What It Reminds Me Of

November 22, 2006 | By | 11 Replies More

Watching the furor generated over Erich’s post about Bart Erhman’s book has been awesome.  I mean that in the strict meaning of the word.  It is awe-illiciting.  After watching the average responses to our posts rise and fall around five to ten each, with a few fetching somewhere in the twenties, here we have a thread running well into the four hundreds with no sign of ebbing to a halt.

I’ve been dipping in from time to time to see where the argument is, and some patterns have emerged which are both frustrating and heartening.  By any objective criteria, the folks of a generally pragmatic, secular viewpoint have held to a bit higher standard of argument than those of the religious/romantic side.  The silliness of watching people over and over again assert that, basically, the evidence doesn’t matter, the universe is the way I  believe it is because, well, I believe it’s that way (the bible says so, after all, even when it doesn’t) reminds me strongly of a kindred, albeit much more modest and almost invisible debate which is related to my own profession.

Jason Rayl is a pseudonym.  There are a variety of reasons for using one, but the chief one for me is that it keeps two sides of my writing life separate.  I write fiction–get paid for it–and while doing so I use a voice somewhat different than what I use as Jason.  Jason allows me a certain freedom I might not allow myself under my “real” name.  It also removes the possibility of people taking the view that my words here are somehow to be taken differently because I’m “that writer guy there” and I have a persona.  People think they know who you are by reading your writing.  Only when you write autobiography or memoir should that actually be taken to be true (and as we’ve learned in the last few years, not even then is it entirely to be trusted).  People should not judge a writer of fiction by the work produced.  It’s fiction.  We make it up.

Still, certain proclivities can be gleaned in a broad sense about the artist. 

I write science fiction.  I’ve published ten novels, scads of short stories, essays, reviews.  I’ve even been shortlisted for a few awards, so apparently I do my craft at a reasonably high level, which leads me to assume I know something about that which I write.

I do not write fantasy, as a rule.  (I have  committed fantasy from time to time, as experiment, but my preference is overwhelmingly for SF.)

There’s a good reason I eschew fantasy, most of which I do not read, either.  And it relates to this ongoing secular vs religious argument–in many ways. 

This has been a debate in the field for a few decades now.  Most people are getting bored with it, and so it wanes from time to time, only to be reborn when some young turk comes on the scene and makes A Pronouncement, which usually runs something like this:  “Science fiction is really a subset of Fantasy, which has a much older pedigree.  Therefore, science fiction can lay no special claim to being any more plausible or realistic or believable than fantasy.”

Originally, this argument was made by fantasy writers who had a much smaller market share than science fiction.  They were jealous.  That situation has now reversed and SF is a smaller part of the single SF/F genre designation.  Fantasy writers are getting more money, selling more books, and, of course, have more readers than science fiction.  So now the argument is rather condescending when it comes up, a kind of “I told you so” rant on the part of fantasy authors.  Pathetic, really.

It is a matter of concern for those of us practicing SF.  We don’t quite understand why the Adventures of Dronan Thunderthighs and His Elf Courtesan are outselling us by such margins.  We don’t quite understand, you see, why the former audience for SF has abandoned what we consider a better read (more intellectually stimulating, at least) for pure escapism.

Now, here’s where the two different debates, in my mind, have some similarity.  There is, despite the well-deployed critical arguments of certain fantasy writers, a major difference between SF and Fantasy and it has to do with world views.

This is one of those instances of slippery definitions.  It is more often a matter of “I know it when I see it” rather than a hard and fast rule that can be applied to determine the difference.  I’ve been intuitively convinced that the two genres are utterly different for a good thirty years, but only when I was confronted by a rabid, evangelizing fantasy fan did I begin trying to really concretize my impression.  What I have come up with it, as briefly as possible, is that science fiction is Epistemological fiction, while fantasy is Religious fiction. 

By that I mean SF is, underneath all the slick effects, spaceships, aliens, physics, and rayguns, thematically concerned with knowledge and how it works and how the universe is structured.

