Why fantasy?

June 25th, 2006

Science fiction writers are always laying down the law to fantasy writers.  They tell us in great length what’s wrong, corrupt, lazy, stupid, embarassing, and so on and so forth about genre fantasy.   But readers keep on buying it and loving it despite the word from On High.  In fact, they buy more fantasy than SF, these days, which may be one reason why some (not all, some) SF writers get so angry

I love fantasy myself.  I write it, of course, so that’s one reason to love it.   (I do write SF, too, but obviously I don’t buy the anti-fantasy line.)  What I’m interested in learning is why other people love it, especially readers.   Anyone have opinions on the matter?

89 Responses to “Why fantasy?”

  1. makoiyion 25 Jun 2006 at 6:43 pm

    But. Like everything, ‘things’ are evolving. Nothing stands still. As a ‘writer’ I have as much fun writing sci fi as I do fantasy. Why? Because I can let my imagination soar as much with that as fantasy. I believe the lines are blurring. Given the debates over what to call our efforts these day, I think that’s a clear indication. Do we call it sci fi, fantasy or cross genre?

  2. NeonGraalon 25 Jun 2006 at 6:45 pm

    I’ve often commented on the difference between what draws me to Science Fiction ve what draw me to Fantasy.
    Amongst other things the largest for me is comfort vs challenge.
    And of course this is very generalised, but I find that usually I read Fantasy when I’m wanting comfort, safety, a world view that I know and something that is a little predictable.
    And when I want to read Science Fiction it’s because I’m wanting a challenge, a difference, a world view that needs some effort to understand and/or accept and something that is a bit out-there and unusual.

    Of course there is challenging Fantasy and comfortable Science Fiction, and I’m not sure where to put my love of Urban/Modern Fantasy and Supernatural Fiction in this but hey, it’s my two bits.

  3. Sherwood Smithon 25 Jun 2006 at 6:57 pm

    I enjoy both, but my preference tends to be for fantasy. Science fiction in so many instances is about exciting ideas there is a tendency to furnish the story with stereotypes and one-trait characters, there mostly to serve the extrapolation of the ideas. Not all, I hasten to say. The best science fiction presents ideas, interesting characters and worlds, as well as good prose.

    Good fantasy doesn’t ignore character in preference to ideas. And there are ideas aplenty in the good ones. But while science fiction limits itself more or less rigorously to the plausible (passing quickly past science fantasy such as Star Trek), fantasy is embraces the possible. That sense of ‘anything is possible’ throws open the universe in all its mystery, at least to my view, which can verge on the numinous.

  4. Nonnyon 25 Jun 2006 at 7:24 pm

    Sherwood Smith said: Good fantasy doesn’t ignore character in preference to ideas. And there are ideas aplenty in the good ones. But while science fiction limits itself more or less rigorously to the plausible (passing quickly past science fantasy such as Star Trek), fantasy is embraces the possible. That sense of ‘anything is possible’ throws open the universe in all its mystery, at least to my view, which can verge on the numinous.

    Word.

    The biggest issue I have with SF these days is that most of the books published seem to either be military SF/space opera or hard SF “idea” stories. I don’t personally like either, as a general rule.

    Traditionally, SF has been based on “idea” stories. In this technological age, most of the “ideas” have already been explored, or we’re dealing with them in reality. I don’t see the genre developing — if anything, it’s become stagnant. Not saying that there aren’t good, innovative books out there, because I’m sure there are, but the vast majority of SF that I’ve seen is mosly same old, same old.

    Fantasy, however, doesn’t operate under the same constraints. Anything is possible, as long as it’s consistent within your world setting, and as such, I think it’s a wider playing field for writers.

  5. maschineon 25 Jun 2006 at 7:48 pm

    Well, I guess there are a lot of reasons – for just as much different styles of fantasy. And perhaps this diversity is the main reason for its popularity.
    You can turn nearly every type of story (crime, love, horror or whatever) into a fantasy story and thereby grab readers from a lot of genres.
    But on the other hand – why mix stories that interest many people with fantasy? So there has to be a reason why people love the fantasy aspect.
    I would say the main reason is that they can explore unknown worlds. People were always fascinated by the possibility to discover the world from the comfort of their own homes.
    Before there was fantasy there were adventure novels (Quatermain, Tarzan, The Lost World or, here in Germany, the Karl May novels), novels set in then un- or little known regions of our own world.
    But imagine you wrote an adventure novel set in our time.
    Our hero stumbles through a distant jungle, led by his GPS locator, when he gets a phone call via satellite from his wife asking if everything is allright. Later, using his AK 47, he kills a leopard (which, as we know now, wouldn’t have attacked him anyway) and finally reaches a native village – just in time to watch the Football World Cup on the village tv.
    Somehow the magic is gone, isn’t it?

    But if you build your own world and set your story in this world you lose all these restrictions.
    The reader doesn’t know the world, its flora, fauna, history and so on.
    So he can truly explore this unknown world, can be amazed by its peoples and learn its history.

