I don’t have review post for this week so I’m posting a quick poll instead. Actually, it is poll and a question rolled into one. I was wondering which do you guys prefer Science Fiction or Fantasy?
I know this is a loaded question, but hear me out. I tend to gravitate towards Science Fiction because fantasy authors have a tendency to get lazy at times. This is by no means a rule – I would say it is more of a noticeable pattern. Vast majority of Fantasy stories blindly ape one of the two main sources of inspiration for the genre: Tolkien’s Middle Earth trilogy or Conan the Barbarian. Of course these stories sort of defined the genre to begin with, so complaining about people imitating them is probably a little bit unfair. My point is this: it is easy to be a lazy Fantasy writer. The genre comes with built in set of races, character archetypes and even story templates.
Let’s do a little thought experiment here: please consider a typical Dwarf. What can you tell me about him? Just list bunch of things that first pop into your mind. You will probably have a list that goes a bit like this: short, wears a beard, proud, brave, greedy, probably agoraphobic, dislikes Elves, hates Orcs, loves to drink, wears a lot of armor, good in a fight, etc… Most of us have a lot of preconceived notions about Dwarfs, Elves, Orcs and other fictional races. Same goes for certain character classes – the barbarian, the wizard, the rogue. If you are lazy you just pick and choose from these pre-made templates and you have a fairly fleshed out company of walking stereotypes complete with their quirks, likes, dislikes and possible back stories (barbarian is an orphan, his village got raided when he was a kid, the rogue grew up on the streets, the wizard is a privileged noble, the elf is an elf, the dwarf is a dwarf, etc..). Then you send them on a contrived quest to retrieve the holly McGuffin of power to prevent a war and save the kingdom from an ancient and evil sorcerer and you are all set. You can even fall back on a somewhat standard set of locations: dwarf mine, elven forest, ancient tomb, necropolis, mountain pass, idyllic human village, wizard’s tower, etc… You set them up and check them off your list and everyone is more or less happy because that’s what everyone expects of Fantasy.
Science fiction for the most part does not have this built in set of cliches. There are some repeating themes – especially in the space-opera sub genre (which half the time is nothing more but space fantasy) – like the notorious single climate zone worlds (ice planet, desert planet, jungle planet, etc..), and the ever present space smuggler archetype. But hard SF authors are sort of expected to show at least a little bit of originality, and do at least a little bit research. For example, it is really hard for modern writers to get away with blatant violations to special relativity without some clever pseudo-scientific explanation like worm holes, hyperspace, quantum teleportation and etc.. Fantasy writers can get away with pretty much anything – you just say that “a wizard did it”. Magic is the be-all-end-all of lazy writing. It can be used to wrap all the lose ends, provide shitty deus ex machina when you wrote yourself into a corner, patch plot holes, smooth over inconsistencies and justify things that don’t even make sense.
Keep in mind that I’m just making broad generalizations here. There are many exceptions all across the board – starting with Middle Earth which is a great example of how Fantasy should be written. When you read Tolkien’s books the world he describes feels old and complex. It has rich history, mythology and culture we only get glimpses of. But it is there – Tolkien meticulously designed elven languages, wrote elven poems, legends and then built his stories on top of that incredibly rich background. He spent a life time building this environment and so far no other Fantasy author has accomplished anything even remotely as complex and impressive.
Then there is stuff like large dozens of episodes of Star Trek where all problems are solved by reversing the polarity of something or other which is essentially their way of saying “and then a wizard fixed everything”. Or Hamiltons’ Nights Dawn trilogy which is essentially Joshua Calvert fights the magical undead using nothing but his luck and smugness.
In fact, here is a challenge: prove me wrong. Post examples of Fantasy done right, and shitty cliche science fiction at it’s worst. Seriously, do it. You can use books, movies, TV shows and even video games (but keep in mind that shitty writing is sort of the norm for video games, so you have to find extra shitty examples).