I said recently that fantasy is bad, but not all fantasy is bad. G. K. Chesterton's chapter in Orthodoxy on "The Ethics of Elfland" is good on why this is. In fairy stories what has to be is, but what is contingent is often different from the world as we know it. Fantasy can show us what has to be and what does not, which can be a very valuable lesson.
For instance (and I don't remember Chesterton talking about this, but perhaps he does), fantasy can bring out what it means to be human in a sense that is very important to ethics but irrelevant to biology. One thing I especially liked about Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible is that the characters are all what we might call morally human (they have human concerns, emotions, etc.) even though they are each supernatural, alien, part-robot, or otherwise non-human. This helps to bring out what it means to be human, to live a human life, in a way that is relevant to identifying, for instance, inhumane attitudes and behavior. Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf, disappointingly, is not like this.
Embarrassing confession: I am in a book club, which is why I read these two books. The Last Werewolf sounded like not my kind of thing at all from the reviews, but (perhaps partly because my expectations were so low) I really enjoyed the first quarter or so of the book. But then a pony-tailed werewolf hunter from California showed up, and vampires, and it turned out that vampires and werewolves don't get along, and I felt as though I had slipped into the Twilight zone. The real problem, though, is not the clichés but the distance from normal life. This is a matter of degree, of course, and any superhero or fantasy story is going to have some of it, but it's possible for (mentally, morally) ordinary characters to find themselves in extraordinary situations. When the whole plot revolves around the problems of being almost immortal, of having to hide the fact that one turns into a monster every month, of having to hide from other monsters, and of the dilemma of having to kill and eat people or die, then the central character's concerns become less ordinary, less human, than one might want. Or so I found.
Perhaps this in itself is interesting. (I suppose this post is based on the hope that it might be.) It's possible to be more or less recognizably human, internally like us. And, at least roughly speaking, other things being equal, the more like us (the more like the reader, the more like me) the main characters are, the better. (Can that be right?) Not in a (merely) superficial sense: I might like to read a book about people born when and where I was born, who have the same interests, problems, profession, etc., as I do, but this isn't what I'm talking about. (Although when it comes to songs this is a very good guide to what I like, so I don't mean to jump too quickly to the conclusion that I am not superficial and egocentric in this way.) It's more a matter of sharing a certain kind of set of concerns, of ways of reacting to the world and to events, of making similar kinds of judgments in similar circumstances. Can I say "form of life"? Is that too pretentious? Does it help at all? And what does it mean if I say that if a werewolf could write a novel we would not care to read it? I understand him well enough, but only externally. I know what his concerns are, but I don't share them. In that sense I can never find my feet with him: we don't stand on common ground. And in that sense we are two, rather than one, and in that sense he is nothing to me, a mere thing. Not one of us, not a full human being. (Maybe half a person at most.) Which I suppose is what a werewolf is.
At the end of that last paragraph I start to go much too fast. Not one of us ≠ a mere thing. There are different categories of us (going out from the middle): the real me, me, my family, my friends, people like me, other people, animals that are like humans in noticeable ways, animals that are like humans in less noticeable ways, living things, somehow impressive non-living things, and so on. (This order is subjective and approximate, or just rough and ready.) And it starts to overlap with the class of things, mere and otherwise. There are problems, too, with this way of thinking. It's one thing to talk about expanding the circle of moral concern, but another to imply that at the center is me. The former is a good idea (at least sometimes), the latter is bad. But if the Golden Rule is important in ethical thinking (and surely it is) then we do need to notice that we can sensibly apply it only to some kinds of being, not to all. "How would you like it if you were a cat and someone did that to you?" does not sound like the right way to think about animal ethics (unless thinking with children). Certainly "How would you feel if you were a rain-forest?" can't be right. Empathy has its proper limits. Which might be why I wonder about Jewel's idea (don't laugh--the Dalai Lama says similar things) that "only kindness matters." It's not a terrible thought though.