    At least that is the reason why I love fantasy.
    I can explore new worlds and somehow re-experience the feeling I got when I first read the Greek, Nordic and Germanic legends.
    Btw, is that already escapism?

    maschine
    (no writer, just a reader)

  6. Megan McRaeon 25 Jun 2006 at 9:03 pm

    I love fantasy so much because ever since I learned how to read I’ve been immersed in the fantasy world. I’ve always held a fascination with unicorns and faeries and other such creatures, and I hold to the notion that they existed once despite any rational or scientific evidence that suggests otherwise.

    Good fantasy to me doesn’t need to have those things in it – but the unicorn-type of fantasy is what led me into the more adult and modern type of fantasy. I read that now because it’s not only what I’ve read my whole life but because it’s just so much fun. It’s a wonderful feeling to be immersed in a world of fiction and magic and other great things like that, if only for a few hours a day. I’ve always loved it and I think perhaps I always will.

    I read SF. I read a LOT of SF. Dan Simmons is my favorite SF writer on the entire planet. I have several copies of quite a few of his books, in different formats. I just love him to pieces. But there is a lot of SF that I don’t like, mostly because it’s just too technical. Too scientific. I’m not science-minded, I prefer the imaginary, the fantastical, the completely unreal. I don’t like reading about how big a space station is, I don’t enjoy descriptions of how a specific weapon works to kill your opponent. SF is also much more violent than fantasy, because not only is there normally a war/conflict in which many many people are killed, but often the description of the gore is too much for me to handle.

    Fantasy is, while often still containing conflict and violence, much less real in its violence. You don’t often read about the sword slicing through someone’s neck and the spurts of blood as the head separates from the body. You do read in SF about how the bullets (or whatever ammunition the future world is using) make a sickening noise as they hit skin and tear muscle on their way out the other side, or lodge in a bone, splintering it to pieces, etc. I don’t like that kind of reading.

    There are exceptions of course, your books being filled with war. But you don’t go overboard with your descriptions like a lot of SF writers do. Dan Simmons is very graphic in his descriptions, but I don’t mind his so much since they actually matter in the story. Much of what goes on in SF is unnecessary and it bothers me. Then again, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I’m a very non-violent person and I have personal issues with gore.

    Anyway, now that my tangent has gone on for so long, I just want to end with the statement that fantasy, for me, is something I can escape to. I can care about the characters and find myself identifying with or hating or rooting for or wishing ill upon characters and situations, and I find myself becoming more and more drawn into the stories the further I read. I get that with SF as well, but fantasy comes much more naturally to me than SF does. I guess it’s because I’ve always had an overactive imagination and a non-science mind. :)

  7. Alesiaon 25 Jun 2006 at 9:04 pm

    I think the division goes waaaaay back to the very beginnings of the modern genres, when there was science fiction (Gernsback, anyone?) and fairy tales, and I doubt the twain ever freely admitted to having met. (What happened late of an evening in the alley behind the club was not public, naturally.)

    Things were simpler back then, of course, as makoiyi has noted. But let’s consider the question reduced to these two extremes, because therein lies the source of the current attitudes of some – as well as the answer to the question posed by the estimable Ms. Kerr.

    The first (and only necessary) operation is to transform the two terms into more generalized ones: “science” and “myth.” Thus, the perceived division between science fiction and fantasy is another facet of a division the entire Western world has been struggling with for centuries now – between what is or can be known, and what can only be felt or believed. (Leaving aside, please, the entire discussion of whether we can truly “know” anything.)

    I suspect those who denigrate fantasy and delight only in science fiction are simply more committed than most to the side of science.

    For myself, I read and write mostly fantasy … but I actually love science. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson pointed out.

    More to the point, the Western world is presently quite full of science and certainty and facts. That’s all that most people are surrounded by almost all the time, but not only has it not solved all their problems, it’s spawned legions of new ones! Fantasy provides some relief from that environment, without all the thorny questions and obligations and conflicts that come along with religion. It’s restful, fun, and explores a side of the human condition that generally gets short shrift in everyday life, even though (I believe) it shouldn’t. Science fiction – especially the hard stuff – is committed to the status quo and to the proposition that all is and will be well without bothering with all that belief stuff … which is another topic, so I’ll stop there.

    That’ll be two bits, please.

  8. b. sharpon 25 Jun 2006 at 9:06 pm

    But readers keep on buying it and loving it despite the word from On High. In fact, they buy more fantasy than SF, these days, which may be one reason why some (not all, some) SF writers get so angry

    Perhaps some readers have been increasingly annoyed by the arrogance of a small but vocal minority of the writers and fanboys of the sci-fi genre. And I have a suspicion that some of the people involved in sci-fi publishing, wether writers or editors, may be in deep denial about how the issue of writing and editing quality. I have noticed so many people online who were so much more into sci-fi a decade ago and have now turned to fantasy, and are now currently complaining about the state of sci-fi. But the blame of the decline of readership continues to be blamed on “stupid” and “anti-intellectual” readers. This will not help sells.

  9. b. sharpon 25 Jun 2006 at 9:09 pm

    Sales, I mean.

