12/18/2005

All right ... I promised myself I wouldn't get involved in this argument, but ...

Thinking again about the whole debate over Gregory Benford's blog article about the success of fantasy in relation to science fiction: particularly after reading Lou Ander's own thoughts on the subject.

Here's a comment Lou made that particularly struck me, and made me realise why I felt some of the responses to Benford's article were missing the point:


As someone who grew up in a much deeper south than even the region is today, it was exposure to science fiction that had a direct and measurable influence on deprogramming me from the prejudices and ignorance prevalent in a lot of my immediate childhood environment. I grew up around Christians who believed in a seven day creation, preached the reality of Hell and Judgement, and railed against the lie that was evolution. They were also, for the most part, racists and homophobes. They told jokes using the N-word, would never date a minority or someone who had, and generally represented a host of values I find base and inexcusable. And the only difference between them and me was that I had a father who shoved a science fiction paperback into my pre-teen hands and ordered me to read it. After all, it's pretty hard to be prejudice against blacks and gays when you're a-okay with Klingons and the Green Men of Mars.


When I say 'missing the point' what I mean is that (so it seems to me) Benford's real concern is that scientific rationalism - or simply rationalism, full stop - is under constant attack from base superstition and base prejudice. This strikes me as an argument easily derived by the simple act of watching the news. Anders' own comment reflects on how exposure to a wider world of reading and knowledge can inform people otherwise informed only by their peers who are, perhaps, rather less than informed themselves.

When Benford disses the rise of fantasy, it seems to me his real concern is the loss of science fiction's core message: that it can introduce the reader - particularly the young reader - to one of the core values of rationality: questioning the accepted order of things. SF of the best kind has the knack of illustrating radically different philosophies and ideas that might otherwise never occur to the reader by the simple act of creating an imaginary environment in which those concepts are allowed a degree of free rein impossible in the real world.

It's hard for me to define what the core values of fantasy (however you might choose to define it) might be, but ultimately fantasy, like sf and every other form of literature, is a tool to be used in whichever way a particular author chooses to use it. Sf can be radical, it can be forward thinking, but it can also be deeply conservative. This depends less on core values than it does on the philosophical and political proclivities of the author. Fantasy, I'm sure, can be radical and forward thinking and introduce the reader to new ideas: it can have something to say about the world we live in. But like Anders, I find it hard to think of many examples, possibly due to my relative lack of exposure to that part of the field. I'd be more than happy to hear of examples to the contrary.

If science fiction fails to reach an audience, Benford seems to me to be arguing, we lose the opportunity to offer points of view entirely opposed to those who would see the achievements of the Enlightenment cast down forever. If the best fantasy can address these concerns, then that's terrific. Yet, somehow, I find it hard to be convinced as yet; so, like Anders, I find myself setting down on the science fiction side of the divide, meanwhile glancing around to see if there's any sharp bits sticking up that might cut my feet.

7 comments:

Mike Gallagher said...

Lou Anders also says, "In my view, it's all about narrative complexity and whether the speculative material you read (whether SF or F) serves to turn your brain on or turn it off."

He then goes on to compare the atheism and materialism of SF to the lack of atheism of fantasy and to decry fantasy for being theistic but he's just left off praising American Gods. The thing is, while AG is about gods, it is in no way religious or even theistic. It's about people and the myths they make.

So then, fantasy that opens minds, and makes readers think about being people. There will be others, but this is what I've read.

American Gods, and just about everything else by Neil Gaiman.

Just about everything by Gene Wolfe, even if it's got spaceships in it.

The Iron Dragon's Daughter, by Michael Swanwick.

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett and some others of his later books (I like them all but they turn from being gag books to being about something from SG onwards).

Prince Ivan et seq. by Peter Morwood.

The Werewolves of London et seq. by Brian Stableford.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Suzannah Clarke

Figures of Earth et seq. by James Branch Cabell.

Chase the Morning et seq. by Michael Scott Rohan.

