Among fans of imaginative literature, some seem intent on creating a divide. Most recently, I came across the question “[a]re fantasy readers dumber than science fiction readers?”, a nice summary of what has become a long string of laments over the past few years concerning declines in the sale of science fiction in comparison to the growing popularity of fantasy. I’ve already ranted at some length about the form of arguments against fantasy from the science fiction camp in academia, but fantasy writers seem intent on hurling some battle-cries as well. Provocative statements such as “[w]hy science fiction is dying and fantasy is the future”, for instance, kicked up quite a storm.
That incident happened during my first year in university, for Christ’s sakes, but while five years have passed I’ve noticed more and more comments to the effect that fantasy’s dominance in imaginative literature has come as the result of some societal tumour. Richard K. Morgan strikes again, of course, tying the disparity in sales to “the infantilisation of consumer society, and the death of challenge” (Comment 1853). Recently, I’ve read the more blatant charge that fantasy’s “increasing dominance on the book shelves is a clear indicator that wish-fulfillment and living in dreamland has won the war over intelligence and reason” (Steve Davidson, comment). The human mind has a tendency to slot the world into dichotomies and clear divisions: in this case, fantasy represent irrationality, childishness, while science fiction is rational and adult. Academics studying science fiction as well as authors have often asserted superiority over fantasy in similar terms (sometimes to even greater extremes), but it always seemed at odds with readers. Simply, in this “great debate”, one little fact was lost: many science fiction writers also write fantasy (such as Ursula K. LeGuin), and the two genres also share a great deal of the same audience.
All this hubub emerges, of course, by trying to set up an oppositional relationship between science fiction and fantasy. Robert J. Sawyer sums up the most common perception:
…science fiction and fantasy are radically different — indeed, antithetical — genres. There is always a way to get from our here and now to the setting of any science-fiction story (usually by making reasonable advances in science and technology as time marches on); there is never a way to get from our real world to the setting of a fantasy story (magic simply doesn’t work in our universe). (“Breaking into the Science Fiction Marketplace”)
Whether the key feature of fantasy is, in fact, magic, is debateable to some extent; Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint features no magic whatsoever but still fits firmly in the fantasy genre, and Guy Gavriel Kay writes worlds where magic recedes in the background in favour of a multi-layered approach to history. However, as it stands, the debate plays itself out along these terms and definitions.
What seems at stake in the oppositional view is the popular imagination: what captures human interest more, the rational or the irrational? A simplistic view, yes, but the battle-lines have, apparently, already been drawn in imaginative fiction, to the point where we’re constantly reminded that science fiction is not fantasy, and, on the other side, that fantasy is not science fiction.
What makes the dominance of one or the other form of popular fiction so important that we feel the need to say one is better than the other? A little of the answer might come from Gail Landsman’s 1972 article “Science Fiction: The Rebirth of Mythology” (The Journal of Popular Culture 5.4), where she asserts:
One of the most striking peculiarities of our Western Culture is that in the entire history of man’s cultural and religious development, it alone lacks a mythology. We often pride ourselves on the absence of such irrationality in our society, yet […] despite our pleas for rationalism, our calls for progress, our conviction in the “scientific explanation,” our need for mythology is so great, so compelling, that we have forced our culture to provide us with a new mythology—and this modern mythology is taking form in the literature of science fiction. (989)
I have a few problems with this statement, mainly, that one not need believe in myths to have a mythology (Greeks of the Hellenistic period provide a worthy example), and Western Culture’s primary mythological canon remains a Judeo-Christian one, but we could just as easily frame Landsman’s argument as the creation of new myths. Myths, Landsman tells us, look to the past for explanations, but our value-system looks towards progress and the future. Landsman’s ultimate conclusion: that science fiction plays out our cultural tensions in an imagined future rather than an imagined past, and thus serves the same purposes as myth, indeed, is myth.
Bear with me here: the above is a very provocative statement, one that gives science fiction a “legitimate” place in literature as an expression of the “popular imagination.” It’s also a very narrow one, but the idea of science fiction as “the new mythology”, turned from mysticism to scientific progress, seems common enough. In “The Language of the Night”, Ursula K. LeGuin applied the mythic label to fantasy, as using the imaginary to explain such things as language has difficulty expressing; “[w]e like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night.” I feel that the argument has become, in a sense, a struggle over who creates the mythology of our times, and what values that mythology espouses.
The primary mode of fiction was of the imaginative sort until the Enlightenment and the development of the realist novel. Science fiction and fantasy both look back to the same roots in academic studies, until, with the modern age, they “diverge” into the irrational Gothic and the rational scientific romance. Science fiction began, in fact, as a very special mutation of pure fancy, harnessed towards the modernist project. The source of wonder, in a sense, became one of human development and uncovering of truth in the world rather than magical, unknown forces. Science fiction, in the Gernsback era, became the popular expression of a modernist fantasy based on scientific positivism; “a philosophy which rejects metaphysics and maintains that knowledge is based only on sense experience and scientific experiment and observation” (James Gunn, “Science Fiction and the Mainstream”, 196). The same rationalist, modernist movement that produced the realist novel also came to encompass imaginative literature.
Fantasy, on the other hand, retained the unknowable forces and constructed worlds, and concurrently with the development of the scientific romance and, eventually, science fiction, we found fantasy move out from where it had, for the most part, been relegated: the children’s fairy tale. In these early forms, we could, perhaps, see a clear division in imaginative literature: one supporting the modernist project (science fiction), one questioning and resisting it (fantasy).
Then came the 1960s and the “New Wave” and those lines became far less clear. Scientific positivism lost dominance in the face of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and other critiques, and in science fiction, as well, we found Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and a great many science fiction works which followed it questioning of scientific positivism and, in turn, the modernist project. Modernity no longer produced the wonderful space empires of Isaac Asimov but the blasted and jaded worlds of Philip K. Dick. After World War Two, we began losing faith in modernity, and it began to show in our imaginative literature, in our “myths.” Science fiction was turning on itself.
Fantasy and science fiction are different approaches, but they are not mutually exclusive in their aims. However, the recent attacks on fantasy and the perceived “dwindling” of science fiction seems to rest on the position that they are. As the Steve Davidson chap I quoted earlier told us, intelligence and reason lay encoded in science fiction instead of wish-fulfillment in fantasy. Yet he was talking about a monolithic pro-rational science fiction genre that doesn’t really exist: a wish fulfillment for modernity. We’re making a great deal of argument over conceptions of science fiction and fantasy that don’t, really, hold up to scrutiny. And we’re doing it because we believe the popularity of either genre shows which myth the population has chosen, and, more importantly, what myths we reject.
J.R.R. Tolkien was very perceptive when he only found puzzlement with charges of irrationality against fantasy:
Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not insult Reason, and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and clearer is the reason, the better the fantasy it will make. […] For creative fantasy is founded on the recognition that things are so in the world…on a recognition of fact, but not slavery to it. (“On Fairy Stories”, 18)
So too, would I say, with science fiction. The two are not so different, after all. Those who impose harsh dichotomies between science fiction and fantasy tend to ignore the similar desires and functions, or movements in science fiction since the 1960s. Their relationship is no longer quite as contradictory as Robert J. Sawyer and others would have us believe. It’s definitely not irreconcilable.