  10. Katharine Kerron 25 Jun 2006 at 9:32 pm

    These are all great and interesting answers. Let’s hope we get even more!

    The most recent argument I had with an “SF is better” type ended with him repeating, like maybe 3 times, “but fantasy is set in the past” in a tone of voice that implied “that alone would condemn it.” I am always amazed by this attitude, which implies there is nothing to be learned from the past of the entire human race that might help us solve the problems of the present time.

  11. b. sharpon 25 Jun 2006 at 9:40 pm

    The most recent argument I had with an “SF is better” type ended with him repeating, like maybe 3 times, “but fantasy is set in the past”

    Because contemporary urban fantasy doesn’t exist, and no sci-fi story has ever had magic or the occult in the plot or anything…

  12. Alesiaon 25 Jun 2006 at 9:50 pm

    I am always amazed by this attitude, which implies there is nothing to be learned from the past of the entire human race that might help us solve the problems of the present time.

    Now you get to watch the historian crack up and roll on the floor laughing … oh, brother. I wish we *did* learn!

  13. maschineon 25 Jun 2006 at 9:51 pm

    Hm, another thought…
    Did anyone blame TV yet?
    Perhaps people don’t READ so much SF because much more impressing and fun to actually see strange aliens, starships flying through space, shooting with their laser weapons and so on.
    There are so many good, or better say well made, SF serieses and movies (Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Farscape, etc) that you don’t really have to read SF books to quench your thirst for SF.

    As well there is what Megan said: SF seems to be too scientific, at least to someone who has not read much SF (like myself).
    When I think of SF I think of starships, the far future, tons of technical descriptions and military hierachy (on nearly every ship there is a captain who is at the top). What I don’t think of are people, the human (or vulcan or wookish) side of the characters, all that perishes, at least in the public image, because of the focus on technology.
    Perhaps you can compare SF to cold, grey metal and F to a warm, green forest (I know, that sounds kind of silly)

  14. b. sharpon 25 Jun 2006 at 9:59 pm

    Sci-fi shows, at least the good ones, never seem to survive that long on the airwaves anymore. I can’t afford cable, so I can’t comment on the state of televised fantasy. However, there has been a rise of fantasy films on the silver screen, and that hasn’t necessarily kept people from reading it. In fact, sales have gone up in recent years. Sci-fi films seem to have little affect on that genre’s sales, pobably due to the fact that most of the ones made by Hollywood are action movies. People tend not to go to them for plot. At least, I don’t.

  15. Nicolaion 25 Jun 2006 at 10:05 pm

    Fantasy finds itself constructed in a place where the characterisation and the world are more important. I think this allows for construction of more intricate relationships and expressions of personality than exist in the modern world. I think fantasy allows us to express our dreams of what the world could be like, rather than what it is like.

    Science Fiction is the exploration of a technological idea and although it sometimes leads to the construction of a detailed world, that world is often subjugate to its ideas. That said, there are works that transcend this simple definition. Science Fiction takes the world that is and extends it, usually based on one particular aspect or potential aspect.
    ]
    Science Fiction also tends to deal with society as a whole, albeit through individual characters. Fantasy deals with smaller groups, often as a number of different societies.

    This may be my bias though, as a scientist who predominantly reads good fantasy and very little science fiction.

  16. b. sharpon 25 Jun 2006 at 10:19 pm

    While there are tendencies in both genres, I’ve starting to suspect it probably should be blamed on some of the authors not bothering to read much outside of it. Do we really need yet another Mists of Avalon clone? (Though a history geek might ask if that novel itself was really needed at all in the first place… but I won’t get into that one).

  17. Mary Kayon 25 Jun 2006 at 10:47 pm

    As a number of people in the field have pointed out, SF no longer occupies the special niche it once did. We live in an SF world. The biggest grossing movies of all time are SF. I suggest this may have robbed SF of some of its power to transport and transcend. It will be interesting to see if the success of the HP movies and the LOTR movies work the transformation on fantasy. I don’t think it will because we still live in an SF not fantasy world so that powerful reinforcement will be gone.

    MKK

  18. David Louis Edelmanon 25 Jun 2006 at 11:00 pm

    I wonder if you may be setting up a straw man here, Kit. Yes, I’m sure there are SF writers who habitually denigrate the fantasy genre, but I think what most of them object to is bad fantasy writing. You know, the knock-offs of the Tolkien knock-offs, the ones where the Elf Princess enlists the help of the Grumpy Dwarf and the Gruff Barbarian in order to find the Magic Whatsitcalled to thwart the Dark Lord of Whatever.

    (And yes, before you all start grumbling, there’s plenty of bad SF to go around too. Insert your stereotyped knock-off of a Heinlein knock-off here.)

    I think the key to this debate is the fact that fantasy is selling more than SF these days. Let’s do the math: if x% of both fantasy and SF is crap, and the number of fantasy titles in the marketplace suddenly doubles, then you’ve got twice as much fantasy crap as SF crap. I’m sure if SF becomes the flavor of the month in the next decade, you’ll see an equal amount of exploitative, poorly written SF crap being published.

