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Old 09-11-2004, 08:43 PM   #1
Regin Hardhammer
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Question Robots and Aliens vs. Elves and Orcs

I ran across an interesting article on the recent drop in good science fiction writing and the fact that science fiction readers are a shrinking group. For the article, click here.

Sawyer gives some interesting reasons for this shift, but the one that caught my eye was this:

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Sawyer thinks people have increasingly turned to fantasy works, such as Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, because of the murky politics and ethics of contemporary society.

"Terrorism is happening, there are evil governments," says Sawyer. "People are looking for a simplicity in their fictional worlds where good and evil are clearly delineated, that you can't find in the real world, and that provides an enormous comfort -- and that, I think, has an awful lot to do with the reason fantasy is so popular."
This sounds like some "old style" complaints that used to come from supporters of "realistic" fiction who threw rocks at Tolkien for being escapist. It used to be at the conventions I went to that sci fi and fantasy fans actually felt they shared something in common. They were united against all the people who thought everyone should focus only on the "realistic", current world. And there were crossover works that had one foot in sci fi and one foot in fantasy. It sounds like that common ground has collapsed and instead sci fi people are starting to hurl complaints at Tolkien fans.

What do you think of these charges? Has the recent growth of interest in fantasy and Tolkien been responsible for the shrinking science fiction base? what about Sawyers' claim that "terrorism" and "evil governments" have contributed to the popularity of Tolkien and other "fantasy" books?

BTW, I am one of those people who like reading both kinds of books. And I wasn't sure if this question belonged in N & N, or Books....
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Old 09-11-2004, 10:43 PM   #2
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I don't know where Sawyer came up with those ideas for the shift, but I heartily disagree with them. I believe it's due more to a proliferation of very good fantasy authors - Mercedes Lackey and Anne McCaffrey being two that jump to mind immediately - than some sort of craving for escapist literature. After all, who says science fiction isn't escapist? "Escapist" is not a synonym for "unrealistic." I am a fan of both fantasy and sci-fi, and I find science fiction to be just as good for escaping the "real" world as fantasy. Have you ever read Ringworld, The Integral Trees or Fallen Angels by Larry Niven? Larry Niven is one of today's very best "hard" sci-fi writers, but that doesn't mean his books aren't escapist. After all, who wouldn't want to escape into a world where humans live in free-fall, building their villages in the foliage of hundred-kilometer-long trees shaped like integer signs? (Really, read The Integral Trees and its sequel The Smoke Ring; it may all be real-life science, but it's as escapist as you can want )

To summarize: I think Sawyer's claims are a load of fetid dingo's kidneys (a term from a truly wonderful sci-fi/fantasy book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. )
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Old 09-12-2004, 02:06 AM   #3
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And thank you for citing Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Lachwen

Regin I'm not sure I totally agree with this movement. These generes (Fantasy and Sci-Fi) are leagues of their own. I don't think it's fair to compare and undermine either, in this case that of science fiction.

I too love to read both generes but I don't think the lack of escapism is the problem as it has been pointed out in the last post.
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Old 09-12-2004, 08:52 AM   #4
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I don't claim to be an expert on sci-fi, but that article was interesting. Firstly, I think it's a mistake to say that Tolkien clearly delineates between good and evil; there are a lot of grey areas in Middle Earth lore, Gollum being an excellent example. He's one of my favourite characters in literature as it's impossible to say if he is truly bad. Even Gandalf warns against thinking in terms of black and white too much.

But, I was also interested to read that the quality of sci-fi is declining - I think it's changing in nature. There is some pretty good dystopian work, such as the film 28 Days Later, the virus in this is supposed to be based upon road rage. And surely, terrorism is nothing new, and if we have evil governments then wouldn't people want to express their distrust/disgust more?

The author of the article says that mainstream writers are using sci-fi more, citing Margaret Atwood - but she has already used sci-fi themes years ago in The Handmaid's Tale.
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Old 09-12-2004, 01:47 PM   #5
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I've always thought that the inordinate popularity of the Science Fiction in the seventies was a direct result of the popularity of "The Lord of the Rings" in the sixties. The pendulum has currently swung back the other way, in large part due to Peter Jackson and the Harry Potter books. There will, no doubt, be a resurgence in the popularity of Science Fiction as some people tire of dragons and elves in favor of the real creatures they see around them, whether those creatures are terrorists or stem-cell researchers or Martian microbes from Antarctica.

