The Great Sci Fi Divide

This post started out as a digression from my obituary for Harlan Ellison. Ellison had mentioned in an interview the difference between science fiction and fantasy, and I’d wondered whether there really was such a sharp division between the two.

Many others have wondered the same, and have explored the issue. I recalled long ago reading Robert Heinlein’s Magic, Inc.–and that led to all kinds of interesting observations regarding 21st century ideas about science fiction/fantasy vs. old-school Heinlein-esque ideas about the genre (or genres).

The term that satisfies many who struggle with the divide between the two genres, and the question whether there really is one, is science fantasy. If you look the term up, you’ll find many online and in-print discussions of the issue, and of course there’s Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law. To wit: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

However, the debate was never that simple, and these days, it just grows more complex. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has many articles debating the issue and definitions emerging from the issue: see articles on fantastika, equipoisal, and many others.

When I was going about the pleasing exercise of thinking about examples, some of them from as far back as the moment contemporary science fiction emerged from the pulps, that’s when I recalled Robert Heinlein’s Magic, Inc.

And when I thought about Robert Heinlein, I quailed. I dislike Robert Heinlein (maybe that’s too mild a statement for my feelings about him), yet he was my entry drug to the genre. I’ve discovered mine is not an uncommon experience for a reader of my generation. Here’s a great discussion of my very dilemma: “Robert Heinlein, Baen Books, and Purity in Science-Fiction/Fantasy Culture.”

This article explores the cultural divide between two groups of readers:  “I came to science fiction via Robert Heinlein” vs. “Robert Heinlein–who?” The article led me to further thinking about why I despise Robert Heinlein (yet am still compelled by him). Although Heinlein might be best known for Stranger in a Strange Land, a book taken up as almost the anthem of disaffected ’60s youth, Heinlein himself didn’t come out of that world. Not at all. He emerged from the world of the 1940s and the pulps, and his blatant misogynism and his politics, especially those verging on fascist, were pretty disturbing. (What is a more disturbing read than Farnham’s Freehold? If you only know Starship Troopers through the jokey movie, go read the stomach-churning book–talking about the fascism here, not the spiders.). I recall with mingled amusement and bemusement the time Heinlein came to the University of Illinois to address a student group. The students all came expecting a thundering denunciation of Nixonian warmongering imperialistic America, because they mistakenly thought Heinlein grokked that, and they got an Ayn Rand libertarian instead.

A statement by Michael Moorcock seems right on the money to me. Moorcock writes about the space-opera romanticism of Leigh Brackett (1915-1978; a science fiction novelist and screenwriter who contributed hugely to the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back and to many other noteworthy 20th century films) in “Queen of the Martian Mysteries: An Appreciation of Leigh Brackett,” (Nonfiction · Reprints · June 13, 2002)  “To some extent the post-war rejection of gorgeous fantasy, of full-blooded romanticism,” Moorcock speculates, “was the result of our sudden growing up as cultures, recognising the results of Hitler’s over-the-top use of romantic propaganda.” Moorcock wrote of the passing of this type of science fantasy and its fascist tropes, but I think, to paraphrase the oft-misquoted Mark Twain, the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. One shudders at what the Age of Trump might contribute, with its horrifying resurrection of an Ayn Rand-ish “I don’t care. (as long as I’ve got mine and I fight dirty to keep it that way) Do you?”

But twenty-first century hybrids of science fiction and fantasy–all sorts of hybridization of the speculative fiction genres–give me hope. I’m thinking right now of China Miéville, for example, and there are many others.

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