Friday, May 02, 2008

Fantasy vs Science Fiction

Further thoughts on the track I've been taking this week. Fantasy vs Science Fiction. Why is Fantasy selling better than Science Fiction? I don't mean now, I mean for the past fifteen years.

Is Fantasy inherently better than Science Fiction? Clearly, that's an answer that can only be a matter of preference. There's nothing inherent in any genre that makes it better than any other (true even for the high and mighty Literary genre.) Any genre can produce a masterpiece, and any genre can produce swill.

So if Fantasy isn't necessarily better than science fiction, why does it sell better? This wasn't always the case. Though much of the twentieth century, science fiction drew a much larger audience than it does today.

Think about the evolution of SF. It started as an offshoot of mainstream in the late 19th century, with authors like H.G Wells and Jules Verne. It went through the pulp era where almost anything could see print. Some of our revered names got their start there--Jack Williamson, for instance. It went through the golden era, where story and plot took over. Here, we have writers like Frederick Pohl. Up to this point, science fiction sold, but it wasn't taken very seriously. It was just plain fun.

Things changed in the sixties, driven by people like Harlan Ellison, who wanted to use the genre experimentally and push the boundaries of style and of content. Behold, the birth of New Wave SF. This era, as important as it was in the maturing and acceptance of science fiction as literature, I believe contains the kernel of the demise of the genre (most against the wishes of the participants, I can assure you).

Science Fiction explored places other literature was afraid to go. From literary trips like David Gerrold's With a Finger in My I to Philip Jose Farmer's present tense Riders of the Purple Wage, stories opened new ideas to explore. They are worth a read, and Ellison's Dangerous Visions, and Again, Dangerous Visions are the most influential science fiction short story collections of the mid-twentieth century.

After the two Ellison anthologies, there were no taboos. It made for interesting reading, but after a few decades, it seems that most of the places that were considered dangerous in 1967 are shown on television every day in 2008. They aren't all that dangerous anymore.

So, the genre matured and now has gray around the temples. Couple that with the major victory on the big screen--science fiction is king of the movies--and you have a recipe for losing interest. Too many stories were depressing, dystopic, or just plain dark. Occasionally somebody would come up with something unique, like William Gibson's Neuromancer. This novel was the prototype for the cyberpunk sub-genre, but that played out and became mainstream SF after a decade. But then, why read when there's something on the silver screen?

Ultimately, I believe what the New Wave movement did was allow science fiction to take itself too seriously. Readers started losing interest, meanwhile, fantasy sales climbed. Why? Here's what I think. Fantasy is still fun. That's it. That's the whole reason fantasy sells better, it's still fun.

Orson Scott Card has published opinion that science fiction is essentially a dead genre, with not much left to say, and not much left to prove. I disagree.

Fantasy, on the other hand, I believe might be really starting to run out of things to say, at least to a par with science fiction. How many times can a group of adventurers go on a quest? The focus has shifted and diversified over the years. Today, a lot of fantasy is pushing the limits of not only science fiction, but also horror, mystery, romance, and probably other genres. It's starting to borrow from outside fantasy or being published AS a work of another genre entirely. These tendrils could be because it's getting harder and harder to do anything unique in fantasy.

So the situation today looks like a mature SF is stagnant and a maturing fantasy looks to be moving in the same direction. Is there hope? I think there is. I think the future of science fiction lies in returning to its roots. Focus on story and making the story fun is paramount. Much of the material published in the past five years have taken that to heart. They have been fun to read.

To be continued...

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