    For the record, though I’m an SF writer, I probably read slightly more fantasy than SF.

  19. Nick Argallon 26 Jun 2006 at 12:36 am

    I have to disagree, David. A submission of mine to an online writing workshop was given a very strong round of “Why are you wasting your time writing fantasy when you could be doing something worthwhile instead? Have you tried magical realism?”

    That was from a smart guy who could write, and who I respect. Although I disagree with him on a great many issues 😀

    I think that Fantasy has a strong connection to the fairy tale. This is something that gives it power and resonance, but which also gives it a bad name among intellectual snobs – the connotation which both have is one of ‘children’s story’. Fantasy is something that one is expected to leave behind after ‘growing out of that magic nonsense’.

    Good Fantasy writers write about dragons and magic and elves and whatnot in a way that lends them a sense of reality. These are things that not only don’t exist but can’t exist. Sci-fi, magical realism, these things are easier to believe in because they ‘could happen someday/could be happening under our noses’. Therefore, fantasy is a more difficult to write. And when something is difficult, it tends to get a reputation for its failures rather than for its successes.

    That is to say that you can get away with poor storytelling in sci-fi if you have a fresh enough idea (for appropriate definitions of ‘poor’ and ‘fresh enough’). But the opportunities to do that in fantasy are far more limited – the focus is far more squarely on storytelling than on anything else. And my firm belief is that storytelling is the most difficult skill for authors (in any medium) to develop.

    (If only I could write stories half as well as I analyse them….)

  20. glenda larkeon 26 Jun 2006 at 1:52 am

    I agree with almost all the reasons given above – in other words, there’s no one reason why fantasy sells better than sf. There are lots of them. (And I do read and love SF too).

    Let me add another reason. With fantasy, it is possible to have the ordinary person triumph over the most horrendous situations. I think that in today’s society, we face a myriad problems which seem insoluable (even to sf writers, and then only by huge intervention of governments and investment of capital) – problems from global warming and the war in Iraq, to whether my office block/tube train is going to be hit by terrorists, to whether there really is going to be a future in which I can clear my college credit card debt, find a decent job in a place I want to live in and bring up my kids to be decent human beings, have enough money for my retirement and health care.

    When people faced with this kind of life buy a book to read, they want to do more than just “get away from it all”. They want to be left with the feeling that an ordinary person can make a difference. Not some genius scientist, or an astronaut, but an office worker from Milton Keynes or a medieval shoemaker from Upper Yikmak. It leaves them feeling better about themselves. It even inspires.

    In a topic like this, I think we should never lose sight of the fact that people who read a site like this – and comment – are a very small minority of sff readers. We are the writers and the fans, the editors and the con goers. The people who buy most in the fantasy and sf genres are just people who want to get away from it all AND be left with a good feeling when they put the book down.

    And, of course, everybody reading this is instantly going to think of twenty exceptions where complex, thought provoking, depressing books hit the best seller lists…

  21. glenda larkeon 26 Jun 2006 at 2:00 am

    Oh dear, I meant unsolvable, not insoluable or (even insoluble)!

  22. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 26 Jun 2006 at 2:07 am

    It depends on what you call SF and what you call fantasy. Military fiction tends to bore me silly, regardless of the genre, but the hup-hup space marines tend to act more like our current military than guys in chainmail do, so I tend to cut fantasy warfare a little more slack, even if it’s not my favorite thing. Likewise the future dystopias have never done much for me, mostly because the seemed like social commentary with a brick rather than any speculation on the future. It’s what I call the Tommorowland problem, where you wander into the one section of Disneyland most desperately in need of constant facelifts, because as I remarked to a friend when I was there, the future was looking an awful lot like 1962. Worse, we decided to go into the “Innoventions” display which was supposed to show us the marvelous futuristic products that would soon be available. As we both remarked, the future technology looked an awful lot like last year’s product display at Fry’s Electronics.

    Which is not to say that it’s all bad. I went up to San Francisco Friday night with some friends to see the benefit showing of Serenity, a dystopian future space opera with a decidedly western flavor, and not only did we greatly enjoy it, but on the way up, Tom showed off his new tech toy, a cell phone with a full video display that could play movies on a screen slightly smaller than a credit card. And it could also surf the web, if not as quickly as we’d like. We agreed that the Dick Tracy wrist TV would be fully functioning and ubiquitous in a couple years.

    I suppose part of the trouble I have with SF is not that I don’t like SF, but I really don’t buy the SF that’s all cool sparkly chrome and not much else. And the SF that gets retro enough–McCaffery’s Dragonriders, for example, or Sherri Tepper’s Necromancer Nine, etc.–are things that some SF fans don’t want to call SF, because while they’re set in the future, their alien beasts and telepathic powers look too much like magic.

    Which is not to say that I haven’t written or sold SF, but I tend to raise an eyebrow at all futures, even dystopias, where people have completely binned all thought of magic, religion, even and especially its use in art and literature.

