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S C I E N C E   F I C T I O N   A N D   F A N T A S Y

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As the emotional aspect of personality deals with the possible, with what might be, it seems the natural place to think of the highly imaginative genres of science fiction and fantasy.

In a sense, to write good books in these genres requires more than the focus on character found in the mainstream "literary" novel. The literary novel is difficult to write in two ways. First, it requires the author to take a microscope to his characters. Through plot, all nonessentials are stripped away, leaving their primal motivations bare to our scrutiny. This deep understanding of motivation is difficult to obtain, and even more difficult to communicate believably in fiction.

This leads to the second difficulty, the "believability" requirement. A genre novelist is free to send his characters nearly anywhere, but a literary novelist must consciously pin down his characters like bugs in order to force them to reveal their innermost natures. While a genre novelist can use multiple settings to show different sides of a character's nature, a literary novelist will deliberately hold the setting static so as to concentrate exclusively on the characters. So literary settings are conventionally simple, normal and believable: the home, the job, the town, the university, all as they currently exist.

Not having to engage in this relentless focus on character to the exclusion of all else does indeed--in one sense--make genre fiction easier to write than literary fiction. But it is a tradeoff. Genre novels, like their literary cousins, still must not only reveal something about the human condition through the thoughts and deeds of the characters depicted; they must adhere also to the special rules of the genre. This doesn't make good genre novels easy to write, as the pure literary types like to imply--it makes them hard to write, at least in the sense of satisfying multiple constraints.

The freedom of science fiction and fantasy writers to create worlds allows these writers to explore character in settings not available to literary writers. But this freedom comes at a price: new settings must be unique to each author; they must be carefully designed to be internally consistent; and they must contribute materially to each story being told.

A literary novelist who thinks this is easy should try it.

My Views


One of the single most important persons in the field of fantasy literature was Lin Carter. Not because he was a particularly gifted fantasist himself (although most of his own fantasy stories were competently crafted and fun to read), but because he served as editor of Ballantine's Adult Fantasy Series.

This series consisted of reprintings of the best and most significant fantasy novels ever written. Carter's knowledge in this area was immense; he was as comfortable with the intricacies of the Western tradition as with the tales of other times and cultures. From the myths related by Plato and Herodotus to the adventures of Br'er Rabbit as told through "Uncle Remus" by Joel Chandler Harris; from the dark stories as originally collected by the Brothers Grimm to the cynical fables of Aesop; from the doings of the Chinese trickster-figure Monkey to the childish behavior of the gods of Mount Olympus and Asgard; Carter's fantastic scholarship ranged time and space. He was exactly the right person to edit a series of the best fantasies ever written.

The range of the novels selected by Carter for Ballantine's Adult Fantasy series was correspondingly broad. Where one novel might be from a name as well-known as William Morris (the genius who also gave his name to the style of furniture he created), Carter also took care to seek out the gems from obscure writers like Hope Mirlees and David Lindsay.

The styles of the novels offered differed widely as well. The murky allegory of Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus contrasted with the light humor of Lord Dunsany's The Charwoman's Shadow. Set against the glooming Gothic menace of Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan was the glittering Elizabethan adventure The Worm Ouroboros by a twentieth-century British civil servant named E.R. Eddison. Carter made sure that the source classics were included in the series, such as George MacDonald's Lilith, but he also celebrated the imagination of unexpected authors, such as William Beckford whose Arabian novel Vathek nearly outdoes Scheherazade. For readers whose only knowledge of fantasy consisted of Tolkien's remarkable (but limited) "Lord of the Rings" cycle, Lin Carter's dedication to cultivating the roots of Tolkien's work opened up a path into an enchanted forest that spanned worlds.

The bad news is that the Adult Fantasy series lasted only from the late 1960s through the 1970s, and Carter is no longer available to extend it with fresh discoveries. The good news is that many of the books in the series can still be found in used book stores and science fiction conventions. It is still possible to be transported to impossible worlds of fell demons, brave heroes, treacherous cowards, malign wizards, gentle (but spirited!) maidens, and the frozen mountains, sunny archipelagos, and ancient green hills far beyond the fields we know.

Science Fiction

Science fiction inhabits a special realm part-way between fantasy and the pure literary novel. Where the literary novel fictionalizes the minutiae of modern daily life, science fiction's subject matter is whatever is possible in the entire universe. But where fantasy embraces plot devices that are specifically portrayed as supernatural, a science fiction story must base its wonders on plausible technology.

It's true that this would seem to portray science fiction as a more constricting garment than pure fantasy. (And make of the standard literary novel a torturer's "boot.") Where a fantasist is free to make anything at all happen (so long as whatever caused it to happen remains logically consistent), the science fiction writer must work within the confines of reality. Anything that happens in a science fiction world must have at least a scientifically plausible technical explanation.

