Entries in Fantasy (9)


SF Obsolescence: Fantasy and Steampunk

John Scalzi is absolutely right in his recent film post that there's little chance SF will go the way of the Western.  The genre of the Western is hamstrung by being a celebration of a slight historical period, perhaps some two decades at the end of the 19th Century, before barbed wire segmented the plains. It's also replete with distasteful racial and ethnocentric biases.

SF does face another issue however, one of obsolescence. I don't mean that it'll become obsolete as a genre, but that individual works will. Each SF novel or movie is an extrapolation from the technology of its time. As science and technology progresses, the future diverges more and more markedly from earlier predictions.

Futurism is an impossible art, as sites like Retrofuture Today highlight swimmingly.

When we go back to read SF from the past, we note the anachronisms. Today we're surrounded by the internet's new media, yet personal flying machines never took off. 1984's 1984 is twenty six years past now, and yet the world hasn't yet descended into a fascist surveillance state. So they ring a touch dull, the inaccuracies force us out of the narrative.

That is, unless we view them all as fantasies, with a little 'f'. The great virtue of High Fantasies like Lord of the Rings is that as examples of a past-gazing genre they can't ever become obsolete: they make no predictions.

(As an aside, I've often wondered if that's part of the reason why Lucas wanted Star Wars to be explicitly placed "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away". No chance of obsolescence or broken predictions there!)

If we discard the apparent predictive value of SF, most strongly held in its "hard" version, we can perhaps recover the narrative force of the story when the future has left its predictions in the dust. Does it really matter that Bradbury's Mars of the Chronicles bears no resemblance to the actual planet? Perhaps it does, for some, but not so much if it's seen as fantasy.

In a similar vein, I wonder if that's some of the pull that readers and writers feel from subgenres like Steampunk. Since they're already backwards-gazing, they short-circuit the problems of anachronism and obsolescence by embracing them as part of the narrative:  of course there were no towering steam fortresses in Victorian Europe; it's all fantasy.

I'm not sure how long lived such a move can be, though. SF, by its very nature, is relentlessly forward thinking. But it is an intriguing way to approach the problem.


Realism vs. SF

Damien Walter has an interesting article up on the Guardian website about the role of fiction and fantasy in the modern world. His claim is that SF and Fantasy are better genres for getting at the fantasy that surrounds us in the form of marketing and advertising.

I think there's something to that. The conceit of realist fiction is that it's an accurate window onto reality in a way that Fantasy is not.  In contrast to realism, says Walter, SF and Fantasy are often typecast as "escapist nonsense".

To be fair, ninety percent of everything is crud anyway, so of course much SF and Fantasy is as well. But at least it holds its fictional elements on its sleeve, so to speak. It beckons us out of our normal, everyday world and asks us to imagine something different for a time: to dream.

Dreaming isn't necessarily escaping; it can also allow us to get the distance we need to look at the world in a new way. Much of our understanding of the world, even of such basic things as our own identity, or the role of free will in action, are conditioned by ill-conceived or poorly considered tropes.

As Walter notes, one approach to mind-bending is to go in for the easy fix of post-modern relativism, where nothing counts because everything does. That's a dead end, a recipe for boredom. Although they superficially appear allied, unlike post-modern relativism Fantasy must have its own rules, its own internal realism if you will, to function well in a narrative context.

It's in the skew of those rules from our own daily reality that SF and Fantasy can allow us to see the world anew, without becoming unmoored.


Story or Soap Opera?

When I was a kid I remember loving comic books, but my love was always left more or less unrequited. I'd pick up a copy of this or that, spending what was to me a significant sum, read it in a blaze and be left hanging in the middle of the story. There never seemed to be an end!"Nothing ever ends"

And that's what I'd like to write about today, because it seems as well to be a theme among writers of Fantasy and SF: the never ending storyline. Of course, there are franchises like Star Trek that are essentially episodic in character, with little to no overarching story arc that pulls them all together. Then each episode functions like a self-contained story, with its own one hour arc, and little to nothing bleeds from one hour into the next. Each is a little bubble unto itself.