  23. Sherwood Smithon 26 Jun 2006 at 10:31 am

    Glenda says:

    Let me add another reason. With fantasy, it is possible to have the ordinary person triumph over the most horrendous situations. I think that in today’s society, we face a myriad problems which seem insoluable (even to sf writers, and then only by huge intervention of governments and investment of capital) – problems from global warming and the war in Iraq, to whether my office block/tube train is going to be hit by terrorists, to whether there really is going to be a future in which I can clear my college credit card debt, find a decent job in a place I want to live in and bring up my kids to be decent human beings, have enough money for my retirement and health care.

    I think this is a big factor. Not just in the normal reading population, who often turn to literature to escape the stresses of the day, especially the ones about which one feels utterly helpless. Who needs to be hit by the Message Brick, as Kevin Andrew Murphy says? We’re already hearing grim dystopia on the news.

    I think this is a big reason why kids and teens avoid most SF, especially that aimed at them. Teachers might think it’s good for them to read all these heavy duty message books full of gloom and warnings, but they’re getting it in the news, in science class, in history class, in English, meanwhile they are surrounded by changing tech every day, so the concept of Progress is no longer magical as it was in the thirties-fifties when scientists were out in the desert playing with atom bombs, and the medical field was advising X-rays as a normal part of a physical, and giving kids radium necklaces for everything from adenoids to sore throats.

    In fantasy, the concept of personal competence is still a big factor, and a whole lot of people (including myself) really love the idea of being able to actually do something about all the hovering threats, even if only in our imaginations.

  24. Chris Gardneron 26 Jun 2006 at 11:04 am

    I find myself thinking about what is believable. I know that sounds strange, but I increasingly find SF harder to believe. **I originally typed “believe in.” A Freudian slip?**

    Too many dissapointments. No AI (I want an AI majordomo) , no flying cars, we’re still using keyboards (I want to talk to my majordomo), and the space elevator is not looking good by last reports. Do we have any replacement vehicle for the shuttle? When are we getting back to the Moon. We “need” to live on Mars.

    With fantasy I can believe. Our history is full of swords and sorcery. If then, why not later? Why not elsewhere? The basic good vs. evil, and many other fantasy themes, is easy to understand. You can feel it on a gut level. Simple? Yes. And enjoyable.

    One last thing. I am not as smart as most SF protagonists. I can be any number of Fantasy heros.

  25. Kate Elliotton 26 Jun 2006 at 11:24 am

    Chris Gardner – Ha! I never thought of it that way, and it ties in with Sherwood’s comment about “personal competence,” but I also sometimes (often?) feel that the kinds of competence present in most fantasy are things I can aspire to, while with some SF I just feel too stupid to live in that world.

    Having said that, I read a great deal of SF but almost always it is either near future sf (sociological) or adventure space opera sf which in some ways is indistinguishable from fantasy.

  26. Lois Tiltonon 26 Jun 2006 at 11:49 am

    In my view, it is all fantasy. Science fiction just pretends that it isn’t.

  27. T. Irene Stutzmanon 26 Jun 2006 at 12:17 pm

    For me, the vast difference in most sci-fi and fantasy is the latter is primarily character-driven. The sci-fi I’ve tried in recent years to read just completely failed to engage me as a reader; it was too focused on the tech and such. Fantasy tends to be far more character-oriented and thus is far more likely to provide entertainment for me. There is only one author writing sci-fi these days who can still engage me, and that’s C. J. Cherryh, and I do wonder if the reason for the difference I perceive in her science fiction is that she also writes fantasy. Perhaps that makes her sci-fi more palatable to me; I’m not really sure. But her sci-fi is clearly as character-oriented as her fantasy, and if I can’t feel a strong attachment to the characters, then I can’t be bothered reading a story.

  28. Harry Connollyon 26 Jun 2006 at 12:30 pm

    Ditto what a lot of other people have said, especially that, when you want more readers, telling people their reading selections are proof of an intellectual decline in society is contra-indicated. Also, what Sherwood said about the numinous, what others have said about stories of idea vs. stories about characters, and what folks have said about TV. For casual readers who enjoy the space ships and ray guns, those itches are easily scratched by long-running TV series. (sorry about not going through and attributing everything–I’m a deeply lazy person.)

    A couple additional points: A couple years ago, a semi-famous SF writer at NW Bookfest was unspooling his long anti-fantasy rant, in which he said something telling. He reads science fiction because he wants to live in that sf world. He likes to imagine himself on a space station or exploring distant worlds.

    He assumed that fantasy readers genuinely wanted to live in the pre-industrial worlds they read about. Because of that assumption, he figured fantasy readers were ignorant of how dangerous, difficult and tedious survival in the past was, and he thought that, just as he would love to see our modern world transformed into the super-cool world of the future, fantasy readers wanted to roll back progress until everyone lived under feudal agrarianism.

    I believe the phrase he used was that fantasy readers would create a “bin-Ladin future.” Not only is that a bat-guano insane thing to say, it’s beer-poured-on-your-head stupid.

    Still, it goes a way to explaining sf elitists’ attitude.

