Ever since the dawn of humanity, mankind has sought to reach or dwell in other worlds than the world that we live in on a physical level. Other worlds have always been part of the arts and of storytelling. In some cases, within the respective storylines, people don’t have access to these worlds, while in other cases; they interact in one way or another with these worlds. The results differ, sometimes the “other” worlds have a positive impact on people’s lives, sometimes a bad one and sometimes the result is mixed.
Other worlds serve not only as an escapist way of being something different in a world that hardly changes, but also a way to explore ideas and concepts of the unconscious.
The evolution of the way we perceive and think of other worlds has evolved in time and, more often than not, it has accompanied the evolution of society as a whole. The type of fantastic world has not always been created at the same time as it was in fashion. As is often the case, there were some forward thinking authors that created books and stories that came later in fashion, as in the case of many books that became movies in the 21st century, discussing contemporary 21st century topics.
In ancient times, fantastic characters and otherworldly beings used to live someplace accessible and near, yet still far out and out of reach. In many old, traditional folk tales, these lands are behind a hill, across the lake or on a mountain. Think of mount Olympus and the gods that inhabited it. Mount Olympus was a place the Greeks could see, but it was in a way out of reach. A village somewhere in the region or a valley were also common places where fantasy events took place.
In the Middle Ages, as populations started to engage in strong migrations and pilgrimages, the world became more open and soon enough, the mythical spaces of old times lost their mystic charge. People became aware of their environment, and yet, many “other” people and places were seen as strange and dangerous. And that was for a good reason. In the Dark Ages, people did not know what to expect from foreigners. They were a threat to their gene pool and could carry diseases or have aggressive attitudes towards them. In these times, we see fantastic worlds being described as far away. This is a reflection of the fact that people knew that there was a world beyond their own, but that they did not know what could be there. These works were mostly popular creations, in written literature allegories were the dominant ways of conveying stories.
As men embarked on journeys to the East and the West to discover new lands, the fantastic stories of the 17th and 18th century often took place on fantasy islands. The illuminist character of the times also had a strong influence on the ways in which these lands were portrayed. Here we can mention works such as Tommaso Campanella’s “La città del Sole” (“City of the Sun”), or Sir Francis Bacons’ 1627 novel “New Atlantis”. Also, Margaret Cavendish’s “The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World” is another great example of a world that is very hard to reach (it can be accessed through the North Pole), but which is accessible nonetheless. The background for these had been already laid out by authors such as Thomas More, who had published “Utopia”, completely called “Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia” in 1516, where he depicted an imaginary island and its social and political customs.
The Era of Mechanics
The 19th century was the time of the industrial revolution. This era started out in 1760 and by the time the 18th century started, many machines and intricate systems were already in place and quite common. In this period, writers saw the potential that these machines and technology at large had, and thus the first sci-fi works appeared. It was now that characters such as the monster of Frankenstein appeared and Jules Verne wrote his stories on explorations with the use of technology. Now, unlike any other time, places that had been completely inaccessible became accessible to the mind. In 1870, Jules Verne published his famous “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas: An Underwater Tour of the World” (“Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin”), in which a team of explorers uses a submarine to hunt a mysterious sea creature. The book was very much ahead of its time, but it made sense for it to appear at that time, as, for the first time in history, people could go underwater.
Fantasy worlds now were a mix of exotic places and places found outside of the Earth or, as another Jules Verne example goes to show, inside the Earth. Fantasy was now starting to become science-fiction, the 18th century being a transition from mystical creatures and magic happenings to a mix of unknown creatures and fantastic technology.
G. Wells’ 1897 “The War of the Worlds”, in which extraterrestrials visit Earth after arriving with the help of a spaceship is another great example.
In a world that was overwhelmed with mechanical devices that were loud, rough and that threatened the human spirit; the romantics of the 18th century went back to the days of old and rediscovered the past. In this sense, as people were marching more and more towards technology, many romantic writers rediscovered stories in which fantastic stories took place in nature – as nature was becoming a new mystery. The tales of the Grimm brothers in Germany, which were retellings of folktales, are a very good expression of this phenomenon. In these stories, we often see the main character wander off in a forest to meet with humans with superpowers, witches or otherworldly creatures. The story of Hansel and Gretel, who walk off to the woods and meet a witch, or Snow White who meets seven dwarfs in a forest home are good examples of these views. Romantics also discovered the ruins of the past and old castles (many times haunted ones) were at the center of fantasy storylines.
