The title's from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, and Mr. Wonka was actually speaking those lines in defense of being bold, rather than being dismissive of imagination. But it's all too easy to dismiss imagination as mere daydreaming, a sentiment which reached its nadir in the mid-century witticism "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?"
Talk of the power of imagination reminds me of another good line, this one from Paul Krugman: "Never trust an aircraft designer who refuses to play with model airplanes." Meaning, don't put stock in people who don't give their imagination free rein — especially when their work depends on having their eyes and minds wide open.
What I'm wondering now, though, if there's more than one way to say "what if" about things. The most basic version of this is the obvious counterfactual — "What if God is a computer?" — but a lot of the time that one bit of speculation is often just used to plug right back into things we all know and take for granted.
Now, right after having typed those words, I realized I could well be making an inadvertent argument against my own way of thinking about SF&F conceits. I've talked before about how those conceits work best when they're connected to things that are at least modestly familiar, for the sake of the audience we have in the here and now.
At the risk of contradicting myself, I'll argue that the one way that works best is when we're given identifiable people to empathize with. They don't have to be people of the here and now — they just need to have traits we could see as being present within ourselves.
Some examples. We don't identify with Conan's brutishness, perhaps (okay, maybe some of us do), but we can identify with his thirst for freedom, his enjoyment of the simple things in life — crushing your enemies, etc. — and his lack of tolerance for b.s. None of us have Tony Stark's genius or his resources (and, with any luck, we don't have his sheer narcissim either), but his childlike joy at tinkering and his sense of wonder at what's possible, and maybe also his innate sense of what's right, are well within our reach. And when HAL 9000 moans out, "I'm afraid, Dave," it's hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for something that was simply trying to fufill its own mission properly (without, of course, excusing the fact that it killed several people; sympathy is not the same as forgiveness, although one can inspire the other when the circumstances demand).
The whole point of letting our imaginations run wild, then — and I hope I won't get any slaps for being too Campbellian by saying this — is to find a way to come back to the world we know and cast new light on it. My argument is that this is best done through character, but nothing says it can't be done other ways.
T.S. Eliot comes to mind, yet again: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."