Saturday, April 16, 2011

L is for Literature, and Laziness

My post for "L" in the April A-Z Challenge is another one that is pulling double-duty: it started out life as a reply to a blog post at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, here. I found this post while I was loitering over here at Porky's Expanse!, one of my favorite internet places.

For those of you who didn't read the IEET article linked above, I'll summarize, admittedly very roughly: David Brin says that the main difference between Fantasy and SF is that fantasy is about resigning yourself to your fate and SF is about having the power to change it through scientific progress. I've included almost all of my response to his article below:

For starters, I don't believe that Fantasy teaches us to be resigned to Fate. Fate and Prophecy appear frequently in Fantasy stories, but often more in the role of a challenge to be met by the heroes than of a foregone conclusion. In LoTR, Gandalf says "Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies just because you had a hand in bringing them about!", yet the reader in LoTR, and in most fantasy, has the definite sense that the outcome could have been far different, if any of the characters had chosen differently, had not shown courage and determination, had not persevered through daunting and seemingly hopeless situations, and had not acted from positions of high moral and ethical standards. On one level then, prophecy or fate in the fantasy story is the yardstick against which we can measure our hero - did he or she fulfill the prophecy? Was he or she found worthy in spirit and deed? If so, then his or her behavior is a worthy guide to how we should conduct ourselves when faced with similar, if less potentially Earth-shattering, situations. If not, then his or her behavior is still a worthy guide, but a guide of how not to behave.

Far from teaching resignation to injustice and social inequity, many fantasy stories are explicitly about the weak or the disregarded finding the courage, the skill, and the ingenuity to defeat the established power structure when it has become corrupted or destructive, and establishing or re-establishing a more just and equitable system with the formerly-powerless taking control.

Fantasy uses archetypal settings and elements, many of which derive in part from feudal systems and mythos - kings and peasants, damsels and monsters, swords and shields, magic and witches, and dungeons and riddles - not because feudalism mixed with superstition is or was such a great form of government and social structure, or even because readers want them to, but because fantasy deals with archetypal themes where the details of the setting are not the important issues, where, instead, the questions are of the relationship of the powerful to the weak, of what constitutes the nature of good and the nature of evil, of the right relationship of the individual to the society, and of the society to the individual, questions and answers that are intended to be universal, or at least culture-wide, and that are primarily directed at issues of human relationship and moral behavior. For these types of stories, being able to access the rich history of previous experiences and literary references that most readers already have around these types of characters allows much more freedom to spend time and text on the interesting and meaty part of the story rather than spending a great deal of time developing the reader’s understanding of what a “king” or a “wizard” is. There is plenty of this type of archetypal fantasy that gets shelved under SF, in my opinion, and these science fantasies are littered with similarly readily-recognizable archetypes, just decidedly non-feudal ones: "The Mad Scientist", "The Flawed Creation", and "The Unsuspecting (member of the ) Public”, as well as “The Scientist-Messiah”, “The Greedy Competitor”, “The Miraculous Creation”, and “The Unappreciative (or Idiotic or Interfering) Public”.

"Hard" SF, which is comparatively rare these days, is concerned entirely with the permutations of the realm of the possible, the answer to the question "What if...?" constrained firmly within the boundaries of the Real. Science or scientists or technology or even the scientific method may play either heroic or villainous parts in such tales - but the stories are located in physical frameworks outside the realm of the fantastic: they follow from what we know (or currently believe) to be true. In SF, the questions the writer and the reader wish to explore often reside firmly in the details – “What kind of life could develop on the surface of a neutron star? What would a society made up of such organisms look like? Could we detect it, or recognize it as life? Could it detect us, or recognize us as life?“ or “What would happen if we had a genetically-engineered plague that only killed fertile women of childbearing age?”

From my perspective, then, the core difference between the two genres is that fantasy is almost always about the big picture of what should be, and SF is much more about the details of what could be and what is.

I'm a huge fan and voracious reader of both genres, and I think that they both have a lot to offer people who are concerned with ethics and how to apply them to emerging technologies, and even to people who couldn't care less about how to apply ethics to emerging technologies, although I confess I have a hard time imagining that you could spend much time reading F & SF and not be concerned with that.

I'd love to hear what the rest of you think.


  1. Hi Jennie, I've seen you write often over at Porky's, and I just came from commenting on Brin's article. I always enjoy your stuff.

    I'm actually a philosopher in a centre for public ethics here in Canberra, and your definition of the difference between SF and fantasy is pretty well congruent with two main approaches to ethics that philosophical systems have: normative and descriptive. Normative approaches seek to discover what we should do according to some rules or principles, and descriptive approaches seek to describe what people actually do or think when they think and act morally.

    Your idea seems to suggest that fantasy is ethically normative and SF descriptive. Interesting, and I think maybe spot on. Descriptive fantasy is a contradiction.

    I think there's some SF though that is concerned with the way things should be. Dystopian/utopian stories for example. Should Brave New World be classified as fantasy perhaps?

  2. James,

    I can't tell you how glad I am that you enjoy my stuff. Thanks!

    This topic deserves quite a bit more time than I am able to give it right now. I'll take a very brief stab at it, with the avowed intention to come back later when I can really give it the thought it deserves.

    The boundaries between Fantasy and SF are fairly fluid and blurry, and there are many works that straddle the line. I don't know that the normative/descriptive dichotomy will act as a better filter to separate them out than any other that has been devised.

    Brave New World and other dystopian/utopian worlds might fit better under the fantasy classification, but, from my perspective, it really depends on the individual story and how and why it was written. Utopias and dystopias vary a great deal with respect to how they approach the normative/descriptive question, and in how much they rely on fantastic elements as opposed to applications and extrapolations of scientific knowledge. To further complicate matters, I think there is a lot of fairly obvious political allegory and satire that gets shelved under the headings of both Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I think that a number of the most famous examples, such as 1984 and Brave New World are described as "science fiction" simply because they use a nominally futuristic setting and technological symbols to represent political and social trends of the time and as reification of the ideals being promoted by some factions, when no one would dream of putting Animal Farm in the same classification as James Herriot's books just because they both have farms and animals in them.

    I'm looking forward to thinking and talking about this further.

  3. James,

    I just want to clarify that I agree with your assessment of my idea as essentially indicating that fantasy tends to be more normative and SF more descriptive, and I thank you for pointing that relationship out. I just don't know that it will be helpful in dealing with works that straddle the boundary, because authors are so pesky about ignoring our neat categories.

    My original comment leaves a lot to be desired. I really shouldn't post at 2:00 am (which is why I am shutting up now and leaving the in-depth discussion for later!)

  4. Well writen and thought out article Jennie. There does seem to be an antagonism by some Sci-Fi fans and authors towards fantasy. Here's how Tolkien put your argument.

    “In using Escape [... fantasy literature] critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

  5. @TheSwordOfFire - Thanks so much. The Tolkien quote is marvelous.

    For those of you who haven't run across it yet, TheSwordOfFire has a very interesting series of posts running on his blog right now discussing the relationship of Fantasy and SF. It's worth checking out.