Radio vs. the Mailbag: Of Sorcerers and Spaceships

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The Mailbag is back! And this time, we’re jumping into one of the most divisive issues of fandom: genre.

Many geeks contend that the differences between the genres of science fiction and fantasy cannot be any more dissimilar in terms of artistic intent, overarching themes and subject matter.

Others argue that science fiction and fantasy tell similar stories, but just use different settings, props and popular tropes.

So, what do you think, listeners? This month. we ask:

“Are the genres of science fiction and fantasy truly opposites in meaningful thematic ways, or are their differences merely cosmetic?”

Our hosts had this to say…

Casey says:

Standing in a particular spot in a Barnes & Noble, or really any bookstore in America, you might bear witness to one of the great conflicts of nerd literature: Sci-Fi versus Fantasy. But, dear reader, isn’t the real question: are they telling the same stories but with different window dressing?

I must admit to my own personal deficit of exposure to fantasy books. I’ve read Tolkien, a few D&D novels, the first two books in Richard K. Morgan’s ‘The Steel Remains’ series, and a smattering of other stories. I’m no encyclopedia on the breadth of fantasy stories. Excepting for my ignorance, personally, I’d like the two sections to be entirely separated. On opposite ends of the bookstore, please. When I’m searching for a book that includes intergalactic spaceships, intelligent computers, extraterrestrial civilizations, and high-concept allegories, I don’t want to run into yet another dopey yarn about orcs and elves and swords with names.

But what about those stories that bridge the two, those where the line may be so blurry it is impossible to call? I must concede that in the genre fiction world that comes after Star Wars, those walls of separation have thinned. I mean, it had a princess, a wizard and a rogue (and, I suppose, a whiny field-hand peon) trying to blow up the baddie’s keep using swords and crossbows. The space and asteroids and aliens were all, as we would say in philosophy, accidental qualities not essential ones. It’s a fantasy tale wrapped up in the costumery and makeup of a sci-fi flick.

Where does this leave me on the original question? Despite my own personal distaste for blurring of those two genres, I must admit, that in the end, the themes, elements and settings can be so interchangeable that it may not matter. Elves in Space? Bring it on. Transdimensional samurai fighting grey aliens with tommy guns? I’ll take it. Just give me a setting that makes me long to be there, characters I care about and a sequence of events not too predictable. We can live in peace, brothers.

Mike says:

I have to admit, I’ve always been a bit puzzled when people say that fantasy and science fiction are polar opposites.

It’s been popular among fandom to argue that science fiction is intrinsically allegorical.

There’s no question that science fiction is a wonderful tool for this sort of thing.

Series like Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, and the writings of Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and Kurt Vonnegut certainly were all excellent stories that provoke discussion about topics like racism, sexism, war, censorship, and the corrupting nature of unchecked power.

It’s also common to contend that fantasy drops allegory in favor of stories of daring-do from long ago. Admittedly, there is a lot less social parable to be found in modern fantasy, but this isn’t because fantasy is somehow inherently incompatible with it.

Traditions – even remarkably common ones – are not hard rules.

Not all science fiction is metaphor, after all. Sometimes it’s also primarily intended as fun adventure stories without ambitions of social relevance.

Are the adventures of Flash Gordon, John Carter of Mars and Doctor Who not also science fiction tales? Certainly the focus of these stories is the rollicking adventure, the daring escapes and the victory of good over evil, rather than on any heady philosophical point.

And that’s just fine with me. Not every work of fiction is going to be Citizen Kane. Nor should they all try to be.

At the same time, we shouldn’t assume that fantasy fiction is exclusively empty calories.

While J.R.R. Tolkien long denied that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was a parable for World War II, I have a hard time believing him when I read “the Scouring of the Shire” and the chapters that follow it.

Frodo destroys the One Ring and defeats Sauron, but the experience of war is one that he cannot, in the end, shake. He’s a changed person at the end of the story, and so is the idyllic Shire, which didn’t escape the horrors of war. He does what he can to heal it, but finds that the he no longer belongs there anymore. The wounds he suffered in the course of the story, both physical and psychological, prompt him to leave Middle Earth entirely and essentially sail to Heaven with the elves.

That isn’t your typical “happily ever after” fantasy ending, and it says a lot about the author’s views about the impact that even a just war on those that fight in them.

Therefore, I don’t believe the distinction between the two genres is one of “social allegory” versus an “escapist heroic myth.”

I’d argue that the real distinction between fantasy and science fiction has a lot more to do with set dressing than it does any hard line differences written into their specific genre DNA.

What exactly is the difference between Harry Potter’s wand and the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver? They serve largely the same purpose in their stories. They’re iconic tools that let the protagonist do whatever the writer needs them to do….within reason. Because you don’t want to make things too easy for our hero, after all.

The distinction that a lot of fans tend to overvalue is the in-story explanation for how these things are supposed to work.

The sonic screwdriver has been used in almost comically diverse ways in fifty years of Doctor Who. It’s opened locks, hacked into computers, repaired chains, scanned for life signs, ignited swamp gas and even modified a cell phone so that it could make calls across time and space.

It relies on Clarke’s Third Law to pretend that it’s based on some kind of advanced science principle, but like Clarke says, it’s indistinguishable from a magic wand in another story.

J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, doesn’t even try to pretend that there’s anything scientific about Harry’s wand. It’s just magic. Some of the particulars are a little bit different, but Harry uses it in many of the same way the Doctor uses his “magic wand.”

