Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Essay: Never Fantasy vs. Science Fiction

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

I've always shied away from the fantasy vs. science fiction debate (or rather which is superior, which is better, which is more difficult to write), not just because I love both genres, but because the two have more in common than differences (hence why they easily fall under the umbrella term speculative fiction). Perhaps a better contrast for both genres would be realist fiction but then again, you'd be surprised at how unreal, contrived, or fabricated "realist" fiction can be.

Even authors whom we typically associate with science fiction understand the thin line that they cross. Arthur C. Clarke's third law for example states "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And in the preface of Citadel Twilight's The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick Volume 1, Dick writes "Fantasy involves that which general opinion regards as impossible; science fiction involves that which general opinion regards as possible under the right circumstances. This is in essence a judgment-call, since what is possible and what is not possible is not objectively known but is, rather, a subjective belief on the part of the author and of the reader."

As someone who's read a lot of fantasy and science fiction (admittedly more of the former than the latter), one can't make sweeping generalizations of either. There's lots of material in both that spawn numerous genres and sub-genres, in addition to interstitial work that cross boundaries and accepted definitions. What might be true of one title might be the opposite in another. Suffice to say, while I have guidelines for what constitutes fantasy or science fiction, they are not parameters set in stone and chances are, have been subverted by various authors.

So it's a pet peeve of mine when I come across an essay entitled Fantasy vs. Science-fiction. While there are possibly good arguments for the fantasy vs. science fiction debate, this article isn't one of them. In fact, it is, in many ways, contradictory. For example, in the second paragraph, it describes Lord of the Rings as "regressive and nostalgic" but praises the same series in the third paragraph, stating "Fantasy narratives like The Lord of the Rings occasionally break out and do something impressive..." Make up your mind, will you. Is Lord of the Rings praise-worthy or not? Even worse is the numerous exemptions the authors make, especially when it comes to science fiction (and to be fair, a lot of fans also make the same presumption):

"Star Wars is a fantasy film, rather than a science-fiction film."

"Fantasy is referential and narrow and as soon as it becomes unmoored from cliche it ceases to be fantasy and becomes science-fiction or speculative fiction."

"Of course, many science-fiction narratives are so narrow as to resemble fantasy. Just replace the tableau of swords, elves, and magic with lasers, aliens, and advanced inexplicable science and you have the same uninteresting garbage."

That kind of logic can be summarized with the following statement: "If I like it, it's automatically science fiction (or speculative fiction). If I don't like it, it's automatically fantasy."

Not that I'm disagreeing that Star Wars (and while we're at it, Dune) does have some high fantasy elements, mind you, but there's an arrogance in the way the author presents his points, even when they are opinions rather than facts. And ultimately, it's impossible to win an argument with the author's brand of logic because he'll always be making excuses for titles he likes or doesn't like: Title X isn't science fiction, Title Y is really science fiction in disguise.

Having said that, here are the following points that I want to make a counter-argument against:

"Then it occurred to me that fantasy is typically regressive and nostalgic. It represents a longing for the child’s world and an escape from reality. Harry Potter is a good example of this, as is the Lord of the Rings."

I won't deny that fantasy is a break from reality (hence why we call it fantasy in the first place). But the same can be said of science fiction. Despite this disassociation though, both genres nonetheless tackle real-world concerns, exaggerated through literary technique and metaphor. Harry Potter, for example, is anything but simple--Hogwarts is a complex political system, whether it's the faculty or its students (i.e. it's pretty much like any other high school in terms of concerns--there's bullying, cliques, and friendships). And for whatever triumph there is in Lord of the Rings, it's also filled with tragedy. Arguably the hobbits lost their innocence through their travails for example. How is this longing for the child's world? Admittedly, there's a certain sense of wish-fulfillment in Harry Potter (escaping his uncle and aunt) but then again, the two titles have different agendas, the Harry Potter series being a young adult book while Lord of the Rings actually intended for adults.

"The technology in Star Wars is rarely focused on or explained (compared to Star Trek, which does attempt to explain), instead the story is consumed with the magical metaphysics of the Force."

If "explanation" is your only qualifier, then there are tons of fantasy novels which try to explain their magic (The Sword of Truth and The Deathgate Cycle series for example). Which doesn't necessarily make them good fantasy (or science fiction, as the case may be), mind you, but that's a lousy qualifier. And I'm jumping ahead of myself here, but shall we just dump our decades of space opera, just because there's no credible explanation behind some of the technologies? Or even titles like Animal Farm where no one bothers explaining why there are sentient animals populating the world?

