Sangsuk Sylvia Kang for TIME

The world is stories.

Consider the “flat-earther” who constructs elaborate chains of causation and meaning from facts that have little to do with each other. Consider bigotry, which does the same—and yet we have built entire school curricula, legal systems, infrastructure and industries around such ideas as “women can’t handle pressure” and “poor people are lazy.” Why do we believe one set of paranoid, questionable hypotheses and not another? Why do we designate some people as “heroes” and others as “villains,” and why are we so loath to change those designations when the people in question turn out to be just… people? How is it that we lately seem to have become a society that cares more about compelling nonsense than about boring rationality? Or were we always that kind of society, and we just care more now because the nonsense is hurting a broader swath of people?

These are fraught times—but there have always been fraught times for someone in the world, somewhere. And there have always been those whose mastery of the art of storytelling has helped us understand how powerfully stories shape the world. C.S. Lewis sought to comfort children with faith. Philip Pullman disturbed them with warnings of encroaching fascism. There is a preponderance of stories aimed at children on this list, possibly because we’re still openly hungry for stories in the years of our childhood, and thus the stories we absorb then have a lasting effect. Our hunger for stories doesn’t really change when we grow up, however; the need is still there, acknowledged or not—especially if the stories we’ve been given up to that point don’t accurately encapsulate reality. Thus it’s fitting that some of the most powerful storytellers on this list, such as Victor LaValle, engage with adult concerns like parenthood instead of myth.

Is it comforting to see how many of the stories on this list wrestle with the need to reform institutions and change the leadership of society? It could be. Yet the newer storytellers on the list, many of whom hail from colonized cultures and thus have vastly different background stories from those of “classic” fantasy authors, also warn us of the realities of societal strife. The good guys don’t always win, the bad guys don’t always lose, and either way, the ones who suffer most will be the people who were already struggling to get by.

This is what both classic and modern fantasy teach us, however: that you have to fight anyway. That sometimes it is the journey, and not the final climactic battle against some Dark Lord or another, that defines who we are. That our happy ending might very well depend on how loudly and powerfully we tell our stories along the way. Don’t think of fantasy as mere entertainment, then, but as a way to train for reality. It always has been, after all.

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