Saturday, December 6, 2014

The shape of the dream: Fantasy vs. Science Fiction

What other-worldly fiction resonates with the public these days?   For those of us in the other-worldly fiction genre, it sometimes comes down to a question of fantasy or science fiction.  What is the appeal of each to the reader, and what are the disadvantages of each as a tool to the writer in getting across the desired emotions and characters?

Both SF and Fantasy cover such a wide array of sub-genres,  it's hard to pin either down.  Any sub-genre could fit with either one, but some seem to work better with one than the other.  Romance, in the classic sense does seem to blend more easily into the fantasy and paranormal realm than it does with science fiction.  Eroticism often seems like a better fit with SF.

So, what are the core differences between the two genres, and what chords do they strike with the readers?  Obviously, one is based (at least loosely) on science, and therefore is grounded in physical reality and/or its theoretical properties, and the other on magic, therefore grounded in ancient beliefs or new mythology, either of which seems to resonate on some emotional level.  In short, one aims at the head, the other at the heart.

In the realm of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" captivated the public for decades in print, re-defining the fantasy genre, and then made a big explosion recently as a big-screen adaptation.  LOR is straight action; heroic quest and the war of good against evil.  The female characters are few, though powerful, if only in a symbolic or functionary sense.  J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Christian attempting to paint a stark landscape of uncompromising light vs. darkness.  It aims at the heart of the child and strikes the mark.

In the turbulent 1960's, Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" was slower to catch on with the public, but the melodramatic character interplay eventually caught on, spawning a cult phenomenon which helped humanize science fiction.  Also simplistic in its way, it offered a wide-eyed, optimistic vision of the future which often manifested in social allegory and symbolism.  Mainly, it tried to tap less into the heart of the child and more into the imagination of the adolescent; striking out for the frontier, challenging the boundaries.

In the tamer 70's, George Lucas's "Star Wars" captured the public's imagination with a technological re-imagining of the Arthurian fantasy genre, fusing science fiction with fantasy.  The magic sword was now a laser beam, the magic of wizards was now a cosmic energy field known only as The Force.  Different tools, but same swashbuckling hero-saves-princess idea.  Back to simple good vs. evil, and it caught the public's heart.  In the aftermath of the Vietnam war and Watergate, the public longed for something clean and innocent.

The books that have captured the enthusiasm of the younger crowds and made it to the big screen currently are another sub-genre of SF:  Post-apocalyptic fiction. ("Hunger Games," "Divergent," "Maze Runner.")  The SF that begins with society's destruction, rather than its advancement.  And, its sub-genre is teen and young adult fiction.  It resonates with the young, perhaps because in these fictional worlds, the adults have destroyed the world and the young protagonists of the future are at war with a new generation of  tyrannical adults who want to control their minds.  (The 60's reborn?)

The fantasy-romance genre that has also captured the young audience currently is of course vampire fiction.  The "Twilight" phenomenon tapped into a simplistic romance formula based on a traditional viewpoint of female virginity and idealized, unconditional love.  A daughter of divorced parents seeking a truly eternal love of undying youth with a boy who loves only her.

As contemporary society seems almost to be devolving back into the turbulence of the 60's, with racism and police brutality coming to the forefront of the public mind through the new technology of social media and protests growing in the streets,  I have to wonder what otherworldly fiction will resonate next with the public?  Will writers in our genre envision a dark future of race war, or a more idealistic future beyond the killing in the streets, or will we retreat into fantasies of gods, angels, demons, brave knights and faery princesses?  We'll see.

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