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Science-Fiction and Fantasy
Crackpot Mailbox: Polynimbus and James Discuss Mythological and Technological Story Settings
Thu, Sep 26, 9:30 AM (3 days ago)
Edited prompt:
-What is the difference to you, between hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, and fantasy?
-What do you make of the Clark's notion "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
-What does fantasy uniquely bring to the table?
One addition:
What does it mean, mythically, to create creatures by magic to carry out your will?
Create versus summon from Elsewhere - is there a mythic difference?
1 giant creature or a swarm of weak creatures - is there a mythic difference?
A Working Summation:
◦Sci-fi uses technology to make points about psychology, sociology, and politics
◦Fantasy reveals cultural memories, sometimes by strategically breaking internal consistency
◦Both examine the human condition. Sci-fi could be described as an outside-in approach, and fantasy as inside-out.
◦They do not necessarily conflict and there's no reason a story can't have both sci-fi and fantasy resonances.
◦Both require some understanding of the human experience
I very much second your summation.
Hard science fiction, exemplified by early "gee-whiz" technologically-driven adventures and focused on space exploration saw its golden in age in the 1950s, with Robert H. Heinlein exemplifying this in his earlier work, specifically in his novels for youths and such classics as starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The best examples of dedicated hard science-fiction writers are Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Author C. Clark, Ben Bova, Isaac Asimov, who all did cross from hard to soft. The youngest hard science-fiction masters are David Brin who wrote the book that was turned into the Costner movie The Postman and Glory Season supposing feminist planetary experiment, and Greg Bear, whose best works were Blood Music, Hegira, Strength of Stones, and Heads, and most recently wrote some FBI propaganda as straight fiction in Quantico.
I chose Heinlein here, because as soon as he was overtaken by actual contemporary space exploration, and particularly after the moon landings, he began to write fantasy such as Glory Road, and extensively explored the human condition [soft science-fiction] in the context of life changing scientific advancements such as in The Door Into Summer, a beautiful work. He would also push human behavioral studies and alien viewpoints to the max in Stranger in a Strange Land, which became the center for a beatnik cult and inspired L. Ron Hubbard to invent Scientology.
Most authors have not had Heinlein's gift to right in all categories:
Phillip K. Dick did most of his work in socially more important soft science-fiction, exploring the pressures of technological advancement on the human condition with We'll Remember it for You Wholesale [Total Recall], Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep [Blade Runner] and Minority Report made into movies long after his death. Alice B. Sheldon created many stories that straddled hard science fiction and soft.
The men who I recall mastering the cross-over from soft science fiction to fantasy, and writing wonderful works in the 1970s era sub-genre of "science-fantasy" are Gene Wolfe with three interlinking series of science-fantasy that weaves myth and technology inextricably with religion, war and society, and Eric von Lustbader, who has taken over the Bourne series and wrote a wonderful 4 volume set [a trilogy and a prologue novel] called the Sunset Warrior. Jack Vance, with his Dying Earth goes science-fantasy but with numerous shorter works does superb hard and soft and hard-soft science fiction.
The authors that have best straddled all three genres are Silverberg, with Lord Valentine's Castle, The Ugly Little Boy posthumous collaboration with Asimov and his triumphant novel The Face Upon the Waters, and Poul Anderson with The Boat of a Million Years, The Vault of Ages, War of the Gods and the Time Patrol series.
For most authors of science-fiction, fantasy seems to elude, as they lack the traditional grounding in folklore and history and are very modern thinkers.
I have found it difficult to write straight fantasy and hard science fiction and usually end up mixing them in a work of any length. One of the rare examples of me doing hard science fiction is The Negotiator, a story in the book Thunderbird. Significantly, this was a hard science-fiction reader's premise which I executed. My novelette Little Feet Going Nowhere and the novels Planet Buzzkill and Retrogenesis are hard science fiction in premise, so could be categorized as hard science-fiction, but are written from a personal and social perspective rather than a scientific perspective, which is the classic means of execution, to have a scientist around to explain everything to the reader.
Another aspect of story crafting I have a hard time escaping is horror. As with Robert E. Howard's work, much of my fiction could be categorized as horror, with this often not being the intent.