But Tolkien will still be there. One of the main reasons for his popularity is that he speaks to the arc of the human experience in a difficult world. Science Fiction tends to speak to social issues. Since social issues tend to change, Science Fiction must evolve with them. Fantasy at its best has no such constraints. It can embrace such temporal things, but it need not do so.
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Old 09-12-2004, 03:40 PM   #6
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Science fiction doesn't necessarily speak to social issues, Radagastly. Books such as Niven's Footfall (can you tell he's one of my favorite authors? ) and Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind are delightfully devoid of serious social commentary (in fact, Footfall is about killer elephants from outer space ). I am not, of course, claiming that all sci-fi is free of politics; Fallen Angels is very political (and also quite good).

InklingElf - glad to be of service.
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Old 09-12-2004, 04:03 PM   #7
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Lachwen--That's true, though when science fiction attempts serious content beyond mere entertainment, it is more likely to take the form of social commentary than fantasy fiction is. Fantasy tends to center around magic and mythology (as Tolkien does, though with surprisingly less magic than one would expect) and as such tends to deal more with personal or human issues since these things are partly the source of mythology. Certainly not as a strict rule, but as a general rule of thumb, it lends itself more to these kinds of themes just as science fiction lends itself to more political and social themes. That is all I meant really.
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Old 09-12-2004, 06:13 PM   #8
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Quote:
"Terrorism is happening, there are evil governments," says Sawyer. "People are looking for a simplicity in their fictional worlds where good and evil are clearly delineated, that you can't find in the real world, and that provides an enormous comfort -- and that, I think, has an awful lot to do with the reason fantasy is so popular."
As much as other people may disagree with the above statement, I must admit that it rings true in my case. As I pointed out the other day to my English teacher, there is nothing wrong with escapism (he's anti-Tolkien, preferring realism, such as found in works by Steinbeck or Hemmingway), and my life currently needs that outlet.

In literature, there are 'good guys' and there are 'bad guys'. The good guys fight for a noble cause, while the bad guys are... for lack of better word: bad. The struggle against each other, and usually, the good guys win. Occasionally they don't, however there is always a visable difference between both sides of the spectrum. Grey areas, indeed, are present, but there is always a clear "right" involved.

In life, it is not so simple. Good people sometimes do bad things. There may or may not be people who are truly "bad", simply misguided, troubled, confused, etc. Simple choices can turn a 'good' person 'bad' at the drop of a hat, whether they know it or not. In life, outside factors much affect a person's state of mind and decision making capabilities. Nobody is inherently evil (I still can't find that blasted thread to link to), and so you cannot simply say "I am good, and my enemy must therefore be evil."

Because of this lack of distinction between what is right and wrong, it makes a nice escape from a very confusing life to be able to dive into a book where decisions are made and good triumphs over evil. When you cannot fight your own enemies (literal, or figurative), it is a comfort to read about 'bad guys' getting pounded. For example: it is very nice right now to read Shatterglass by Tamora Pierce, and see the bad guys brought to justice by good people who work hard to stay that way. And Fea laughs quietly to herself, for managing, once again, to stay on topic AND promote Pierce's work.

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Old 09-12-2004, 07:44 PM   #9
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I like reading both science fiction and fantasy, although I prefer the latter. I do agree to some extent to what Sawyer wrote, but why can't this apply to science fiction as well? There are defined good and evil characters in sci-fi too. I will admit that fantasy is more of an escape for me, since I prefer dragons and swordfights to spaceships and laser guns, but that's just my stance.

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That's true, though when science fiction attempts serious content beyond mere entertainment, it is more likely to take the form of social commentary than fantasy fiction is. --radagastly
Very true! I'm reading "Dune" right now, and it's great, but it's so political. However, this doesn't keep it from being "escapist." To me, any good read is a form of escape.
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Old 09-13-2004, 09:07 PM   #10
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Quote:
To me, any good read is a form of escape.
Good point, Encaitare! I feel the same way. As my parents can vouch, the moment I get a good book in my hands, I'm gone.

But getting back to the whole sci-fi/fantasy thing, I actually find the line between the two to get quite fuzzy sometimes (like in Niven's Footfall). I have read several science fiction stories that are probably only considered sci-fi because the author uses actual science to flesh the story out while the main storyline is pure fantasy. (Asimov's short story Pāté de Foie Gras is a good example: they find the Goose that lays the golden eggs.)
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Old 09-13-2004, 11:05 PM   #11
Regin Hardhammer
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1420!

Thanks everybody for your ideas. On one level you're right about books giving us a way out of our everyday life. In that sense, any book can be an 'escape'. It can get you away from immediate problems you have to deal with in school or work or whatever.

But escape can be more than that. It's like what Tolkien said. Can you blame the prisoner who's trying to escape? It could be that the life outside his prison is better than the life that's inside. Sometimes "escape" from your present life can start you thinking about ideas that you would never consider in your regular day-to-day existence.

