Yes Virginia, there is Sci-Fi

Okay, down at the Castalia House blog, there’s something of a brouhaha going down.

One where I’m something of a devil’s advocate.

Before I start this, I want to make clear, as I always do: I have great respect for Jeffro Johnson, Daddy Warpig, and all of the Castalia House people. They’re smart guys who make good arguments. They’ve done a great job making their case and provoking discussion. I agree with them far more often than not.

But I think it’s time I start taking the discussion off-site, and talk about where I DON’T agree.

Let me start off with this:

There is a difference between science fiction and fantasy.

And furthermore, everyone knows it, including DW and Jeffro.

Not only that, seeing this distinction is crucial to their argument. It’s critical. If this distinction does not exist, then the arguments DW and Jeffro are making fall flat on their face immediately. They fail miserably.

Let’s start here:

There’s a sickness in SF, it’s very nearly terminal, and Doctor Warpig is in the house to diagnose the disease and prescribe a cure.

Some of you may be in denial: “Science Fiction is NOT a ghetto! It’s not struggling. It’s just as popular as anything else!”

Let’s put it to a test. Take these three books:

The Three Musketeers. Alice in Wonderland. Treasure Island.

You’ve probably heard of them. And movies and TV shows based on them. And allusions to them. EVERYBODY has.

Now name some post-Pulp prose SF works of equal or greater stature in popular culture. Spoiler alert: You can’t.

From the Silver Age? Nothing. In the Bronze Age? Nothing. And the Iron Age? Nothing. Then the Clay Age? Nothing. (The Golden Age? Tarzan, Batman, and Conan, for starters.)

Okay, fine. Except…

The Three Musketeers is not sci-fi or fantasy.

Treasure Island is not Sci-fi or fantasy.

Tarzan is not sci-fi or fantasy (if you want to count the later books, maybe, but the Tarzan of popular culture is a character of adventure fiction, not sci-fi or fantasy).

But wait! The genre distinctions are artificial, you say! Indeed, that is exactly the claim used to make the case:

Fantasy & Science Fiction is one genre, separate and indivisible*. Some stories have technology and aliens, others magic and nonhumans, others technology and magic, and so on and so forth.

People who try to disavow 95% of the genre are free to do so. If I need to speak their language to make my point understood, fine. But I don’t have to accept the validity of their mistaken beliefs, or cater to them.

Cool, fine. And yet…

Superhero comics had a huge impact on culture, for reasons I may go into because they bear directly on the discussion (and directly support my thesis). But they’re not SF, even though they too borrow props, scenery, and costumes from SF.

So to be clear here…

“The Three Musketeers”, which features no magic and no speculative science, apparently is applicable to a discussion about fantasy and sci-fi.

“Spider-Man”, a story about somebody bitten by a radioactive spider and as a result having his genetic code altered so as to take on some of said spider’s abilities – that doesn’t count.

Tell me this: If I point out those two books to you and say “Which one of those is fantasy or sci-fi? Which one is an adventure story?”…what is your answer going to be?

Right. We all know what you’re going to answer, right?

And here is the reason the distinction needs to be made:

If the distinction is not made, it is impossible to identify what needs to be fixed.

If sci-fi needs to be fixed, then sci-fi needs to be fixed! Fantasy is selling well, as Harry Potter proves. Adventure fiction seems to be selling well, if we put thrillers in that category. But they’re not sci-fi, which is why we say sci-fi isn’t doing well. We can’t have it both ways.

What we need to do is not eliminate the differences between fantasy and science fiction, or eliminate genre distinctions. The problem is not that, but what Josh Young pointed out – we’ve lost something higher. We’ve lost something bigger, more important.

Is it the fault of the Campbellians? I’m sure at least partially, though I’m suspicious that his influence might be being overrated. Is it the fault of the New Wave guys? Actually, possibly even more so.

But none of that is the point.

The problem isn’t the splitting off of sci-fi and fantasy.

The problem is not the loss of blurred genre categorizations.

It is the loss of heroism. It is the loss of love, and philosophy. It is the loss of courage. It is the loss of the transcendant – a loss that can be seen in hard and soft sci-fi, in fantasy and science fantasy.

In short, it is the loss of the superversive.