I understand why the genre of science fiction is grouped with fantasy. And I think I understand why some people love both. But the coupling does not work for me. I am drawn to science fiction like a moth to a flame. When it comes to fantasy, I tend to fly straight by. Does that make me odd? Or are there many other SF fans who are polite to our fantasy-loving cousins, but struggle to share their passion?
Part of the problem is hardness. Nobody thinks it wrong that some tastes are harder than others. But if you prefer hard SF, then all fantasy, by definition, must be considered softer than the softest SF. And that discourages me from trying it.
In a way, the distinction is ridiculous. As Arthur Clarke pointed out, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So hard SF is problematic, because if it is both hard and advanced, it might as well be fantasy. And yet, despite that problem, we think we can distinguish SF from fantasy. How? I am not sure how. But somehow we know the difference. Maybe we trust our magical intuition.
I wonder if some of the divides in the SF&F community are really just about the differences between the SF and the other F. For example, I did not like any of last year’s Hugo short stories nominees. None of them were science fiction. Most of them were best categorized as fantasy-lite. As I like my science fiction to be hard and heavy, that left me wondering why there were not more nominations for that sort of story. Is it because the hard SF geeks were in a minority that year, or were there no good SF stories? Or are SF fans all surprisingly keen to read stories about singing dinosaurs?
I am not even sure what genre the Hugos are meant to cover. In some places they are described as the most prestigious awards in the field of science fiction. Elsewhere they are described as awards for the best science fiction or fantasy works. It hardly requires a logician to point out that these definitions are inconsistent. To be fair, the individual awards are usually defined as covering works which are science fiction or fantasy. Nevertheless, this seems to invite tension between fans who like one genre, but not the other. I wonder if some of the support for the Sad Puppies came from fans of harder SF, who were keen to promote stories that better suited their tastes.
One criticism I read somewhere recently (sadly, I forget where) was that fantasy tends to be prejudiced because most of it involves white guys wielding swords and talismans in a European medieval setting. This criticism of fantasy left me perplexed. Maybe lots of fantasy is awful, but what discourages me is not the bit about white guys. I am put off by the bit about European medieval history. If I am going to indulge my fantasies, I will always prefer spaceships and ray guns over horses and swords. To understand why, just imagine what would happen if somebody armed with the former battled somebody armed with the latter.
Meanwhile, science fiction has always had plenty of stories where the characters are not from Earth, or are not human. With all those aliens and robots, you might think SF must be exempt from the obsessions that fuel present-day culture wars, whilst fantasy deserves the ire of those pursuing political correctness. But nobody ever argues that.
I may generalize about genres, but outstanding works can be found in every genre. It is good to broaden a palette by sampling other tastes. I may not be a rap fan, but I own albums by Public Enemy and De La Soul. I am not keen on fantasy, but the stories of Jorge Luis Borges are so vivid that I often think of them. However, nobody says they like a genre because they liked its most outstanding examples. Liking a genre means taking pleasure from more meagre contributions to the cannon. It is worth taking a risk on a Borges short story. The 700-page opening installment of another epic saga seems more like a bad bet.
There is so much science fiction, we can easily avoid fantasy. There are enough SF books to occupy an entire lifetime of reading. And for when we are too tired to read, there is enough flop-on-the-sofa SF TV to fill most of a lifetime, if not all of it. There is so much that there is never a need to flick to Game of Thrones, so I never have. Even Doctor Who is too fantastical for my tastes. The screwdriver is a wand and ‘reverse the polarity’ is an incantation. The plot always begins like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, except we are to The Doctor what King Arthur was to Hank Morgan, a 19th century engineer. If you think The Doctor is using science to defeat his foes, you must have a very advanced understanding of science compared to most scientists.
Even comics lend themselves to a hierarchy. Using the hard SF scale, Iron Man is better than the Hulk, and the Hulk is better than Thor. Thor manages to come full circle on the issue of technology-as-magic, starting as a character who performs all sorts of magic and then pretending there is some fluffy scientific explanation for how he does it. At that rate, we might as well believe that Harry Potter is just a very talented quantum physicist.
To my mind, the best SF forces us to contemplate how individuals with recognizably human characteristics would react to situations that involve hypothetical technology. The fact that they are reacting to technology, and not magic, is important. This is because technology, as distinct from magic, allows for the possibility of a rational response, even if there is some uncertainty about how the technology works. In contrast, if I was confronted with the Wicked Witch of the West, I would never guess that I should throw a bucket of water over her.
Asimov’s robot stories were not driven by the amazing nature of the robots, but by the behavior of the people around them. Arthur Clarke’s stories tended towards more magical elements, but a novel like Rendezvous with Rama still revolves around the way people respond to an encounter with aliens, and their technology. Uncertainty leads to both curiosity and fear, but the uncertainty does not overwhelm them. Neither the technology, nor the aliens, are so different that the people investigating Rama lack any useful frame of reference. Whilst they never meet the Ramans, they find recognizable designs for uniforms, and the natural inference is that these would be worn by creatures not so dissimilar from us.
Or maybe the entirety of this argument is irrational nonsense. It is hard to tell, thanks to Clarke’s connection of magic with technology. But if the distinction is irrational, it is no less real. The more science-y the fiction, the more I tend to like it. And there is a need for the ‘and’ in science fiction and fantasy. Some treat the genres as happily married. In contrast, I could live the life of a singleton. Does that make me a cold, unloving sort? Or is it fair to argue that fantasy could usually be improved by adding some more science?!