by Davy Kraken
An essay discussing the lure of reading and writing fantasy and science fiction.
|Why do we write? Well, that’s a highly personal question for which each person needs to look inside him or herself to find the answer, but I would guess that, in many cases, it is a way to set aside “everyday” life for a while and retreat into a setting of your own creation. After all, when we’re writing a story, we don’t describe all the routine things people do everyday, because the reader doesn’t need or want to hear about all that, as it’s a regular part of life. Characters in stories have to use the restroom just like normal people, but how often have we read about them doing it? As writers, we don’t relate every moment in the day; only aspects of our characters’ lives that are interesting and pertinent to the story.
As another example, television shows often dramatize certain professions, whether medicine, law, or otherwise. Anyone who watches and interprets Boston Legal as what a law firm is like is missing the point and should get their information elsewhere. We don’t spend an hour watching lawyers do research, because who would be interested in that? It’s the climactic courtroom scenes, inspired by both current events and timeless issues, that commandeer our attention and give us a dreamy view of the line of work.
But, returning to the matter at hand, we want to forget about our “normal” lives for a while and create our own tale, and this is especially true of the fantasy genre. We don’t have to be writing about Hobbits and hobgoblins or dungeons and dragons for our work to be considered fantasy. If our stories takes place in a fictional world, then that is obviously fantasy, but if we are writing about our otherwise “real” world, then anything that is outside of our typical understanding of the way things are—or, in the past, were—supposed to be can be considered fantasy.
As a starting point in discussing science fiction, I think it might be beneficial to begin with a dictionary definition. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, science fiction is “a literary or cinematic genre in which fantasy, typically based on speculative scientific discoveries or developments, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets, forms part of the plot or background,” which means that science fiction is a sub-genre of fantasy. It is merely a type of fantasy that has become very popular, and therefore deserves its own designation. Stories with magic and mysticism in the past or present are what I will henceforth refer to as “fantasy” stories, even though, as I have said, that label encapsulates much more.
The idea of the “good old days” doesn’t just exist in the minds of groups of elderly men sitting around tables in small town cafés, reminiscing about the way things used to be; that sentiment is present in people of nearly all ages. We long to return to the days of our youth, to a simpler time, to an age of innocence when we thought anything was possible. We want to think that there’s something more magical to life.
Of course, when looking back on the past, we tend to focus on the good over the bad. We have a romantic view of medieval Europe, full of its knights, wizards, and princesses, so we often overlook the numerous hardships that accompanied living in those times. A fantasy story can provide all the escape that we yearn for while still keeping us safe from marauding Mongolian hordes and the Bubonic Plague.
Since science fiction stories involve elements such as “speculative scientific discoveries or developments, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets,” it is almost certain that they would take place in the present or future, so one can easily understand why science fiction is a popular alternative to typical fantasy. Even though science fiction, like fantasy, brings us out of our usual world, science fiction will often not be far from reality, especially in the case of “hard” science fiction. If the story involves some kind of discovery or change, then the plot would probably be centered on the ramifications involved with it. As we know, some scientific discoveries can pose ethical and moral dilemmas—cloning is a classic example.
In some science fiction stories, like 1984, we view a dystopian civilization, and by seeing how such a society developed, we can hopefully learn how to keep the fiction from ever crossing over to fact. Other science fiction stories, meanwhile, paint a portrait of a utopian society, and we could possibly learn from their examples. It should be noted, however, that the words “utopia” and “dystopia” are highly subjective. One person’s dream could be another person’s nightmare. In any case, science fiction may be fantasy, but it is often anything but irrelevant to our current lives, for it shows how the decisions we make now could affect our future.
This isn’t to say that fantasy is always more trivial than science fiction, though. Some tales use fantasy as an allegorical tool to comment on issues that strike very close to home. Gulliver’s Travels is a prime example. Gulliver is traveling to exotic lands and having adventures, but at the same time, Jonathan Swift is delivering a scathing commentary on human society. In the first quarter of the story, Gulliver finds himself in the land of Lilliput, which is at war with Blefuscu over the correct way to eat a boiled egg. This war between islands of six-inch-tall people is a satire of small, petty, trivial European rivalries, such as that between Britain and France.
In the second quarter, he is in Brobdingnag, a land where giants reduce European society and its accomplishments to the point of insignificance. In the third quarter, he winds up on the flying island of Laputa, as well as several other places, and this part of the story satirizes academia and science. Finally, Swift ridicules the entire human race in the fourth quarter, which takes us to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent, noble, and peaceful equine creatures who rule over the uncivilized “Yahoos,” who bear a striking resemblance to us. By writing this satire in the guise of a fantasy story, Swift was able to attack society without directly stating his views. Besides, as one may hear in the writing world, it’s often better to show than just tell.
So far, I have discussed fantasy and science fiction separately, but they are not mutually exclusive. In Star Wars, for example, we see light sabers. They are the stuff of science fiction but are also clearly reminiscent of the metal swords of ancient and medieval times. If you’re thinking in practical terms, light sabers would be no match for guns—which is why you don’t see people fighting with swords today—but that would be missing their intention. Light sabers remind us of the days of more “honorable” and traditional warfare, before the time of long-range nuclear missiles and machine guns, when opponents would duel each other face to face and the outcome of the battle would come down to pure individual skill. Combining elements from both fantasy and science fiction demonstrates our desire to move into the future while still holding onto the past.
In my preceding discussion of science fiction and fantasy, I made many broad generalizations, but the thing that makes “speculative fiction” so great is that there are so many different ideas and such a vast assortment of stories that it’s utterly impossible to fully analyze these genres as a whole. Anything your imagination can dream of is valid. Just about the only things that need to be believable are the characters. With fantasy, the sky is the limit, and with science fiction, the Universe is the limit. I guess that means science fiction has no limit, then.