Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Science Fiction versus Fantasy

The Course of Empire
Mostly this is not much of a fight. These two subgenres of Romance happily coexist (along with horror) in the same section of the bookstore.

This juxtaposition need not have been inevitable. Horror, at least, could as easily have been shelved along with mysteries. Both have a lot of dark stuff, not to mention shared roots going back to Edgar Allen Poe. In other respects, both SF and fantasy have a good deal in common with historical fiction - all set in worlds different from the everyday present, usually markedly so. But hist-fic seems generally shelved in with general fiction, presumably because its worlds are 'real.'


It is only by coincidence that I bring this up right after the death of Anne McCaffrey, whose Pern setting amounted (IIRC) to a fantasy setting framed within a mostly offstage SF setting.

Exactly how SF and F are to be distinguished from one another is a vexed, long-discussed issue, and now we are going to vex it some more. I have tended to favor the robust if simplistic rule that if it has a spaceship it is SF, if it has a sword it is fantasy, and if it has both it is science fantasy. Which works pretty well as practical guidance, but of course there is more to it than that.

There are theoretical differences - so to speak - between the science-rooted world view (typically) presumed in SF and the magical/mystical/demireligious world view implied by most fantasy. More consequential are the practical differences - science is, well, science, while magic is an art. (Read the posts that follow that one for further discussion.)

Several attempts have been made to 'rationalize' fantasy settings, giving them an SF infrastructure. The ones I have read - notably by Niven and L Sprague de Camp - have tended to clunk. They had no magic, in the literary sense. Explaining magic takes the art out of it, and does what a lecture on nutrition does to a fine meal. The Pern book likely avoided this problem by putting the SF frame on the shelf and reading like traditional fantasy.

Another interesting line of argument contrasts the political undertones of SF and fantasy - the former tending to be broadly liberal, the latter deeply hierarchical and essentially reactionary. I introduce this point in a mealymouthed way because my monkey's google fu is weak. Just a few weeks ago I read an essay or blog post making this point. It was by a pretty well known SF writer, but I can't remember his name, and searching has failed to turn it up. Suggestions by the hive mind would be welcome!

This argument's logic and examples are impeccable, but I can't entirely buy it - and can't entirely put my finger on why I don't quite buy it. It is true that 'traditional' fantasy (as distinct from urban fantasy and the like) is backward-looking, rooted in the social conditions of the agrarian age, while SF looks forward to a post-industrial age.

Is it simply that the Scouring of the Shire is so cool? I've read a revisionist version (which seemed distinct from the one linked - once again reports from the hive mind are welcome), but the Scouring was still cool.

The political interpretation of genre makes for an easy segue to fretting over what has happened to SF/F since their bookstore pairing became the norm, by around 1970. Swords have done better than spaceships, with fantasy becoming considerably the larger of the two genres, as measured by book production and sales.

By further (non-?) coincidence all this happened at just about the same time that space travel became a reality - and turned out to be so difficult and costly as to make the classical SF space future look somewhat ... fantastic. Indeed, much of the modern-era growth in SF itself has been in quasi-fantasy directions, notably including retro-SF that looks as firmly backward as traditional fantasy, if not quite as far.

The flip side may be urban fantasy, bringing fantasy tropes into the post-industrial era.

Yet in spite of the controversies and stereotypes, the two genres do coexist pretty well, to the point where I can more or less take for granted that readers here will be familiar with fantasy tropes. The similarities are, in the end, more consequential than the differences, and more central to the great Romance genre to which they both belong.




Discuss.

The image, besides being entertainingly lurid, illustrates a theme common to SF and fantasy, and provides an excuse to link the page at Atomic Rockets where I found it.

63 comments:

gwern said...

> Another interesting line of argument contrasts the political undertones of SF and fantasy - the former tending to be broadly liberal, the latter deeply hierarchical and essentially reactionary. I introduce this point in a mealymouthed way because my monkey's google fu is weak. Just a few weeks ago I read an essay or blog post making this point. It was by a pretty well known SF writer, but I can't remember his name, and searching has failed to turn it up. Suggestions by the hive mind would be welcome!

David Brin comes to mind, although which of his many essays/rants/blog-posts you would have read escapes me.

Mukk said...

Space Feudalism happens. At the same time most fantasy governments are portrayed as not being a preferable system of government, just the way things were. Very few fantasy authors try to portray their governments as utopias. The governments mostly depend on how good the ruler is. The drama that comes from the less than ideal governments is too good to pass up. Will the evil prince inherit the throne? Exciting fantasy idea but it doesn't sell the system as a utopia.

So I don't think you can really claim fantasy has some kind of conservative bias. Science Fiction is more likely to preach Utopian politics, and liberals and conservatives are both represented. In fact the only bias you can point at is the dogmatic bias that holds that some course of action will resort in a utopia.

A fantasy story will more likely claim 'shit happens' and 'government isn't perfect.' At best it will imply some religious thing that The Force is trying to make the world a better place. Unfortunately the Dark Side is busy screwing it up.

