Peruvian writer and winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in LiteratureMario Vargas Llosa, gave a moving Nobel Prize lecture, "In Praise of Reading and Fiction", about the importance of fiction to his life and to humanity.
Says Vargas Llosa:
But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires, and our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.
And, when at age 11 there was a great upheaval in his family life, Vargas Llosa found reading and writing to be a great comfort:
I lost my innocence and discovered loneliness, authority, adult life, and fear. My salvation was reading, reading good books, taking refuge in those worlds where life was glorious, intense, one adventure after another, where I could feel free and be happy again. And it was writing, in secret, like someone giving himself up to an unspeakable vice, a forbidden passion. Literature stopped being a game. It became a way of resisting adversity, protesting, rebelling, escaping the intolerable, my reason for living. From then until now, in every circumstance when I have felt disheartened or beaten down, on the edge of despair, giving myself body and soul to my work as a storyteller has been the light at the end of the tunnel, the plank that carries the shipwrecked man to shore.
And reading fiction transforms us, the readers:
From the cave to the skyscraper, from the club to weapons of mass destruction, from the tautological life of the tribe to the era of globalization, the fictions of literature have multiplied human experiences, preventing us from succumbing to lethargy, self-absorption, resignation. Nothing has sown so much disquiet, so disturbed our imagination and our desires as the life of lies we add, thanks to literature, to the one we have, so we can be protagonists in the great adventures, the great passions real life will never give us. The lies of literature become truths through us, the readers transformed, infected with longings and, through the fault of fiction, permanently questioning a mediocre reality. Sorcery, when literature offers us the hope of having what we do not have, being what we are not, acceding to that impossible existence where like pagan gods we feel mortal and eternal at the same time, that introduces into our spirits non-conformity and rebellion, which are behind all the heroic deeds that have contributed to the reduction of violence in human relationships. Reducing violence, not ending it. Because ours will always be, fortunately, an unfinished story. That is why we have to continue dreaming, reading, and writing, the most effective way we have found to alleviate our mortal condition, to defeat the corrosion of time, and to transform the impossible into possibility.
He's not talking about speculative fiction specifically, but I think it applies. To me science fiction is indeed a way of dreaming the impossible and getting lost in adventure and fantastic worlds.
In Vargas Llosa's Letters to a Young Novelist, he does write about the "fantastic" and "levels of reality" in fiction. But he also points out that any fiction is a rejection of reality:
Why would anyone who is deeply satisfied with reality, with real life as it is lived, dedicate himself to something as insubstantial and fanciful as the creation of fictional realities? Naturally, those who rebel against lie as it is, using their ability to invent different lives and different people, may do so for any number of reasons, honorable or dishonorable, generous or selfish, complex or banal. The nature of this basic questioning of reality, which to my mind lies at the heart of every literary calling, doesn't matter at all. What matters is that the rejection be strong enough to fuel the enthusiasm for a task as quixotic as tilting at windmills – the slight-of-hand replacement of the concrete, objective world of life as it is lived with the subtle and ephemeral world of fiction.
And that rejection of reality can have real world consequences.
When readers are faced with the real world, the unease fomented by good literature may, in certain circumstances, even translate itself into an act of rebellion against authority, the establishment, or sanctioned beliefs.
That's why the Spanish Inquisition distrusted works of fiction and subjected them to strict censorship [... ] [Using the pretext that] these wild tales might distract the Indians from the worship of God, the only serious concern of a theocratic society.
While you might argue that science fiction doesn't qualify as "good literature", I think that SF doesn't only show a reader the possibility of adventure and a depiction of the world-as-it-might-be. It also can provide a framework that allows seeing the world through the lens of science and technology. It gives us a glimpse at a way to "... alleviate our mortal condition, to defeat the corrosion of time, and to transform the impossible into possibility" using knowledge and engineering, rather than through supernatural forces. And that is a powerful notion.
Read the entire speech: "In Praise of Reading and Fiction"
Also check out Daniel Salvo's article about SF in Peru for the World SF News Blog.