Thursday, December 02, 2004
Epic Vision (Part II)

[Continued from Part I. An apology that this took so long, real life is a bit busy.]

Science and Fantasy Fiction ("Speculative Fiction" or "SF") are frequently and usually grouped together, not only in the aisles of a bookstore or library, but also in literary dichotomies. The more general category of "escapist" literature - that is, fiction that enables the reader to enter the realm of imagination as a temporary alternative to reality - is frequently used to include SF along with other varieties of fiction that are dismissed as less worthy than other forms. This is, of course, unjust and generalizing; but it is a reality, nonetheless.

There are important aspects of SF, however, that blur the lines of 'worthy literature' and 'escapism.' Under certain definitions, any work of fiction, at all, can be considered 'escapist.' And under defintions of the opposite extreme, most any written word can be considered 'worthy literature.' But these extremes aside, it seems to me there are two dividing lines between these categories of 'accepted' and 'dismissed' work, though even these are blurry.

The first line is what I refer to as 'artistic merit.' Beowulf, the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Canterbury Tales, the Inferno, Paradise Lost, The Faerie Queen, Shakespeare's Tempest - these are all considered great works of Literature; but they all deal with similar elements of the fantastic that we read in contemporary authors. The historical value and obvious talent that went into crafting all of these works 'rescue' them from the label of escapism. As more modern takes on speculation are slowly accepted, artisans like Tolkien receive better treatment by both critics and academia.

The second doorway to acceptablity, as I understand it, is 'intellectual merit.' It is under this heading that my primary point lies. Asimov, for instance, is not regarded a great writer, per se; but the ideas he forwarded in his novels were incredible. The same goes for Sir Arthur C. Clarke (though he could reach great literary heights as well), and Philip K. Dick, among others.

But here's the rub: all the authors I listed in the above paragraph write the Science portions of SF. Neil Gaiman is the only fantasy author since Tolkien I can think of who has delved into topics that twist the mind, and he is only marginally considered a writer of fantasy (most bookstores I've seen place him in either Sci-Fi or General Fiction). If literature is a laboratory for the mind, where writers play with the various implications of ideas, the Fantasy genre has long ceased experimenting.

Fantasy authors face a dilemma as regards literary merit. If there are only two available qualities that will allow them to achieve 'respectability' in the minds of those who matter, they must fulfill one or the other. But as history has demonstrated, artistic merit takes decades - even centuries - to determine. If an author of fantasy literature wants acceptance in his or her lifetime, it is better to go the second route. But fantasy doesn't lend itself to this kind of mental experimentation as easily as does science fiction.

More often than straight intellect, fantasy literature relies on an author's epic vision to drive a story. The most appealing stories are the most fully imagined; those that bring their alternate worlds to life completely. This act of imagination, and the demand of the reading public, drives authors of fantasy to attempt to chronicle the entirety of their fictional landscape. After all, the deeper they go, the more readers will enjoy their work. The majority of their labor, then, is directed toward fully realizing their world, rather than trying to connect it to this one.

Of course, with so much acreage of imagination to explore, and so great a push to reveal as much of it as possible, an author can't be expected to cram the whole world into a single novel. And thus we have the proliferation of multi-volume stories in the Fantasy realm. We've already seen where this ends up: aisles and aisles of mediocre sequels, each less tantalizing than the last.

The trend toward publishing a series of books, rather than a single stand-alone tome, (monetary considerations aside) seems in this view to signify a lack of ideation where concepts are concerned. If this continues, it seems clear that Fantasy literature will remain relegated to the condemned genre of 'escapism.' I know Fantasy novels can handle ideas - I've read a few (too few) that have done so. It's up to the more daring authors to rescue their art form, assuming they desire to do so. Fantasy need not leave behind dragons and magic, wizards and knights, kings and thieves. It must simply refocus their use.

This has always kind of annoyed me too. You'd think science fiction, with the constraints of science imposed on it, would have less room for imagination, whereas fantasy (which has, in theory, no constraints at all) would be an endless playground for the mind where even the laws of physics can be ignored, if the author desires. In practice, it seems that most writers accept a far more limiting set of conventions: same fantastic creatures (drawn from celtic and norse mythology), same settings (usually a thinly veiled medieval europe), and the same archetypal characters (wizards, warriors, princes and paupers.) Some writers - Michael Moorcock in his Elric Saga, Jack Vance in The Dying Earth, A.A. Attanasio in his Arthor series - transcend this, but most (Feist, Lackey, etc) are content to remain within Tolkien's world. Meanwhile, scifi writers are expected to develop their own fantastic creatures (aliens, cyborgs, uploads, AIs, etc), their own fantastic settings (alien planets, space colonies, megastructures such as Dyson spheres and Niven rings) and to utilize a broader set of archetypal characters, including but not limited to those available to fantasy writers.

The situation is analogous to poetry. Pre-20th century poetry, with its multitude of structual constraints, produced works which amaze even today, whereas modern poetry, having gone whole-hog into free verse, produces nothing but vapid drivel.

I think the lesson is that artistic constraints, oddly, are almost necessary for creativity. By forcing the creator to go through the skull-sweat of making his vision match the constraints, it prevents him from taking the easy path.

Of course, audience is important too. Scifi readers tend to be a little geekier than the population at large, a little more willing to entertain unexpected ideas. They're future-oriented, almost by definition. Fantasy fans, OTOH, prefer to escape reality by heading into the distant past, or at best a skewed version of the present. They might thus be expected to be conservative, like the readers of historical fiction, but at the same time (and unlike hisfic readers) rather fuzzy-minded ... neither characteristic is conducive to new ideas. I'm generalizing here, of course, and I know there's lots of people who read both voraciously, but I suspect this stereotype has a (very broad) basis in reality.

Anyhow, that's my $0.02 explanation for the malaise affecting fantasy fiction these days.
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