Clark's notion is the basis for all good science-fantasy and some fantasy and we are living it, as the oracles of our society, the smart phone and computer and TV, are apparent and endlessly present like the windows to divinity in Gene Wolfe's generation ship saga, Litany of the Long Sun.
In my mind, fantasy brings deeper, committed suspension of disbelief, as there is a tacit agreement that the setting is make believe but the lives of the characters will be authentic, opening the door to our much neglected folklore for the postmodern reader. Good fantasy has better characters than good science-fiction as a general rule. Superior fantasy deals more deeply in empathy, logos, eros and pathos than most fiction forms. It is very important to have realistic and functional social structures and ecology in good fantasy as well as traditional conventions, histories and most of all deep character development.
In myth, people are generally created by the gods. An example of your individual creation and your swarm would be the explicitly crafted Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu, intended to challenge him, and the implicit creation of the mass of suffering humanity by the same deities. The individual creation may walk with the gods and function on both planes, while the mass creations are stuck on the temporal plane and can only call out to the divine and petition their creators, who, unlike the individually created monster or hero who shares the suffering of the mass creations of the lower plane the gods act upon the temporal plane in a much less empathetic and remote manner—like government agencies in heaven. Thus the importance of heroism to the ancient metaphysical world as the furious or cunning hero and suffering and resolute monsters link the eternal powers and the temporary sufferers.
The giant creature, classically, like Humbaba, Grendel, the Hunchback of Notre Dam and King Kong, the most recent version of note, is a creature of rage and sorrow, the supremely alienated being.
The swarm of creatures are classically schooling or flocking wildlife doing the bidding of a mystical power such as Tolkien's ravens and eagles and are more similar to summoned weather events such as the Black Stranger in the Howard novelette who summons a storm. The other type of swarming creature is the general flock of humanity, collectively a creature of suffering and fear, meaning that the monster and the flock of humans have the perfect dysfunctional relationship, with both sadly suffering with one in rage and the other in fear, fueling one another's alternately hostile and alienating worldview. In fact, if the current age comes to an end desired by the Deep State rulers, King Kong and Humbaba will be replaced by the paleface gun-owner. Ultimately, the great lesson of myth, is that the hero has more in common with the monster and the eternal powers than the general run of humanity.
The golem, or the creation of a being like Frankenstein's monster, is a fascinating combination of creation and summoning which I hope to explore. As a mythic device the golem has been replaced by the government programed and trained killer, best represented by Jason Bourne and the characters in the movies Killer Elite, Sniper, the Gunman, Daniel Craig's depictions of James Bond and most archetypically the Rambo character. Such heroes, all of whom are hunted by their creators, are like the golem, part creation and part summoning subject, as the man fitted for combat is summoned [even drafted] and then morally recreated in the image of his handlers as an instrument of state will.
Summoning itself, in fictional contexts, I have used extensively in The Jericho Bone, Yusef of the Dusk and Drink Deep of Night. This is metaphysical proxy politicking, manipulation, puppet-mastering, an excellent activity for a villain, which Howard used extensively to craft the best horrific fantasy I have read. Howard's sorcerers do not create, rather they manipulate, pervert and use technological inventions. Howard's best treatment of summoning is in The Tower of the Elephant.
Speaking of Howard's work, this line of inquiry has reminded me that there is another element to any authentic fantasy you wish to write, which is awakening rather than summoning, whereupon an extinct race or forgotten gods might come back into being, which was a common theme in Howards fiction, best represented by Xotha Lanti, the 3,000 year old mummy come back to life in Hour of the Dragon and Koastral Kell, the risen municipal god in the Devil in Iron.
Yet another set of wrinkles for your fantasy and science-fiction settings, much of which are often absent, should include:
-Racial memory [fantasy]
-Places of power, describing a metaphysical map of sacred and profane places connected my unseen yet real meridians of power [fantasy, with Tolkien doing the best work here]
-Migratory human activity, not simply set piece kingdoms of great antiquity, but a living setting
-Orthodoxy versus apostasy and heterodoxy within cosmopolitan centers
-Explicit slavery [fantasy, as such settings necessarily occupy spaces outside of complex money systems and technological innovation which have veiled our slavery]
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