I've come to my own classification. Hard SciFi is when someone has an interesting idea, put the idea in the work, and spend most of the time exploring the idea. Soft SciFi is where the other takes cool speculative things and tries to make a cool story with them. A sword or a laser gun won't tell you the difference between the two.

Mukk said...

Star Wars is soft science fiction. It lives on the rule of cool. It focuses on characters and character actions.

Star Trek attempts to be hard science fiction. It picks at interesting ideas. It explores the ideas. Sometimes it fails when the ideas are just just empty technobable but it does try.

Think which of the two shows has plots that hang on the technical details of how the warp drive works.

(I love Star Trek. I just HATE technobable.)

Of course it can get wierd. The Magic Goes Away is an example of what happens if you treat traditional fantasy ideas like hard science fiction.

Z said...

I'd bet a buck you're thinking of David Brin, as someone else pointed out. He's written on that topic on Salon, and pretty recently and sympathetically on his blog. The whole dichotomy of science fiction as Joseph Campbell-slaying, Enlightenment spawned fiction about finding new ways of doing things after ten thousand repetitive years, and fantasy as being fundamentally protective of those traditions. It's probably easier just to Google- it's really his principal theme when it comes to discussing other people's science fiction- he has a similar article on Salon about Star Wars vs. Star Trek.

Anonymous said...

You might be thinking of Charlie Stross, though the post by him that I'm thinking of concetrated more on the colonialist undertones of steampunk, as far as I remember.

R.C.

ElAntonius said...

I think ultimately they are one and the same. Fantasy and sci-fi are all about imagining worlds in a speculative manner.

I don't think it's a coincidence that a common fantasy cliche is that the setting is actually post-apocalypse or on some distant planet that somehow got cut off from the rest of civilization.

As a writing challenge, I imagine one could re-imagine Lord of the Rings as hard sci-fi set in our solar system. The reason is that "fantasy" isn't really about swords, it's about characters.

Similarly, Star Trek ain't nothin' more than Wagon Train to the Stars. 99% of the plot points could be set in a fantasy setting, with horses and swords instead of shuttles and phasers.

Moving on to harder sci-fi, at least most of what I've read still uses science mostly to inform the setting...it's not a speculative science lecture, for the most part.

I mean, is the story REALLY different if it takes two months to get to Darrowshire with the Horn of Replenishment, or two months to get your supply ship to Mars with much needed replacement parts for their hydroponic systems?

Ultimately, the real plot is that the distant settlement needs food, and badly, and the hero has the McGuffin that will help them.

Cambias said...

I think both SF and Fantasy are Utopian, but in different ways. SF is of course the dream of a technological Utopia, one built by human hands and brains. So much of SF is about what form such a Utopia might take, or if it is possible, or what we would have to give up to achieve it. It can be liberal or conservative depending on the author's attitude toward Utopia (liberals are Utopians, conservatives are skeptical of the idea).

Fantasy is also Utopian, but it more or less explicitly states that Utopia can't be created by humans. Only God (or the Gods) can do it. To the extent that fantasy recognizes that humans cannot create Utopia, it is conservative, but since the fantasy Utopia is generally very much not our world, it is liberal.

Really, trying to shoehorn literature into the political categories of the moment is a mug's game.

Jim Baerg said...

Re: the difference between SF & fantasy.

The natural/supernatural distinction is relevant. I think this essay is very much to the point: http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/01/defining-supernatural.html

His short dry & technical definition is:

"In short, I argue "naturalism" means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, "supernaturalism" means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things."

Most of the essay elaborates on this with entertaining examples from popular fiction.

BTW I agree that the author you were thinking of is probably Brin.

Raymond said...

Following along...

Damien Sullivan said...

A lot of the SF classics can be viewed as fantasy in technological drag; fantasy wasn't popular or prestigious. Lord of Light, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, High Crusade, Darkover books. Widespread use of "psionics" instead of "magic".

One definition of SF is that it gives the feeling of being a possible future, while fantasy is another world. That leaves middle ground: alternate histories and pasts, urban fantasy with sufficiently plausible hidden magic and secret history. But still, a good first cut IMO.

Politics? SF is all over the place. The comment that it's more often utopian (also dystopian) seems spot on. Fantasies sometimes idealize or romanticize hierarchy but not so "in your face". And the last fictional democratic revolution I read was in the Liveship Traders fantasy. The last one in SF, um...

zornhau said...

I think people confuse setting for manifesto. Quasi Medieval Fantasy is not of itself pro-feudalism, any more than MilSF is pro war for it's own sake.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

I've never been comfortable with the idea of a divide beyond that needed for successful marketing.

I believe that SF and Fantasy are essentially non-identical twins. Different from each other yes but sharing parents, a birthday and a shared childhood with all the jealousy and name calling that implies.

When I was young the writers I was reading, Andre Norton, Heinlein et al used to write both with equal facility. While I think it is important to understand the genre within which one is writing it's equally important to regard the elements that make up that genre as a framework - a scafold for the imagination if you like - rather than a prison.