    Another strike against sf is how many modern writers don’t seem to like human beings very much. It’s what James Nicoll calls Benderism (after the character on FUTURAMA). It’s the belief that the world/universe would be a lot better off if only there weren’t so many humans in it.

    It’s a very cynical attitude about humans that are unlikely to please the expected readers who, funny enough, also happen to be human.

    Here’s a rant by Scott Lynch on the subject.

  29. Sherwood Smithon 26 Jun 2006 at 12:42 pm

    Excellent points, Harry.

    I also agree with Lois–actually, I feel that all literature is fantasy, but for our purposes I am willing to cop to the marketing distinctions.

  30. L.N. Hammeron 26 Jun 2006 at 1:22 pm

    I like fantasy’s ability to make metaphors literal (and the concrete metaphoric). Talk about a useful tool for exploring character and conflict.

    —L.

  31. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 26 Jun 2006 at 2:41 pm

    I think part of the sour grapes is that SF has been pretty lousy at reading the tea leaves, at least when time schedules are involved. Think of all the “Woohoo! We’re goin’ to the moon!” fiction that sprang up around the moon landing, but now? Where the hell is our damn moon base? And how many of the pop culture groupies want to read hopeful fiction about moonbases we’re not likely to get anytime soon, and by that I mean, in anybody currently living’s lifetime short of intergalactic intervention?

    Unless the Chinese decide to build the moonbase, and wouldn’t that make all the American Libertarian military porn look stupid.

    As for the Message Brick, I knew enough Libertarians in college that I really don’t have much desire to read Libertarians in Space. Then again, I also get fairly tired of reading fantasies where the wise priestesses suddenly reveal themselves as anachronistically modern and forward-thinking neopagan feminists.

    Scott Lynch’s snarking about Benford’s embarrassing rant is also excellent.

    Interestingly enough, at the current moment, if you look at the continuing television series, the majority of those in the genre are science fiction: Stargate, Stargate Atlantis, Battlestar Gallactica, The 4400, Lost, Smallville. Aside from the psychic shows (Medium, Ghost Whisperer, The Dead Zone), which sit on the border of the genres, the only horror/fantasy show to get renewed is Supernatural. That’s a pile of military SF mixed with some superheroes and conspiracy theories.

  32. b. sharpon 26 Jun 2006 at 3:56 pm

    I believe the phrase he used was that fantasy readers would create a “bin-Ladin future.”

    Spider Robinson? I tried looking for the article before, but I couldn’t access it. It may of been paying members only.

    Then again, I also get fairly tired of reading fantasies where the wise priestesses suddenly reveal themselves as anachronistically modern and forward-thinking neopagan feminists.

    Which is why I tend to avoid any fantasy novels about priestesses like the plague.

  33. Carol Bergon 26 Jun 2006 at 4:14 pm

    I grew up reading lots of sf (along with lots of other kinds of fiction), but over time it seemed that the stories didn’t change much from one to the next. Lots of space opera. Humans were modern humans. Everyone else was an alien (or a robot). And it was fun. I thought about how cool it would be to go into space and see all these places. But I rarely identified with the characters – and this is not merely a gender issue, because I never minded reading about guys. Still enjoy it. But when I went looking for something different in sf, I kept finding things that were very heavy and depressing and preachy.

    When I started reading fantasy, I found a huge variety of stories, from wizards and hobbits to shapeshifter detectives to royalty in the desert to societies based on religion to kids sucked into game worlds or whatever. Everything I enjoyed about other genres like mystery or spy thrillers or outdoor adventure or romantic suspense could be found in some fantasy novel. But in looking back, I think what seduced me was that most of these protagonists were human or near enough, but with some capability that was beyond human. Not technology or weapons, but something within themselves to deal with the challenges of the story. This made me think how cool it would be to have that kind of power, or ask myself what would it feel like to have another soul living in my body or walk through a door into another world or into a dream. Yep, I think it is that element of identification, not just as regular old me using cool technology, but as someone who could have this hidden side….

    Grossly generalizing, of course.

    Carol (Yes, Lois, I agree, fantasy IS the uber-genre)

  34. Sherwood Smithon 26 Jun 2006 at 4:27 pm

    b. sharp said:

    Which is why I tend to avoid any fantasy novels about priestesses like the plague.

    Oh yes. ditto, at least for me, the Evial Priests in Red who seem to have nothing to do but lurk around menacing heroes, or sacrificing the occasional child.

    Hammer, hammer, hammer.

  35. Carol Bergon 26 Jun 2006 at 5:50 pm

    I say avoid the neo-pagan feminist priestesses or

    the Evil Priests in Red who seem to have nothing to do but lurk around menacing heroes

    , not necessarily the priestesses or priests.

  36. Harry Connollyon 26 Jun 2006 at 6:21 pm

    Spider Robinson?

    b. sharp, you should change your handle to r. sharp.

    I believe it was published as an editorial in the Globe and Mail. You’d have to pay to read it, but Google has a page of page of reactions to the original article, called “Forward, Into the Past!