The invention of cinema in the late 1800s and its popularization in the first years of the 20th century made way of a new way of telling stories. This can be regarded as a time when a shift took place, as the screen started to become the go-to place for fantasy and sci-fi stories.
The fantasy stories of the early cinema were an extension of the literature of the late 19th century. They were exploring at the same time scientific fantasy, as well as terror-based storylines.
The move from country life to the big cities that were emerging in that time also turned the city itself in a playground for mystery and fantasy. If you think about it, films such as the 1933 “The Invisible Man” directed by James Whale was in a way a symbol of the anonymity of people we meet in big cities.
The fear of the unknown, monsters and the going wrong of technology were all fantastic topics that were explored in mundane places. As technology entered the lives of people more and more and as the outside world stepped into the lives of people through radio, newspapers and magazines, artists and storytellers realized that one does not need to go to a land far away to meet with otherworldly creatures.
The Space Age
In the 1960s, after a period of disaster and then a decade of recovery, people started looking outside the planet for fantasy-based stories. As the space race was underway and the first men landed on the moon, space became “the final frontier”. Series such as “Star Trek” and films like “Star Wars”, Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” or “2001: A Space Odyssey” were all sci-fi stories that took place in other galaxies, in space ships and so on.
The topic of human exploration of outer space changed during the 1980s and 90s and went in reverse, as more and more stories about extraterrestrials exploring our world started to appear. “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” released in 1982 and directed by Steven Spielberg is a great example of how aliens entered our homes and how the quotidian life became again a place for the meeting between humans and extraterrestrials. Launched in 1993, “The X Files” was a series that continued that trend.
After 2000, however, while the home was still at the center of most media productions and stories, the focus shifted from aliens and advanced technologies to fantasy worlds where technology was almost lacking. This was most likely a reaction to the spread of technology in daily life. The combination of these two elements: the home and other daily environments and a world of fantasy, but barely any technology has given birth to stories such as the “Harry Potter” and the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, which all start out in the quotidian world, but soon move to an undefined place, to which once can arrive with the help of everyday elements – Harry Potter enters a wall to find his train and the gate to Narnia is in a closet.
The concept of the undefined fantasy place was also a big trend during the 2000s. The fact that storytellers realized that placing a film in a certain time and space would make it subject to revisionist histories, politics and accuracy criticism; as well as because things were changing so rapidly in the decade and technology was advancing so quickly that “futuristic technology” could have been redundant in a few years, many films of the 2000s take place in spaces that, while they may be defined, are generally lacking a relation to the world of planet Earth. “The Lord of the Rings” series and the “Golden Compass” movies are great examples of how this concept is expressed.
Around 2010, the mind started more and more to become the last frontier. After this year, more and more fantasy and sci-fi movies started to appear that took place inside thoughts and imagination. “Inception” directed by Christopher Nolan, which was launched in 2010 was the stepping stone for this motif, which has been processed even in indie cinema, in films such as the 2014 production “Comet”, starring Justin Long, in which the characters go back and forth between different, alternative universes.
While it is hard to predict cultural trends, we can go on a limb and make a forecast for the years to come. It is highly probable that in the near future, the fantasy worlds will take the shape of robotics. As technology becomes more and more embedded in our bodies and lives, we are likely to see an increase in films and cultural products that deal with robotic worlds or, more likely a mixture of robotics and the mind. The 2009 film “Avatar” is probably the foregoer of what is next. Sci-fi worlds will discuss the concept of using technology to overcome the world itself, to exist in other worlds and have more and different abilities than you would regularly have. Technology and humans will go hand in hand. In other words, they are somehow derived or based on the concept of transhumanism, which wants to overcome the human state through technology. Space and time won’t matter anymore – people can go from one dimension to another with the help of technology and maybe even be different creatures in those worlds.
Worlds of fantasy are embedded in the human mind, because they fulfill a very important need. They are an expression of our imagination, but more than that, of our inexplicable experiences. They give shape not only to the things we see and think, but to the things we cannot think of. They tell stories that cannot be grasped with the means of the ordinary world and calm our anxieties about the unknown. Therefore, analyzing and understanding them is essential for the understanding of the human mind and generally of the human experience.