In 1897, a little girl wrote to the New York Sun asking if there was a Santa Claus. This was the reply. (Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait here with a box of tissues.)
Some parents will no doubt think this is wrong–that telling their children stories about Santa Claus is lying. They’re afraid once their children find out the truth, they’ll have broken trust. But I’ve never actually seen this happen in real life. Kids are smart. More often, as they grow up, they start to better understand the difference between fairy tales and true stories. They get that one is for fun, and one is for real. It’s a non-issue.
No, the parents’ objections are all part of the ongoing war between fiction and non-fiction—the realists’ disdain for stories about people who never lived and events that never happened. But I’m not here to argue that fiction is safe to give your children.
I’m here to tell you it’s necessary to humanity.
Non-fiction is, of course, vastly important. But there are things it cannot do. Non-fiction is what was, or what is. Fiction is what if.
Fiction is the genre of ideas. Of things that don’t exist yet. Fiction is the food of inventors. You think cell phones came out of the blue? Ha! Heinlein was writing about them in the 60s!
But it’s not just the what if. An idea by itself rarely sticks to the human mind for long. It needs the vehicle of a story.
A real-life (non-fiction!) example.
Back in the 30s or 40s there was a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction. Professors or scientists would write pieces based on technical ideas they had, and editor John W. Campbell, Jr. would doctor them up a bit and publish them. But the articles were all about machines—not people. They were fiction only in that they were speculative; they weren’t really stories.
And they weren’t selling.
Stories are the packages that make ideas compelling to the average Joe, who doesn’t know a thing about quantum physics and whatnot. So the Street and Smith publishing company called in top adventure writers like L. Ron Hubbard and Arthur J. Burks to save the magazine.
Hubbard talks about it in the introduction of Battlefield Earth:
“At the beginning of that time, science fiction was regarded as a sort of awful stepchild in the world of literature. But worse than that, science itself was not getting the attention or the grants or the government expenditures it should have received. There has to be a lot of public interest and demand before politicians shell out the funding necessary to get a subject whizzing.Campbell’s crew of writers were pretty stellar. They included very top-liner names. They improved the literary quality of the genre. And they began the boom of its broader popularity.
…In 1945 I attended a meeting of old scientist and science fiction friends. The meeting was at the home of my dear friend, the incomparable Bob Heinlein. And do you know what was their agenda? How to get man into space fast enough so that he would be distracted from further wars on Earth. And they were the lads who had the government ear and authority to do it! We are coming close to doing. The scientists got man into space and even had the Russians cooperating for awhile.”
Okay, so the space program hasn’t achieved world peace, but we did get to the moon. Think about that for a second. We walked on the moon. Because of sci-fi stories. One or two hundred years ago, you can bet the “realists” were scoffing at that idea.
And it’s not only science fiction. Ali Baba’s “open sesame”? Voice-recognition technology!
And really, how could airplanes ever have happened without Icarus?
So don’t scoff at Santa Claus. Don’t be afraid of damaging your children with fantasy. How can they learn to think outside the box if you don’t even let them color outside the lines?