Jeff Offringa’s Journal

Two Genres Seperated By A Common Setting
February 8, 2010, 10:32 pm
Filed under: General Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Those of you who either know me or have been reading these posts for a while probably assumed I’d be writing about the Super Bowl this week. True, the game has just started, and it is on the TV right now, but I’m not enough of a football fan to spend a post on that topic. I mean, I am a huge sports fan, but football is probably number three of four of the major pro sports in my interest.

OTOH, I had thought I’d be writing about the game. Or, more accurately, about the cultural phenomenon the game has become in my lifetime. Consider the piece of news I heard this morning: Two years ago, when Indianapolis won the Super Bowl, Indianapolis Public Schools had no school the following Monday because so many bus drivers called in sick that they couldn’t get the kids to school. As a school teacher, I found that simultaneously funny – and sad.

And then there are the commercials. There are many years where I watch the game as much for the commercials as for the game, for often (like this year) I am ambivalent about the teams playing, or it is a blow out. I must say, though, that it is sad that in a game watched literally by millions of kids, the most humorous of the commercials are usually for beer. Sigh.

But I digress. I’ve actually gone on about the Big Game for longer than I intended. So here I go with my topic for the week: The difference between fantasy and science fiction.

This is a topic I have talked about before, but it came back to me as I was going through some old record albums (yep. Actual vinyl!) that belonged to my brother. As I’ve said many times, he was the one who introduced me to science fiction (and thus by default fantasy), and while he was a huge fan of hard science fiction writers (Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, etc.), he was as bigger fan of Star Trek.

With that in mind, I pulled out an album he had that consisted of interviews with Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Trek. I imagine this album, produced in 1976, IIRC, is a collectors item, but for me, it’s interesting in and of itself. For example, some of the “tracks” were actual interviews with Gene, while others were bits from what sounded like a mid-70’s Trek convention, and still others were Gene interviewing Trek actors or people who influenced him. It’s the last section that I’m actually going to talk about. (As an aside, I do have to say, though: it’s kinda surreal hearing a dead man interview another dead man… )

Gene interviewed Isaac Asimov on the “B” side of the album. For those of you too young to remember him, Asimov was one of the original hard science fiction writers, writing prolifically and award-winningly, from the 1950’s up until his death in (Again, IIRC) the early 1990’s. In some ways, Asimov can be credited with helping to give birth to the modern genre of sci-fi, and his influence upon the genre is in many ways greater than Tolkien’s on fantasy, owing to his long career and prolific writing.

The question that intrigued me was this: “What is science fiction?” Dr. Asimov responded that “Science fiction is that branch of literature which deals with the response of human beings to changes in science and technology.” Dr. Asimov then continued by saying that he was often asked what the difference is between science fiction and fantasy. ”Although science fiction and fantasy both deal with a background which is completely different from the one we live in today, in fantasy,” he said, “there is no way in which we can travel from our background to the fantastic background, which involves magic, elves, fairies, and so on. But, in science fiction, we can travel between our background and the fantastic by appropriate changes in the level of science and technology.”

Now, Dr. Asimov was both far more of a scientist and a writer than me (with over a hundred novels published at that time – and many more afterwards!), so I can’t really see myself arguing with him, even though I don’t fully agree with him. OTOH, he does bring up a few interesting points. For example, one of the sub genres of fantasy that I have rarely enjoyed is the one where people from “our” world are translated to the fantastic by whatever means. I find that this conceit rarely makes a good story, and I am reassured to see that a writer as famous as Isaac Asimov agrees with me.

Conversely, I do disagree with him that there is no way to travel from the fantastic to our world. The best fantasy, I believe, is based on our own myths and legends – and our own history. It is when they don’t that fantasy stories fail.

Asimov also brings up another point I have harped on many times, especially in regards to movies. “The most common mistake a science fiction author makes,” he says, “is to downgrade science.” Many authors of Sci Fi, he maintains, know nothing about science and just don’t care. This assumes that people are stupid, and it shows – the audience won’t buy it.

I find this is true not only of SF, but also of fantasy; any genre, in fact. As a trained historian, as I’ve said before, much fantasy irritates me for failing to take into account real world governments or population types. For example, I know of fantasy series that have armies of a million men in a medieval setting. Now, baring massive use of magic to feed that number of people, such an army would strip the countryside as bare as a plague of locusts.

Now, I know that an author can’t know about everything. OTOH, if you don’t know something as an author, research it – at least a little. I know this is true of myself and horses. There is one scene where I have Sir Alec watering his horse in the field. I realized that I knew nothing about how that would occur. So what did I do?

Yep. Google is your friend.

Well, I could go on for a long time, but I’m running long already. Suffice it to say that even though I haven’t read more than a handful of the Asimov novels I inherited when my brother passed on, those I have read are good – very good, in fact, even though some of them are fifty years old now.


Let’s just say he followed his own advice.


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