Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

I attended the SBL/AAR conference in San Francisco this last weekend, and the most anticipated session for me was the Science Fiction session in the AAR.  This was a wildcard session, an exploratory session to gauge interest in the topic in hopes of creating a program unit (which I heartily hope comes to pass).

I thoroughly enjoyed the session and the talks of the four panelists.  One thing that struck me though was the seeming sharp distinction between the science fiction genre and the fantasy genre.

Rudy Busto, of UCSB, the first panelist, seemed to draw this distinction most starkly.  He claimed (and I am not quoting here, but doing the best I can from memory), that in Fantasy, one just has vampires and werewolves running around, while in Science Fiction, there is a scientific basis for the incredible events that occur. 

So, in both genres, incredible events occur, but in one, the explanation is pure fantasy or "magic" while in the other, the explanation is science.  Yet, while this might be true on the surface, I would challenge the validity of such a claim.

It is true, on the surface, Fantasy makes no real attempt to explain such incredible events.  Rather, the world which the Fantasy genre creates is one of magic and the incredible, while the Science Fiction genre in theory operates in our world of scientific cause and effect.  I say "in theory" because, while that is the assumption, just saying that the scientific world of cause and effect is the basis of the film does not make it so.  While there is this generic assumption that the incredible things that happen have a basis in science, often little effort is put into explaining how this is the case.  It is as if the general claim "this world is based on scientific cause and effect" then justifies all of the incredible things that happen.

I think a good example of this is the sonic screwdriver of the Dr. on Doctor Who.  I mean, beyond calling it sonic, and therefore having some basis in the scientific world of cause and effect, is there really any explanation of how this screwdriver can do what it does?  The most common use of the screwdriver, at least toward the beginning of the reboot series, is to lock and unlock doors.  Yet, as the series progresses, the uses of the screwdriver become more incredible and more magical. It functions as a medical scanner, and, at times, even a defensive weapon that disarms enemies' guns, all based on a "science" that is never explained. As James McGrath has said, "Is there anything fundamentally different between Harry Potter’s magic wand and the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver?" (McGrath, who was also a panelist in this AAR session, I think fundamentally agrees with me (or perhaps one should say that I agree with him), as you can see in his post here).

So, I would question the stark distinction between the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres.  While there is indeed a difference, I think it is far less than is usually posited.  I also think that future (hopefully) AAR program unit would be remiss to draw this distinction sharply and exclude the Fantasy genre from being part of the group's discussion.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Keith! Thanks for your support of the Wildcard session on SF in San Francsicso (SF in SF!). I hope you come to our session in Chicago!

    Your comment above is at the center of much of SF theory -- and you are are correct to be wary of the "in theory" distinction between SF and Fantasy. I take my cue from Darko Suvin's theory (see his _Metamorphosis of Science Fiction_ (1979)) where he lays out the place of SF in relation to other types of literature and wants to make the connection to realist fiction. For Suvin the real marker of SF literature is what he terms the "cognitive estrangement" element which is the linking of the conventional world as we know it to the imagination. This fidelity (theoretically anyway) to stuff like the laws of physics, time moving forward, etc. can be the most interesting aspect of SF's articulation of transcendence: how to talk about "god" but within the scientific worldview.

    Fantasy, of course, is an "easier" literature to infuse with the sacred/transcendence. Fantasy worlds are not bound to the "rules" of our world, so things like talking dragons, or flying wizards at Hogwarts don't need to be "explained" --- there is no "scientific" explanation for why broomsticks work.

    Okay, so having made that rather formal distinction, the truth is that the literature is so much more interesting and transgresses those formal, literary genre descriptions. In my religion and science fiction course, it is hard to argue for this distinction when even the atheist Arthur C. Clarke has some notion of an overmind or hidden hand working in his classic novel _Childhood's End_ (which I recommend to you with enthusiasm).

    So, yes, I agree with you that the "stark distinction" I made at the SF SF panel is too limiting. But for me as a scholar of religion, the challenge and fun is to poke through that tough but thin veneer of "science" and find those moments of inescapable "god" or "mysterium tremendum" in Science Fiction (whereas definitionally, fantasy literature creates its own self-contained worlds where god can be just another creature).

    Thanks, again for your blog post!

    Rudy Busto
    Religious Studies
    UC-Santa Barbara