I’d also argue that any story can be turned into any other genre if you tweak the setting and the in-story explanations.

Isn’t Ser Jorah Mormont’s tragic back story in A Game of Thrones remarkably similar to that of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard in the crime film Fargo? Couldn’t the Road Warrior just as easily be a Western? Isn’t the Death Star just a really big Ark of the Covenant?

While we all have our personal preferences for our stories’ settings and conventions, I believe that genre is far less important to a story’s actual substance than most people argue.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!

5 thoughts on “Radio vs. the Mailbag: Of Sorcerers and Spaceships

  1. There’s no way they’re ‘Polar Opposites’.
    When I was at university studying to be an English teacher, we were next door to the people studying to be Drama teachers. As you’d expect, there was a kind of weird, grudging rivalry, not because of our differences, but because of our similarities.
    So it is with science fiction and fantasy. They SEEM like opposites because in many ways, they’re continually rubbing up against one another.
    Just as fans of Star Wars and Star Trek will occasionally conflict with one another, not because they’re different. Because their interests are similar, it throws the differences between them into sharp relief.
    Fantasy and Science Fiction are both the genres of the fantastical, and of ‘Just Imagine…’, and yeah, from one camp, it might seem that the opposing side is full of repetitive hackneyed pulp… but that’s true from both points-of-view.
    Remember, Sturgeon’s Law applies. For every ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ in Science Fiction, there are thousands of militaristic macho fantasies of bold, intrepid space warriors gunning down hordes of shrieking green gribblies, or someone’s physics thesis which they’ve added some characters to… and for every ‘Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell’, there are thousands of interchangeable Tolkein-a-likes which read like someone tiresomely relating their D&D campaign at you.

    But just because there’s a lot of crap in each camp, you can’t just dismiss all of it, because there’s gold on both sides.

  2. Oh yeah: Sci Fi and Fantasy are two different ends of a cord that are tied into a knot when it comes to Space Operas and Other Galactic Funk, if you can dig it, people.

    I find that most recently, I’ve been telling more FANTASY stories with my work(HODAG Dice Adventure game, Coming Soon!), but ingesting more SCI FI to unwind from it. The two are definitely DIFFERENT, but not in Big Ways like, say, Superhero and Romance, which run Parallel, and are two great tastes that taste great together.

    I dunno. I’m not good at critical thinking, but, in my opinion, they are brothers, not cousins.

  3. Side-jacking the thread for a minute: One of the most insidious unintentional effects about the popularized scifi-fantasy divide in kids’ and young adult lit is that scifi is marketed to boys, fantasy to girls. Of course there are exceptions, but I think there are many contributing factors. Popular fantasy seems to have a higher incidence of female protagonists, including ensemble casts like Harry Potter. English and reading teachers rarely list scifi as their favorite genre, and girls outperform boys in language arts classes, so align their supposed interests with the teachers’. For that reason, I *wish* the line between scifi and fantasy were more fluid–I didn’t know I liked scifi until reading Ender’s Game at age 22.

    But, your question is about whether the genres are opposites or are basically the same with cosmetic differences. This does no justice to creators of scifi/fantasy. Sure you can switch out a magic carpet (fantasy) for a futuristic spaceship (scifi) and still tell the same story–a metaphor for righting wrongs, toppling unjust powers, and coming of age. You can switch a bioengineered transhuman (scifi) for a powerful wizard (fantasy) and tell the same story–a metaphor for interracial relationships, building cultural understanding, or self-actualization.

    But that’s ignoring the world building that goes into creating each story. And it’s ignoring the huge element that I think overall characterizes the two genres: scifi involves speculating on the future with the use of technology; fantasy often looks to what *feels* like the distant past. Because the elements of fantasy spring from cultural myths.

    I think a great bridge to this discussion are the genres of magic realism and uchronia. It’s like fantasy, but without the crutch of a cultural myth.

  4. I find that fantasy and sci-fi tend to have a significant overlap in feel, they are both genres that allow for huge variety, novelty and diversity, whether with magic and monsters or aliens and technology. The distinction is mostly stylistic and they are in principle mostly interchangeable and mixable, even if sci-fi authors seem more inclined to go the deep insightful commentary route while fantasy leans more on the impossibly pure heroes in an epic struggle against the cartoonishly evil villains.

    They are also too easily mixed to put them at opposite ends of a spectrum. Peter Hammilton books are unambiguously sci fi but include the souls of the dead possessing people then having total control over their appearance and being able to hurl fireballs, and a pocket universe where mind over matter provides near unlimited power. The Serious Sam games include dodging magical undead while shooting down giant cyborgs, which suddenly sounds a lot like like Doom. And in Warhammer 40K there are spaceships and robots and really big guns and daemons and psychics and orks whos machinery has no working parts but works because they think it will work. All those worlds feel internally consistent and none of the sci-fi or fantasy elements feel out of place.

    The biggest difference to me seems to be sci-fi includes various descriptions of how the fantastic elements work, or at least name that offer general hints, while fantasy stories seem to have richer more detailed back stories and histories.

  5. Sci fi paints a possible future and anchors itself to the real world, while fantasy usually doesn’t. For example, We don’t have dragons and flame wizards, but we most certainly have underpaid cops, we’ve got evil corporations, rudimentary cybernetics and Detroit is falling apart. It’s not too much of a stretch to say one day we’ll have RoboCop…
    Sci-fic can always map to the real world in some way. It extrapolates the future, by looking at the present. I’d buy that for a dollar.

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