I’m seeing a strange term crop up on Twitter and other sites where science fiction and fantasy writers and readers hang out.
That term is “SFF writer.” In case you don’t move in certain circles, “SFF” means “science fiction and fantasy.” Somebody in the blogosphere even had the nerve to call me an “SFF writer” recently.
So I’ll say it right here, loud ‘n’ proud:
I. Hate. Fantasy.
I am not an “SFF writer” and never will be. I am a hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool sci-fi fan and science fiction writer, and always will be. Okay, yeah, you could argue that my magnum opus, a forthcoming 21-book series called New Model Earth, technically qualifies as science fantasy. But there’s at least a semi-plausible scientific explanation for everything that goes on in it. (Actually, when I pitched the series to Laurie McLean of Fuse Literary at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference last month, she informed me that my series actually fits into the weird Western subgenre.)
There’ve been only three fantasy stories I’ve ever liked in my entire life, and they are:
(A) Watership Down by Richard Adams. It’s more than just an animated movie that traumatized us all as kids. It’s also an epic low fantasy story about a rag-tag group of travelers who desert their doomed city and strike off into the unforgiving wilderness to found a new settlement for themselves. The fact that the rag-tag group of travelers are rabbits and the unforgiving wilderness is the English countryside is irrelevant. It’s a great story, a rollicking good adventure tale.
(B) Dune by Frank Herbert, only because it’s more science fiction than fantasy. Plus, giant sandworms!
(C) Robert E. Howard’s original Conan the Cimmerian stories. Sword-and-sandal fantasy at its finest. Yes, there are evil wizards. Yes, there are ghosts and spirits and curses and magic and things. Yes, there also happens to be a muscular barbarian who doesn’t give two dingo’s kidneys about these things and is prepared to slice them all into bits with his sword. These books are so manly they’ll make even your vegan chai latte grow chest hair.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not bashing something I know nothing about. I’ve read fantasy. I’ve read the Harry Potter series. I’ve read A Wizard of Earthsea. I’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I’ve read The Chronicles of Narnia, all seven of ’em. I’ve read The Dark is Rising. I’ve read Dune (yes, that counts). One of my college roommates even talked me into reading Wizard’s First Rule, and I did, even though I hated every second of it. And I’ve spent minutes—minutes, I tell you—leafing through Jim Butcher, Kim Harrison, and Neil Gaiman books at the bookstore.
I’ve just never been a dragons-and-wizards-and-princesses kind of guy, and here’s why:
1. Fantasy is irrational.
The eminent sage and all-around creepy dude Rod Serling once said, “It is said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things. Science fiction is the improbable made possible, and fantasy is the impossible made probable.”
You guys know me. I’m a latter-day Stoic philosopher. I quoted Epictetus prominently in one of my earliest posts. What was most important to the Stoics was reasoned choice. No matter what happens to a Stoic, good or bad, he keeps his head, maintains control of his emotions, banishes his fears, and retains his ability to think clearly and make the most rational decision. There’s nothing I hate more than irrationality. Ask my ex-girlfriends.
So when I pick up a book, and the people in it are waving wands and shooting bolts of lightning at fire-breathing dragons while sinister villains in bloodstained armor laugh evilly, I just get turned off. Magic and the occult fascinate me as a general rule, but when they’re used as vehicles for storytelling, my interest wanes. A story just seems rather silly when it depends on destroying a magical artifact that’s housing the soul of a long-believed-to-be-dead dark lord, or reincarnating an enormous talking lion, or touching a powerful warlord and making him instantly fall in love with you. I prefer a story based on rules, plausible rules, rules that make sense, not ones idly created out of thin air at the whim of the author. All I ask is a spaceship and a metric tensor drive to steer her by.
2. Fantasy is trite.
Sum up science fiction in a single phrase. Go on, I dare you.
