Although originally a painting term applied to a group of German surrealists, "magical realism" came to be associated with literature in the 1940s. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms (my go-to for quick and dirty literary definitions) offers the following: "the term came to be applied to fictional prose works that are characterized by a mixture of realistic and fantastic elements." That seems straightforward enough--magical realism is a genre where daily life and fantastic/magical events are treated as part of the same reality.
The problem with this definition is that it ignores what I believe is the heart of magical realism. It describes what magical realism does, but not what it is.
In order to get at the elusive heart of magical realism, I started off the class with a look at another genre: science fiction. Bedford defines science fiction as "a type of narrative fiction that is grounded in scientific ... concepts and that ... employs both realist and fantastic elements in exploring the question 'What if?'" In other words, sci-fi speculates about the future using a mixture of the realistic and fantastic. The similarity to magical realism is obvious.
As with its definition for magical realism, I feel the Bedford falls short in defining sci-fi. So I supplemented its definition with a quote from author Ursula K. LeGuin, from the introduction to her book The Left Hand of Darkness, a sci-novel about a planet whose people are androgynous. LeGuin writes, "This book is not about the future … Yes, indeed the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous ... I’m merely observing … that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting … I am describing." LeGuin argues that sci-fi is not actually about the future. Rather, it uses speculation about the future to describe the world as it already is.
I'm not denying that sci-fi speculates about what our future might be like. Obviously, it does. But I do agree with LeGuin that on a fundamental level, sci-fi must be about us-as-we-already-are; otherwise, we wouldn't find it interesting. Take Star Trek. If we didn't already think that the human race as a whole is curious, that we desire to explore our universe, then the point of the show would be lost. We won't care about starships and Vulcans unless we already suspect that human beings are curious and inventive enough to want to discover these things.
And this raises a question: If sci-fi is about us as we already are, then why bother making up the fantastic parts? Why not just stick to realistic stories?
BECAUSE, as all sci-fi lovers know, science fiction has a peculiar power, a way of driving home its points that realistic fiction lacks. At some level, more or less conscious, we believe that the events depicted in a sci-fi story could happen. Not that they'll necessarily happen, or even that they're likely to happen. But they could.
Thus, the impact of whatever point about ourselves-as-we-already-are (that we are androgynous, or curious and inventive, or corrupted by power) that a sci-fi story makes is made more powerful by a prediction about the future that just might come true. Our belief in humankind's inventiveness is strengthened by a story that presents the possibility we might someday travel through the universe faster than the speed of light. Our belief in humankind's capacity for evil is strengthened by a story that presents the possibility that someone could unleash a biochemical weapon to destroy an entire population.
And why do we believe that these predictions could come true? Because, as a culture, we have an almost blind faith in the power of science. Given enough time, enough geniuses, enough resources, science can do anything, from discovering aliens to recreating dinosaurs.
Science fiction has power because we believe in the possibilities of science.