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.

Sci fi world mourns Harlan Ellison

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: Stories by [Ellison, Harlan]

When The Guardian interviewed Harlan Ellison in 2013, the interviewer begged the famed science fiction writer to define the term “speculative fiction.” Here are Ellison’s words: “I will give you the only answer that there is. It is the game of ‘what if?'”

Those of us who love Ellison’s writing–and we are legion–woke up one day late last month to find that Ellison’s brilliant, quirky, teeming mind has departed this planet. Ellison died on June 29, 2018, at 84.

Ellison’s obituary in The Washington Post sums up an amazing and creative life:

The Post obit notes that Ellison “was among the ‘new wave’ of incredibly prolific authors who used stories about space and technology to explore dark moral terrain” during “a literary career that helped reshape science fiction.” The Post article cited especially Ellison’s famous script for Star Trek‘s most notable episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever” and the feud with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry that followed. The tussle, leading to bad blood and lawsuits, was over just how dark “The City on the Edge of Forever” would be–if Ellison had had his way, much, much darker.

In the interview for The Guardian, Ellison had some incisive words to say about the genre of science fiction. “You take that which is known, and you extrapolate – and you keep it within the bounds of logic. . . and you say, ‘Well, what if?'”

He distinguished science fiction from fantasy. “Fantasy is a separate genre,” Ellison maintained. According to Ellison, the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that fantasy “allows you to go beyond the bounds of that which is acceptable, where all of a sudden people can fly, or the Loch Ness Monster does not have a scientific rationale, but is a mythic creature.” By no means does Ellison diss fantasy, however. “It is in the grand tradition of the oldest forms of writing we know, all the way back to Gilgamesh, the very first fiction we know, and the gods. Fantasy is a noble endeavour,” Ellison told The Guardian‘s interviewer.

On the other hand, according to Ellison, “Science fiction is a contemporary subset [of speculative fiction] that goes all the way back to Lucian of Samosata, and Verne and Wells, and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.”

Ellison also claimed in that interview that speculative fiction at its best “is classic literature, on a level with Moby Dick and Colette and Edgar Allan Poe.” I myself think he’s right, only because all literature, classic to terrible, is speculative fiction. As far as I’m concerned, all fiction begins with that question “What if?”

THE KINGKILLER CHRONICLE comes to the screen

Two versions of Patrick Rothfuss’s great fantasy series, including The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, as well as an as yet untitled and unwritten third novel, are heading to screens near you–a long-form television prequel to the books and a film based on the books. Many people hope they’re headed there, anyway.

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle Book 1) by [Rothfuss, Patrick]
Showtime has commissioned a prequel to the fantasy series, an effort championed by Rothfuss fan Lin-Manuel Miranda. Appropriately, Miranda–the brilliant star of the musical Hamilton–will compose the music. As avid readers of the books know, the protagonist Kvothe is a master lute-player, and music features prominently throughout the books.

Rothfuss’s world-building is matchless, so filling out Kvothe’s backstory will be catnip for fans. As The Name of the Wind begins, Kvothe’s mother and father are killed by the mysterious and scary Chandrian. Kvothe has grown up in a troupe of wandering players and minstrels, and Kvothe’s parents have written a song exposing the origins of the Chandrian. The Chandrian take their revenge by killing the entire troupe. “Somebody’s parents have been singing entirely the wrong sort of songs,” the sinister Chandrian Cinder tells Kvothe, the sole survivor of the massacre. A Showtime series filling out more about Kvothe’s parents and the wanderings of the troupe is sure to thrill fans of the books.

News of the series came out in fall 2017, and so far, there’s no firm airing date for the series or much information about it. Fans can only hope, first, that the series is actually made, and second, that it doesn’t do violence to the books. Here are two links that give about as much information as I’ve found so far: and

Lionsgate is making the books into a film. The first book in the series, The Name of the Wind, is being made into a feature film to be released by Lionsgate and directed by Sam Raimi, again with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s involvement:

Even more ways to experience the world of the novels? The developers of these filmed projects are giving some thought to other ways we fans of the books can experience Kvothe’s world. Miranda has expressed interest in any stage-play spinoffs, and a video game is also apparently in the works. Whether any of these projects–tv, film, stage, game–will come to fruition is anyone’s guess, although the Showtime and Lionsgate projects look pretty solid.

A bigger problem for those who love these novels is the fear that none of these transformations will do the novels adequate justice. In the best of circumstances, an adaptation of a novel into a different medium is great not just because it faithfully translates at least the essence of the novel but also because the adaptation stands alone as an effective work of art within its own medium. We can even probably think of occasions when an adaptation into a different medium surpasses the original. (Every time I hear the pious contention that “the movie is never as good as the book,” I cringe. One great example: Gone With the Wind. Bad book. Amazing iconic Hollywood blockbuster movie-making.)

Game of Thrones, in my opinion, is the great fantasy success in that regard (although there’s a real fear among Rothfuss fans that he, like George R. R. Martin of GoT, will never finish his series). Game of Thrones is an excellent fantasy novel series AND great long-form tv, both. Other examples: The Lord of the Rings movies exhibited wonderful movie-making based on the iconic fantasy novels. I personally adored 300, for all of its goofiness. (Feel free to disagree with that.)

But we can all think of failures, both the terrible ones because they’re awful movie-making and the ones that fail by trying for too much faithful reverence. Both types of failure can kill a project. I personally thought the Narnia movies truly sucked. I personally found the early Harry Potter movies to be lifeless illustrated versions of the books.  I personally found The Hobbit movies to be mostly unsatisfying and dull.

As for the video game idea, gaming is littered with failed attempts to move one medium’s success into a different one’s tedium. I’m thinking of LotR Online, for example. It’s so tedious. (Here I’m ducking from projectiles aimed at me by the fanboyz.) There are too many failed attempts to move from games to movies, from movies to games, from games to books, even; from one kind of game to another (D&D Online, anyone?). Comic books seem to make pretty good movies, especially the superhero variety, if you happen to like superheroes. There’s a doctoral dissertation in there somewhere, but since I’m not a big superhero fan, I don’t care why that is. But games based on the superhero idea range from meh to outright bad. City of Heroes–okay, but in the end, pretty meh. DC Universe Online? Ugh, it looks bad. I admit I’ve never played it.

But maybe a Kingkiller game isn’t so far-fetched. This fun video from the YouTube Tabletop series gives a bit of hope. Maybe.