Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A rant about creating unnecessary walls

I found this essay where the writer is essentially lamenting the success of fantasy works over science fiction:
http://benford-rose.com/blog/?p=3
One problem I have with this essay is its attempt to build even stronger walls, not only between fantasy and SF, but between SF and mainstream literary works as well, and I've already said in an earlier entry how I dislike such attempts. I'm all for tearing down all those kinds of walls.

But more central is his naive dismissal of fantasy (and equally naive belief that science fiction novels automatically speak more to the real world...though there are hints that he realizes part of the problem may be that some science fiction works don't live up to his ideal). There are fantasies that merit dismissal, but certainly not all...and there are science fiction works that are equally as removed from human nature. Escapism in the bad sense (I want to address this idea of escapism, but I'm afraid this post will already be plenty long. Perhaps my next entry).

So in my mind, when speculative fiction succeeds (whether fantasy, SF, or something else), there are two ways it works. I dislike hierarchies of 'this is inherently better than that,' but if I had to explain why I tend to prefer the speculative mode over realist mode, this would certainly be a part of it. So first, speculative fiction takes away some of the familiar trappings of our world and lets us imagine what that says about what it means to be human. It directly addresses human nature, which is something speaks powerfully about our own world and our own actions. If a certain type of magic exists, how might people respond, and what does that say about humans? If AI advances or we meet an alien race or we don't meet aliens anywhere, what does that say about us humans? These questions do not rely on scientific extrapolation, but merely on the unfamiliar setting, whatever it may be.

Second, speculative fiction can invade our defenses to address issues of our day and the future. Things like caring for the environment or the nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the morality of the death penalty all invoke strong reactions in people. A more realist approach in fiction, presenting things as they are in our world, will invoke all those defenses and readers are less likely to actually consider other viewpoints. In a speculative setting, though--again, whether fantasy, SF or something else--the fiction can present the same issues in subtle ways that break through those defenses. A reader may not even realize that they're thinking about matters in the real world as they read...but it will affect them. This is also possible in realist fiction, but I think speculative fiction has a unique power for this that, if not necessarily better or worse, is different.

When fantasy fails, it focuses too much on the trappings, the magic, the swords perhaps (if it's that kind of fantasy), the cool characters. When science fiction fails, it focuses too much on the science and the gadgets and gosh-wow of space travel. These are the failings he should be lamenting, not some artificial wall between genres.

4 comments:

mscelina said...

Valid points, dan. Speaking only for myself, I'd have to say I write what I'd like to read, regardless of genre. I certainly don't have the ability to downplay one genre in favor of another, however, whether I can write/read it or not. We're all speculative fiction writers when you get right down to it. Some people push outside the box, while others of us just decorate the inside of the box differently. No shame in that.

Bibsy said...

Amen, Dan.

Daniel Ausema said...

Wow, go down farther through the comments, and read the response by Keith Azariah Kribbs. He said it far better than I did. Another rebuttal just below that (in a link) is also good, though not at the depth of Kribbs's.

Samantha Iriks said...

In any case, how can anyone put up walls when it comes to speculative fiction? It's one of those genres which encompasses all others, that is what is so intriguing about it. There is no restriction, therefore there should be no restricting walls in its definition.