Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fantasy and Science Fiction

As you may or may not know, I'm a writer. I write for hobby, mostly, because I don't foresee any of my books getting published unless we talk self-publishing (for instance - the protagonist of the book I'm trying to get published right now, the Blue Pimpernel, is a 16yo gay teenage half-Korean/half-White girl. Who suffers from realistically portrayed ADHD and Bipolar disorder, in addition to be extremely uncomfortable in her own skin. She's a really good athlete, but that's because she's a body-kinesthetic learner in addition to being a dynamo of energy due to the ADHD and her hypomanic phases). There's no publishing house that would touch a character like that. I would never change any aspect of the character, from people telling me "well, maybe if you made her mom Korean, rather than her dad..." to "she doesn't have to be so obviously gay, does she?" Changing any aspect of her, or her friends - who are just as diverse as she is - would be a huge deal breaker for me, and because the publishing community is dominated by White cis-gendered males and White cis-gendered male characters written for White cis-gendered male readers - and the fact that she's not played for any type of lesbian fan service at all and is likely as physically inclined as Batman is ("Fuck" is said 58 times in the book. ~30 of them are from her, so she's got a bit of a temper, too) - would only be precieved as "off-putting" to the White cis-gendered male readers of science fiction/superhero fiction. Because, the popular schema goes, White cis-gendered male readers what White cis-gendered male characters, or uber-sexy females played for fan service. If there's a lesbian couple, they must have sex on screen at least once but please, don't humor those who would like to see to men having sex. That'd be gross and icky and would assault the fragile notions of masculinity that these White cis-gendered male editors and publishers ascribe to their White cis-gendered male readers (attention all White cis-gendered male readers: are you insulted yet? You should be. I am and I'm not even cis-gendered).

So, self-publishing it is for me. When I do publish it, which I hope will be sometime this month or next month, I'll definitely post the link here. Not only that, but I get to design my own cover. None of this bullshit "if your heroine is a 16 year old auburn-haired green-eyed teenage girl who looks like an athlete and is so half-Korean as to be mistaken for full Chinese in spite of her hair and eye color, why do you have a 24 year old blind, blue-eyed supermodel on the cover who's half naked holding a flower, and likely doesn't have a spine given the way she's twisting?"

Speaking of publishing and science fiction and my writing - I'm sure the readers of Human Black Box are wondering where the updates are. Fret not - I've been posting in segments for a reason, and I really appreciate the editorial work that Brin's done for me so far. I've got a surprise in the wings; expect it sometime next week, providing time works with me, and then I'll go back to semi-regular updates for Human Black Box (I have more computer access now than I did the whole month of December and the end of November, so I have time to go back to working on it.)

Anyway, the content of the post. Right. I'm a writer, so I'm familiar with a lot of genre conventions. I'm a troper, so I know their unofficial names. I'm also a student of genre studies, so I know their official names, too. I know how they get implemented, and I'm familiar with the ways in which they get used. This post deals with a subject that I've touched on in passing while writing previous posts. That is, the inherent difference of Science Fiction and Fantasy. I've actually started a previous post about this before, but it wasn't the right time for it. Because it's Saturday evening, and I've posted on politics almost all week, I think it's time to take a step aside and look at something different. So - what is the difference, and is it true that one is better than the other?

Fantasy and Science Fiction are uncomfortably close bed-mates. When you throw in horror, you get a clusterfuck that Heinlein termed "Speculative Fiction," because it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The fact that all three genres have literally hundreds of sub-genres, many of which overlap, does not make the process any easier when it comes to telling them apart.

We tend to have stereotypes associated with each genre. Fantasy works have knights and magic and wizards and White people . Science fiction works have space ships and humanoid aliens and psychics and White people (with the occasional Black person or Asian person thrown in for diversity's sake). Horror has slutty hot White girls, the occasional Black man who lives on borrowed time with death watching the clock at the beginning of the movie, stupid White guys, and a virginal, blond-haired blue-eyed Final Girl. These are gross oversimplifications, but these are the common stereotypes. Sometimes they get subverted; for instance, the Final Girl dies second (Because the Black guy always dies first) or you'll run across a science fiction series that *gasp* doesn't include space ships, but at the end of the day, when someone thinks of these genres, those stereotypes are likely going to be the first things in their minds, even if they step back later and go "oh, but wait, I can think of a half-dozen exceptions..."

