Monday, September 10, 2012

SF vs. Fantasy - Round 1: FIGHT!

K, this post actually doesn’t pit sf and fantasy against one another. I just really wanted to use that Mortal Kombat reference. Lol

Hello folks,

Happy Monday and welcome back. Today is the second in a series of installments that will be based off of my responses to the books for my science fiction and fantasy readings in the genre class for Seton Hill. Two weeks ago I discussed George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones.” This week “Game of Thrones” is still on the scene, but the science fiction work “Leviathan Wakes” by James Corey is joining it. Together, the works represent the sources for my comparison of science fiction and fantasy and what readers expect/take from each. Here we go.

NOTE: For the sake of argument, when I refer to fantasy throughout this post, unless otherwise specified, I mean epic fantasy and its similar subgenres.

SF (science fiction) vs. fantasy

How much of a “vs.” is there here? Let’s start with the basics.

The following points are generalized to each genre. Not all works from both may exhibit these qualities.

-rooted in science of some kind
-people have developed new behaviors to adapt to life
-as of yet undeveloped living conditions and technology

-takes place in the past
-contains a magic system of some kind
-people live and behave as they would in the appropriate era
-contains past forms of living conditions and society appropriate to the era it resembles

All right, that’s not all of them, but it’s enough for now. On the surface, the two genres look very different, but what I’ve listed here is what you’d include on a venn diagram. These points can be easily applied to “Leviathan Wakes” and “Game of Thrones” respectively.

“Leviathan Wakes” definitely takes place in the future, which is evident by the technology and the fact that people are living in space. The story is rooted in science. If you took away the space ships and other advances (such as the ability to change the amount of gravity effecting an area), the story falls apart. People have developed new behaviors to adapt to life—such as the gesture of nodding with one's hand brought about by the inability to nod normally while in a space suit. Finally, there are living conditions, such as 0g, that we don’t have today. And there is definitely the feeling of futuristic society. The human civilizations not on Earth rely on the Earth for everything. And I mean everything—water, food, air, etc. If that’s not different, what is? I don’t know about you, but I don’t know what I’d do if I was suddenly thrust into an environment where breathable air wasn’t a given.

Similarly, Thrones exhibits the elements that define fantasy. It takes place in a time that we’d consider the past. There is a magic system (no matter how small/as of yet unexplored). People in Martin’s world live as people would have in the past. High-born individuals do what they must to keep their land and their own safe and empowered, and the characters address one another formally (i.e. “My Lady Mother). Finally, there is no electricity, horses are the main mode of travel, and dueling is commonplace. All of these are symbols of a time not our own.

So yes, Leviathan and Thrones fit within the basic outlines of their genre. That’s good for a surface look, but what about a deeper analysis? Take away these basic elements. What’s left?

-escapist (to whatever degree)
-what people will do in extraordinary (ones we don’t face today) situations
-how people will survive (or not) against impossible odds and how the battle will change them

I would argue that these three elements are present in both sf and fantasy. They are orchestrated in two very different ways for each genre, but they are still there.

-Escapist—both genres offer readers the opportunity to move away from current life and into another world. Whether readers want to move forward or back in time—whether they want to live in a world of science or magic is completely up to them. But the opportunity is basically the same. “Leviathan Wakes” offers its readers the chance to leap forward in time to see what mankind can accomplish and possibly become. Thrones, by contrast, hurls its readers back in time to an era where kings and lords vie for power and dominance in an environment where trust and friendship are a luxury. No matter which you choose, you are still thrust into a world that is not today’s.

-what people will do in extraordinary situations—Eddard Stark (“Game of Thrones”) finds himself in a place to make a difference where the king’s heir is concerned. He tries and fails. Jim Holden (“Leviathan Wakes”) is over and over again given important information that he chooses to broadcast to everyone who is listening. These two men can be considered righteous and both want to bring truth out into the open. Eddard fails. Holden succeeds. That’s not the important part, though. What matters is that the situations are remarkably similar for taking place so many thousands of years apart. Both genres are still about humans and what humans will do.

-facing impossible odds and the changes those odds bring—Daenerys (“Game of Thrones”) sets fire to her beloved, gives him up, and emerges from the flames with dragons. To get there, though, she overcame her brother, faced her fears about becoming more than she was, found her voice, watched her husband die, and was betrayed by the woman who said she’d help save him. Through all of that, I’d still say she came out ahead. Miller (“Leviathan Wakes”) leads a ship that has basically developed the ability to think for itself off of its collision course with Earth. It’s not clear if he survives. He’s not sure if he’ll survive, but he does it anyway. He throws himself into a situation where he might die to save Earth. Both characters faced seemingly insurmountable tasks and find the strength within themselves to succeed.

These points laid out, I don’t think “vs.” applies to the difference between sf and fantasy. Beyond the basics that define the genre, there’s very little difference between the stories, challenges, and characters that inhabit the worlds of both. I’d go so far to argue that they are two ends of the same spectrum.

Now don’t go all crazy on me. They are two separate genres, but maybe there’s a reason they’re lumped together on bookstore shelves. They’re about larger than life people taking on larger than life challenges and finding larger than life solutions.

So why read one? Why like one more than the other? For some I suspect the answer is simply “I like stories about outer space” or “I like stories about magic.” I’m going to dig deeper. Diving into my academic past for a minute, in one of my psychology classes in undergrad we talked about what peoples’ interests say about them. It came up that people who embraced science (either by finding it fascinating or making it their life’s work) were more accepting of change. Similarly, people who were less accepting of science (who favored the humanities majors—English, history, etc.) were more resistant to change.

I’m going to run with this for a second. Hold your fire. If what I’ve just said is supported by research, does it then stand to reason that people who read sf are people who embrace change and are looking for a way to see into the future? Conversely, are people who read fantasy more resistant to change and interested in looking backward in time?

I’m not saying that all people who read sf are eager to advance and that all people who read fantasy want to go back to the horse and buggy. What I am saying is that each genre supplies its readers with something that they need to keep their world stable. Sf offers its readers the opportunity to dream big. It gives people who want it the ability to look forward, see the future, and possibly even gather ideas to make that future a reality. Fantasy, by contrast, lets its readers rest secure in the knowledge that the world isn’t advancing too quickly. It allows people to sit back and forget about the potentially frightening prospects of a universe where inter-stellar travel is possible. These assumptions in mind, people who read both would then be neither overly accepting nor resistant to change.

People read for all sorts of reasons—pleasure, education, class. Books give each person something different. I argue that sf and fantasy don’t so much fill reader expectations as fill readers’ voids. It gives them what cannot be found in everyday life. It eliminates that hole where curiosity, fear, amazement, or desire sits. Whether it's into the hypothetical future or fabricated past they go, readers take comfort from their genre.

See you out of the box,

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