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Why grandma ate the wolf: how science fiction and fairy tales work with the same conflicting elements

Curiosity is as ubiquitous as fear. In trying to separate the two, the point of them is missed. Fear asks the questions. Curiosity goes searching for the answers. As adults we talk of this coupling in terms of fear and anxiety but in children it's called imagination.

Robot dressed in a coat and red scarf stands against a futuristic vortex

Most science fiction builds on worlds that are already familiar. Even in the strangest setting, we recognise the human struggles, the emotional triggers and the battles the characters have to face. Our picture of the future is often in the similarities that remain rather than in a world of a million changes.

Grandma and the wolf

We seem to have an inherent memory for fairy tales. No one remembers having to learn Red Riding Hood, it's like fairy tales get woken up in us and their value in terms of childhood fear and anxiety is obvious.

If our fear of being devoured takes the tangible form of a witch, it can be gotten rid of by burning her in the oven*

While there's some credibility to the argument that science fiction provides a similar redress in adults, it's also useful to understand that the same suspension of disbelief is crucial to its success. In worldbuilding, sci-fi often pushes close to reader tolerance in the same way fairy tales do. In coupling a readers vulnerability with their logical viewpoint, it embraces incongruence as naturally as fairy tales. There might not be fairy godmothers and talking cats, but no one can deny that the monster aliens from planet Zog manage to both disturb and fascinate us.

This incongruent existence is part of our psychology. Our conscious and unconscious world is in constant contradiction in the same way sci-fi exploits the conflict of reality and imagination. It uses our own nature against us and brings a strange feeling of magic to a story because we don't quite know why we're feeling the way we do.

This strange confliction is a traditional point of transformation within fairy tales. As the wolf waits for Red Riding Hood, we're left emotionally confused and curious as to where it will lead. The wolf is there to eat grandma, but grandma could quite easily turn it all around and eat the wolf. The narrative makes good use of the unknown and the known, and a lot of the magic relies on us not quite knowing where the story will go.

While horror allows readers to rubberneck past personal boundaries and dreadful events without having to suffer any of the consequences, sci-fi gets us to dig in and examine the science behind wormholes and zombie filled spaceships. There will be no leaky plots here, and the questions are made all the sweeter because we don't know them yet.

Imagination is close as we get to ourselves as a species. Your choice of setting orientation, visceral language and narrative can captivate, repulse, entice, wrong foot and ultimately annihilate any preconceived expectations while sticking firmly to the rules of the genre. Just like fairy tales, science fiction writing places readers on the frontline of their own imagination, and a fascination with their own anxieties is so easily created because the house is already haunted.

We are creatures of such wild imagination, driven as much by curiosity as we are by fear. And although we may be lured into the interplanetary woods by promises of future worlds, we are also the children of Red Riding Hood and we want to know what happens next.


*Bruno Bettelheim. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (London: Penguin Books, 1978)

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