“SF, along with fantasy more broadly, sets out to extrapolate imaginatively from the world.” – Adam Roberts
“”It is often asserted that ‘Fantasy,” a particular brand of fantastic fiction that became a publishing industry in the wake of the success of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and ‘Science Fiction,’ brand of fantastic literature invented , or re-invented, in the USA in the technophile 1920a, have little in common. […] But one thing science fiction and fantasy certainly have in common is the imaginary world. . . .” Gwyneth Jones.
“Fictive neologies have a paradoxical function. They conjure up a sense of the inevitability of a new thing. . . . Yet fictive neology also displays that it is fiction. ” – Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
In the comments section for last week’s column Paul Weimer brought up an idea that has been rolling around in my head for awhile:
“I wonder, John, in the seemingly crapsack world of a present we seem to be falling into, if that inspiration is more easily found these days in fantasy than in science fiction, and that’s one reason why fantasy is currently ascendant over its sister genre. If the future looks bleak and smaller, than a truly and completely imaginary world allows for more stories that invoke in readers (and dare I say the writers) that effect you describe far more easily.”
Sue Lange noted that, generally speaking, the difference might be that “science is not as popular as spiritualism which fantasy invokes.” At first her observation seemed quite commonsensical, and it is an argument that has been made quite often before. “Hard SF,” for example, often has a specific learning curve and a significant focus on scientific ideas, and that may not be something that interests a wide range of readers. And yet, I think that is only the starting point for considering why “Fantasy” seems to be ascendant, and making this comparison leads to several questions. First, if people are avoiding science fiction because of science, what does this signify about the contrasting popularity of Fantasy? Do purer fantasies, fictions that are more metaphorical or phantasmagorical, create inspiration more readily? And how does this all relate to our “seemingly crapsack world” anyway? I can’t answer all these questions in a single column, but I want to point out a few more things about the idea of vivification, and about imagination and the work of fiction, that might begin to address them.
What makes me think that the science in SF may not be the key factor is that it, like all fiction, SF works are fantasies, narrativized untruths, each one an artifice composed of symbols that we interpret and recreate, through our own eyes and suppositions, in our minds and imaginations, and that we understand as not being “real.” We then move to the distinction between mimetic and non-mimetic modes of representation, which is a distinction of gradations rather than an absolute dichotomy. Fantastika takes the speculative nature of fiction and carries it much farther away from the world we know and experience around us. We nigh-inevitably come to Delany’s ideas of how the language itself signals the level of speculation and requires certain protocols to not just interpret but understand. With more science-based fiction, a protocol of knowledge is often needed, but also a sort of mimesis-feedback occurs in the narrative, where possible things are represented in such a way that mimetic limitations are put on our imagination, a trend furthered by the need for specialized knowledge to understand the altered reality being presented to the reader.
And yet, a lot of SF is not “hard” but backgrounds the science, philosophizes and metaphorizes it. The question of science, it seems to me, is a question of imagining, of striving to ground the speculation in not just what we know, but what we would like to be possible. In contrast, Fantasy may be embraced because of its putative unanchoring from the known and the possible. If Fantasy is ascendant, it may be because people want different stimuli and rewards from their reading than they did forty years ago. It may also be that the heavy use of science does not animate readers’ imaginations in the same way. As technology becomes more ubiquitous and commonplace, we live with it in a different way than our predecessors did in, say, the 1950s. Might this translate to a somewhat altered perspective on science and how it enlivens a fictional text?
Fiction is not just a narrative speculating about people and events and trends, but is an attempt to make sense of the world, for a variety of purposes and reasons, by producing a world representation in the text. Fantastika, regardless of its scientific basis, begins like all fiction from this starting point, but then decides to not reflect the “real world,” sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in lunatic ways. Of course, other more ostensibly mimetic genres and texts do this as well; romance novels in both the strict and broad sense do this, mysteries often do this, even literary fictions focused on “realism” or “naturalism” sometimes veer from the actual. It is the nature of fiction to deviate and reproduce an emulation of the world tailored to the author’s needs and desires which readers reconstruct through their reading, refracted by their own capacities, knowledges, and yearnings.