This is usually accomplished by taking a hard look at the historical roots of some modern technology, then guessing what might come next and inventing a reasonable chain of events leading from the present to the imagined future. Minimally, this involves logical thinking about the technology in question, but science fiction writers go well beyond the technology. They also consider the potential social and personal consequences of such technologies.

Designing worlds isn't just about figuring out planetary orbits and how robots behave; it's also about culture.

Science fiction produces new ways of looking at character.

There was a period in which this wasn't true. In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, science fiction tended to be about the technology, rather than about people. There were some writers who insisted on writing good stories first and good science fiction stories second, but they were swamped by the "Giant Electronic Brain" and "Little Green Men" school of hack writers. This was the period of time in which we first heard Forrest Ackerman's term "sci-fi," which is now best applied to similar schlock (as seen on TV and in theaters).

But it wasn't always that way. Early writers of what we today recognize as science fiction ("SF" for short)--authors such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley--used technology not merely as a throwaway plot gimmick but to ask questions about the effects on human society of such technological marvels. Able to see something of what lay in store for Scientific Man in the twentieth century, such writers as these and those who followed them tried to imagine what the consequences of such astonishing new powers would be on regular men and women. In many cases, they guessed wrong... but they were asking the right question.

The "British Invasion" of the 1960s began to restore that focus. Though cynical, writers like Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock reintroduced the concept that what distinguished SF wasn't iron-jawed heroes riding silver rocket ships--it was the human relationship with technological power.

This new human-focused breed of writer inherited the tradition preserved by the Golden Age authors who never succumbed entirely to the hack fixation on gleaming machinery; writers like Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Leigh Brackett, Frederic Brown, Robert A. Heinlein, Cyril Kornbluth, C.L. Moore, Fredrik Pohl, and Robert Sheckley.

These pioneers kept true SF alive for the humanists who followed, such as Alfred Bester, Gordon Dickson, Frank Herbert, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Jack Vance, and Roger Zelazny. Even self-deprecating humor became possible, as in Douglas Adams's "Hitchhiker" books and Harry Harrison's tales of the "Stainless Steel Rat."

Eventually, though, the self-deprecating response to techno-optimism mutated into bitter self-condemnation. The advent of undreamt-of computing power available to every individual led some writers to envision, not the chiseling off of another fetter on human liberty, but cybernetic dystopias: the "cyberpunk" sub-genre. Bruce Stirling was soon joined by others sharing this pessimistic vision of technology as a chaotic force splintering human society. The positive concept of technology as a catalyst for new opportunities--the optimism of the Golden Age science fiction writers--is explicitly rejected. Cyberpunk is the story of Frankenstein's monster retold. The special effects are from Industrial Light and Magic, but the story is the same: Man uses technology to gain power over forces he does not understand and cannot control, and in the end those forces destroy him.

Since this form of science fiction reached its popularity peak in the late 1980s, the pendulum now has swung to the other extreme. Mirroring the trend in U.S. universities for such self-indulgent mush as "gender studies" and "queer theory," editors and publishers in the late 1990s are buying more explicitly feminist and gay science fiction. While cyberpunk focused on the domination of humans by machines, 1990s science fiction writers such as Nicola Griffith describe technology as a force for the liberation of personal license. As contraceptive technology has today liberated women from reproductive bondage (so the theory goes), tomorrow's technology will liberate other "oppressed" groups from the narrow-mindedness of those who would preserve social limits on various human behaviors.

Yet the seeds of change are already being sown again. Relying on technology to nullify the undesired consequences of risky behaviors has proven a poor substitute for personal self-control, as the increasing rate of illegitimacy in the U.S. demonstrates. A habit of self-control pays dividends far beyond preventing contraception (for example), but a dependence on technology as a way to dodge personal responsibility for our actions leads to social breakdown as the dodges fail.

As the public learns this hard lesson, and begins to rebel against the abolition of self-control (as forecast by the election of a conservative majority in both houses of the U.S. Congress), it seems likely that science fiction will follow. One possibility is that we will begin to see more religion in science fiction. Perhaps the publication after so many years of a sequel to Walter Miller's classic A Canticle for Leibowicz is the first harbinger in SF of a public rejection of technology as a way to finesse voluntary adherence to difficult ethical standards.

The wave of technology-optimistic SF may be about to crest again.



SFFWA-- the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America official Web site.

the Aimee Kratts home page-- home page of up-and-coming writer Aimee Kratts.

SFF-net-- the writer's fan site for science fiction and fantasy.

Baen Books-- the Baen Books Web site.

Del Rey-- the Del Rey imprint of Ballantine Books (of Random House).

Tor Books-- the Tor Books Web site.

Warner Aspect-- unsurprisingly, the Warner Aspect Web site.

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