The final panel discussion Nell and I attended was the one entitled 'The Great Escape: Is escapism the key to fantasy?'. Of all the discussions this was probably the weakest, the panel didn't seem to have their heart in it and the debate was very meandering. It was the only discussion where the audience began drifting away before the end.
I'm afraid my attention drifted too: now that I come to write about it I'm hard pressed to remember much of what was said, the discussion only becoming interesting when the subject of fantasy as social commentary was broached. The panel opined - I think, it was a bit uncertain - that SF is able to examine subjects which might be verboten otherwise. Examples given were those of religious and racial differences tho' when one of the speakers lurched into a diatribe about the ineptitude of Soviet writers in opposing Communism I did sense Nelli bristling.
Overall though I think the panel was on the right track here. 'Escapism' is something of a poisoned chalice - it's easy to write but equally easy to deride and as one of the recurrent themes of all the panels I listened to was that the genre wasn't being taken seriously by the literary powers-that-be then being deliberately escapist in intent is probably something that serious SF writers should try to avoid. Of course they need to be entertaining but there has to be substance beneath.
As 'The Demi-Monde' majors on the theme of the distortions created in society by religious and racial difference I perked up at this point but by then the debate was petering out. Unfortunate.
Thinking about it later I came to the conclusion that the great works of fantasy - Gulliver's Travels, The Time Machine, 1984, Brave New World, Clockwork Orange, Dune to cite a few - all had one thing in common (besides being works of genius, that is)...satire. Each of them in their own way was strongly satirical and used the fantasy premise to examine in an accessible way burning questions of the day: racial prejudice, divisions in society, the dangers of totalitarianism, the role of sex in society etc etc. Theirs was a literary steel fist encased in a velvet glove.
Now I am sure several of today's writers are able satirists but the great expansion of SF/Fantasy post 1960 has somewhat diluted their impact. Maybe the problem is that now there is too much fantasy out there, too many Lord of the Rings rip offs and Dune-lites.
And there does seem to be a lot of fantasy about. SF seems to have taken over from rom-coms at the movies, comic books are burgeoning and then, of course, there's the ever-expanding computer gaming fraternity. Presumably this growth is due to the post-Potter generation trying to get its fantasy fix. But while this expansion has been achieved by a triumph of quantity over quality I still think it's good news because soon it will be these guys who will be running the literary reviews.
Maybe all we have to do is wait!