Over the past few weeks, Me and Scott’s continuing series, “The New Canon” (which you can begin reading HERE) has prompted me to think about the nature of these genres. We had mentioned how Science Fiction is generally treated better in academic circles than Fantasy, and I want to know why.
There was always the possibility that Science Fiction, due to its obvious focus on science, could be considered more “realistic,” and therefore more palatable since it lessens the “fiction” element of the story. This relies of course on the assumption that “fiction” is a dirty word in academia. In many ways I take this assumption to be at least partially true, but I have come upon something that I feel is a little bit more significant: Their respective portrayals of humanity.
Science Fiction, in general, shows mankind as we are. Flawed. Broken. Hollow and cruel, despite our smarts and skills. Not, perhaps, all of the time, but in general Sci-Fi shows us the darker side of who we are. Fantasy, on the other hand, tends to show us who we could, or should be. Noble. Heroic. Flying in the face of danger for love and doing what’s right, despite our inadequacies. Fantasy is often an empowering and uplifting medium.
Note my use of “often.” There are exceptions. But in the cases of these exceptions, they often begin to blur the line between Fantasy and Science Fiction. Dune, John Carter, Star Wars and other heroic science fiction could just as easily be classified as Fantasy as Science Fiction in most cases. Meanwhile, extremely technical or cynical fantasy begins to look more and more like Science Fiction, with rules and sources of supposed “magic” that begin to look like science with a sheen of superstition, or lead characters that are so damaged, the fantasy is in service of their self destructiveness. Despite clearly science fictional elements, or fantasy elements, we tend to question the authenticity of those labels when the work acts counter to, or outside of, our presuppositions about the way those genres are supposed to look at the world, and at humanity.
Mainstream literature tends to focus on those cracks in the human psyche. It focuses on what is wrong with us. It aspires to be a mirror to show us our darker selves, ostensibly so that we may acknowledge it and change (Whether that change actually happens, or as to whether or not showing it to us is enough motivation to change is another question entirely). Because this goal is much closer to the nature of general science fiction, rather than fantasy, it makes Science Fiction more palatable to the academic audience who already hold mainstream literature to be superior. Fantasy meanwhile shows the best possible of humanity, a romantic view of nobility and heroism, and therefore must be trash.
I do agree that showing us the flaws in ourselves is a useful literary tool, and is worth lauding and celebrating, especially when done well and with skill. In that vein I appreciate good mainstream literature, or the academic perspective, as it were.
But I do not agree with the underlying assumption that showing us the best possible of ourselves is somehow base or not worthy of intellectual thought.
In fact, these two perspectives in tandem may be the best way to achieve the actual goals of literature itself, which is to spark growth in the reader (as well as to entertain, of course). Gaining both perspectives, a dissatisfaction with where we are as a society, and as individuals, coupled with some end goal of positive progress, may be enough to spur that growth.
It is for this reason that I do not understand the ghettoization of good fantasy literature, in academic circles. Shouldn’t fantasy and science fiction both be appreciated for the types of messages they are, and what they bring to the existential discussion? Of course they should.
Edward L. Cheever II
I also do not believe that Science Fiction and Fantasy have to provide those general perspectives on humanity. I enjoy uplifting, heroic Science Fiction, and cynical Fantasy as much as their more archetypical brethren.