My personal feeling is that writing about dragons and Elves doesn't make a book escapist, any more than writing about viruses or new technology automatically makes a book "relevent" to life. You can have one author who handles dragons and Elves in such a way that it makes you think about important things: the questions people raise to explain why they're here and what they're doing. And you can have someone else write abook about modern, "relevent" things that really doesn't have much thought behind it. That's the kind of a book you read once and toss away and never look at again.

It doesn't depend on the genre, but the quality of writing. So if sci/fi is having problems, they'd be better off looking at the kinds of books written and the authors and see if what they're saying is interesting and thoughtful rather than throwing rocks at their neighbors.
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Old 09-15-2004, 11:51 AM   #12
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a truly wonderful sci-fi/fantasy book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
42!!!

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My personal feeling is that writing about dragons and Elves doesn't make a book escapist, any more than writing about viruses or new technology automatically makes a book "relevent" to life. You can have one author who handles dragons and Elves in such a way that it makes you think about important things: the questions people raise to explain why they're here and what they're doing. And you can have someone else write abook about modern, "relevent" things that really doesn't have much thought behind it. That's the kind of a book you read once and toss away and never look at again.
A very good point, Regin. In my sophomore English class we were required to read a "realist" book (I cannot recall the title); but it was one of those books that, through over-emphasis on the point the author wishes to make, the point (and the audience) get lost and immediately vacate the premises. I got nothing whatsoever out of the book, aside from a deep loathing toward my English teacher for making us read it. On the other hand, I have acquired some really brilliant lessons and insights from reading so-called "escapist" literature (LotR, HP, Sword of Truth (by Terry Goodkind)).

Tolkien himself had a few things to say about this. (The exact quote is inaccesible to me at the moment, but I will return with it as soon as I can...)

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Old 10-11-2004, 08:21 AM   #13
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I have found the quote.

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Tolkien believed that you could tell more truth with myth than you can with history. Tolkien believed that history, in the sense of relating facts to an audience as facts, was a weak way of conveying ideas: it was tendencious, it was facile, it lacked depth, and it lacked meaning. And he felt that myth was a far better way of conveying the truth. And his friend C.S. Lewis said, "Well, myth is lies." And Tolkien said, "No, myth isn't lies. Myth is a story that tells you something so important that it doesn't matter whether it is literally true. What's important is the idea that's conveyed."
I found this is a Tolkien documentary entitled "J.R.R. Tolkien: Master of the Rings".

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Old 10-11-2004, 08:59 PM   #14
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Thanks for posting it.

Quote:
And Tolkien said, "No, myth isn't lies. Myth is a story that tells you something so important that it doesn't matter whether it is literally true. What's important is the idea that's conveyed."
I like that. I swear, the guy gets cooler every day.
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Old 10-12-2004, 10:08 AM   #15
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My personal feeling is that writing about dragons and Elves doesn't make a book escapist, any more than writing about viruses or new technology automatically makes a book "relevent" to life.
Yes, exactly!

I think Radagastly hit it on the head, though--science fiction seems more relevant because it is often concerned with social commentary; it is frequently a projection of our own society into the future, a what-could-happen-to-us-if-we-don't-shape-up kind of story. I have to admit that I don't read a lot of science fiction, but my husband does, and these kinds of stories are where his taste runs--I know that there are other kinds of science fiction stories in the world, but my experience is mostly with authors like Philip K. Dick, whom my husband occasionally foists upon me. He likes these books at least in part because of the social commentary; he reads them as cautionary tales and realistic, thoughful projections into the future. I don't like them--I've only rarely read a science fiction book that I didn't find to be at least a little preachy. Philip K. Dick in particular really sends my preach-o-meter spinning.

Fantasy, on the other hand, tends to have its primary relationship with the past instead of the future and therefore relieves itself of any resposibility to comment directly on our current society. Tolkien, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Jack Whyte (again, I'm betraying my own personal taste here--I know that there are other kinds of stories to tell)--all of these authors are telling stories that are supposed to have taken place a very long time ago. The society they describe is not ours, nor is it a society we're in any danger of becoming. Therefore, both the author and the reader can treat it as a little more "other" than many of these science-fiction worlds. We don't have a responsibility, in other words, to find lessons in these books, and the authors don't feel a responsibility to put them in. I think that's why I like Tolkien so much--there is so much meaning, so many universal truths, and so many important themes, but there is never any kind of urgency or imperative to my taking them in. I can read the book ten times and find something new in it each time, and I never have to feel Tolkien is making a specific negative point about the world I am currently living in. It would be interesting to read some science fiction that attempts a similar kind of storytelling--any recommendations?
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