I Know This is Fantasy-Faction, but Science-fiction Matters Too
I don’t think I have a strange reading history. I’m pretty sure it is the same as many other people. At a young age I started reading books, because that’s what you do once you’ve exhausted the excitement of cereal packet ingredients. I had a library card because it was much cheaper than buying lots of books and when I was older, and had some money, I spent it on books.
And, I think, like a lot of folks I started with sci-fi rather than fantasy (all the fantasy I knew about was The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) because Buck Rogers, Star Trek, Space 1999, Knight Rider, and all those programmes are the TV of my younger days. Oh, and Spider-Man – a hero that is stronger than he knows but, in the very best of the comics I remember, used science to solve his problems and beat the super-villains.
The first book I really remember loving and reading again was A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C Clarke. It was in the era of the disaster movie appearing on television: Towering Inferno, Airport ‘77, Airplane (okay, not that one, but it is funny), The Poseidon Adventure (Adventure? Really?). So Clarke’s book, set on a doomed ship that skims the surface of the moon taking tourists to all the sights which suffers a moon-quake and sinks into the soft dust, was a great fit.
And as with anything Clarke, the research, the knowledge, and the science was fantastically well-researched, known, extrapolated, invented. You were there, alongside the captain and the passengers, struggling to survive and to find a way to rescue themselves. A whole book set on, well, in a tiny little craft, with a small number of characters. I recall it fondly even now.
And then you have Asimov’s Foundation series. Greg Bear’s Eon. Niven and Pournelle’s Ringworld. More recently, Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy and Commonwealth Saga, and, of course, Iain M Bank’s Culture novels. There are many, many more that include all the tie in novels for Star Trek and Star Wars. The Expanse novels that have now been made into a TV show, and Jack Campell’s books, which fill a particular niche of sci-fi but are so readable. And when you think about it, up until the LOTR films and Game of Thrones TV shows, sci-fi outnumbered fantasy programmes by a fair degree.
The whole genre is as varied as fantasy, but I’d argue it does something different. Now, I know there are those books that ‘bend’ or ‘blend’ the genres and I might get to them, if I my memory chip doesn’t malfunction by the end of the article.
So, the difference. It is one of outlook and time. Sci-fi looks to the future and asks what would life be like if… we had space travel… we lived forever… had cured all disease… had machines that did it all for us… we had to live underwater (hrm…)… moved to a new planet… got stuck on a planet (this might make a good book or film, you know)? The best sci-fi takes an idea and turns it, twists it, makes it something.
There is real science behind the very best of it. It all makes sense in a certain kind of way. Okay, there are some who’d argue we’ll never go faster than the speed of light (my headteacher and physics teacher in 1985), but others who’d argue we don’t know what we will be capable of in the future. I like science for precisely that reason; the person who says they know it all, has the ultimate truth, always turns out to be wrong. Science fiction lets us, who like to dream of a better future, or at least a future, continue to dream. It expands our mind; lets us see what could possibly be.
Now, you can argue that characters are secondary to worldbuilding in science fiction. They matter less than our wonder at the world around us. I’d argue that may not be the case. Deckard? Buck Rogers? Kirk? Scully? Picard? Solo? Ripley? Through the characters’ eyes we experience the world, the universe that the author has created. It may be a dystopia like Phillip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or even Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. It might be the utopia of Banks’ Culture novels, and even here there is conflict and strife. Without the characters, you wouldn’t care to read on. Without characters you care for, or at least identify with, the book would lose its power. I hold up, as evidence, Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – a book which is so much more about the characters than about the universe they live in (the sequel, too).
I’ll accept that sci-fi books can be overwhelmed by the science, just as fantasy books can be subsumed by the magic. But here is a difference, by and large science-fiction universes are a meritocracy where learning is paramount; if you have the skills, the knowledge, developed over years of effort, then you can succeed. There are few ‘chosen ones’ to dominate the show. Birthright and inheritance don’t always determine life choices and outcomes. I know all those happen, but much less than in fantasy books. (A nod here to Mark Lawrence’s recent blog post).
I love fantasy books. I do. None of this is to denigrate those books – except, sometimes, fantasy worlds can seem to be stuck in time. Nothing has progressed for thousands of years (sometimes just hundreds). Sometimes, the whole of the populace seems to be happy with ‘just’ magic to do all the things they want to do, which is a strange thing when you think about it. Why wouldn’t you develop some scientific and technological ideas that meant everyone could do the thing they wanted to do – whether that’s making rope, crafting shoes, killing an enemy, or building a tower, temple, school or hospital?
At this point, the ol’ memory chip will kick in and remind me that there are books and authors out there that blend the two genres in some way. Books that are set after the fall of man, or a nuclear war; books where magic intercepts the modern world, or even magic and science co-existing in some far flung future. Flintlock fantasy has become a thing too, as finally, some cultural and scientific progress has come along.
I suppose, as I hit 1,000 words, what I am trying to say is; fantasy books are great, but so are science fiction books. Why not read them both? Or do you read them both already?
Of course you do.