Fantasy could care less about how anything works.  It is concerned with symbol, fate, and moral reification.

These distinctions work in the subtext, as starting points from which the point of view of the work springs.

Roughly, SF is based on a universe as understood by science, fantasy is based on a universe as understood by myth.

Despite the fact that certain works have over the eighty-odd year history of the genres tried to blend the two, for the most part they don’t blend.  Science fantasy is a mongrel creation that is neither fish nor fowl.  It can be very enjoyable, but it is never a true hybrid because, depending on what the author is concerned with, the work tips over into one or the other.

The first three Star Wars movies (nunbers 4, 5, and 6, that is) are pure fantasy, despite the science fiction trimmings.  Lucas tried to turn the whole thing into SF in the first three (numbers 1, 2, and 3, that is) only to create a hobbled, stumbling mess, because he lost the thread created in the first first three.

How is this like the debate between secularists and religionists? 

Well, for the most part SF writers grumble about the popularity of Fantasy but don’t try to turn it into something it’s not.  We don’t tell fantasy writers that what they’re doing is really SF, it’s just that they don’t know it (or do it well).  But fantasy writers do try to tell us that we’re just writing fantasy.

Science gets regularly accused of being a religion.  I don’t think any scientist ever accused religon of being something other than religion.

But also in the discourse between the two groups, there comes a point when reason breaks down and the fantasy devotee (I’m speaking now of the reader, the fan, not the writers, who know better) starts making accusations about how this or that just doesn’t work in SF, which makes it less than claimed, and really fantasy.  The SF side continues to point out problems with the comparison, never resorts to name-calling, just sticks to, well, epistemology.  Eventually, the SF devotee just walks away, having at some point “won” the argument (which is to say, made the point, proved the point, offered examples in support of the point, and finished making the case), while the other side keeps frothing.

What bothers me these days is how many young people turn away from SF–it’s hard, harder than fantasy, which offers sagas of validation for characters who have little more than their birthright, their family name, their so-called destiny, and win the day usually by killing someone.  SF–good SF–prompts thought, you need to know a little something to comprehend it, it elevates the idea of learning, and that problem-solving is not a trait “owned” by a bloodline…

Anyway, I wanted to lighten this up a little bit and make an observation from the smaller to the larger.  I can’t help seeing people stuck in a religious tautology as fantasy fans who don’t and won’t understand Einstein or quantum mechanics or the fact that all you really have is a brain that needs filling.  Maybe this sounds a little harsh, but to me religion and fantasy do roughly the same thing–let one escape, for a short while, the idea that magic (miracle) doesn’t happen and that, really, it’s not necessary–just a little learning, which seems frightening to people who want to feel special because they belong to a certain club, not because they’ve worked hard to be someone worth while.

One more similarity between the two debates.  In SF, there is no single, seminal work that defines the field.  You could pick maybe ten books that sort of do that, but it’s impossible to reduce what science fiction is  to one work.  Fantasy, on the other hand, does have a single work that pretty much contains all that fantasy is–The Lord of the Rings.  The genre can be reduced to a single work with a single idea.  Interesting all the more since ever since Tolkein published his book work, most of the fantasy field has been engaged in copying it in theme and trope, endlessly–and almost all the imitators have missed the point Tolkein was making.

Thanks for your indulgence.  Back to our regularly scheduled current event etc.

And have a happy Thanksgiving.


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Category: American Culture, Communication, Culture, Language, Psychology Cognition, Reading - Books and Magazines, Religion, Science, Writing

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (11)

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  1. Great post! I have certainly run through several cycles of reading SF and then Fantasy but over the last Five years I have been turned off by most of the new Fantasy that I have read and I have been reading SF 99 percent of the time. I am however a complete Tolkein Fanboy and reread LOTR every couple of years. I had noticed that the shelf space in the stores that I visit for book purchases had been changing but I was not aware that it was industry wide. I hope that SF will change the tide soon.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Here is a thought experiment, unsubstantiated and wildly speculative:

    Ask the people of America to raise their hands if they know what God needs us to do to get to heaven. 75% of the people will raise their hands.

