I have given a definition of both Science Fiction and Fantasy before, and I love both, so I care. If you look back at our Liebster Award nomination, I said that one of the more important things to me is Science Fiction being taken seriously. And I think I would happily include Fantasy in that as well. There are a lot of other causes out there, and things to be done – I’ve talked about Geeks and Charity as well – but the discussion about Science Fiction, and its place in thought, in learning, in the classroom… That seems like something I can influence a bit, right?
So recently we listened to George R.R. Martin on the Nerdist Podcast. And first off, if you like George R.R. Martin, it was a lot of fun. It was right after he destroyed the guitar (which we talked about before) at Comic Con. He talks Game of Thrones, and conventions, and writing, and, to the point here and now, he talks Science Fiction and Fantasy.
If part of the reason I like the quotes from Frank Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien is because they are the fathers of the genres. However, George R.R. Martin is something of a current crown prince, or some other metaphor, in Fantasy. So what does he add to my thought? And where do we draw the lines?
What George R.R. Martin Said
So, George R.R. Martin was basically of the thought that there are people who take Science Fiction too seriously, that it’s not too different from Fantasy, that there are people seriously considering life and humanity in Fantasy (very true: read some George R.R. Martin…), and that we should maybe not fight between the two.
And really, is that a bad conclusion?
In many ways, it matches reality. I don’t know a lot of people who like ONLY Science Fiction and not Fantasy, or ONLY Fantasy and not Science Fiction. I can think of a few, but they stand out. For the most part, however, how many of us are there watching Doctor Who and Game of Thrones at the same time? How many of us love Lord of the Rings and Dune? Blade Runner and Princess Bride?
Science Fiction and Fantasy often blend, anyway. As I talked about in my post about the idea of the Ancient Alien Race, large Fantasy series tend towards having Science Fiction in their past. And suddenly, the two genres are one. So what do you call them?
It matches our reality at the store, too. Assuming bookstores are still a thing, and we’re not all reading on a Kindle… But bookstores inevitably combine Science Fiction and Fantasy. In part, it seems easy to tell if a book is one of these two, but would take a ton of work to figure out which to put it in. Plus, more importantly – they understand that there’s more money to be made by combining the two. Same audience.
However, here’s where my opinion does come in: Just because we shouldn’t draw so hard a line between these two Genres does not mean we shouldn’t still take their works of art seriously. Just like there is good and bad literature, there is good and bad Science Fiction. And we can debate and fight all day about which is which – but it’s important to think we could have that debate. Instead of it being a given that one, the other, or both of these genres is pointless.
So, let me go on to think of other ways we can consider Science Fiction and Fantasy.
One of the terms I hear thrown about for the sort of What-If Science Fiction that might describe the best of the genre is Speculative Fiction. A vague term that could also just be called “Fiction,” Speculative Fiction tries to mean something very specific: to mean fiction that asks a question, and generally, a question about our future, where we don’t know the answer to the question we ask.
This is the good thought experiment of Science Fiction: to ask a question about our future, and try to provide an answer. Sometimes, the ideas and answer are the main point. I see this in stories by authors like Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick – a strong question is asked, a strong answer is given, and they link the two with a plot. Then there is more cinematic sorts of fiction, heavier on plot, where sometimes the questions asked and answered happen after the fact – like the sorts of science questions that cropped up around Star Trek and Star Wars after the fact.
And both are good. One is more high brow, I guess, and ends up looking very different if made into a movie. The other is more escapist – is perhaps a bit closer to Fantasy.
But, if we spread this thinking to Fantasy, then there are Heroic Journey sorts of stories, great epics in the traditions of mythology, and of archetypes. Then there are stories that are more Escapist, are Fantasy fun. I have read over twenty Drizzt Do’Urden books by R.A. Salvatore, and I love them; but have I learned much from them, have they made me think?
Well, a little, if I use that example. Salvatore does a great job of working in the thoughtful, philosophical quandaries of his main character in-between acts. Part of what makes this such a likable and popular character.
So really, I guess my point is, there is a lot to be said for a lot of stuff being done in Science Fiction and Fantasy. That even if the literary writing isn’t the best, the ideas in the book may be sound, or groundbreaking, even. If the writing is fun, there still might be something there to make you think, to bring you out of the story a moment and consider the implications.
There are other genres that exist adjacent to Science Fiction and Fantasy as well, which also enter into strongly speculative realms: Urban Fantasy, and Steampunk. The former is imagining our modern world, but with Fantastical elements. The latter is imagining our past, with a Science-Fictional future. Both of these can also have a lot of value, despite – or maybe especially because of – being new.
New Terminology for our Fiction?
So maybe we need a new language to talk about these fictional genres. Something to remove the baggage, and get some attention?
I did a post, after looking at the definitions of Science Fiction and Fantasy, pitting Star Wars against Star Trek. Check it out here.
My conclusion was that, based on the definitions I was using, Star Trek is Science Fiction, and Star Wars is Fantasy. But if we’re thinking of a new language to talk about these veins of fiction, maybe these can help lead us.
For one type, call it Exploratory Fiction. Maybe exploring an idea, maybe exploring actual space. You see physical exploration in Star Trek, or Firefly; in games in Freelancer, or Skyrim. But this could also cover Speculative Fiction, and exploring an idea.
For another type, call it Escapist Fiction. This matches more like story-based games, where you are immersing in their story, unlike the free-range games like Skyrim. The heroic journey is the best sort of escape – the quest to become more than we were, and usually save some stuff in the process.Worlds, universes, kingdoms, friends.
So there are good examples and bad examples of these types, but that is like with all things. But this would bleed these genres together, and be more about the type of story they are telling, or the way they are telling it – rather than about whether the story has aliens or elves. And if we move away from aliens-and-elves assumptions about these genres, maybe other people could get into them – and, as my point earlier – they could be taken more seriously as artforms.