as an adolescent is not a good recipe for success. You learn that publishable novels have things like character development, theme, and plot. And the more you get into thinking about the qualities of a satisfying story, the less relevant genre starts to seem. The story I’m working on now, for example, could be set in present consensus reality without really losing much.

So why does it still have to be fantasy? One reason is unabashedly personal: I like the stuff, so I’ve spent years thinking about it. I love creating alternate worlds – all the invention in languages, geography, culture. So it’s kind of an ironic twist on the advice to “write what you know”. And I’m not alone, either. Maybe the essential qualities of an interesting story cut across all genres, but there are those of us who just find fantasy worlds much more interesting to read about than a “realistic” setting. In fact, for some of us, a good fantasy or sf setting goes a long way in enhancing the entertainment value of a book or movie.

But that’s all about personal preference. Does the genre have any intrinsic redeeming value? I think it probably does, although that seems less obvious than it did to me when I was younger. Fantasy, it seems, has the potential of touching us on a more archetypal level, like a myth or a dream or a genetic memory. When you loosen the reigns of verisimilitude, you don’t just get random images. Rather, you start to pull from the store of the collective unconscious: the stuff that won’t go away, even though it’s not “real”.

The potential is not universally realized, of course. In fact, it’s probably the exception rather than the rule. It’s easy to substitute stereotypes for archetypes, clichés for human universals, and plot devices for meaningful storytelling. It can become simply escapism for the sort of people who enjoy it, relying on atmosphere to distract from the meaninglessness of the events described.

At its best, fantasy uses its freedom to distort and reinvent reality to view basic human truths from an unexpected angle. It can give physical shape to the forces at work beneath the surface of our thoughts, it can disarm of us of our assumptions about the world we live in, and replace them with a learning experience we have to work at. It’s a kind of primal clay that can be used in the service of the imagination, with less inhibition and with greater vitality than more conventional media.

Or maybe I just like it.