You probably said something like, “Spaceships and aliens and time travel.” Bravo, nice going. But that’s not all there is to science fiction. There are also dinosaurs and genetic mutations and computers and ray guns and exoplanets and time dilation and parallel universes and black holes and cyborgs and androids and flying cars and mega-cities and telepathy and nanomachines and artificial intelligence and and hard sciences like biology and astrophysics and geology and chemistry and (as much as it pains me to admit it) soft sciences like psychology and sociology.
Now sum up fantasy in a single phrase. Or better yet, several.
“Wizards and dragons and elves in Mordor.”
“Wizards and dragons and elves in New York.”
“Wizards and dragons and elves in a wardrobe in my eccentric uncle’s mansion.”
Or, if you’re the dark fantasy type…
“Werewolves and vampires and witches, oh my!”
3. Fantasy is provincial.
With very few exceptions, fantasy stories often revolve around the interplay of one, two, or half a dozen kingdoms and/or countries, often located on the same continent, and definitely on the same planet. The plot, as I delineated above, often revolves around a MacGuffin: either a warrior valiant enough to defeat the Evil Overlord, or a barrier maiden who can contain him, or a magical artifact lost to the mists of time or the sunken continent of Atlantis or (very rarely) the Mysterious-Ulterior-Realm-That-Shall-Remain-Unexplored. That’s about as outward-thinking as fantasy gets. Urban fantasy stories, ones that take place in the modern day (often in giant metropolises like New York and London), can be even more insular. From the jacket copy I’ve read in libraries and bookstores, the plot of an urban fantasy tale usually revolves around the hero or heroine trying to save themselves, or their girlfriend or boyfriend, or their parents, or their school, or their neighborhood, or (at most) the city. Sometimes the world. Our little bitty Earth is the centerpiece of practically any fantasy story you could mention.
Science fiction, on the other hand, spans worlds, galaxies, universes, even dimensions. And it’s not just the setting that’s big, either. Fantasy stories usually revolve around one thing, no matter how it’s spun. I don’t care whether it’s superhero fantasy, “sword-and-planet” fantasy, sword-and-sandal stories like Conan the Barbarian, romantic fantasy, steampunk fantasy, high fantasy, low fantasy, or any of the other fantasy subgenres: the story’s always the same. Kill the bad guy. Destroy evil. Free the kingdom. Restore the light. Save the princess. Defeat the dragon. Find the treasure. Preserve the kingdom. Find a home. Live happily ever after. Basically, overcome difficulty, face your fear, reap the rich rewards of courageous character.
Science fiction, however, runs the freaking gamut. It can be…
- Bleak and nihilistic.
- Examples: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison, Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith
- Technically wondrous but slightly gruesome, too.
- Examples: Code Three by Rick Raphael, The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein
- Tough and masculine and even a bit light-hearted.
- Examples: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
- Examples: Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys, Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester
- Examples: Thy Rocks and Rills by Robert Ernest Gilbert, A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber, The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin
- Examples: The Big Front Yard by Clifford D. Simak, Hunting Problem by Robert Sheckley
- Creepy but fascinating.
- Example: Baby is Three by Theodore Sturgeon, Shambleau by C.L. Moore
- Flat-out weird.
- Examples: Bears Discover Fire by Terry Bisson, Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones by Samuel R. Delany
- Thought-provoking and speculative, like the story I just finished, A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov is one of my perennial favorites.
The nature of science fiction is such that it can encompass styles and plot elements from almost every literary genre and incorporate them seamlessly within its framework. You’d never see a computer in a fantasy story, unless it was science fantasy or some other kind of genre-bender—and even then it would never be referred to by the name “computer.” But it wouldn’t be a stretch to find a dragon in a sci-fi story. (In fact, one of my favorite science fiction stories is Tale of the Computer that Fought a Dragon by internationally acclaimed Polish sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem.)
I had more reasons when I started this post, but I’ve banged on long enough. Now, here’s what I want you to do, dear reader: change my mind. Leave a comment down below or message me on Twitter or Facebook and tell me why I’m flat-out wrong about fantasy. If your dander’s really up, send me a list of fantasy books you think I won’t hate.
And, as always, get the heck off your computer and get writing.