"Fantasy worlds operate as cartoonish backdrops for personal dramas and interpersonal narratives. There is often little explanation of how things work or any real consciousness of the larger objective reality."

Again, there are lots of fantasy titles that actually do just that (and similarly, science fiction which use "cartoonish backdrops" for personal dramas and interpersonal narratives--as if those were bad things). The A Song of Ice and Fire is very complicated, layered, and well thought out. The Anita Blake series considers what happens in a world where vampires are real--and become legal citizens.

"There is a narrowness of perspective that often dictates a flatness and reliance on cliche that relegates fantasy narratives to the ghetto of genre fiction. Fantasy narratives like The Lord of the Rings occasionally break out and do something impressive, but only by taking on greater reality and connection to the real world. Much of LoTR is inspired directly by Anglo-Saxon and Germanic history and much of its resonance is due to its connection to this world, also referred to as “Middle Earth” in Norse myth."

"Flatness and reliance on cliche" is typically (not all the time) a characteristic of bad writing, not of fantasy in general (and guess what, it's not limited to the genre!). And I don't know if the author is living in an alternate dimension, but sure, fantasy is usually in a ghetto of genre fiction, but so is science fiction (and some would argue more so).

The author also needs to wake up because every piece of fiction, be it science fiction or fantasy, is inspired by the real world. No fantasy or science fiction author thinks hey, I'll write a story that has no basis in the real world whatsoever. Characters--or at least their behaviors--are based on reality. Setting is typically based on reality. Heck, the possible future is based on reality. There's even urban fantasy which takes place in reality (albeit subverted for the purposes of the narrative)...

"Science-fiction is prophetic where fantasy is sentimental. Science-fiction, since it encourages a more broad perspective, is more creative and interesting."

Hmmm, what advice should I give? That the author should go out and read more? Or snap out of his personal delusion?

Let's tackle some of my favorite short stories. There's Daniel Abraham's "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairytale of Economics". It's clearly fantasy. There's also a pseudo-medieval feel to it. The theme of the story however revolves around two not-so-modern principles: economics and morals. I'd say the thesis is very apt to today's modern reader, and is in many ways, prophetic because it's a very valid concern: what is this currency worth? (Especially with certain countries nowadays going bankrupt.)

Or let's take Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate". First off, is it fantasy or is it science fiction? My gut instinct that it's the former, especially with its Arabian Nights trappings. But sure, since it has a time travel device/wormhole, let's call it science fiction. In many ways, it's sentimental: the setting is set in the past and the themes--escaping fate--is a very old topic.

Now I love both stories but clearly, the generalizations proposed don't fit them. And these aren't exemptions to the rule. There are tons of other stories under both genres that break the author's assumption.

"Of course, many science-fiction narratives are so narrow as to resemble fantasy. Just replace the tableau of swords, elves, and magic with lasers, aliens, and advanced inexplicable science and you have the same uninteresting garbage."

And here's the killer: so will you be the one to tell people that short of reading hard science fiction, you're not really reading science fiction (or good science fiction at that)? Byebye space opera, byebye military SF, byebye sword & planet, etc.?


Unknown said...

I don't think you should get on the author's case for calling LOTR "regressive and nostalgic." Those terms could very well be taken as positives. One refers to "returning to a former less advanced state" and another is really a state of mind that Tolkien was kind of attempting to fabricate. Granted, the author could have meant those as slights, but I see them as astute observations that may offer readers an insight into LOTR's effectiveness as a series. Nothing wrong with a little nostalgia or looking back.

Charles said...

While "nostalgic" might be considered a positive term, it's clearly not in the context of the author's post.

Rebecca Knight said...

Thank you for this rant! I swear there is something in the water lately because John Scalzi just blogged about this topic, and I blogged about it on Friday playing off his post (

I'm tired of people saying that everything that is poorly written Sci Fi has to be Fantasy.

I love both genres and write in both, and feel that both can be done well. Whenever someone says "Oh, Star Wars isn't fully explained or plausible so it's Fantasy" I feel like it's an insult to both genres. I agree with Scalzi on this one--that just means it's poorly executed Science Fiction, not Fantasy by default.

In my post, I don't talk about one versus the other, but rather that the lines blur between genres, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I'm not sure where the competitiveness comes in between the two, or why the hard Sci Fi folks seem to have such an issue with fantasy worlds. Everything has to be plausible, at least to the reader, to make it interesting. Tolkien spent a ton of time world building and making that world make sense within its own rules, otherwise LoTR wouldn't be the classic it is.

Good writing is what makes a book better than another, not genre. Why can't Fantasy and Sci Fi get along? :) Great post!