Monday, December 22, 2008

Quote of the Day

From Tom Purdom, on the “Women in Science” panel at the recent Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference:
"Nobody ever became a wizard because they read fantasy. But plenty of people have become physicists and biologists because they read science fiction."

Now, the reason this tickles me is the plug for SF, not the (very funny) dig at F (which I also love). But, as I already have very clear ideas on the purpose of SF, and I happen to love F too, I've been contemplating recently what it is that fantasy does - beyond the entertainment/intellectual value that all literature bequeaths - that is unique to its form. Opinions welcome!

29 comments:

KatG said...

Why, fantasy lets you get your demons out, of course. By remaking the world, fantasy lets you look at the truth of it. Which SF does too. While fantasy fiction has not produced wizards, it has produced historians, anthropologists, writers, teachers, artists and psychologists. Which I suppose that biologists and physicists might not think much of, but it's nice to have all of them.

Christian Berntsen said...

It’s wonder of a different sort, and I think on one level Fantasy serves the opposite purpose of SF. Whereas SF shows us what could be in the future, Fantasy shows us to an extent what we thought could have been in the past. In the fables, folktales and fairy stories told prior to Fantasy becaming a genre as we see it today, they served to explain the unexplainable before science arrived to offer an alternative. I also think Fantasy offers something more primal in that often the power comes from within (people are the conduit for magic, where in SF technology serves that purpose for the “magic” in those tales). Of course there are parallels in SF, things like telekinesis and telepathy replace spells and incantations to get the job done.

ces said...

This is not the intellectual, thought-provoking analysis you were hoping for Lou - this is the first thought that came to my mind, a gut reaction, from a bear with very little brain that has only been awake for 20 minutes:

fantasy is not believable
science fiction is believable

Lou Anders said...

Thank you both for these thoughts. It's interesting. As an adolescent, I read SF mostly in the short form (the Hall of Fame anthologies), and F at novel length. I started with Tolkien and Lewis, but it was Edgar Rice Burroughs, then Moorcock and Leiber who really did it for me. Burroughs really sits between SF and fantasy (with a touch of proto-superhero in Tarzan), and Moorcock is its own blend of sci-fantasy. In fact, Moorcock is really interesting in that having written so little actual SF as a writer, he is perhaps one of the most influential people in SF in the field as an editor, with his work at New Worlds, the New Wave, etc...

I'm probably right there with him - and China Mieville - when they rage against "consolatory" fantasy (though Tolkien will always have a special place in my heart, even as I'm not blind to the faults), yet the kind of fantasy that they, and Leiber, and now Abercrombie, Erikson, Lynch, Martin, etc... write - this "new" and "grim and gritty" fantasy with a healthy Swords & Sorcery vibe - which has always been the fantasy that I preferred to read myself, and the type of fantasy we seem to be defining as the type of fantasy Pyr produces too, certainly feels like it has a relevance - with its grasp of politics and human nature - that is unique to itself and its special tools.

It may be my own particular flaw that I need my entertainment to do something more than just entertain - so I'll take South Park over Dumb and Dumber any day; though both are equally puerile only one has social commentary value - but I'm struggling to define what reading the Bas Lag books or Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy does that reading one of the more standard post-Tolkien epic series doesn't do. Mind you, I'm sure that it does do something more, I'm just not sure how to articulate it as eloquently as I feel I can articulate the "purpose of science fiction."

Lou Anders said...

Ces, bears with very little brain are my favorite kinds. In fact, we just rode the Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day ride at Disney multiple times last week!

But your comment reminds me of something John Clute (or was it Norman Spinrad?) said a few years back, that the "new" fantasy was appropriating the science fiction writer's "illusion of verisimilitude" even as science fiction abandoned it and learned to play with its tropes as tropes and not as something that "could happen."

Joe Abercrombie said...

The discussion is moot, as I have actually become an extrememly powerful wizard as a result of reading fantasy.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Joe is pulling your leg. He has actually (I have good reason to know this) because an extremely powerful physicist through reading Fantasy. I, on the other hand, have become a Mighty Wizard on an almost pure diet of SF. Tom has his wires crossed.

Adam Roberts Project said...

"... has actually become an extremely powerful physicist ..."

My new wizardly powers seem to have degraded my typing abilities. That's a common side effect, I understand.

Lou Anders said...

"Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for it makes them soggy and hard to light." - Discordian saying

Niall said...

Well, my girlfriend became a medieval historian as a result of reading fantasy ...

Mark Chadbourn said...

Fantasy has several purposes, of course. First and foremost, it is there to wind up fundamentalist scientists whose sense of humour and appreciation of whimsy is in direct opposition to their scientific knowledge.

Whereas SF maps the logos of the Greek philosophers - the outside world - fantasy maps the mythos, the inner world of abstracts (SF is not great at dealing with abstracts), the emotions, the dreams, the hopes, the fears, the allegories and the sub-text of life. Some SF does both, but fantasy does the latter best.

Lou Anders said...

Now there's an answer I love!

James Enge said...

I like the logos/mythos distinction.

