Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky. (slithytove) wrote,
Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.

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Beyond spaceships and dragons

I've been thinking about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. Beyond the obvious: spaceships vs. dragons. It's widely said that Star Wars, for example, is fantasy, not science fiction. Lots of spaceships, no dragons, but it still has that fantasy flavor. Why? I realized halfway through Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass that although the story had the trappings of fantasy, it was in fact science fiction. Beyond the window dressing of spaceships and dragons, what is the core difference between our genres?

Here's what I've been thinking.

Science fiction says that problems are created, or solved, through the use of reason, science, logic. Fantasy says that problems are created or solved through character, emotion, and will. SF says that events happen because of our ideas. Fantasy says that events happen because of who we are.

A few examples may clarify this.

Larry Niven's short story "Neutron Star" is science fiction. Beowulf Shaeffer finds himself in a fix, and is going to die unless he figures out the secret of the neutron star. As his fate approaches, understanding comes to him, and he takes the necessary, but non-intuitive, action necessary to save his life. Orwell's 1984 is science fiction. No real problems are solved in this novel. The society depicted is itself the problem: a cruel collectivist state that crushes the souls and bodies of its citizens. It came into being because of bad decisions by previous political thinkers, because of reason gone awry.

Now consider fantasy. In Tolkien's universe, problems occur because of bad decisions, but those bad decisions are not the result of faulty reasoning, or innocent error: they are the result of bad character, unconstrained desire, and untamed will. They are specifically the fault of the character of individuals: Morgoth's fall, the Oath of Feanor and the Rebellion of the Noldor. Orwell's world is faceless. Tolkien's has nothing but faces: individuals who create history and steer the fate of future generations according to the nature of their own character. Tolkien's universe falls on account of the character flaws of Morgoth and Feanor It is ultimately redeemed by the good character, the courage and hardiness of Beren and Luthien, Earendil, and much later, Sam, Frodo, and the rest of the Fellowship.

Imagine the fate of Beren One-Hand in Orwell's universe. He'd never accomplish anything. He'd be squished like dog poop beneath the jackboot of the state.

Tolkien's characters may use reason and logic, but Tolkien has little interest in how they go about doing this. He seems to implicitly assume that problems of understanding and correct action are trivial, or at least boring. What interests him is the ends to which reason and logic are used, which is determined by the character of the individual actor.

Niven, on the other hand, is Tolkien's mirror image: Beowulf Shaeffer is assumed to be brave and resourceful once he finally understands the planetary physics of the neutron star. Taking the appropriate action, as death is closing in, is taken for granted. Bravery in Niven's universe is doubtless admirable, but it is a given. What's really interesting and important, Niven says, is understanding physics and solving your problem, so that your bravery can actually accomplish something.

I believe this theory explains a lot, but it does make for strange bedfellows. Ayn Rand cohabits with J.R.R. Tolkien, for example. Although Rand gives lip-service to reason, logic, and so forth, that's not what her novels are about. In both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, history is made and the plot of the story is advanced by individuals, evil or heroic, according to their inner strengths and weaknesses. Rand has said as much, that her purpose in writing is to depict the 'heroic soul'. Heinlein, although his politics are close to those of Rand, is clearly writing science fiction. His characters are sometimes brave, sometimes cowardly, always clever and witty, but these things are rarely a matter for struggle. The struggle of a Heinlein protagonist is to understand the universe, and to use that understanding to survive and prosper. Valentine Michael Smith's struggle in Stranger in a Strange Land, for example, is not a struggle with his own character, or a contest of wills with others, but a struggle to achieve a correct understanding of humanity.

And Star Wars? Clearly in the fantasy camp. Somewhere among the rebels there was some engineer who worked out that you could kill a Death Star by cornholing its exhaust port. That engineer might have been Heinlein's or Niven's hero, but he isn't Lucas'. Lucas takes the engineer's solution, hands it to Luke, and makes the movie's climax be Luke's skill and bravery and Han's placing loyalty to friends above self-interest. The climax to Star Wars is a climax made of character, not a climax made of reason.

Now there is surely fantastical fiction that doesn't fit into either of these two camps. Or fits into both. William Gibson's fiction tends to believe in both ideas. Lovecraft's believes in neither: in Lovecraft's universe, nothing avails, either character or reason. A revolver helps, some, and running like hell.

And truth to tell, these characteristics—reason makes the world go 'round vs. character makes the world go 'round—aren't unique to science fiction or fantasy. The 'caper' film or novel is, in a sense, science fiction: it depends on a clever plan, a gaming of reality based on knowledge and reason, that either works perfectly, or breaks down and has to be fixed. And the idea that character is everything is typical of most realist fiction. It is almost universally accepted that serious fiction is, at the core, about character.

Which may be why fantasy literature, despite the odor of genre about it, has currently eclipsed science fiction, as Greg Benford laments. Fantasy is easier for the non-genre reader to comprehend than science fiction. Despite all the dragons, fantasy tells us the same story that other literature tells us: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. We see things not as they are, but as we are. Faint heart ne'er won fair maiden. Fortune favors the brave.

Science fiction tells us something different, something less common, something geekier: that reason is just as interesting as feeling, that logic is no less necessary in this world than bravery, that history, good or bad, is made by ideas, good or bad, not just by good or bad men. Science fiction finds interest in things that most people, probably, don't find very interesting. There will always be a market for science fiction, but I suspect it will always be relatively small, because these ideas don't resonate strongly with most people. Science fiction will always have an uphill battle to win.


meaning: reward, toast, reply

無報酬 == muhoushuu == (noun) free of charge, gratuitous, without pay
応酬 == oushuu == (noun) reply

Left radical is 'wine (jar)' (酒). Right radical is 'province/sandbank' (州), which acts phonetically to express 'toast/exchange drinking cups'. Henshall suggests as a mnemonic: 'Gain reward of provincial alcohol.'

Info from Taka Kanji Database
List of compounds including this character from Risu Dictionary

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