Fantasy, then, is not purer in some way, but different. Its anchorage to “the real” is not just based on spiritualism, but on counter-intuitive ideas. Magic replaces science, gods take a direct hand in the world, certainly, but often historical cultures, social formations, and philosophies are brought in as a recognizable basis for the reconstructed world, a touchstone that is not mimetic, but . Because Fantasy cannot be “pure” fantasy; even the most phantastical, aberrant flight of fictive whimsy has some link to what is known. Fantasies recombine and innovate the known into new variations and configurations, whether they use science as their basis or eschew an extrapolative foundation. The difference is often one of the form of fictive neology employed.
For SF, this is what Csiscery-Ronay calls the “signi novi, the signs of the new.” The science is not just a substantive element (which in the end is still mediated through textual representation), but a poetic one. As he notes in The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction
“It is a dialectical trope that implies a conception, at once aesthetic and cognitive, of the difference between the historically familiar and the as-yet imaginary designs and social relations that are supposedly just emerging.”
My thought is that in the contemporary moment that dialectic, that sense of what is both historically familiar and emergent is unstable and in flux. There was a sense in the second half of the 20th century, in broad terms, of where “we” were going, a series of narratives that had both a greater sense of fixity regarding the past and the future. The expectations that they generated, as well as the assumptions that undergirded them, were reductive and flawed, but not totalizing. The dialectic created by those narratives and the interpretation of them by readers favored certain signi novi over others, and some of those new things are now old hat, while others seem out of reach. Some SF writers have stuck to those neologisms while others have abandoned them, and still others have syncretized their own fused interpretations of them.
But what might further undermine the vivification and thus the satisfaction of SF is that very idea of “the crapsack world.” This is not to say this conception is without merit (I agree with Paul’s assessment), but that its boundaries and content are not a given. In a world where the future seems both immanent and murky, there are many ways to look ahead with trepidation and look around at how the world moves forward to that future. The narratives are less certain, and have in fact multiplied, Struggles in the US, for example, by women, minorities, and LGBTQ folk have resulted in powerful and still unfolding changes in our social and political milieus.Say what you will about the democratization of communication, postmodernism, and subaltern approaches, they have created opportunities to crack the veneer of our civilization sureties and have influenced the way art is made and the way we look at stories.
My point here is that vivification and the work of fiction are influenced and complicated by these elements and trends, by voices and exchanges and shifts in structure and connectivity. Mimesis is a critical factor in vivification; as Michael Taussig put it “[m]imesis sutures the real to to the really made-up — and no society exists otherwise.” In a world where technology that 40 years ago seemed impossible is used every day, and where scientific theories and methods are hyper-specialized, what is mimetic alters, and with that the turn towards Fantasy begins to make more sense. This is accentuated by our conception and reproduction of the realities around us; while the world has always had its problems they seem much larger, more inevitable, and harder to deal with than in the past. Science and technology solve and create problems simultaneously, and we are so bombarded with new things, signifiers and material goods, social relations and temporal disjunctures, that a world not influenced by science, where dreams and fantasies can at least seem to come true, might be more compelling.
But beyond that, the ability of all sorts of fantastika to question verities and discover new truths, create new alterities that contrast with and question the mimetic, and provide respite or a critical lens or a refreshing rethinking of the mimetic and the metaphoric, gives us new ways to look at and position ourselves in relation to life. This is why fantastika does not just gives us succor from the crapsack world, but may give us ways to redraw its borders and find surer paths through it, or at least give us moments of displacement from it. Mimesis and alterity invigorate each other, and all fictions are an interplay between them. Fantastika makes this plain, vital, and specific, and the enlivening of those texts, influenced by whatever crapsack world we inhabit, shows us that the real is nothing without all of those dreams and curiosities and horrors, that the power to make the world and give it life is ours.