These stereotypes do not help, because they give the illusion of clearly defined boundaries between the genres. Even if one story after another has disabused readers of these notions, they persist. And the reason they persist is because of the codifiers of these genre conventions loom large in the popular imagination: for fantasy, it was Lord of the Rings. For science fiction, it was Star Trek. For horror it was likely Scream or, going back further, Friday the 13th. Never mind that they represent only one aspect of the supergenre: LotR being "epic fantasy" while Star Trek is "space opera" and Friday the 13th is a "slasher movie". These codifiers serve as clear markers as to where their genres stand; setting in stone the tropes of their genre.

And the further out from them you move, the more murky things become. If you add some conventional horror tropes to science fiction, you get things like Aliens and The Thing. If you add some existential horror tropes to fantasy literature with just a dash of science fiction, you get the works of Lovecraft, in particular, the Cthulhu Mythos. If you throw science fiction and fantasy together in the same room together, you get a bastard child that's a whole genre itself: science fantasy. This science fantasy genre includes it's own half-dozen or so subgenres, like "planetary romance," "pulp space opera" and the "dying planet" genre, among others. Examples include - Edgar Rice's Barsoom books, Star Wars and the D&D setting Dark Sun, for each genre (in order).
So, now that this is clear as mud, how does one go about telling science fiction, fantasy, and their derivatives?

Well, I have a very strict definition of science fiction that doesn't leave a lot of room. I'm a hard science fiction fan, and part of the reason for that is because you know what expect as a reader. I try keeping one step with reality as much as possible, and for my effort, reality has apparently decided to borrow some of my toys (for instance; the book I was describing above is one I've been working on since 2006. In that book I predicted the rise of the TEA Party, but they happened a bit ahead of time. The military also felt it necessary to steal my idea for reactive smart-gel armor - which according to my friend they've been working on for a while. I don't believe him. I think they have mind reading devices. Hang on, I gotta get my tinfoil hat). Thus, my definition of science fiction is definitely skewed towards the "hard" end - I have little tolerance for "science fantasy," which to me is basically fantasy. Star Trek relies on magic as much as Lord of the Rings does, if not more so, because in LotR, magic wasn't a plot device.

I will give a lot in the name of appeasing my Einstein worship. This means no FTL travel, unless we're talking something like a wormhole. FTL communications, on the other hand, may be a different matter. Neutrinos are sly, speedy little devils, that's for sure. Now, I've seen it done fairly well - for instance, Mass Effect's network that enabled FTL by giving the ships negative mass was really ingenious and really cool. I don't really appreciate humanoid aliens, but that's only because I believe in the future transhumans will be the humanoid aliens.

Now, what I've done here is just divided Hard Science fiction from the rest. It's a bit easier - sometimes - to define them. But sometimes it's not. When magic appears in hard science fiction, it's justified as sufficiently advanced aliens. Which, given some of the potential post-singularity technologies that I've seen, is very plausible. After all, using attotech and zeptotech to manipulate matter at a level below even the most basic states of matter will give any post-singularity race the potential of being god-like, and will certainly look like magic to us. How is this different, other than the justification, than when magic appears in, say, Star Wars, masquerading under the name of "the Force?"

This is what's at the heart of the matter. If you split it up into just two opposing categories - science fiction and fantasy, while overlooking horror, we have two sides of the same coin. They use the same elements, the same tools, and the same features, just in different ways. It's like the god Janus - it's two headed. And also like the god Janus, science fiction/fantasy have a face looking in each direction.

And that's the difference.

See, science fiction is looking forward. Science fiction looks towards the future. It looks at futures that we may or may not want to experience, but it is looking forward. Science fiction usually, but not always, aligns itself with certain enlightenment principles - technology is a tool to improve human lives, and science is the vehicle through which applied technology will improve human lives (it's a strange loop; science drives technology which drives science). But it's driving it, and it's moving forward. This feature, of looking forward, is uniform across all science fiction.

Fantasy is just the opposite. And being the opposite, fantasy does not look forward: rather, fantasy is looking backwards. While science fiction looks for the future, fantasy longs for the past. Fantasy often exist in a highly romanticized version of the past - rarely do you hear anything about teeth problems in fantasy or shit in the streets - that often draws upon the "mystery of nature" to produce marvels and miracles, otherwise called "magic". While there would be very little difference between my zeptotech and your magic (aside from the fact that I would be keeping with the laws of thermodynamics), fantasy doesn't focus on technology. It focuses on the past, or it focuses on stasis and the present. The technology and society will often be throwbacks to an earlier time. Divine rulers and god-like heroes will be common, but not always guaranteed (Steampunk, for instance, is fantasy. But it's decidedly unlike the kind of epic fantasy that promotes divine rulers and god-like heroes).

These are actually to very clear categories. By these categories, it's clear which falls into what - Star Wars is fantasy because it looks back in the past and draws on a place a long time ago, as does Lord of the Rings and Conan. Star Trek is forward, and looks towards the future - as does GURPS: Transhuman Space and Neuromancer, even though the second, being cyberpunk, has a lot of Romantic traits to it (cyberpunk draws a lot from Romanticism. Post-cyberpunk is the fusion of that with Enlightened ideas. Both look froward at the future. Both are science fiction). Technology will always be more advanced than what we have now (even if it doesn't age well, it will be more advanced than the time it was published - see Star Trek), and concepts like democracy, enlightened and respectable authority figures will feature. At the same time, you will not see an affirmation of Divine rulers or rulers by bloodline.

One looks forward. The other looks backward. Both are the same coin, and both share a lot of common elements. One usually embodies the Enlightenment, while the other embodies Romanticism, and to a lesser degree, Modernism and Post-Modernism (hi there, Lovecraft). Settings that appear to be science fantasy are often just fantasy given this definition, which really, I think, eliminates an extra and unnecessary genre. Settings like Faded Suns and Star Wars are fantasy.

Even this definition, however, has it's own problems - settings like MechWarrior lack any standard fantasy trappings but definitely look backwards, drawing their inspiration on Feudal Europe. By this definition, MechWarrior would be fantasy, despite not having any of the "common" fantasy tropes at all (this is not entirely true; psychic powers have appeared in the setting, the setting is in a technological stasis - likely because the houses of the Inner Sphere keep blowing themselves back to the Information Age - and FTL does exist, along with "knights" - the Mech pilots themselves - but this alone isn't enough). Despite this problem - no real definition will work to split the two from one another because one can always find exceptions (it's like English - for every rule, there's an exception). However, for me, this definition works - it's more inclusive than it is exclusive in either case.

So, which is better, then?

This is a silly question. I have a knee jerk revulsion to most fantasy, and that should be obvious given my own personal philosophy(-ies). I dislike the backwards longing for the past - it reeks of what Republicans do. At the same time, there's plenty of fantasy that I do like; I love the entire genre of Steampunk; and Dark Sun is one of my favorite D&D settings. I don't like cyberpunk because it portrays technology as a bad thing, or as a tool of oppression, as opposed to a double-edged tool that evens the playing field - see sousveillance. While I love the Utopian nature of Star Trek, I dislike the show and I dislike the technobabble - a faux attempt to create jargon that doesn't really mean anything and sounds corny. I also dislike Star Wars, but for entirely different reasons (racism, racist characterizations, god-like heroes appointed by special powers at birth, an un-appointed council of mystic knights who just elect to protect the Republic, and the notion that a mass-murdering, child-killing monster can be forgiven just because of his son's love - and I'm just touching the surface).

So, the answer then, is that neither is better. When it comes to society, I wish that we had more forward looking entertainment, even if it was like Star Trek, because we've got enough backwards looking entertainment and entertainment skeptical of improvement of the human condition as it is. But that's just me.

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