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May 7th, 2003

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02:58 am - Boundaries and science fantasy
Being a dweller on various social fringes, it's hardly surprising that I prefer various other forms of fringes and boundaries. One of my favorites is the liminal space between fantasy and science fiction. This space is in many ways fairly recent. Until WWII, science fiction and science fantasy were quite similar and there was nothing equivalent to modern fantasy literature. Clark Ashton Smith, A. Merritt, Leigh Brackett and others wrote tales where sorcery, semi-technological magic and inexplicable technologies all mixed together and frequently blended with futures filled with space ships and alien planets. This sort of science fantasy became less popular after WWII, during the era of limited stories and limited minds that was the 1950s. However, a few authors like Andre Norton continued to create wonderful tales of science fantasy well into the late 1960s. The first two Witch World books (Witch World and Web of the Witch World, as well as Ordeal in Otherwhere, and Key Out of Time are all perfects examples of this genre.

Then the 1960s ushered in the Tolkien revival. Initially, the popularity of his works spawned a host of truly wretched imitators as well as the modern swords & sorcery novels by the likes of Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock (and naturally, many often wretched imitators of their world). The interesting thing about the 60s and 70s was that people who also wrote science fiction wrote the vast majority of fantasy. However, by the 1980s other writers had established a thriving genre of fantasy literature that is today becoming increasingly similar to romance novels (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but does limit the genre somewhat).

All of this interacts interestingly with my own tastes. I enjoy science fiction and read a great deal of it. While far to much hard SF is written by people with extremely obvious far-right & or extreme libertarian political views, careful selection has allowed me to find large amounts of enjoyable SF that I have no ideological problems with [1]. I also enjoy fantasy, especially the romantic fantasy [2] of Mercedes Lackey, Diane Duane (before she lost all talent in the late 90s), Tamora Pierce, Kristen Britain, and similar authors).

However, what I truly love is well done science fantasy. Too often since 1970s, science fantasy has simply meant authors how were too careless or lacking in talent to worry about creating worlds that either held together or made sense. Most SF in this era maintains at least a facade of plausibility, while deviations from plausibility are reserved for the thousands of medievalesque & tolkienesque fantasy worlds that infest the fantasy genre. My greatest objection to such books is that they so often use exceptionally generic fantasy worlds and I despise all sorts of generic worlds. If I'm reading fantasic literature, I want it to be set in a new and uniquely wonderful world.

Spaceships and sorcerers have seldom existed on the same page since the late 1970s and even guns or steam trains and sorcery became relatively rare. However, there have been exceptions [3] and I think they are becoming more common. While I deeply loathed the book, I found some of the ideas in Michael Swanwick's novel The Iron Dragon's Daughter quite interesting and China Meiville's two novels Perdido Street Station and The Scar as well as Philip Pullman's recent His Dark Materials trilogy that started with The Golden Compass have created a series of fascinating Victorianesque fantasy worlds that I find considerably more interesting than anything that resembled either the Middle Ages (an era I find to be extremely dull) or Middle Earth. However, I prefer both the 1920s or more obvious SF-related settings to the Victorian era. Unfortunately, while an increasing number of authors now seem content to create new and unique worlds by blending various visions of the 19th century with worlds of magic and mystery, for some reason the 20th century and the future both seem off limits to contemporary fantasists, the only exceptions are vast numbers of deeply tiresome novels that feature magic and supernatural in the modern day. While I enjoy Laurel K. Hamilton's Anita Blake Vampire Hunter and much as anyone (and perhaps more than most) I find them to be far more addictive than good.

The most wonderful part of well-done science fantasy is the fact that it creates a new world out of many disparate elements. These stand in sharp contrast to most of the attempts I've seen in the last 20 years, where standard fantasy novel wizards and magic items are imported into SF settings. The worst examples of science fantasy are those that add large number of tolkienesque and other traditional fantasy elements into other eras. Clifford Simak managed to blend the Fair Folk and alien worlds in his deeply wonderful novel Goblin Reservation, but no one that I know of has managed to make a worthwhile novel using this idea.

The key is blending the elements together, not simply placing a couple of wizards on a Starbase. I'm a big fan of well-done world-building - hardly a surprise given that I'm both a gamer and (as an RPG writer) a professional world designer. I don't need and in most cases don't want explanations for why the technology on an alien planet are mixture of conventional technology and some interesting form of magic, but I do want it to all fit together into a single aesthetic package.

So, if anyone is still reading this rather rambling discussion, I'm curious. Why do you think that science fantasy went out of fashion? Also, while the popularity of tolkienesque worlds is obvious (if also from my PoV deeply unfortunate), is there anything that makes the Victorianesque setting a better fit for a science fantasy novel than an alien planet filled with starships?

Having just read over the remainder of this essay, I realized that there may be one crucial reason that this trend may be reversing in literature – anime. A great deal of anime mixes science and fantasy extremely well. Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind is my favorite example, but is only one of many. In large part this is because most anime is far more focused on appearances that it is on either plausibility or explanations (which are two factors that I think are overly important in most Western fantastic literature). Given how popular anime now is, I'm unsurprised to see its influence spreading. With luck, perhaps I will see new novels with settings like The Moon Pool or Key Out of Time in a few years.


[1] Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, Melissa Scott, Linda Nagata & Gregory Benford, and Kage Baker are just a few of the SF authors I currently look for.

[2] Here's a link to my previous essay that defines romantic fantasy.

[3] The most obvious example of a more recent of SF with strong fantasy elements example of this genre was Melissa Scott's Roads of Heaven trilogy (Five Twelfth of Heaven, Silence in Solitude, and The Empress of Earth), also, there have been similar forays into non-standard fantasy. Steven Brust's Dragaeran Empire books are all set in a world where magic is used much like technology and the result is a society that is quite alien, but which possesses a somewhat modern and urban sensibility.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

(2 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:May 7th, 2003 03:27 am (UTC)
I'm unsure from your sentence structure - but do you include Lieber and Moorcock in the good or bad side of things?

I was a huge Moorcock fan as a teenager, and although I've gone off lots of his standard Sword/Sorcery work, I still think that his Dancers at the End of Time sequence stands with Brave New World as a warning of how human minds will cope with a post-scarcity world.

[User Picture]
Date:May 7th, 2003 11:10 am (UTC)
More of a neither A nor B. Leiber's Lhankhmar has more in common with tolkienesque fantasy than with science fantasy, but not much more and Moorcock is fairly unique. I'd more say that S&S is another genre that has been eclipsed as definitions of fantasy have changed. It still exists, but I certainly haven't seen all that much of it.

I found Dancers at the End of Time to be full of interesting ideas but rather dull in execution, it seemed to me like playing with ideas and social satire got in the way of characters and plot. In general, I prefer Leiber to Moorcock.

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