Tony said...

In certain ways, I think high fantasy is way more utopian than people are willing to admit. Certainly there are evildoers and their evildoings, but nobody seems to have the real day-to-day issues that feudal era people really had. No starvation, no disease, no disfigurement (except where it's useful for comic relief or as an additional stick with which to beat the antoagonist), no pestilence, no plunder (except by evildoers), no rape (except as the almost unmentionable fate behind Door #3 for the female protagonist if she isn't rescued by Our Hero, or cleverly rescues herself), etc., etc., etc.

And so what if they have kings and queens, lords and ladies? Good ones are perceived to foster the ultimate paradise, while bad ones exist to be slain in pursuit of a happy -- or at least optimistically ambivalent -- ending.

Yes, I really hate fantasy. How'd you guess?

SF has a lot of these things to, but not as standard scenery. The hammer's Slammers universe, for example, reads like the modern Third World on steroids, HGH, and (sometimes) crack. Not that it's unbelievable. It's just unrelievedly cynical.

Heinlein's futures had all sorts of gee-whiz, but they were also full of human frailties. So went most of the Golden Age of hard SF.

As for more recent punkishness in SF, I take it as childish and asinine showing off, like 10 year old boys self-consciously, but ever so proudly uttering "fuck". This too shall pass.

Tony said...

Ben Aaronovitch

"When I was young the writers I was reading, Andre Norton, Heinlein et al used to write both with equal facility."

And appealing to almost completely non-intersecting audiences. Some people want real-world grounding, even if it involves the ocassional invocation of magitech. Others want to see the magic, even if it involves Dark Age settings. The two don't overlap very much at all.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

And appealing to almost completely non-intersecting audiences. Some people want real-world grounding, even if it involves the ocassional invocation of magitech. Others want to see the magic, even if it involves Dark Age settings. The two don't overlap very much at all.

They seemed to intersect quite happily in my youth, at least amongst my peers. Do we have any evidence, beyond the anecdotal, that the overlap is so narrow?

Tony said...

Ben Aaronovitch

"They seemed to intersect quite happily in my youth, at least amongst my peers. Do we have any evidence, beyond the anecdotal, that the overlap is so narrow?"

Your peers are just as anecdotal as mine. :-P

Seriously, there's an argument to be made that the Golden Age SF writers writing in fantasy was an audience-widening ploy. I just can't grok Heinlein easily or painlessly living in a conceptually fantastic world, so I strongly suspect that he only did it because it was a way to get a few more sheckels. But he wouldn't have to do that if all of the readers were already attracted to his work for reasons of content. QED.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

Your peers are just as anecdotal as mine. :-P

Mine were particularly anecdotal which is why I wonder if anyone has ever generated any hard-ish data on the reading habits and how they changed over time.

Could be cultural difference - I'm from London where are you from?

Tony said...

Ben Aaronovitch:

"Could be cultural difference - I'm from London where are you from?"

Is it Ben Aaronovitch as in the spawn of Sam and sometimes TV writer? Or is that just a screen name? (Sorry about any negative connotations "spawn" might bring up if you are *the* Ben A., but I just couldn't bring myself to ask if you were the "son" of Sam.) I mean London, you sound like you were born in the mid Sixties and grew up in the Seventies...

In any case, I was born and raised in Los Angeles, enjoyed quite a bit of (government funded) world travel in my misspent young adulthood, and now live in Southern Utah. Since we're both city boys from the same era, lower middle class families, and raised in essentially the same media culture -- I was exposed to a lot of British television fare thanks to my parents' TV vieiwing habits, and a lot of British writing by my own choice -- I'm not sure how culture might affect things. Except maybe in the sense that a lot of English language high fantasy has many cultural associations with a British rural habitat that you're a lot closer to than I.

Damien Sullivan said...

I'd call fantasy societies more idealized or romanticized than consciously utopian, but yes they're definitely often nicer in many ways than real pre-industrial societies. Sometimes justified by the fantastic elements.

I didn't know Heinlein wrote any fantasies. I have trouble believing it was for money. Yes, could appeal to new readers, but if it appeals to fewer readers than the SF, stick to the SF. And from what I've heard fantasy as a conscious genre is a lot younger than SF, going back to Tolkien's success, or even more recently to Terry Brooks... which ironically is itself (Shanarra) a post nuclear holocaust future. Older fantasy was rare or in SF drag.

These days fantasy sells better and gets better advances, but I've never seen an anthology of 1930s Golden Age fantasy, or even heard of a Golden Age for fantasy. We're probably in it.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

I am the son of Sam born in the mid-sixties, American and British media cultures were much more divergent back then(1) - less so now.

Lumping UK and US SF cultures together is understandable but can be a mistake. The UK has its own and distinct history of SF and it's own obsessions (class not race for one). That said the common language leads to a great deal of overlap.