That's fine, so far as it goes. It's a trope used in many superhero-type genres going back past James Bond, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew to any number of early TV and radio serials to characters like Sherlock Holmes.

Since those stories are self-contained, they give the reader the satisfaction of an ending, even if they exist within a larger, fantastic arc without boundary. 

My concern here is more with the neverending story that we get in some N-volume (for large N) Fantasy and SF series, from some comic franchises and (of course) from Soap Operas. Because one thing that's essential in any satisfying narrative is that it have a beginning, a middle and an end. Series that rise on without clear upper bound cheat the reader of that pleasure.

It's no coincidence that Watchmen, perhaps the greatest superhero comic of all time, has a very clear and tight story arc.

Babylon 5 also had the virtue of just such a story arc, worked out in advance from beginning through a five year series to its finish. Though the arc didn't come out quite as nicely as planned, at least it came out, as a fully formed work of art, not incidentally almost entirely from a single pen, that of the gifted JM Straczynski.Straczynski's Masterpiece

I find it hard, though, to commit to watching the first episode or buying the first book of what I already know is an unfinished, and perhaps unfinishable series of N or 2N books. Though pick-your-author may be very good indeed, there are plenty of fish in the sea and I'd really prefer to read around, thank you, and get some endings with my beginnings.

(It's just as bad to have an ending cobbled together unconvincingly as it is not to have one at all. Truly functional endings come organically from their storylines, which means they need to have been planned out in advance).

I know why they want the stories to go on, of course. It's the way authors and publishers make a good living. And doubtless some of these long series will wrap up nicely, though others will likely be left hanging, or perhaps continue into the indefinite future as Soap Operas do.

But for me, I'll have to know a six book series is really a heck of a lot better than six single books before I start on it. Because that's a lot of time to invest in something that may turn out badly. And sorry, but I really don't want to get involved with a narrative that I can't be sure will have an ending.


The Genre Thing: Plot vs. Character and Voice

One of the knocks on so-called 'genre fiction' is that it privileges plot over narrative voice, and in particular that it privileges plot over character. We can all think of the tortuously plotted thriller or mystery or SF book with wooden characters and flat storytelling.

Perhaps the right approach to this distinction is to shrug one's shoulders. Some people like vanilla, others chocolate. Some people like plot, others character.

But the terms 'genre' and 'literary' are normative: it's not just that 'genre' is different from 'literary', it's that it's worse. How so? To a first approximation, it seems to be that worrying about plot is somehow simpler or more superficial than worrying about voice and character. The heavily plotted book is one that the reader devours in a sitting and then promptly forgets, whereas the well voiced book with deep characterizations is one that the reader approaches slowly and never forgets.

Or anyhow that's the idea.

But is that so? I'm sure we can all remember some of the characters from more literary books and movies, but then so too I bet we can all remember many of the plots from the more 'genre' ones. (And vice versa, of course). So it isn't just about memory.

Before getting back to fiction writing, I'd have said that a story was both plot and character, and that in general neither one had primacy over the other. A good story had to have both, and the particulars of the story determines which had primacy.

However now that I'm back in it, and reading around about how to get published and how to write a good book and so on, I'm finding that there's a general consensus. It's a consensus even among SF (genre) writers, agents and publishers: story begins with character, and plot comes second. It's a surprising admission given how many of the classic novels in the field had such poor characterization. True, those books would have been better had the characters been given more depth (many of them might have reached wider audiences, for that), but still and all, the plots were good enough to carry them.

So why this admission, even in genre?

I imagine it has something to do with how we're wired up: generally speaking, humans are interested in other humans in a way that we're not quite as interested in plot and speculation for its own sake, so to speak.

Those of us interested in rationality are fond of saying that people learn about the world through narrative and not through perusing statistical data sets. Thus it is that a story about a cold summer or Al Gore's house can trump consensus climate science, and a sad story about someone taken ill can trump epidemiological data in a courtroom.

I think there are some of us, though, who positively enjoy reading about the data sets, and who don't really care that much about nuances of characterization for a fake person, or on behalf of a false point. Perhaps we'll always be in the minority, but also perhaps these preferences are like fashion or fad, and they go in waves.


Bradbury in October

The SF Signal blog has a very nice piece out about Ray Bradbury. He's actually not an author I'd read too much of as a child -- a bad experience with Dandelion Wine in school put me off him. But recently I stumbled across a couple of paperbacks of his short stories at a book sale, and have been devouring them.

He's certainly more a fantasist than a writer of SF; on that grounds I make no judgment. But whatever pigeonhole one puts him in, his use of word, image and emotion is extraordinary. So here's a toast to the man.


On Writing What You Know

I've been meaning to write about this topic for awhile now. A new post on Nancy Kress's blog has finally roused me from my dogmatic slumber to do so.

Write what you know. That was the first thing that was drummed into our little heads in creative writing classes in high school and university. In other words, no great flights of fancy; stick to experiences you yourself have had, or which you can extrapolate immediately from those experiences. That's what our teachers and professors meant by it.

The corollary to such admonishment, of course, was that writing Fantasy or Science Fiction was not approved of. It was assumed to be the opposite of 'writing what you know'.

What resulted from this advice, always, was a form of not-very-creative creative writing; fiction thinly separated from memoir. It always bored me, and eventually I gave up on the whole program.

If I want to read memoir, please, let me read the real thing: an actual history of someone's life. I don't see the point, particularly, in reading a fictional memoir of a false life. It's a pretty lie trying too hard to seem the truth.

In one sense, writing what you know is good advice: one can go very wrong in making stuff up. If one wants to write about being an auto mechanic, well, one ought to know something about the auto mechanic's life, or one's story will either be thin on detail, or wrong on the facts. And neither of those is any use to anyone.

But much of the great literature of the past was written by people who wrote about things they did not -- or could not -- know about. The great tradition of mythic literature would have been impossible otherwise. Homer didn't know anything about the Cyclops, Circe or the Sirens, nor the gods of the Iliad. He had heard stories, no doubt, but as for personal experiences, he made them all up.

And that, after all, is the point of anything fictional: it's all made up. At its most basic, fiction is a series of lies. For the lies to be compelling, they must be told convincingly, and that alone is the point of writing what you know. Write convincingly. But write with broad scope.


Fantasy vs. SF Redux: Authenticity

I discussed my take on the distinction between Fantasy and SF in an earlier blog postHERE is another very good take, courtesy of Karen Burnham's blog. Paraphrasing her, in SF the 'magic' is available to everyone in the universe, since it stems from impersonal laws of nature. But in Fantasy, there can be certain abilities or powers that are related to who or where you are, or to what something is (and that are unrelated to theoretically replicable physical makeup).

That's a fruitful distinction, in another sense as well: Fantasy is more closely allied with romantic notions of purity and authenticity than SF. It's no good having an exact copy of the magic sword; if it's not the real, authentic one, it ain't gonna work like the real, authentic one.

Similarly, in the Fantasy genre, places have powers simply in virtue of being those places. For a recent example of people, things and places with powers, see Gaiman's American Gods that I discussed in a previous blog post. Fantasy shares these romantic notions of authenticity with certain religions that, for example, view particular areas of the planet as holy and imbued with powers simply in virtue of being where they are.

In SF that should be impossible. If a place is powerful, it's powerful because its within a nexus of impersonal physical forces that could be replicated elsewhere, or even counteracted and eliminated with sufficient technological knowhow. If a person or a thing is powerful, again, it's powerful because of its physical makeup, or because of external forces that are themselves replicable.

The romantic notion of authenticity is one that deserves extended treatment and dissection. Someday I expect I'll write more about it.


Neil Gaiman's American Gods

Neil Gaiman's American Gods is a Very Good Book. It has excellent dialogue, characterization and an absorbing plot, squarely within the Fantasy genre. (It's not SF at all). To discuss it, I'm going to have to include some mild spoilers, so be forewarned.

