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.
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