With regards to Fantasy I think there's a major difference in the perception of history - you know the old joke 'In America 200 miles is a short distance and 200 years along time. In Europe it's the other way round.' For the longest time I used to pop down to the shops along a road that was first laid down by the Romans in about 45 AD and from my window I can see more 17th century buildings than are currently still extant in the whole of the continental US(2).

I say this not to boast (I didn't build them) but to illustrate that perceptions of the past and future and thus fantasy and sf could well vary between the two cultures.

You know I think I've lost the thread of this conversation.


(1) Gilligan's Island is a really good illustration of this. British people only know about it, if they know about it all, from the numerous references in other American fiction.

(2) European buildings anyway.

Tony said...

Ben A.:

I think we were discussing why I perceive a wall between fantasy and SF readers and you don't. And you asked how that might be cultural.

It may be cultural, but more in the subcultural sense. From what I know, you grew up in a very concept-oriented environment, I did too to some degree, but all of my family was in the defense or infrastructure industry, so we quite necessarily viewed the workd in terms of concrete problems and technological solutions. Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that Fantasy was an exploration of the writers' more visceral dreams while Science Fiction was an exploration of the ramifications of new technology, social concepts, and how we would deal with "others"(i.e. aliens). Obviously there is a great deal of overlap; the main thing that divides SF from Fantasy is "flavor"; just like you can tell the difference between a chicken sandwich and fryed fish, most can tell the difference between SF and Fantasy. It may be tough to describe, but everyone can agree that the difference does exist.

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

I'm with Ferrell here.

To me, good SF is the inverse of history; rather than asking how did we get here good SF asks "what if...?"
The definition is sufficiently broad to include such things as "Atlas Shrugged" or some of Margot Atwood's works, as well as the more common technological and science based "what if?" questions.

Fantasy generally exists in relatively self contained worlds and has little to do with exploring the implications of "What if". Even J.R.R Tolkein, who essentially had a "second creation" in Arda, meditated on languages, cultures and morality tales based inside that universe. Even more modern "fantasy" which utilizes crossovers into what is recognizably "our" universe mostly uses this as a vehicle to get the heros in and out of the story or various plot complications. The only Heinlein story I can think of as a full fledged "Fantasy" (Glory Road) handwaves the magic as a form of science (magitech in the flesh!), but has little "what if" despite the magitech.

My .02 anyway

Hugh said...

One aspect of fantasy vs science fiction that interests me is how fantasy has gradually spread into space. Edgar Rice Burroughs could write John Carter fantasy on Mars, while more some modern writers have moved fantasy elsewhere in the galaxy, such as Pern or Darkover. (Star Wars might count too.) As both writers and readers become more immersed in a scientific world, even fantasy has to adjust.

Tony said...

Fantasy didn't have to adjust to a more scientific age, and most fantasy didn't. Fantasies in SFnal settings is just a niche hybrid.

ElAntonius said...

Anecdotally, I don't see a wall myself. I read and enjoy both.

But the stronger evidence is in the marketing itself. Book stores lump them together, publishers lump them together.

That the shelf space between the two is so intertwined indicates to me that the people paid to analyze such things figure there's at least significant overlap in audiences.

Javier said...

Both being fantasies, the main difference that I see between Science Fiction and Fantasy, is that the former is generally future-oriented, while the latter is past-oriented. The style might be similar, but the direction a story takes in each genre, develops from this difference in perspectives...

Tony said...

ElAntonius:

"But the stronger evidence is in the marketing itself. Book stores lump them together, publishers lump them together."

They also lump together planes, trains, and automobiles under "Transportation". Talk about virtually mutually exclusive readerships...

"That the shelf space between the two is so intertwined indicates to me that the people paid to analyze such things figure there's at least significant overlap in audiences."

Uhhh...no. It's an artifact of organizing alphabetically by author name within fiction genres.

Tony said...

Oh, yes...they also put 2012 hysteria book in the "Science" section. So please don'ttell me what publishers and booksellers know or don't know about subject matter or audience overlaps.

Or, if you want to suggest that there's marketing value in placing pseudoscience and science together, what you're really saying is that the reading public is a bunch of ignorant saps.

Brian Ballsun-Stanton said...

David Brin, on the difference between science fiction and fantasy

Ben Aaronovitch said...

According to Brin I'm writing Science Fiction - interesting.

Raymond said...

According to Brin's definition, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court is science fiction, too.

Rick said...

Welcome to a few new commenters!

Several of you suggested that the Mystery SF Author [TM] was Brin, and the thoughtfully provided link pretty much nails it (though I don't think I had read that particular essay).

My peers are most anecdotal of all, since they include all of you.

SF and fantasy aren't just shelved together commercially, they have richly interlaced publishing structures and fandoms. (At least 'Murrican SF/F.)

Yes there are differences in the stereotype images and readerships of the two subgenres. And some are likely grounded in truth, if these depressingly male-dominated discussion threads are anything to go by.

Still there is an awful lot of crossover, in one form or another. At an underlying level, they generally have exotic settings in common, whether it is other centuries or other planets. And they have cool whizbangs, whether these are super science or just plain magic.