Basically it asks what if each immigrant group came with its own gods to US shores, and what if these old gods were still pottering about, living like people with relatively normal lives but with odd magical abilities?

And what if the old gods were being weakened somehow by modernity, disappearing slowly, but trying to fight back? It's an interesting and potentially very fruitful sort of mythic storyline.

The main problem with the plot involves  the supposed Huge Upcoming Battle, that pits the old gods and the new American gods of media, the internet, and so on. (The two sides remain somewhat ill defined throughout, particularly the latter side, pitched as more or less evil).

The problem is that there is no conflict between those aspects of modernity and the old gods. Indeed, the old gods should expect to find solace and succor in technological advances such as the blind eye of media and the hyperactive internet. TV doesn't compete with the old gods, it makes them more real. The old gods live quite nicely on the internet.

The actual competition is between the old gods and the newer or better marketed gods of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The actual competition is between the gods, old and new, and other sources of modernity such as science, skepticism and humanism, thought patterns that conflict with the very notion of gods or the supernatural.

(Of course, a large part of this conflict involves co-optation in one way or another. It isn't ever simply a matter of replacement, not on anything like a global or national scale).

I expect that Gaiman didn't take those latter routes because it would have been more difficult to come up with a compelling narrative -- or the kind of narrative that he found fruitful -- by having a fight between the old gods and Jesus, or gods and the godless. Those would have been very different stories, and to do them right one would have to avoid the morass of cliché that surrounds them.

In the interview section that closes out my copy, Gaiman says he wrote up an encounter between the main character and Jesus, during a scene replete with Christian symbolism. He says he found it "very unconvincing", so cut it from the book.

What results is, again, a Very Good Book, but one that skirts the surface of the issues involved, leaving many of the deepest foundations unexplored.


Fantasy and Science Fiction

In an earlier blog post I said that SF was a subcategory of Fantasy fiction. Now I'd like to expand a little on what I think the distinction is between SF and Fantasy as separate fiction categories.

A lot of ink has been spilled and pixels darkened on this topic in the past (for example, by Orson Scott Card), and I don't consider myself an expert on it all. But with that caveat out of the way, it seems to me there are two ways to approach the problem: as a functional matter or as a more philosophical matter.

Functionally, Science Fiction is fiction about scientific topics. In particular, it tends to be future-oriented, dealing with new technologies or scientific discoveries, or with extrapolations from present technologies and discoveries. It tends to involve space ships, artificial intelligence, computers and aliens from different planets.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is functionally about the past or a magicked present. It tends to involve medieval trappings like swords and castles as well as sorcerers, dragons, and alien creatures from the realms of human mythology like elves and dwarves. If it's set in the present time it tends to involve creatures like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches and again magic.

But I think we can begin to probe a deeper difference. SF worlds, it seems to me, are generally those that are closer to a naturalist paradigm where the universe runs by mindless physical or natural laws. The characters or their predecessors gained power through a scientific understanding of those laws, using it to construct new technologies.

Fantasy worlds generally work differently. They have the feel that the basic structure of the universe is sentient. For example, the universe understands spoken words, and so things like spells are possible. It is what we would call a "supernatural" metaphysics, and science often appears impossible or stunted in such worlds.

Of course, there are plenty of in-between places. Much of mid-20th century SF, for instance, dealt with ESP, and some SF deals with souls. People did think at one time that there would be a science of these things, or that they might work by physical law. Now we know they don't, indeed that the phenomena don't exist, so it seems to me that any story dealing with such things is a ways towards being Fantasy.

And of course there are other issues of so-called 'hard' vs. 'soft' SF, where 'soft' SF is again somewhere midways between being Science Fiction and Fantasy. One might say that Star Wars lives in such a place, although the notion of "the Force" is also sufficiently supernatural that one also might push aside all the functionally SF aspects of Star Wars and just say it's a space fantasy.

These semantic games are fun for awhile but when you step on the throttle you just spin your wheels. In the final analysis what's important is the quality of the story.