On careers: I'm pretty sure I became a philologist because of early exposure to Tolkien. So I don't think TP's argument really works. (Should SF's value be judged by how many people have grown up to become time travellers or FTL spaceship captains?)

I don't think consolation is something to be sneezed at. If it can be achieved in spite of the obvious obstacles in its way (e.g., death, suffering, evil, celebreality, etc.), it's a pretty impressive achievement. But I can understand a certain impatience with reading the millionth entry in the log of the USS Mary Sue (or Ye Unpredictably Capitalized Chonicles of Mary Sue, or whatever).

David Anthony Durham said...

Mark's answer is lovely. I don't know that I have such wisdom to add. And yet...

I will say that there's something about being asked to validate my work or life choices that bores me a bit. Whether fantasy is of import or not is between me and my readers, and me and my family (since they have a stake in it).

I would, in a very general sense, remind that fantasy in its many forms has been fundamental to humans trying to make sense of life. I'd argue that we began being human when we chose to tell stories about ourselves, our imagined heroes, the values to aspire to and the enemies and challenges we may face. I'd argue that people can become physicists and biologist because of the thousands of years of storytelling that preceded that. And much of that storytelling - whether epic poetry, religious tales, or farm boys who will be kings - was/is fantasy.

Jetse de Vries said...

I like Mark's logos/mythos distinction, although I would probably rephrase that as fantasy looks at the world from a purely human (or human-centric) viewpoint, and thus represents humanity's strengths and follies better, while SF *can* -- not that it always *does* -- look at the world from a different viewpoint: alien, (coldly) rational, distant, more overarching.

Roughly speaking, in fantasy humans are mostly the prime movers, while in SF the environment (the physical limitations or a breakthrough in one of them) is often the prime mover.

Then we get an ironic role reversal: in literary terms, SF is basically a subset of all fantastic literature; while out in the real world, a fantastic mindset is only a subset of the scientific mindset that has changed the world (I'm sorry, but I haven't seen elves, ghosts, or even actual kings or queens transform the world in quite the way that technology -- a consequence of the scientific mindset -- has).

Finally, I disagree that "SF is not great at dealing with abstracts". Just check out Greg Egan, to name but one example.

Tom Lloyd said...

Yeah, what Chadders said.

As far as I'm concerned SF makes me think about how light shines through leaves, and fantasy makes me think about why. What bugs me about religion is the disinterest in the natural world, it's all choirs and grovelling. Fantasy encompasses more and doesn't accept so much without questioning.

Lou Anders said...

Good points Jetse. Though you do have the nonhuman in fantasy too - I'm thinking specifically of China's Bas Lag novels. Also, we're bringing out Matt Sturges Midwinter in the spring, which is set entirely in the realm of fairy, stars fairy and elf protagonists, and only features humans as a very small minority in supporting roles!

Tom, I am wondering if your views on religion are why I love your treatment of divinity so much!

s9 said...

My take on this:

The purpose of Fantasy is to explore philosophies of morality and ethics. By postulating a world different from our own, a world that doesn't exist because it cannot exist, we are free to postulate situations that test our systems of deciding what to do with ourselves that no other genre can support. Other genres can certainly explore philosophies of morality and ethics, and they frequently do, but only Fantasy removes all the literary constraints to the formation of scenarios that really test us. Science Fiction can be made to serve these ends better than any other genre, and this is why the lines between SF and F can be so blurry at times. But when you really need to Kick Out The Jams, you need Fantasy.

Lou Anders said...

Interesting. This certainly dovetails with Michael Swanwick's contention that "Providence" is the unseen manipulator/character in Lord of the Rings using Frodo as his agent to carry the ring back and forth across the face of Middle Earth to offer each of its major figures the choice/test to seize or pass on power.

On that, what always interested me about Tolkien, as distinct from so much that follows, is that passing the test does NOT result in our heroes getting the girl, the goldwatch, and everything, but rather in their losing their status and a lot of what they hold dear. I love the line in the film, after Galadriel is tested, where she says, "I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel." No brownie points for doing the right thing, you just do the right thing for its own sake.

Paul S. Kemp said...

"Other genres can certainly explore philosophies of morality and ethics, and they frequently do, but only Fantasy removes all the literary constraints to the formation of scenarios that really test us."

This is well put and accords with my own views. I read and write fantasy because it provides an ideal venue in which moral/ethical questions can be examined and tested. I think the mythos/logos point is apt, but secondary. Fantasy, for me, is primarily a moral/ethical laboratory (where else do we see Platonic ideals in the flesh but in fantasy?)

Paul

Kris Rusch said...

Great discussion. I actually think, though, that Tom Purdom's premise is off. The smallest part of science fiction is that it has inspired scientists--and I have a hunch many of them would have been inspired in some other way. (How many mystery readers become detectives? Or criminals for that matter?)

I think science fiction readers will tolerate some emotionally cold stories that have a solid intellectual basis, and fantasy readers will not. Otherwise, I haven't noticed much of a difference between them.