How I see a particular story depends more on mood than formalisms. I never think of Heinlein's Glory Road as fantasy. On the other hand, Dune comes off very much like a fantasy.

There was always a fantasy wing to 'Murrican SF, going back to its roots in the pulps. But mostly we are talking about the effects of LOTR. I don't think monarchy was much idealized in the Conan books.

Carry on.

Rick said...

Also, I got rid of a duplicate comment.

ElAntonius said...

Tony: you're overthinking my response.

Of course they're organized alphabetically by author, but the fact that the two categories share a shelf AT ALL means that the guys paid to think about such things think that the genres are close enough that someone likely to buy one might at least look at the other.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy are distinct enough from regular fiction to merit their own section, but not distinct enough from each other to merit individual sections from each.

And consequently, the transportation section also makes sense. The kind of person who would buy a book on...say...airplanes, is the kind of person who is more likely to enjoy books on other forms of transportation.

But if you need more evidence, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention hosted Boris Vallejo, mostly known for beefcake illustrations of barbarians and scantily clad women, and George RR Martin, mostly known for his low fantasy work (and he's definitely in the news for A Game of Thrones).

That's where the Hugo Award gets presented.

So you're telling me that the guys running the worlds pre-eminent science fiction convention are idiots in the marketing field? My explanation is that they feel that a significant number in their fanbase would be interested in some fantasy luminaries being there.

Hell, they had Fritz Leiber as the guest of honor in 1951, so it's not even anything new.

The demographic overlap between Sci Fi and Fantasy is VERY real. Your preferences are just that, not the wider reality.

Tony said...

ElAntonius:

"The demographic overlap between Sci Fi and Fantasy is VERY real. Your preferences are just that, not the wider reality."

I'm pretty sure I'm not just speaking for myself or a relatively small group. There really is a disconnect between fantasy and SF for a lot of readers. But, like transportation, they're enough alike in the publishers' and marketers' eyes to shelve them together. That doesn't mean an SF reader browses the fantasy books in the Fantasy/SF section. Just like the trainspotter ignoring aviation books in the Transportation section, the SF reader just ignores fantasy. The reverse is true for the fantasy reader.

Also, If you've been in a bricks and moratr bookstore recently, you may have noticed that the F&SF section is being inundated with vampire fantasies. SF and supernatural thrillers are fundamentally the same genre, right?

Tony said...

ElAntonius:

WRT what goes on at cons. Pay not attention to who the guests of honor are, but to who attends the various pannels. There's a definite audience for science and SF panels, with little overlap with the fantasy audience. They even schedule them against each other, because they expect the minimum complaints that way.

WRT Boris Vallejo...he paints dirty pictures, okay?

ElAntonius said...

Broadly, yes, Vampire fiction usually gets lumped in with fantasy. Don't confuse "I don't like it" with "it's not in a genre I like".

As for Boris Vallejo, OK, he paints dirty pictures? So what? The point is that he's mostly known in the circle as a celebrity within the fantasy half of the fandom.

You're not thinking demographics. In fact, the publishing industry even lumps all these genres together with a term: speculative fiction.

It's not coincidental that most of these publishing houses (I bothered to look up both Baen and Del Rey) play host to both types of writer, and it's not coincidental that many of these authors have dipped their toes in both camps.



Or, to put it another way: say I only like books about space fighter pilots. Now, it would be silly for me to expect the publishers and merchants to split out a section just for space fighters, wouldn't it? That's hilariously granular.

However, just because _I_ prefer to read about space fighters, doesn't mean that IN GENERAL, someone who has bought and read "Dogfights of World War 2 in SPACE" won't be much more likely to buy and read "Space Dreadnought Captains in SPACE".

We go up the chain.

What I'm saying is that buy and large the market has dictated that someone who reads sci fi is MORE LIKELY to be interested in fantasy.

My argument is not invalid because publishers choose to put out some execrable stuff. They've done that for all eternity. What matters is that the evidence does point that people do overlap significantly in their tastes.

Your argument is that there exists two completely disparate groups of people that go to the same conventions, go to the same sections of the book store, read books from the same publishers, read the same authors, yet never cross over? That doesn't pass the sniff test.

Tony said...

ElAntonious:

"Your argument is that there exists two completely disparate groups of people that go to the same conventions, go to the same sections of the book store, read books from the same publishers, read the same authors, yet never cross over? That doesn't pass the sniff test."

I am arguing that, but not to the exclusion of a third, crossover group. What I am saying is that crossover is not a defining feature of the genres in question. It's a niche. And that passes the sniff test in the discussion of any two mostly exclusive phenomena that still experience a degree of crossover.

Jim Baerg said...

FWIW I read more SF than Fantasy, but I do read some fantasy.

I tend to like fantasy in which the author has thought out how the magic works. Unlike Rick I enjoyed Sprague de Camps & Nivens fantasies.

I very much enjoyed Dave Duncan's _Man of His Word_ novel in the 4 volumes. It had a mystery story aspect in that the main characters were figuring out how the magic worked & the reader is trying to figure out the next twist before the characters do.

