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Fantasy & SF

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Fantasy and science fiction don’t get much respect. They conjure images of sweaty nerds in basements living a fantasy life instead of dealing with their own pathetic realities. People throw dirty words around like “escapist.” It’s not a good scene.

I actually prefer both genres over most other forms of literature. For me part of it is escapist, but part of it is that I feel the nature of the medium allows more scope for interesting stories.

I’ll be honest — a lot of fantasy books and sci fi books are crap. Totally worthless stuff peddled out to keep the nerds in line just as the bodice-rippers are sold to give the desperate housewives their fix. But I’m a big believer in judging things at their best, not at their worst.

Good books are books about human nature. People are selfish animals; we want to hear about ourselves. The fun factor from reading comes from exciting stories that I can relate to. The valuable factor comes from stories that I can learn from. In other words, characters that I identify with who go through experiences that shed light onto my own experience.

(Pretty writing is also nice, but at the end of the day the books that people remember are the books that explore characters or ideas that are important).

Books are little laboratories. What happens if you take a poor boy steeped in the American dream, have him fall in love with a pretty girl from a different social class, and drop him in the roaring 20s? The Great Gatsby. It’s memorable because it says something about what it means to be human, and the way it says it is by creating a little world, with laboratory-controlled circumstances (for instance, Daisy doesn’t become fat and pregnant by the time Gatsby re-encounters her, which would have made it a very different book).

For a book to be good, the laboratory has to be compelling and believable. If there isn’t an internal consistency along the experimental dimensions, nothing can be learned; it’s a void experiment.

Many genres try to create this believability by hewing to circumstances that are (allegedly) realistic. This has a face-value logic to it (if you want to be realistic, be realistic), and of course it can be really powerful when done well. But it’s also a huge constraint, because there is a lot of overhead required in creating realism.

I’ve been re-reading Battle Royale, which is about Japanese school children who are forced to kill their classmates. The situation is totally contrived. To come up with a realistic scenario where a whole class of school kids needs to kill each other or die would probably take a whole novel by itself. Battle Royale hand-waves a bit over the setup, and because it does that, it takes an incredibly original look at love, friendship, values, cliques, and cultures. It’s great.

Sci Fi and Fantasy open up an entire universe (ha ha) of experiments that more mainstream genres can’t touch. They give the author permission to throw the existing rules out the window. With a bad author, that leads to derivative crap. With a good author, it leads to brilliance. It’s Picasso deciding that he’s allowed to paint things that don’t actually look like photographs. Actually, it seems really unfair that Picasso isn’t looked down on as “genre painting”, with all that unrealistic blue stuff and funny escapist angles.

The main difference between the two (overgeneralization alert) is that sci fi (or better, “speculative fiction”, which is a little more accurate I think) explores the realm of logical possibilities whereas fantasy explores the realm of a-logical possibilities. Sci fi asks the “what if?”and “what would it be like?” questions. What if there was a galactic civilization whose economy was based around an addictive life-extending drug? What does consumer society look like when the internet becomes so high-bandwidth you can live in it? What would it be like to fall in love with someone from a backwards, militaristic culture that just rediscovered advanced technology?

Fantasy on the other hand allows the exploration of the irrational parts of human experience, the dreams and nightmares, by projecting them on the waking world. What does a little girl’s fantasy world look like? What if you could have a conversation with your own soul? (arguably, this is a sci fi book… there’s definitely a fine line between the two). What if Japan’s subconscious culture baggage manifested as a physical force and stole your wife, or a young man coming of age acted out his personal growth struggles as a video game?

I like fantasy and science fiction because we live in a fantastic, science fictional universe. I very rarely find books with characters that I identify with who live in a world that strictly hews to reality. That’s because our world is so weird, so changing, that real life doesn’t do justice to real life. I honestly think literature that doesn’t bend the rules of reality a little bit is as antique as realist painting.

Anyway, this whole post is actually just a really long lead-in so I can pitch my favorite short story to you. It’s called “Lean Times in Lankhmar” and you can read it as part of this collection (note: there’s a much classier edition that doesn’t look like the cover was designed by a three year old here but it’s not kindle-available). I have yet to meet someone who knows what I’m talking about when I say I love Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, and each time I bring them up and get blank stares, I die a little inside.

There are five amazing things about this story:

a) The control of tone and atmosphere is pitch-perfect. Every single detail adds together coherently: not one is misplaced. Leiber’s city of Lankhmar is itself a character in all of his stories, and it has more personality and coherence that most writers’ human characters.

b) It’s totally psychologically accurate. The insight into human nature is hilariously exaggerated, but spot on. Leiber is in love with his character’s vices, and because he is, you are too.

c) The writing is absurdly confident. Leiber writes sentences like driving a Ferrari through your neighbor’s lawn and into their swimming pool at 90 miles an hour. There are run-ons. There are appeals to completely made-up and immediately forgotten historical authorities. There are wild exaggerations and crude innuendo. And there are no apologies. It’s great.

d) It’s a real story. There is a beginning, middle, and end; there is an (absolutely hilarious and brilliant) climax; it ends up somewhere different than where it started. It has depth: like most great literature, it is both incredibly cynical and deeply humble.

e) It is actually impossible to write a better ending to a short story than the ending of this one. I was on a literary magazine in college and one of the things I noticed is that no one can end short stories well. It’s like a super-power. This is how you do it. Take notes.

If you read it, I suggest reading the preceding story, “The Cloud of Hate”, first. It’s short, fun, and provides an introduction to the characters, which is important. And then read the rest of the stories because honestly they’re all pretty amazing.

P.S. Apparently the Chinese government (or factions therewithin) are trying to promote more science fiction writing in China because they believe that the Western Sci Fi tradition is the source of a lot of America’s and Europe’s technological creativity.

Written by jphaas

December 1st, 2011 at 4:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized