Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Settings of fantasy and science fiction

Last week I was reading Michael Chabon’s latest anthology attempting to blend literary fiction with genre fiction, McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. Overall it was a good collection, with stories from genre insiders such as China Miéville, Stephen King and Peter Straub; literary superstars such as Margaret Atwood and Roddy Doyle; and writers who have always straddled the boundary of the two, such as Jonathan Lethem and Joyce Carol Oates.

But when I finished reading the book, I was left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. It took me awhile to figure out what caused that sense. It was not because of the stories themselves, since the majority of them were worthwhile reading, although certainly not all of them. But I have grown used to erratic quality in anthologies, so that was not the problem. Then I realized what it was: every story in the book was set in the present time.

I began reading science fiction decades ago as a venue for getting away from the contemporary world in which I lived. To some extent, that is still the reason I enjoy fantasy and science fiction. The fact that my other favorite type of fiction is historical fiction tends to support this reason. As I thought about it, there are basically four main settings for f&sf.

The first setting is the past. While this tends towards historical fantasy and alternate history, some pure science fiction set in historical times (Lest Darkness Fall, for example).

The second setting, and my least favorite, is the present time. Alien beings make their first appearance on Earth (Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station). Cutting edge technology makes an incredible breakthrough (Frankenstein and its offspring). Urban fantasy. Rural fantasy. For other examples, read any issue of 1950s Galaxy and you will be inundated with sf set in the world at that time.

The third setting, and perhaps the least common, is settings away from the real world entirely. This tends to be mostly fantasy rather than sf, but not exclusively. Where is Lord of the RingsMiddle Earth, for example? Or Gormanghast? Or Phil Farmer’s Riverworld? Do any of them take place in the world as we know it, whether past, present, or future?

The final setting, and my personal favorite, is the future. This is the traditional setting for science fiction, and gives the authors the most gist for their creative processes. It ranges from near-future cyberpunk to far-future end-of-the-world settings (Jack Vance’s Dying Earth and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun). It includes many of the sub-genres of science fiction, such as future history (which is primarily concerned with how civilization / culture develops due to evolutionary or technological changes; world-building, both the Hal Clement “hard science” type and the sociological/anthropological/political types of Kim Stanley Robinson, C.J. Cherryh and Ursula K Le Guin; space opera; planetary romances.

I have no pithy conclusions to end this discussion, just another reminder that fantasy and science fiction really do have something for every reader, even so-called “literary” readers, as Michael Chabon’s anthology shows. And since that symmetry is probably as good a closure for this blog as possible, I guess I’ll stop right here.


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