Peter said...

As someone who loves both SF and fantasy, Brin's holy war against the latter drives me crazy. Arguing "all fantasy is reactionary", "all fantasy idealises the past", or "all fantasy has sloppy worldbuilding" makes about as much sense as judging all SF politics by David Weber, all SF prose and characterisation by the 1930s pulps, and all SF plots by Hollywood.

Fantasy, like SF, is a big tent. Ultimately what makes a work fantasy is its trappings -- magic, quasi-historical settings, whatever -- and not its themes.

Chris Lopes said...

I think it's pretty obvious that both genres tend to appeal to the same kinds of people, so putting them together on the same shelves makes a certain amount of sense. As to Brin's point, I can see where he is going, but I don't think it's that simple. As others have pointed out, the politics of a genre can not really be described as easily as Brin wants to believe.

For instance, his LOTR analogy is all wrong. Yes you have a king at the end of the story, but Middle Earth is hardly the same place it was in the beginning. That's kind of the whole point (aside from "hey gang, look at the really cool world I just built") of the story, that the world is changing. The elves are leaving and the age of man is upon middle Earth. It may not be representative democracy yet, but if they follow our history, it will be.

His thesis doesn't apply to science fiction either, not even for the same author. Starship Troopers is as conventionally right wing as it gets, while Stranger in a Strange Land became a counter culture classic. So I'm not sure where he's getting that idea.

Tony said...

Chris Lopes:

"Starship Troopers is as conventionally right wing as it gets..."

Here's where historical literacy really undermines a lot of political positions people take WRT to literature and what they suppose the author is trying to say. The political system in Starship Troopers is older than the Roman Empire. The idea that only those who take up arms in defense of the state should be allowed to vote goes back at least as far as Classical Greece. In at least one way, Heinlein's Federation was liberal by 5th Century BC Greek standards -- anybody could volunteeer and through service receive a vote. In ancient Greece one had to be of good enough means to supply one's own hoplite armor.

Leaving semi-direct historical analogues aside, the time when when wielding the bayonet was considered a liability of casting a vote is easily within living memory. And it was not considered a partisan position. Both Republicans and Democrats implicitly supported both the wartime and peacetime draft. Heinlein perceived that ethic to be slipping away in the late 50s Starship Troopers was primarily written for other -- not entirely unassociated -- reasons, but Heinlein structured his Federal Service to make the point that only those who are willing to fight deserve to wield power through the vote.

Chris Lopes said...

"Both Republicans and Democrats implicitly supported both the wartime and peacetime draft."

Interestingly enough, Heinlein didn't. The main purpose of Starship Troopers (aside from getting Heinlein out from under the Scribner's contract) was as a response to calls for a ban on nuclear weapons testing. It's an ode to military virtues, especially those practiced by the infantry. His critics certainly saw it as "right wing".

Tony said...

Chris Lopes:

"Interestingly enough, Heinlein didn't. The main purpose of Starship Troopers (aside from getting Heinlein out from under the Scribner's contract) was as a response to calls for a ban on nuclear weapons testing. It's an ode to military virtues, especially those practiced by the infantry. His critics certainly saw it as 'right wing'."

As was pointed out rather pithily in Back To School, critics are often wrong. The idea that the ruling class must be congruent with the warfighting class in a healthy society is pretty universal. Even at this late, benighted date, it is considered commendable that the British royal males do their military duty. The participation and character of candidates' military service has constantly been an issue in American Presidential elections since at least the Civil War. It's hardly a right wing point of view.

Heinlein did indeed hold a volunteerist ideal, and expressed it forcefully in Starship Troopers. But that was a subsidiary point. His main point was that power must be balanced with responsibility. Even if he couldn't have a society that could defend itself through voluntary military participation, for his own reasoning to be consistent he would have to agree that at the very least the franchise must bear with it the liability for military service.

Thucydides said...

Just to emphasise the point, Prince Andrew is not only an active service officer in the Royal Navy, during the Falkland Islands war his job was to fly a helicopter with a large radar target as a decoy to draw enemy missiles away from the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers.

More recently, Prince Henry ("Harry") served in Afghanistan, but was pulled after his presence was publicized, since it was felt this would draw too much enemy activity against the unit trying to score a coup against the Royal Family and the UK.

While being a military commander is certainly a demonstration of some leadership and executive talents, by itself it isn't enough to ensure that an ex officer (or NCO for that matter) would make a good political leader. We can point to many examples across history of good, bad and indifferent commanders turned leader; many of the skills that make a good politician are not the same as those that make a good leader, and even leadership traits that are useful in the military, business or academia are not necessarily the ones that translate well into politics.

Niven and Pournelle explored the idea a bit in the CoDominium series of stories and books; aristocrats trained from an early age to assume responsibility for their polity were often the protagonists of the stories; Pournelle said it was probably as good a system as anything else tried in history.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"While being a military commander is certainly a demonstration of some leadership and executive talents, by itself it isn't enough to ensure that an ex officer (or NCO for that matter) would make a good political leader."