Kris Rusch

Jetse de Vries said...

Lou--

There is indeed the non-human in fantasy -- it's very difficult to hold a concise discussion without at least a little generalising -- although I would argue that these non-humans are mostly based on a human template, while a lot (certainly not all) aliens in SF can be based on a definite non-human template.

"Other genres can certainly explore philosophies of morality and ethics, and they frequently do, but only Fantasy removes all the literary constraints to the formation of scenarios that really test us."

My thoughts on this are very ambivalent. Sometimes removing the real-world constraints from moral and ethic quandaries can be liberating and leading into new insights.

On the other hand, though, removing such dilemmas from the intracies of -- and the complex interactions with -- the real world might destroy one (or more) essential features of such problems.

As with a lot of things, sometimes it might work, and sometimes it might not. Personally, I like fantasy (and SF) that tries to reflect the complexity of the real world.

J M McDermott said...

I like many of the answers above. Here's my take.

Reality is too complex to communicate effectively with something as limited as words. Writers break reality to convey the real.

Science Fiction is a fantasy that uses realistic science as a trope.

Fantasy came first. Science fiction is a child of the adventure romances of the fantastic, and the knights errant, and the dreamworlds of Oz and Albion. Separating the two subgenres like the original speaker at the con did, is like saying chocolate and vanilla are opposites. In fact, vanilla is an important ingredient in most tasty chocolates. Without the fantasy element of "what if" you have no science fiction.

(Furthermore, the notion that Fantasy didn't inspire anyone to become a wizard is completely and totally false, and I am not joking here. Clearly, the speaker was not taking into consideration the rising pagan and wiccan communities, Eastern religions, and all the folks that turn to ancient, non-standard faiths inspired, in part, by fantasy novels.)

Lou Anders said...

Thank you JM for pointing that out. I'd been thinking about the Wiccan Society in Great Britain that reported something like a 100 calls a week from Harry Potter readers wanting information! And clearly there's a lot of back and forth between a lot of neo-paganism and fantasy. Plus, I know a few writers - Storm Constantine, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison among them - who put actual magic in their magic !

David B. Ellis said...

What fantasy does for me in a way nothing else can is put me in touch with the ole Jungian unconscious and its attendant sense of the numinous in a way that nothing else (including religion) can.

In a way, it fills much the same role for me that religion does for people who, unlike me, believe that the supernatural is real.

Lou Anders said...

I suspect it may fulfill that same role for people who, like me, believe that the supernatural is real but don't trust any one specific interpretation of just what it is.

Just file me under "spiritual but not religious."

James Barclay said...

On the subject of careers, I became a fantasy author on the back of reading fantasy. Who the hell would want to be a physicist when they could have chosen to write books for a living? I guess that's scientists for you. I'll go ask my brother. He's one of them.

And now I'm going to descend to something that is perhaps a little trite but nonetheless true. One of the purposes of fantasy, surely, is to entertain. And it does that for a really massive number of people across the world. People who want to escape and dream and lose themselves somewhere wonderful. Or a hell spawn landscape of blood and limbs if you're reading Joe A.

I don't get why reading any book has to mean anything more than having a really good time, let alone organise your career path for you. Except if it's as a fantasy author, naturally.

Any work of fiction that might lead anyone to take a terrifyingly hard series of lectures and exams should be avoided at all costs.

Alma Alexander said...

I honestly don't know if this is a "girl" thing - but hard SF, and military SF, have always left me pretty cold - when the story is all about the OOOH! SHINY! and not enough about people I find myself not caring. This doesn't necessarily make it bad science fiction, just the kind that doesn't draw me in, personally.

Now BAD fantasy (and there's plenty of sub-par product in this genre, as in EVERY genre) is very much about OOOH! SHINY! but in a different way - it focuses on the hocus pocus and not enough on the people whom it is supposed to affect and change.

I guess what I am saying is... that I crave complexity, and characters who are people in whom I can believe and in whose fates I have a passionate interest. Too much OOH! SHINY! and an attitude of the author where that shiny takes precedence over the people and their problems make me drop the book or switch off the movie pretty quickly.

Anyway, as Clarke said and I am paraphrasing, any sufficiently advanced technology can be interpreted as magic by those who do not completely understand same (and sometimes even by people who do). And as far as I am concerned, since it's all a pack of lies, really, ALL literature is fantasy by definition, anyway.

Obligatory disclaimer, of course, is that I WRITE fantasy, of the more complex kind, so am inherently predisposed to it - and although people may not become literal wizards after reading a book of pure fantasy (while they may become a physicist after reading SF) I like to think that everyone whom a book of fantasy touches becomes a LITTLE BIT of a wizard, and learns to understand what enchantment really is...

Lou, it was a privilege to serve on the Orycon panel with you last week (and the pacing up and down the middle of the weird conference room arrangement will... stay with me...)

Lou Anders said...

Alma,
Enjoyed meeting you as well, and yes, that was a strange room, but now I need a corridor in the middle of all my future panel rooms or I'm going to feel constrained!

Character - basis of all drama.