    Then ask them to raise their hands if they've ever, as adults, chosen to read any book about physics, biology or evolution, or if they've ever even figured out how to program their VCR to make a timer recording. What would you get? 25%, maybe?

    Welcome to fantasy nation!

  3. Rev. Spitz says:

    Paul Hill defended human babies in the womb from being murdered, not thoughtless embryos as you put it. Do you feel born children should not be protected as well?

  4. hogiemo says:

    Jas, great post!

    So ten SF books can define the genre? Which 10?

    Erich I haven't figured out how to program a timer recording, that's what kids are for! The rest of reading I've done and am looking more deeply into my faith because of many of the posts made here. It's you guys' (collective non-sex designated pronoun) fault but, I'm thinking of writing a book.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Rev. Spitz wrote (unrelated to the above post): "Paul Hill defended human babies in the womb from being murdered, not thoughtless embryos as you put it."

    Rev. Spitz illustrates one common trait of religious extremists: when the facts are inconvenient, they disregard the facts and invent a fiction. Unfortunately for him, any medical textbook will confirm that human babies are outside the womb, not inside, but he prefers the fiction that they are inside, so that is the fiction he invents.

    Rev. Spitz continues: " Do you feel born children should not be protected as well?"

    That is another example of inventing a fiction: creating a false choice, in this case the false choice between (a) treating both embryos and babies as babies, and (b) treating both embryos and babies as embryos. Obviously, there are other choices, including: treating embryos as embryos, and babies as babies.

  6. Jason Rayl says:


    Well, my ten might not be someone else's ten, which is the point. The field is a fluctuation mass of ideas in transition, hell-bent on eschewing anything that might "settle" into a static, monolithic icon.

    My ten, though, just for the sake of argument?


    NOVA by Samuel R. Delany


    CONSIDER PHLEBAS by Iain M. Banks

    NEUROMANCER by William Gibson

    AND CHAOS DIED by Joanna Russ


    TIMESCAPE by Gregory Benford

    SUPERLUMINAL by Vonda McIntyre

    LEGION OF SPACE by Jack Williamson

    The pleasure of the genre is that tomorrow I could make up another list, just as representative, with completely different titles, but these are the ones I tend to consider seminal or at least epitomal. If you read all those, you'd have a very good handle on what SF is about.

    And everyone is free to argue over it!

  7. Dan Klarmann says:

    I guess I'm behind on my reading! I may have read only half of those.

    Which of those books might cover the theme of alternative evolutionary paths affecting culture in the manner of Pohl's "Jem", Asimov's "The Gods Themselves", or Niven/Pournelle's "The Mote in God's Eye"? (I'd cite Weinbaum's brilliant short "A Martian Odyssey", but this is about novels).

    Would Frankowski's "Copernick's Rebellion" be pushing the sympathetic mad-bio-scientist theme too far?

    Or are these themes closer to fantasy than SF?

  8. Jason Rayl says:


    Specifically, AND CHAOS DIED, WHERE LATE THE SWEET BIRDS SANG, and, to a less specific extent, CONSIDER PHLEBAS.

    But as I said, one could do several lists of Ten Bests in SF and never actually be wrong.

  9. hogiemo says:

    Dude, no Heinlein? Apostacy! Ruin! "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", at least! I've read everything but, CONSIDER PHLEBAS. Thanks for the insights.

  10. Jason Rayl says:

    I toyed with putting a Heinlein on the list, but you can't pick just one. Heinlein, as a body of work, is fundamental, and no single volume can be touted as representative. However, among those I listed, Heinlein's influence is pervasive.

  11. Fiction says:

    I recommend "Stranger in a Strange Land". It was awesome.


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