Of course it isn't sufficient in itself, but it's pretty clear Heinlein thought it a prerequisite. Certainly in the United States there has long been a strong political undercurrent that the chief executive should not have the power to send men to fight if he has not fought himself.

jollyreaper said...

track

Chris Lopes said...

"Certainly in the United States there has long been a strong political undercurrent that the chief executive should not have the power to send men to fight if he has not fought himself."

Except that it hasn't really worked out that way, at least not recently. Clinton (in both races), Bush (again, in both races), and Obama all beat opponents who had more military (as in combat) experience than they did. Their lack of comparative military experience didn't hurt them much, if at all.

What Americans tend to want in a chief executive is someone with a proven record of leadership. Sometimes, that role can be filled with prior military service, but often it just means having survived in politics for long enough. Military service is seen as just another form of government service these days.

Tony said...

Re: Chris Lopes

I said it was a strong undercurrent, not a deciding factor. The service records of Gore and Bush were certainly a subject of discussion during the election.

Rick said...

Just for the record I'll link my take on Starship Troopers.

Tony said...

Rick:

"Just for the record I'll link my take on Starship Troopers.'

To save too much clicking back and forth on the part of the reader, I'll repost my subsequent comments here:

1. Heinlein was fudging when he said that there was a vote-earning civil service option. The whole point of Federal service was to make the ballot go with the bayonet.

2. The sentiment that the ballot must be accompanied by the bayonet was hardly unique to Heinlein. It can be traced all the way back to Classical Greece, where the males capable of affording and using a hoplite panoply were the only people who were considered full-fledged citizens. The same was true of Republican Rome. Feudal societies the world over implicitly matched military power with political power. Prior to universal female suffrage being written into the US Constitution, one of the arguments against it was that women couldn't fight, therefore they weren't qualified to exercise political power over those that could. In Heinlein's day, the draft was predicated upon the idea that enjoying democracy included a duty to protect it with one's own life. In fact, this duty was often cast as a "privelege" by many opinion leaders in politics and the media.

So attaching military service to the vote is hardly implausible. What Heinlein did that shocked so many people was a simple inversion of the usual logic. He made the vote a benefit of military service, rather than military service a liability of the vote. Even here he was not terrible out of line, historically speaking. The Athenians originally only gave the vote to the hoplite class. And when they extended the vote to the hired help, it was based primarily on their demonstrated service to the state as trireme rowers. Those who know their history know that thw Romans extended citizenship to non-Italians through legionary service.

IOW, the entire controversy is a symptom of historical ignorance, not any radical thought process of Heinlein's.

3. The training described in the novel was Mobile Infantry (MI) training only, not standard military training. Heinlein explicitly states that anybody who applies will be accepted for service, and given some job that he can do, even if it is some preposterous caricature of makework. He also states that those who fall out of MI training through lack of physical skill or stamina would be given an easier service job. Rico later encounters one such person as a Navy cook on a troop transport.

Heinlein further states that the MI is a very small army in comparison to the whole Federation population. Yet some Federation jurisdictions have near unanimous subscription to service. They can't all be going to Camp Currie or its Siberian equivalent. Most are going in the Navy, combat support (combat engineers appear in one battle), combat service support ("logistics" is mentioned), or some facsimile of military service that the Federation is required by law to provide to people are useless for anything else.

So, the Federation would not be run by bitter old men with unreasonably hard-nosed attitudes. It would be run by former anything from starship pilots to box kickers, with grunts being in a small minority.

Continued...

Tony said...

Rick:

"But I think the 'reception' of the book is entangled with things like the floggings. And I can easily imagine scenarios in which federal service would devolve into a sort of fraternity hazing that prospective members of a governing elite undergo to become members of the club."

I'm morally ambivalent about the floggings. Maybe it was presented in a bit too meta manner for some to catch, but I think you'll agree that the idea was consistent with the social theories in play. Flogging was preferred because it represented an immediate appeal to the offender's survival mechanism, while incarceration was deprecated because all it really does is restrict liberty and delay certain forms of gratification. (Though Heilein doesn't go into it in "Starship Troopers", it's pretty obvious from stories like "Coventry" that he knew that imprisonment is just a cost of doing business to hardened criminals.)

WRT the hazards of Federal Service becoming a rite of passage, well, I thought that was explicitly accepted by those who supported the system. The whole point was to ensure that the electoral franchise came with a recognizable and voluntarily accepted cost.

As for the epithet "hazing", I personally don't have a problem with it. IMO, people who don't like hazing per se don't understand its social purpose, which is to determine who can be counted on in the clutch. It's simply a social adaptation to the modern world where people can't be tested in the hunt or at war as readily as they used to be. Also IMO, people who don't like hazing because it can be abused are just throwing the baby out with the bath water. Anything can be abused, not just hazing.

continued...

Tony said...

