We live in an age of invented, alternate worlds. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Rowling’s Hogwarts, the dystopic universe of “The Hunger Games,” the places where vampires and zombies prowl: These places are having their day. Yet in spite of the vogue for fantasy fiction, in the finest of literature’s fictional microcosms there is more truth than fantasy. In William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi and, yes, the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez, imagination is used to enrich reality, not to escape from it.
I never got around to writing about this before (an impending move will knock all thoughts of "getting caught up" clean out of your fool head), but Mr. Rushdie echoes one of my own long-running sentiments with this one. It's not that the vampires, zombies, and hunger games are lesser for being fantastic, but that any of those things can be made greater by dint of a more complete understanding of the world we do have.
It's not the fantastic alone that enthralls us, but the way we connect with an identifiable human being who is also reeling in the face of that fantasy. It's not Middle-earth that enthralls us alone, but the process of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins encountering it. It's not the Death Star, but Luke Skywalker going up against it. Not Panem, but Katniss; not the amusement park, but Chihiro. It's the human that's the most real of all, and real in the most important way.
Now, doesn't that pose a difficulty for the SF&F creator? Think about it: If the whole point of SF&F is to look as far and as wide as we can — to look past what we know and take for granted, the "only human" included — then isn't there an inherent limitation in the fact that it's the human that is most broadly enthralling to an audience? Sure, but it never hurts to start with what's knowably human.
"Nuts-and-bolts" SF tends to self-select for a fairly narrow readership, because most people would rather read about a person or, failing that, a story rather than an idea. This is not to say that an esoteric idea and a narrow audience are bad things — look how much I've gusted about in the past over the maverick, the trend-bucker, over the leader of herds (or the stampeding herds themselves). Those things are vital. But anyone who chooses to walk that path has to be able to do so freely — to know that they leave behind the familiar not because they can't do justice to it, but because they use their way of doing justice to it to do justice to something even larger.
Fantasy doorstopper megacycles like The Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones have found a wider audience since they're that much more person- and story-centric, although I'm leaving open the question of whether it was primarily good marketing, rather than story, that helped them get their respective audiences (with the latter aided immeasurably by its TV spinoff). Their successes hint at how such things might work, but it's still too easy for them to be seduced by the fetishism of the setting and the ingredients — to become another big story that exists mostly for the sake of telling a big story.
Hm. Maybe I shouldn't come down too hard on that, at least as far as Thrones is concerned: long-form TV is becoming more old-school novelistic than our novels are. But delivering a larger story typically comes at the cost of also delivering a more diffuse one, and it's tougher to make a panorama as compelling as a closeup — tougher to give us people instead of landscapes.
So, in the end, it's always about building a bridge from what we know to what we don't know — and the best material to make that bridge out of is human feeling, as experienced through a recognizable and full-blown human being. Everything else only looks fantastic.