  37. Harry Connollyon 26 Jun 2006 at 6:27 pm

    And if I’d just been a little more diligent, I would have found this copy of Robinson’s original article:

    I’m not knocking fantasy…

    Quick poll: Who reads fantasy because they really want to live in a pre-industrial, largely agrarian society?

  38. Katharine Kerron 26 Jun 2006 at 7:01 pm

    One of the things my fantasies do is show how back-breaking hard it is to live in a society/tech level based on the European Dark Ages. Even the kings have it rough when it comes to basic comforts like staying warm and well-fed in winter. One of the problems with the Anti-Fantasy Ranters is they don’t read any actual fantasy. They think they can perform the psychic feat of knowing what’s in a book without actually opening it.

    Dave — Benford is one of the fellows I had in mind for anti-fantasy rants. I’m not setting up “straw men.” Ranters are rampant on the I’net among other places.

    I quite agree with Lois and Sherwood about fantasy as the *uber-genre. Even the most realistic mainstream novel has made-up characters

    In fact, we could be really controversial and call “science fiction” an oxymoron. What does rank speculation and day-dreaming about a future that hasn’t happened yet have to do with science, the ultimate exploration and expression of physical reailty?

    *How does one make an umlaut appear with this software, anyway?)

  39. b. sharpon 26 Jun 2006 at 7:42 pm

    What does rank speculation and day-dreaming about a future that hasn’t happened yet have to do with science, the ultimate exploration and expression of physical reailty?

    I’m still waiting for sexdroids and flying cars like the kind they had in Blade Runner, so I have a feeling most of my daydreaming may not be entirely realistic. On the other hand, I hear the Japanese are making great progress with making robots appear a bit more human…

    And if I’d just been a little more diligent, I would have found this copy of Robinson’s original article:

    I’m not knocking fantasy…

    Just… wow. I’d probably have more interesting things to say here after I’ve sobered up and read that dreck again. When the sci-fi companion of Realms of Fantasy folded (I don’t remember the name of that publication at the moment), I wasn’t that saddened. The quality of much of the stories in there wasn’t that great, and I was in denial about it buying copy after copy of that mag hoping for something better. Not like I’d want to imply that everything coming out of fantasy magazines or anthologies these days is on par of Shakespeare, or anything. I don’t miss it anymore, though I wouldn’t mind seeing more fiction by the guy/girl who wrote “Deep Space Sein”, that was priceless. I think the sci-fi genre would be much better off if people who wrote it didn’t take it so damn seriously.

    Quick poll: Who reads fantasy because they really want to live in a pre-industrial, largely agrarian society?

    No more than I’d want to live in many of the sci-fi distopias that have been written about in the past 100 or so years.

    What does rank speculation and day-dreaming about a future that hasn’t happened yet have to do with science, the ultimate exploration and expression of physical reailty?

    I’m still waiting for the sexdroids and flying cars. Seriously.

  40. Carol Bergon 26 Jun 2006 at 8:00 pm

    One of the problems with the Anti-Fantasy Ranters is they don’t read any actual fantasy. They think they can perform the psychic feat of knowing what’s in a book without actually opening it.

    Of course, that’s the problem with a whole lot of critics nowadays–such as those who lambaste the Harry Potter books as leading children into satanism or decry The DaVinci Code as whatever, while admitting they’ve never read the thing. I automatically ignore anyone’s opinion when they say, “I’ve never actually read [or seen] it, but…”

  41. b. sharpon 26 Jun 2006 at 8:27 pm

    or decry The DaVinci Code as whatever, while admitting they’ve never read the thing.

    Some pagan friends of mine weren’t happy with the way it was written, and thought Foucault’s Pendulum was better. Not like I’m defending the wingnuts, or anything. But the criticisms of it that weren’t from the born again types tended to not be so charitible. And no, I haven’t read it :P. Mostly due to those reviews.

  42. Jellyn Andrewson 26 Jun 2006 at 10:33 pm

    I started off with science fiction around junior high, including a heavy Star Trek obsession. I think it started to change in college. I moved more into fantasy and stopped reading every Trek novel that came out. I don’t really differentiate between science fiction and fantasy now when I’m looking for a book. I go by authors, interesting titles, interesting covers, blurbs that intrigue me. Certainly almost all the science fiction I read is character-oriented, even if it’s not science fantasy. David Feintuch, Lois McMaster Bujold, Tanya Huff, Orson Scott Card..

    When I was younger, I read Clarke and Asimov and many, many short stories. Then, ideas mattered. Now, characters matter. Probably because it’s very hard to give me an idea I haven’t seen or can’t guess the outcome of before I get to the end of the story. Put the idea with an interesting character I’ve never met before, though, and I’ll pay attention again.

  43. Carol Bergon 27 Jun 2006 at 12:16 am

    About The DaVinci Code:

    Some pagan friends of mine weren’t happy with the way it was written, and thought Foucault’s Pendulum was better.

