11/12/2009. Contributed by Stephen Hunt
As those who follow the blogosphere may know, there has recently been an intense debate centred around the subject of fantasy versus science fiction and who’s the daddy.
It started off when fantasy author Mark Charan Newton wrote about why science fiction is dying (and fantasy fiction, at least according to the sales figures, isn’t) – you can read about the riot that ensued over at http://blog.markcnewton.com/2009/12/10/the-aftermath/
Now to me, this always seemed like a bit of a false dialogue – a bit like watching dogmatic protestants and catholics arguing about the indivisibility of the holy ghost and suchlike around the time of the Tudors (I know, I know centuries of holy war was the result – that’s divorces for you). You just want to slam some heads together and shout, ‘Hey, Christians, Jews and Muslims, it’s the same frakking god, you twats!’
Fans with a capital ‘F’ may think there’s a difference between science fiction and fantasy, but to the 99 per cent of readers who buy the books, they just go to the single shelf at their local bookshop and pick them up alphabetically by author – Canavan next to Clarke, ebony and ivory, sitting together in harmony.
Given that all the books I’ve had published by HarperCollins to date are fantasy, you might expect me to be holding the stake for Mark Charan Newton as he carefully positions it to ram down into the hot beating heart of Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, but why should I?
Like most of the great-unwashed masses, I’ve always treated the SF and the F in SFF as the same currency. I don’t sit at home having mad Gollum-like internal dialogues with myself along the lines of ‘Tolkien, Tolkien, so precious, but that Star Wars, that George Lucas and his stormtrooper armour-wearing fans, what a load of wankers they are.’
You can tell that, because although in 2010 I’ll be writing my 6th novel in my fantasy Jackelian series, I often manage to slip in a little science fiction under the covers. Book one, The Court of the Air, has a self-evolving AI race called the steammen, aka the People of the Metal, and a sentient gun, which while clearly not labelled as such, is obviously powered by antimatter (I mean, just check out the frigging scale of the explosion). Book two, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, has an ancient nano-technology plague, and don’t even start me on The Rise of the Iron Moon. They also have magic, sword fights, and enough strange races and daring-do to please any respectable goblin-loving reader.
Take one step back, and you’ll see that science fiction is a fully valid and self-formed sub-genre of fantasy, which is itself way older – the daddy of them all – as old as the desire to tell sagas, in fact. Take two steps back, and you’ll see that all branches of fiction are sub-genres of fantasy, as they basically relate to telling stories that exist only in the imagination. Yes, Modern Fiction and the critics of the Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review, and the maggots crawling out of the corpse of the recently deceased Kirkus Review, it is you that I talk of.
Yes, you fuckers, you scurrilous road-kill on the arse of the arts scene who think that the world of letters starts and stops with the likes of V. S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Martin Amis, Sylvia Plath, Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon and Allen Ginsberg, I am looking hungrily at you through the rusting barbed wire of the genre ghetto you have condemned me to.
The first fiction, the sagas of Beowulf and the trials of Gilgamesh and the poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey, did they deal with the existential angst of a housewife in the Midlands struggling against the expectations of society and the hidden weight of the anthropic fallacy on her soul? No, they dealt with gnarly dudes with big swords killing dragons, Cyclops and spell-casting evil-doers.
Margaret Atwood may deny she writes science fiction, but she walks in the darkness of the long shadow of over two thousand years of fantasy fiction, and when she opens the pages of Oryx and Crake at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, the ghostly breeze that chills her bones is the knowledge that literary fiction too is a mere sub-genre of fantasy, a thin, reedy offshoot, a Johnny-come-lately to the party.
Philip Palmer recently blogged about the Rebirth of Cool SF over at http://www.philippalmer.net/2009/12/11/the-rebirth-of-cool-sf/ - saying that science fiction could strike the zeitgeist, “very soon when Avatar hits the cinema screens, which is very soon now. This could be the SF movie that does what the movie of Lord of the Rings did.” Further citing as hopeful evidence that “Roland Emmerich is now slated to direct a movie of Asimov's Foundation trilogy.”
I’d like to think that will happen, Phil, but I doubt it. The urge to position one’s art beyond the ghetto of science fiction and fantasy has now become an unstoppable plague – SciFi.com is remade as SyFy.com, the makers of FlashForward are definitely not, they rushed to tell us, making in any shape or form a science fiction television series… a sentiment aped in more ways than one by the pygmies at the BBC and their series Paradox, JK Rowling even keeps a straight face now when she denies Harry Potter is a fantasy series.
The BBC this morning devoted five minutes on prime time TV news to the new James Cameron film Avatar, going to great, obviously very carefully briefed lengths, to never once use the term science fiction, or even sci-fi. No, it was a futuristic movie, it was a spectacular adventure movie. But a science fiction movie? Never. Perish the thought. Too clever for that. Too full of vision.
Well, control the language, and the rest follows.
Now, where did I read that? Science fiction book I think. George somebody, did that awful hack fantasy novel about talking pigs and a farm or something?
Fantasy versus science fiction?
No question now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to fan, and from fan to pig, and from pig to fan again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA