Visions of Paradise

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Fantasy vs Science Fiction

I read a headline recently that declared science fiction is dying, being replaced by fantasy. This spurred several thoughts in my overactive brain. It is undoubtedly true that fantasy dominates the genre these days. Locus reports in their November issue that as of September, 2009 there have been 142 sf novels published this year but 259 fantasy and 145 horror novels. That is a wide differential, which raises the obvious question: what does fantasy offer to its readers than science fiction does not?

One possibility is that much contemporary sf is near-future, high-tech stuff, and has been so ever since the rise of Cyberpunk in the 1980s. Many of these novels are thrillers rather than future speculations, which do not have the feel of getting away from reality, which is one of the lures of speculative fiction. Especially during economic downturns, people crave total escape from the “real” world, and nowadays fantasy seems to give that feeling much moreso than contemporary sf.

Another possibility is that the best science fiction is thought-provoking as it speculates on the historical and sociological processes which created the future being explored. Its sense of wonder is largely intellectual rather than purely emotional. Fantasy has little of that depth, instead concentrating on creating characters whom the reader can identify with, then staying with those characters for several volumes. So where science fiction often has a feeling of disjoint, forcing the reader to adapt to a strange new world with a strange foundation in each individual novel, fantasy offers a comfortable familiarity which is something many readers crave in trouble times.

Of course, in spite of some people’s fears, this does not mean science fiction is actually dying. There is still a decent amount of far-future sf being published on a regular basis. Writers such as Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Jack McDevitt, Julie Czerneda, and Mike Resnick are all prospering in the marketplace. I suspect that a look at the number of sf books being published in 2009 compared to, say, 1975, will show a huge increase. So while the number of fantasy readers and fantasy books being published are increasing by huge numbers, the number of sf books and readers are also increasing, just at a considerably slower rate. Which hardly spells doom for science fiction, merely a much bigger publishing ghetto than existed in the 1960s.

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Have you noticed how bestselling writers often try to distance themselves from fantasy and science fiction? Kurt Vonnegut started the trend fifty years ago, and recently such diverse writers as Margaret Atwood and Terry Goodkind have joined the trend. I wonder what benefit they get from their disclaimers? Does it increase their popularity to alienate one of the largest niches of the reading public? Hmm, my blog is not very popular, if the number of reactions I get from it is any indication, so perhaps such a disclaimer would help me as well?

So here it is: I am officially announcing that the blog Visions of Paradise has absolutely NOTHING to do with either fantasy or science fiction. I am discussing pure literature which merely happens to be set in the far-future or on impossibly-imagined worlds. Just consider the works I have discussed recently: Gateway? A psychological study of a delusional man. Phases of the Moon? Historical fiction, merely set in the future rather than the past. Empire Star? Beyond the Blue Event Horizon? The fact that scientific speculation is at the heart of both novels is purely coincidental. Totally.

Henry James forever! *boo hiss* to H.G. Wells. Grow up, Chabon!

3 Comments:

  • Were you being sarcastic when you said the 17 book difference between SF and F was a wide differential? Because that's not very wide at all...

    By Blogger S.M.D., At 5:52 AM  

  • No, that was a typo. I corrected it to read "Locus reports in their November issue that as of September, 2009 there have been 142 sf novels published this year but 259 fantasy and 145 horror novels." Thanks.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 3:34 PM  

  • My personal feelings on the fantasy is alive, sci fi is dead argument is that first of all it is a little too black and white. My frequent visits to bookstores seem to show that there are regularly new sci fi titles being placed in the New Books section. Also, these things are cyclical. While one might be MORE popular at any given time, it does not necessarily mean that the other is DYING. Again, I think it is too black and white. There are a number of fantastic, popular, big selling critically acclaimed science fiction authors working right now and I keep seeing work coming from them. So I'm not worried. I haven't run out of good sci fi to read yet and I doubt I will any time soon.

    By Blogger Carl V., At 2:27 PM  

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