Posted by speduzzi on Jan 12, 2012 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror, Genre Matters | 1 comment
As far as the outside world is concerned, science fiction and fantasy are the same. Go into almost any bookstore, and you’ll find the two shelved in the same section, intermingled without any attempt to define which is which. In many ways, it just makes sense–so many books blur the lines between the two genres that trying to distinguish which is which would lead to needless complication.
Yet those of us who read and watch a lot of speculative fiction know that there’s indeed a difference between science fiction and fantasy. And as human nature has shown us time and time again, where there’s difference, there’s prejudice. It’s not uncommon to run into SF fans who only read a particular subgenre, or who actively look down on folks who read the others. In order to get a sense of why people like one versus the other–and just what sort of stereotypes are floating around within our genre–I went around my social group and the internet asking SF fans with a strong preference why they prefer fantasy over science fiction, or vice versa. What I found were the same reasons coming up over and over again.People vs. Ideas: One of the most common stereotypes is that science fiction is about ideas, while fantasy is about people. Or, to go further: that science fiction is about what we can accomplish and how we react to said accomplishments, whereas fantasy is about how we as people react to each other.
Given the classic stereotypes usually attached to gender and empathy (not to mention the current gender imbalance among the engineers and computer scientists most associated with hard science fiction), it’s hardly surprising that many people see fantasy as more geared to women, and science fiction as more geared toward men.
Escapism vs. Prediction: Escapism often has a negative connotation: the sense that it’s not productive, or that its adherents are weak for wanting to run away rather than face issues. To many science fiction fans, this is why their genre is more valuable: instead of just being entertained, they’re looking to predict the future, to examine possibilities, and to expand their minds. They want to analyze current trends and follow them to their possible outcomes, so that they can help steer the ship. People who view the divide this way are more likely to view fantasy as a diversion for children, or for those who want to be passively entertained rather than actively challenged and engaged.
Conversely, those who prefer fantasy but still agree with this characterization point out that, while scientific speculation has its place, sometimes you want to be entertained, or to let the story and the characters trump the speculative element.
The Default World: A common argument leveled against fantasy is that it relies too much on a default setting–a Tolkienesque, mythological, or medieval world that we’re all intimately acquainted with at this point. To a science fiction fan who’s really only reading for the new ideas and strange new landscapes, opening a book and finding a familiar world that could have been pulled from anyone’s Dungeons & Dragons game is a letdown.
Allegory: Tied in with the concept of the default world is the idea that, in part because it strays farther from the medieval world and can present cultures and societies at all technological levels, science fiction has an easier time paralleling, predicting, and addressing modern issues. To the proponents of this idea, science fiction is interesting primarily in what it says about us and our societies, and how it explores the issues we deal with every day.
Logical Consistency: By far the most vehement repudiation of fantasy I ran across was from the scientist roommate I mentioned earlier, who in pained tones said, “In fantasy, things just happen. You have a problem, and then–whoop! Magic fixed it. Book over.”
While I think most people would agree that deus ex machina is a pretty poor way to end a book of any genre, what he’s getting at is something deeper. For him, the great joy of science fiction is that he can understand it. As someone who’s devoted his life to learning the laws governing the world around him, it’s important that the fictional worlds he inhabits are similarly logical and consistent. In hard science fiction, most authors spend a lot of time setting up parameters, trying as hard as they can to make their setting function in a rational manner (often by changing only a single thing in the world, and exploring its ripple effects).
It’s not just about fitting with existing knowledge, either–this particular scientist admitted that he has no problem with science fiction that assumes things we currently understand to be impossible (such as faster than light travel), so long as once the impossible thing is presented, it’s used in a consistent and predictable manner.
Personally, I agree with his tastes, if not with his conclusion. One of my favorite things about fantasy is learning about new magic systems–what drives them, how they function, and so on. Magic as its own form of science is fascinating, but I admit that I’m similarly frustrated when the magic in a fantasy story has no limits, or always seems to provide exactly what’s needed at the right time to keep the plot moving. Too much coincidence is a weakness in any story. And so, to a science fiction purist, the perceived reliance on the unexplained or unexplainable is what makes fantasy weaker or less mature than science fiction.
Yet to my surprise, in asking around, I found several people who specifically cited the lack of logical consistency as something they enjoyed about fantasy. As author Steven Schend pointed out, there’s a certain freedom that comes with giving up a staunch adherence to logic. In his view, fantasy doesn’t require rationalization or a pseudoscientific explanation for every plot point. Just suspend your disbelief, and you’re ready to roll. Fantasy becomes an adventure of pure imagination, completely unbound by all other concerns.