:: Friday, December 16, 2005 ::

How fantasy is ruining science fiction
Science fiction writer Gregory Benford bemoans the ascendance of fantasy lit in the world of science fiction, and comments on the implications to our culture. The situation has gotten so bad, says he, that he's going to stop writing sci-fi for a while and concentrate on non-fiction.

"Fantasy has very, very cleverly managed to capture the apparatus erected by science fiction fandom and pro-dom, and fantasy writers now dominate the Science Fiction Writers of America," he writes on Benford & Rose, a blog he co-authors with evolutionary biologist Michael Rose. (Hat tip to Bookninja for steering me toward Benford's blog.)
I think this move to fantasy has led to a core lessening of what I value in the larger genre, with a lot less real thinking going on about the future. Instead, people choose to be horrified by it, or to run away from it into medieval fantasy. The American culture that once read Heinlein and went the moon now puts George Martin (a very good writer, who started in sf) on the bestseller lists, and goes nowhere.

I see all of this as a retreat from the present, or rather, from the implications of the future. I don’t think it’s an accident that fantasy novels dominate a market that once was plainly that of Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, and Phil Dick. I think it’s to the detriment of the total society, because science fiction, for decades really, has been the canary in the mineshaft for the advanced nations, to tell us what to worry about up ahead. Phil Dick was a genius at this. He could see the implications of the technologies, and what they would lead to, and people’s responses to them.

But now, most of the readership is running away from these problems, perhaps terrified by them. So instead, while reading doorstop sagas they can pretend that they’re really wielding swords in defense of the king, or something—a retreat that horrified people like Isaac Asimov.
Benford makes a solid case for the preservation of "pure" sci-fi. And I must admit I much prefer the writings of Philip K. Dick to J.K. Rowling, Robert Heinlein to J.R.R. Tolkien, or Ray Bradbury to C.S. Lewis. (What is it with these fantasy writers and their initialized noms de plume, anyway?) And I agree that the big-screen blockbuster adaptations of fantasy sagas are helping to fuel this escapism. (Bedford blames it all on Star Wars.) Part of fantasy fiction's appeal to many is the clear contrast of good vs. evil. There are few shades of gray in Middle Earth, and sci-fi often dwells in that nether world where the lines of delineation are rarely clear.

But the pendulum of literary tastes tend to swing back and forth. I predict a day when sci-fi will again reign supreme. One day. In a galaxy far, far away...

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:: Andrew 07:20 + ::

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