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Science Fiction and Fantasy: What’s in a Name?
I’ve always embraced the fact that I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. Indeed I believe that some of the best writing of the last three decades can be found in those two genres.
And so it sucks to be patronized by those who find the two genres generally disagreeable as a concept. My reaction to that group is along the lines of “um, well, ALL fiction is speculative, you know? That is why it’s called fiction, yeah?”
We read fiction to escape. ALL fiction is escapist by definition, a point that is sometimes lost when we talk about “genre” fiction. We need to be less dismissive of escapism AND more willing to credit the serious commentary that exists under the surface in sci-fi and fantasy.
No Pigeonholes, Please
I go to science fiction when I want to feel the grandeur of galactic-scale storytelling. I go to fantasy when I want to sink really deeply into a world and into characters.
Both these orientations were set in place 40 years ago when I read Asimov’s Foundation series and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I have a terribly spotty memory, so I don’t remember which came first — but it happened around the same time and I made no distinction.
These were imaginary worlds of different kinds, and I didn’t think of one as “better” than the other.
I re-read the original Foundation trilogy recently and was struck with how fresh it remains. Asimov was a very mediocre writer, but he came up with such a marvelous concept (yes, yes, pace the Roman Empire — Paul Krugman has written very eloquently about it here) that mediocrity was given a lasting polish.
I find that this is true for a lot of sci fi — a great idea can make up for mediocre writing (at least for this reader). That is not true for fantasy, alas – the idea, at least to this reader, has to be complemented by great writing.
As for fantasy: nobody has really bettered Tolkien, in some ways. Even the most learned of subsequent fantasy authors is nowhere near being a trained philologist, a scholar of Old English and the Norse sagas, as Tolkien was. Many do not know that he wrote the definitive scholarly monograph on Beowulf.
And so who better than Tolkien to really create a world? Behind the LotR and The Hobbit is an entire deeply thought out creation, complete with original languages. Most similar efforts are just pale imitations. And so when you sink into a Tolkien dreamscape, you feel the lore, the grounding.
As an aside: a bit like Disney, Tolkien’s most vividly sketched characters are the baddies. Even in The Silmarillion, where the back story is understandably a bit more schematic, the character of Ungoliant leaps off the page. And a character like Feanor is so much more interesting than, say, Thingol.
But I digress. The point is: world builders are world builders, no matter which little pigeonhole you choose to put a book and an author in. And so to my two favorite authors across both genres, to bring out that point.
Iain M. Banks
Because I have been in both these realms for so long, and have lived with my favorite authors for so long, there is always this squirm of recognition and prickliness and ownership when I find another person admiring one of my faves. “You like Iain M. Banks, Elon? Hey! I was into Banks before you went to college, bro!”
Here I want to zero in on one of Banks’ Culture novels, perhaps the most un-Cultural of them all: Inversions. The Culture is a galaxy-spanning utopian civilization in which humans and sentient machines (which include hilariously-named ships) co-exist in harmony. Virtually all the Culture novels are filled with stuff to thrill those who like their stories to span the stars.
But that isn’t Inversions.
This book is a “fantasy” by all the conventional definitions. There is a touch of magic in it; there is a medieval culture; there are complex gender relationships; there is violence; there is sadness and loss.
Now the magic, which is what most people associate with high fantasy, happens to be through artifacts of the Culture, an in-joke that only Culture readers would spot (and have, as I did). But then again, as Arthur Clarke once wrote, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Then there is the writing. Here is one of my favorite passages from that book, indeed in all of my reading:
In later years, when the Doctor was long gone from us and even her most manifest features were becoming difficult to recall with perfect clarity, I would, in diverse moments of private intimacy, catch a hint of that same odour, but the encounter would always prove fleeting.
I freely confess that on such occasions the recollection of that long-ago night, the magnificent ballroom, the splendid profusion of the dancers and the breath-arresting presence of the Doctor seemed like a capstan of ache and longing attached by the ropes of memory to my heart, squeezing and tightening and compressing it until it seemed inevitable that it must be burst asunder.
The slightly stilted prose has a very purple tinge to it when taken out in isolation as a quote, but in the context of the book it is an authentic representation of what this character felt in words that are appropriate for that character, who is looking back at this defining moment of his life.
Even then, in my early 30s when I first read these words, I remember being moved almost to tears. We all have ballroom moments that we look back to as we age and enter new seasons of our lives, and look ahead to the final darkness. Isn’t the role of all fiction in part to illuminate what we take for granted?
In any case, it is this depth of character development that makes Banks Banks — one of the greatest authors of our time, and also a fantasist.
Certainly he also excelled at galactic pyrotechnics; the closing set piece of Consider Phlebas is just one such example of many. But in that same book, he helps us sink completely into one of the great fictional characters in all of literature, the Changer, Bora Horza Gorbuchul.
Back to Inversions. I imagine Banks chuckling to himself whilst writing this book, showing us that he could do anything he wanted -- write deeply wrought fantasies with his weaker hand whilst blindfolded and cycling backwards!
Ursula K. Le Guin
The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness are Ursula Le Guin’s most famous science fiction novels. Many think of her as a sci fi writer and a pioneer in foregrounding issues of gender in that genre (at a time when the genre was virtually all male).
She is those things. But I came to Le Guin as a fantasy reader, for before she wrote those works, she wrote one of the great fantasy series of all time, the Earthsea trilogy (to be precise, the first Earthsea book was published before her science fiction masterpieces).
The Left Hand of Darkness could just as easily have been written using fantasy tropes, with a few minor changes to the skeleton and background. Why did she write it the way she did? Who knows, and more importantly, who cares? Not me — she built a world and wrote a story that I care about, and her art revealed things to me that I had not thought of before; that suffices.
She is a great storyteller, and this book, like her others, can be read as “just” a story. It can also be read for metaphors, some gentle and obscure, some with the force of a sledgehammer. Consider this line:
“I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female.”
You can read that line as part of a story about a peculiar planet populated by a mutant human subspecies that is sexually neutered five sixths of the time. Or you can read it as a metaphor for our time and place.
Le Guin took the point I am trying to make here and made it much broader, much more eloquently. In the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, she writes:
“All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.”
Really, No Pigeonholes
Sometimes we want to escape to truly alien worlds. Some of those worlds may be actual worlds in the sense of being planets, and they may involve sentient AIs and FTL travel and terraforming; some of those worlds may feel like our own but have “magic” and multiple sentient species and medieval clothing.
But all fiction is the creation of “worlds.” What do I know about lower middle class Indo-Trinidadians in the period before the Second World War? Naipaul created that world for me in A House for Mr. Biswas, and I fully inhabited it for the duration of my reading that novel.
“To write about a community which has not been written about is not easy,” Naipaul wrote in Literary Occasions, and that is what our great science fiction and fantasy writers are doing too.
Balzac and Banks are birds of a feather, in short.
And One More Thing
The last words must belong to Banks, who made this brilliant point two decades ago:
[Science fiction is] the only form of literature that copes with the way technological change might affect people, which is the fundamental quality of our lives now. If you go back a couple of hundred years, the world you were born into wouldn't be that much different from the one you died in. But the one thing you can guarantee for children born now is that the world will be completely, totally different.
As I wrote this essay, it came to me that all of these authors and their works have had great meaning in my life. Perhaps they might in yours too. Give it a whirl. With Tolkien and Asimov, the books mentioned are obviously the works to read. In the case of Banks, I would start with The Player of Games. With Le Guin, I’d read A Wizard of Earthsea. As for Naipaul, Biswas is the place to start, for it was written before Naipaul became Naipaul, so to speak.