SciFi and Fantasy
Science Fiction came into existence as we know it in the 1930s with a plethora of science-focused magazines publishing short stories. It really came into its own in the 1950s, with seminal works such as Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinel and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, both published in 1951. Fantasy evolved in tandem, as exemplified by the publication of Tolkien’s The Hobbit in 1937 and the follow up, The Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1954 and 1955.
Elements of both fantastical worlds and science fiction clearly predate those decades. Penny dreadfuls in the late 1800s are a clear predecessor to modern horror, focusing on the macabre and crime, and the original home of the well-known story Sweeney Todd. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus, was published in 1818, while Jules Verne published Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870.
One could argue that fantastical elements have been part of story telling as long as humans have shared stories. We used fantastical elements to explain things we didn’t understand like eclipses, comets, weather, earthquakes, death, birth. We still use speculative fiction to grapple with how we interact with our world.
One my earliest exposures to speculative fiction was through the works of John Wyndham and he remains a favorite of mine. The first book I read of his was The Trouble with Lichen, in which a pair of researchers both make the same accidental discovery of a specific type of lichen that delays the aging process. The book asks the “what if” question of what if the beauty industry really did find the solution to aging. One of the scientists uses the substance on his own kids, whose youthful appearances are a wonder to their friends and family. The other scientist, a young woman at the time of the discovery, goes into the beauty industry and makes a fortune providing aging treatments that actually work, well disguised by the inclusion of many of the standard spa treatments. Her goal is actually female empowerment, not fame or fortune.
John Wyndham was an expert on the “what if” story, set in modern and otherwise normal times and places. What if your child’s invisible friend actually existed? (Chocky). What if everyone went blind at the same time? What if killer plants from outer space came with it? (The Day of the Triffids). What if aliens came and made all the women in a single village pregnant with one of their own on the same day as an invasion disguised as maternity? (The Midwich Cuckoos, made into a movie called The Village of the Damned).
Parallel with these developments in speculative fiction was the superhero genre, and comic books, which also became popular in the 1930s and are currently going through a renaissance due to the popular super hero movies starring the likes of Marvel characters Spiderman, Black Panther, and the Avengers, and DC universe heroes Wonder Woman and Batman.
I was an English major for part of my undergraduate degree and listened to one venerated aged professor telling a class of 100 or more students that science fiction and fantasy was not “real” literature, that The Lord of the Rings was nothing more than an allegory for the Second World War. He was wrong.
These are genres of literature that matter because they reflect back on us our own anxieties about technological change and our place in the world. I, Robot and Isaac Asimov and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick ask the question about what happens when automated beings develop self-awareness. At what point do robots effectively become humans? The Terminator saga and The Matrix trilogy ask us what happens if the robots decide we are the problem? We, deep down, are pretty sure we are the problem. There is a sub-genre of environmental disaster movies that ask the questions about how we will survive the coming environmental apocalypse, such as Interstellar.
We grapple with the what-ifs of science through the lens of science fiction. We see movies, books, comics and TV shows that ask what are the moral implications of being super-powered or genetically enhanced? These questions also grapple on one level with colonialism and the moral implications of one group of people, possessing and using technologies that are unthinkable to others, destroying the cultures of a different group of people. What are the implications of space travel? What would society look like when we are no longer bound by the resource limitations of the planet? We use Star Wars and other space operas to examine the rise of authoritarianism in our own places, in ways that are safer and less explicit about the people and institutions that give rise to our unease. Some futures look shiny and easy with no poverty and no money (Star Trek) while more modern takes assume that strata of poverty and wealth take it into the extended universe (Farscape, Battlestar Galatica (modern series), or Firefly) with a much grittier take on the distribution of wealth.
Fantasy serves much the same purpose by taking away technology. What if we were living in a world with magic? One definition of magic is that it is “science that we don’t understand” (Arthur C. Clarke). Fantasy explores what it means to be female or male in a world where the traditional roles have been blurred, blended, or have disappeared. Heroes are generally not required in day to day life, but fantasy often requires a hero to go on a quest to save humanity or his or her own village or their way of life. Fantasy allows people to connect with the idea that their lives mean something more than just living for themselves, take us away from the blandness of modern life where many feel like cogs in a machine that cares nothing for them or their lives. Fantasy allows us to explore the question of who we really are when we strip away the veneer of our current civilization.
Fantasy asks different kinds of what if questions. What if there were dragons? (Thank you George R. R. Martin for Game of Thrones, or Anne McCaffrey for The Dragonriders of Pern). I have never really delved into the specific fascination with dragons but I suspect that it’s about how we interact with the natural environment. Dragons are scary and big and out of our control. Modern technology means we don’t have to really deal with our environment most of the time, at least those of us who live in rich countries. Bad weather is, for us, largely not life threatening. But it used to be.
What if the role of women was different? Better or worse? (The Pakesenarrion books by Elizabeth Moon or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood). What does that mean for what it means to be feminine in today’s society? What does it mean to be masculine? Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age looks at what happens if we outsource parenting and what happens if the resources meant for the rich fall into the hands of the poor. How comfortable are we with these scenarios?
Art, at its best, reflects us back to ourselves. Thus, science fiction and fantasy allow us to grapple with our own history, our own deeds. One early science fiction trope was focused on aliens coming from Mars to kills us all and take over the planet. We ourselves have treated other peoples on our own planet just as brutally. Exploring how it might feel to experience annihilation in rich nations allowed us to engage with our own history of colonialism in ways that circumvented the need for history lessons and moralizing while losing nothing of the lesson. Fantastic cultures allow us to explore the tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar that is part of how the modern world has blended together in the last 100 years.
We need science fiction and fantasy to process the rapid changes in the world around us. We have seen unprecedented technological change in our lifetimes and are likely to see even more change in the coming years. We have also seen unprecedented social change. The role of women in society has changed dramatically in most wealthy nations since I was a child, and we keep pushing parallel changes on low income nations without thought to context or culture. The rise of China and India and of the developing world in general is coming our way and we will use speculative fictions to explore how we feel about that, too. Firefly took some of that on, with the easy assumption that people would speak Mandarin as easily as English, that Asian culture would dominate the universe.
Speculative fiction allows us to think about the moral implications of our world in ways that skirt around direct confrontation, that are fun and engaging, and ultimately allow us to decide how we feel about the changes we are experiencing and, more importantly, what we might end up doing about them.