The War Hound and the World's Pain by Michael Moorcock (and quite a lot else of Moorcock, even - especially - the adventure yarns)

Jack of Shadows and the Chronicles of Amber (the first lot) by Roger Zelazny

Metropolitan et seq. by Walter Jon Williams

Bridge of Birds et seq. by Barry Hughart

The Drawing of the Dark and The Anubis Gates (and just about everything else) by Tim Powers

To my shame I have read very little of Ray Bradbury and I'm going to fix that in the new year.

I've only read one Nalo Hopkinson story but it was very good and I've heard well of her.

The adventure yarns I've included above are not simplistic and the retellings of fairy tales deal respectfully with the myths of the countries where they are set.

See, what these novels are doing isn't the literalist thing of SF, forcing minds open with the crowbar of Really Cool Reality and Possibility. They're presenting metaphors such as myths and ideals and fears in a concrete way and then using the concrete to bash people's minds open. Most of the time the Enlightenment value they are promoting is tolerance, and that's one that I'm missing from this SF vs. Fantasy nonsense.

gary gibson said...

That's cool, Mike, and I think it's worth saying while I'm here that as informed and meaningful as fiction or any form of narrative can be, 'entertainment' isn't a dirty word, in fact it's a necessity. I'll agree with you about the Bradbury, though I'm not so sure about Perdido - I'm not dissing it, but I recall Mieville himself said that when he wrote, he was basically into it 'for the monsters' rather than aiming necessarily for some kind of meaningful statement. Perdido struck me primarily as a work of entertainment. Nothing wrong with that.

I've read American Gods, but I don't recall picking up any particular thematic 'thing' going on there, unless I missed it. As for the rest, well ... haven't read most of them, and I had the same (entirely personal) hang up with Iron Dragon that I've mentioned to you before, that the exact moment anyone starts talking about bleedin' elves I'm out of there in a flat instant.

taleswapper said...

I think you're exactly right when you say "ultimately fantasy, like sf and every other form of literature, is a tool to be used in whichever way a particular author chooses to use it.".

This part of the quote particularly caught my eye: "After all, it's pretty hard to be prejudiced against blacks and gays when you're a-okay with Klingons and the Green Men of Mars."

Orson Card's Speaker for the Dead (SF) really affected my worldview regarding people who are different from me. His Alvin Maker (Fantasy) books seem to me to have strong (positive) things to say about outcasts, about making hasty judgements about other races/peoples, and about tolerance.

But if you read his non-fictional essays, you can tell that he wasn't affected by his own writings. He seems to be a nationalistic, religious, rightist.

Anonymous said...

'nationalistic, religious, rightist.' Where in those three words is there anything about racism and intolerance? Or would that be leftist intolerance speaking?

Neal Asher

taleswapper said...

OK. That's fair, Neal. One can be religious and rightist without being racist and intolerant. I apologize.

However, I do think Card's nonfictional writing has tended to show a person in support of military intervention in other societies and an intolerance toward others, especially gays. I find this surprising since his fictional writing has so many examples of understanding, tolerance, and bad consequences for jumping to military action.

I'd also note that some of the original article's points about SF worlds being about nonreligious thinking and fantasy tending toward religious are belied by Card. This is not a bad thing; I believe in some of the things Card believes in. But my point was to say that Gary had it right: I don't think the choice of genre for a work by itself drives the kind of thinking that the original writers of the article were trying to say it does. The product is a tool of the author for whatever he intends to do with it.

Anonymous said...

I think the choice is often about the writer's comprehension of 'science' not his belief system. Fantasy writers are often those who have less interest in or understanding of 'science', hence their choice (same with the readers). The corollary might be that those who do have said interest and understanding are less likely to buy into religion.
This is true for all writers and readers, but in my experience I've found the SF kind are often pragmatic and empirical thinkers, whilst the fantasy kind are more likely to believe in crystal healing, UFOs and God.

Neal Asher

Anonymous said...

Bugger! I meant to write: 'This is NOT true of all writers and readers'!

Neal