WRT why the non-voters might be willing to support the system, let's remember that many social systems that had concentrated ruling classes, however justified, were capable of generating the support of the non-ruling classes. Our current faith in Jacksonian Democracy blinds many of us to that fact. Most people, in most times and places, simply wouldn't have understood the issue -- the bosses were bosses for whatever good (or at least practical) reason, and that was the end of the argument. As long as the secured food and protection without being too capriciously mean, good enough.

Also, based on current apathy towards a freely available voting right, one wonders how much value most people actually set in possessing and using political power. Given that this reality matches one of the primary justifications of the Federal Service system, I'm not so certain Heinlein was that far out in left field.

WRT combat experience being required for MI officer candidacy, that constraint would have worked fairly well throughout the history of the US, up to the current time. For most of the history of the United States, the Army and Marine Corps have been small, and regularly involved in small wars. But those wars did indeed exist and combat experience among a significant fraction of the land warfare force has been standard. On need not imagine a Federation being any worse -- or better -- than the good ol' US of A as far as militarism or adventurism are concerned. Heinlein just projected the military history of the "peace-loving" United States forward into the future.

12/15/2011:
You know, I think I'll stand by all of that today, without addition, retraction, or modification.

zornhau said...

If active service becomes a prerequisite for being President, except to see a lot of small wars engineered for that purpose.

Thucydides said...

One hardly needs to "engineer" small wars for any purpose, plenty of people around the globe are quite willing to do so for their own purposes. (The trick here is to try to engage the greater powers into joining your side. See Libya for the latest example).

I have also seen comparisons to criminal activity in the United States being a form of insurgent warfare; the gangs are erecting "parallel structures" that impose taxes, protect gang property and impose an internal "rule of law" that is disconnected from the general society. The primary difference here is this is not a deliberate attempt to undermine the Polity and replace it with a different order, but to fill what has essentially turned into a power vacuum at the local level of government (which is no longer effectively supplying these services).

And of course the use of "War" as a metaphor has become a political cliche: how many candidates have used service in the "War on Drugs" or the "War on Poverty" as their credentials for electoral office?

zornhau said...

A general rule is that: "You get what you measure."

At best this means that the military will fill up with political hacks setting out to get blooded.

Tony said...

zornhau:

"If active service becomes a prerequisite for being President, except to see a lot of small wars engineered for that purpose."

In Starship Troopers, wartime service was a prerequisite for becoming an officer. Any military service, of any character -- as long as it was honorably completed -- was sufficient for full political participation.

WRT our situation here in the US, I reiterate, it's a point of discussion -- and often contention -- not a prerequisite. Though when otherwise viable candidates with wartime service are available, they tended to get elected, until quite recently. Whether things are permanently changing away from that remains to be seen. And, while I personally would weigh a candidate's (honorable, of course) military service heavily in his favor, I think it's right that we let the electorate as a whole determine how important that is.

Speaking of the electorate's wisdom WRT military service, nota bene the 1988 election, where Dukakis riding in and M1 tank was negatively compared to actual combat photographer footage of Bush 41 being rescued by a submarine after being shot down. Talk about dumb photo op ideas...

Thucydides said...

A general rule is that: "You get what you measure."

At best this means that the military will fill up with political hacks setting out to get blooded.


Sort of like Tribunes (Tribunes Militium) who notionally commanded the Roman Legions? So long as they stayed quiet and let professionals (Tribunus Cohortis) run things it wasn't much of an issue, but there are plenty of horrible examples where this didn't work out quite so well...

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Sort of like Tribunes (Tribunes Militium) who notionally commanded the Roman Legions? So long as they stayed quiet and let professionals (Tribunus Cohortis) run things it wasn't much of an issue, but there are plenty of horrible examples where this didn't work out quite so well..."

Heinlein is explicitly of the opinon that there are those that talk about things and those who do things. For example, he had the unlamented Ted Hendricks talk himself not only out of the Mobile Infantry, but out of the service and his voting franchise altogether. Hendricks's fault? He had entered the service to gain political viability and had failed at putting first things first -- serving honorably and well. IOW, the service has its own ruthless way of sidelining those that wish to seem, in favor of those that wish to be.

It's not like it would be a new thing to the service to deal with glory hunters. Every service, in every country, has had its "glory hounds", "neck pains", etc.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Tony:

"IOW, the entire controversy is a symptom of historical ignorance, not any radical thought process of Heinlein's."

Umm, disapproving of a practice is not identical to being ignorant of historic examples of that practice.

Tony said...

Milo:

"Umm, disapproving of a practice is not identical to being ignorant of historic examples of that practice."

To the degree that a lot of people's values depend upon their (often wilfull) ignorance of history, it's precisely the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Thucydides said...

And of course the use of "War" as a metaphor has become a political cliche: how many candidates have used service in the "War on Drugs" or the "War on Poverty" as their credentials for electoral office?

=================
As I get older I begin to realize they are all essentially battle hardened veterans of "The War on Logic"

Our political and economic systems have attained the status of Dogma.

Which is often a theme of Science Fiction. Including some interpretations of "Starship Troopers"