19 December 2005

The underlying similarity of Science Fiction and Fantasy

There's an interview with Ursula Le Guin up at The Guardian. There's a lot of good stuff in there, including comments about J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis and that horrid rape job the SciFi Network did to Wizard of Earthsea. But of greatest interest to me is some of the conversation of how she sees genre as a tool.
Her alternative planets, from which emissaries report back like space-age anthropologists, are "thought experiments" to probe the present, not prediction or extrapolation into the future. The novels sift the essential in human nature from the mutable. Change is the "key word: you're opening the door to imagination, and the possibility of things being other than they are". She has an abiding interest in "peculiar arrangements" of gender and sexuality. "It's a tremendous playground, and it doesn't do any harm to have people's ideas shook up," she says. "I do my thinking narratively."
I've always loved how Le Guin seems to effortlessly move between science fiction and fantasy (not to mention other genres). Given that there's been another round of the endless, nauseating Fantasy vs. Science Fiction debate recently, this really struck me, because it seems like she hit, in this statement, the core essence of both genres -- that willingness to try on anything for size, to posit any possibility, to imagine any alternative. Both genres, no matter the hemming and hawing of certain folks (especially science fiction folks who labor under the impression that their job is to predict the future), are about now -- they are about imagining now, and imagining alternatives to what exists now, in an attempt to better understand now. Now. Simple as that. They can be, I think, superior to other forms of literature precisely because they encourage you to step outside of this moment, and try to look at it from outside. Much like a foreigner can see things in a country they visit that the natives can't, we can make ourselves, temporarily and metaphorically, foreigners in our own time and culture and circumstance.

Beyond that, it's really just a matter of emphasis, and as John Scalzi wryly noted, the form the hardware takes. So you might have David Brin, say, raising interesting and provocative questions about identity through the conceit of disposable copies of people (Kiln People, highly recommended, good fun), or Tolkien raising questions about the nature of evil and our complicity with it. Both tackle their issues in that essential way -- by making us outsiders, letting us view from a different vantage point.

Debra Doyle made the argument that science fiction and fantasy come out of the romance tradition, as opposed to the modern novel. As she notes:
The dictionary definition of "romance" as a genre is: "a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious" (which is sort of right, though the "remote in time or place" clause oversimplifies a much more complex quality of removal from everyday reality.)
In other words, both involve variations of "once upon a time." One key difference is that they set that remote time in different places: science fiction in the future and fantasy in the past. But being the impish genres they are, they both of course feel free to screw with that, so that we get science fantasy (fantasy stories set in the future, or, like Star Wars, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), alternate history (science fiction in the past), and so on. Which is really the fun thing with these genres. Their very modus operandi -- wild, free experimentation and play -- precludes nailing them down to neat definitions.

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