    And that’s just fine. I, too, have lots of gripes about the writing (I thought that if I read one more teaser about “what my grandfather did in the basement” or “what was in the box,” I would scream), and of course there are just so many holes in the “research” it takes hours to list them. People can say it’s lousy or say it’s great – I don’t object to any criticism, as long as it comes from someone who’s read the book!

    Carol

  44. b. sharpon 27 Jun 2006 at 4:24 am

    I don’t object to any criticism, as long as it comes from someone who’s read the book!

    Now if only the people who run Amazon.com used that principle when accepting reviews…

  45. Danion 27 Jun 2006 at 10:57 am

    I tend to raise an eyebrow at all futures, even dystopias, where people have completely binned all thought of magic, religion, even and especially its use in art and literature.

    That’s it, exactly. I used to read reams of hard SF when I was a teenager/young adult. And suddenly they bored me because the “worlds” were flat (culturally speaking). We haven’t given up
    magic & religion despite having nuclear weapons and personal space planes (SpaceShipOne) — in fact I would say a segment of our population cleaves more tightly to their magic/religion because of the
    modern wonders.

    The older I’ve gotten then less I’m interested in pure action stories (which hard SF tends to be), and the more I’m interested in the characters, the world, and action — the “stuff” that makes it three dimensional.

  46. gary gibsonon 27 Jun 2006 at 11:35 am

    For what it’s worth, I sometimes wonder if there’s a parallel argument to all of this – is the stuff being written in both sf and fantasy truly indicative of the tastes of two supposedly separate audiences, or is it the product of a publishing industry that believes it has a better idea of what will and won’t sell than the authors themseles?

    Does this create a false situation where people believe sf or fantasy are one thing or the other, when those identifiable elements of either are the product not of the wishes or desires or tastes of that audience, but rather of marketing departments who play their part in filtering out of existence stories and novels not so clearly delineated in their style and content?

    In terms of the main argument, much of the very best sf contains elements of the magical. Arthur Clarke’s 2001, and Nine Billion Names of God; William Gibson’s first few novels contained elements of voodoo ritual and belief. The whole notion of the technological singularity bears an uneasy resemblance to certain religious viewpoints – but can generate some very entertaining stories. Theres not so much a distinction as you might think – if you know where to look.

  47. Mark Tiedemannon 27 Jun 2006 at 11:58 am

    Just as a point of order, there are many things in science fiction that are sloppy, unbelievable, ill-conceived, etc. We tend to just recognize and discuss them as examples of BAD science fiction.

    I note that when SF readers/(some)writers diss fantasy, they lump the bad and good together as if all of it shared a common disease (and then go on to gripe when a fantasy fan/writer points out what is wrong with a lot of SF by declaring “but that’s only the BAD stuff! No fair!”)

    There is bad fantasy that suffers all the flaws you mention. There is good fantasy that transcends all criticism (at least in my opinion).

    My problem is with those times someone claims that fantasy and SF are “the Same Thing.” To me, they’re quite, quite different–they do different things. They operate by different assumptions about the universe. And that’s fine.

    As for the Bad Fantasy–just as with the Bad SF–they share a common problem–writerly laziness, poverty of imagination, and an implicit suggestion that “nobody takes this stuff seriously anyway.”

    (For the record, Good Fantasy, for me, includes John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, China Mieville, Tim Powers, and a few others in that vein. I don’t think I need do a Bad Fantasy list.)

  48. Kate Elliotton 27 Jun 2006 at 1:19 pm

    I’d like to see a Bad Fantasy list.

  49. Constance Ashon 27 Jun 2006 at 1:34 pm

    Sex droids are already here in limited version.

    The tech gurus do think very sophisticated versions will be arriving on market vsn. I read this in The New York Times.

    Love, C.

  50. b. sharpon 27 Jun 2006 at 3:40 pm

    For what it’s worth, I sometimes wonder if there’s a parallel argument to all of this – is the stuff being written in both sf and fantasy truly indicative of the tastes of two supposedly separate audiences, or is it the product of a publishing industry that believes it has a better idea of what will and won’t sell than the authors themseles?

    Yes and yes.

    After some reflection, I think this has some parallels with some of the humanaties verses the sciences type of bullshit that goes on in academia, but with postmodernists/deconstructionists/luddite types coming up with nearly unreadable bullshit to bash science and technology, and with very poor arguments as well. ‘Course, it is mostly relegated to the English departments these days (at least on part of the west coast where I live, I hear parts of Cali and the east coast are still infested with it), most of the people making these science-bashing stances seem have little if no historical background either. The philosophy departments around here don’t touch that stuff. Anyway, I think this may be a symptom of a disconnect. I’m starting to wonder if the bashing of fantasy might in some way have to do with the rise of postmodernism and deconstructionism on campuses, and helping to helping feed in to some sci-fi writers worst fears about the rise of irrationalism. After reading one particular horribly written essay critiquing science by a pair of of deconstructionists for a philosophy of science class in order to point out what the faults of their arguments were, I can’t say I’d entirely blame them. (Actually, I’ve read more than that-the Gender and Science Reader out by Routledge is truly frightening, but I only read it outside of class. It was like a trainwreck, hard to look away from).

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