Why Fantasy isn’t crap, and SF isn’t better

Hal Duncan has been posting very interestingly about sub-divides in genre lately; in particular, that (and other, related conversations) have made me think about the divide between Fantasy and Science Fiction, which has led me to articles / books which seem to position Fantasy writing as being innately conservative, and Science Fiction as being innately radical.

This seems to be based on a particular argument about the nature of Science Fiction. SF is a literature rooted in the procedures and achievements of scientific method; scientific method is driven by an entirely rational quest for a true description of the universe; that understanding, once instrumentalised, will lead to transcendent change of one kind or another.

Therefore SF is at least the most effectively exploratory fiction we have, at most a key component of a broader, transcendental project that has major implications for our development as a species. Of course, SF can play a strongly critical role in that project (witness ‘Frankenstein’, for example), but the project itself remains both valid and exciting – humanity’s last, best hope for progress.

Fantasy, by contrast, is perceived as being innately conservative. It is rooted not in engagement with reality but in abstraction from reality; further, for the most part it takes its content cues not from the future but from the past. Its view of the past – the argument goes – tends to be both idealised and politically naïve, frequently endorsing dubious strongmen, cosy dictatorships and an over-fluffy view of feudal life in general.

Even where it enters the present, it escapes reality rather than engages with it, by privileging unreal powers / events over actual engagement with actual things. Harry Potter is not a scientist, and in fact is anti-science in that his narrative problem solving is rooted in things that could never happen, rather than things that are demonstrably and rationally true.

This kind of condemnation of Fantasy hinges on a contrast between SF and Fantasy that – for me at least – is based on both a misunderstanding of what fiction is, and a failure to engage with the world around us as it currently works.

Taking the first, first. Fiction is not real; it is not the world. It is ink on paper, arranged to create story; it is a partial refraction of one person’s understanding of the world, an imitation of reality created to communicate a given narrative argument. It is inevitably subjective and partial. It can include science, but it is not in itself scientific, because it can never achieve the objectivity of exploration that is core to the method of science.

As such, Science Fiction can act as propaganda for science, but it cannot honestly lay claim to the realist authority that is innate in science. The fundamental aims of science – the development and propagation of an objectively true, reproducible worldview – are in opposition to the fundamental aims of fiction – the development and propagation of a personally true, unique worldview.

In this context, the claim that SF is superior to Fantasy because it is a more accurate reflection of the potentials and realities of the world is meaningless. Science can seed fiction, but it can’t (by definition) be fiction.

Given this, how can one argue that a science fiction novel that explores the political and emotional ramifications of (say) a certain set of assumptions about the possibilities of science (as, for example, the Foundation series does) is superior to a fantasy novel that explores the political and emotional ramifications of a certain set of assumptions about political theory (as, for example, China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels do)?

Taking the second. We live in a world where fantastic rhetoric is far more successful than scientific rhetoric. You don’t believe me? Watch some ads. Rooted in Surrealist shock tactics, the language of advertising is built on entirely fantasised imagery that presents individual brands as the kinds of crusading , transcendental superheroes that critics of Fantasy condemn. More broadly, check out modern political rhetoric. There, too, is fantasy; a conscious, ongoing project to present the world as politicians would like it to be, rather than to engage with it as it is.

Here – and elsewhere – the unreal is overlaid on the real, in service of entirely partisan ends. Science is powerless here; scientific method presupposes an innate respect for a commonly accepted, demonstrably true and entirely objective set of truths. That’s a respect that modern public fantasists just don’t have. Science is a truth that cannot hurt or hinder them, because they feel no need to even acknowledge the results of its judicious researches.

Fantasy is more directly useful here. Writers of Fantasy – by definition – spend much time pondering the relationship between Fantasy and Reality. At it’s most basic level, it’s in service of questions like ‘How can I keep people reading the adventures of Thringor the Barbarian when he’s acting in a world that people have no real reference points for?’.

As it becomes more sophisticated, it leads to questions like ‘How can I use these transparently unreal things Thringor faces as a means of commenting on / amplifying the very real emotional, political, or other issues he has to deal with, which are in themselves reflections of real world arguments I find engaging or important?’.

That knowledge of the uses of Fantasy is key to unpicking the fantastic in the modern world; in some ways, the fantasised is so prevalent in modernity that it demands Fantasy, rather than SF, as a response to it. Fantasised fables of modernity from writers like M. John Harrison and Joel Lane, J. G. Ballard and Conrad Williams, offer guides to modernity that are as pertinent and revealing as anything more SFnal writers have created.

So anyway, that’s enough for one blog entry. In writing the above, I’ve realised that there’s a whole lot more that can be said about the relationship between Fantasy, SF and Fiction in general, but unfortunately that’s going to have to come out in future posts, as time is limited today. Hopefully the above is thought provoking; and hopefully it also works as the beginnings of both a defense of Fantasy and an attempt to break down any argument that posits SF as an innately superior mode of fiction.

9 thoughts on “Why Fantasy isn’t crap, and SF isn’t better

  1. Stover has some great opinions on genre relations… something along the lines of all fiction is a subset of fantasy… I’ll dig up the full conversations sometime. Maybe in time for BEER THIS WEEK?

  2. Interesting post. I’ve had nearly the same thoughts myself, and blogged about it recently (but in Swedish…)

    Just one thing: scientific method presupposes an innate respect for a commonly accepted, demonstrably true and entirely subjective set of truths — do you really mean “subjective” and not objective? In that case, can you explain a bit?

  3. Hi Aka – yup, I mean objective not subjective. Altered in the text, many thanks. Will see if I can find an Anglo-Swede BabelFish and run your thoughts through it. And hi Chris! Alas, this week is not good (deep story re-writing, then we’re off to Venice for the weekend, hurrah!), will call tomorrow to see when is…

  4. Oh, and on the subjectivity of science – much pondering on the uses of ostensibly scientific rhetoric, triggered by reading the ever fascinating John Gray – more on this to come…

  5. I like your angle on this. I also think there’s another unscientific aspect to the philosophy underlying some SF: the Rationalist notion that the world is ultimately entirely understandable through the scientific method is a profoundly non-scientific concept — unprovable and unfalsifiable. A year or so ago the New Scientist had an issue on fundamentalism with one article which, neatly, made the point that this sort of *scientistic* view is basically an act of faith.

  6. Absolutely. There are two different but related things to tease out there, I think.

    First of all, there’s the misuse of scientific rhetoric – so non-scientific disciplines or positions claim a scientific level of objectivity / rightness, in an attempt to gain an absolute, unarguable authority.

    Secondly, there’s the faith that by rationally explaining aspects of the world, you can know the whole perfectly and thus dominate it in the most productive and right-for-all way possible.

    Both different examples of spilt religion, and both equally dishonest (and destructive, when taken to extremes!). Ironic also that both should use a stance founded on open-minded, rigorous exploration to coat the subjective in a rhetoric that designed to deter any argument or exploration at all.

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