Thursday, December 15, 2005

Fantasy Is Killing Science Fiction!

I think that I spend too much time reading blogs and thinking about SF/Fantasy, but, even in this, I am but a slacker.

Sometime yesterday, I saw the discussion between Gregory Benford (representing SF as The One True Literature That Will Save Us All And Used To Be Dominant) and Darrell Schweitzer (trying to respond politely to Benford's more unlikely declarations). I don't agree with Benford, but I guess I was hoping he was deliberately over-stating the case for effect. And I figured this argument, which I've seen a million times before on rec.arts.sf.written (and everywhere else, for that matter), would raise a giant "eh" from Fandom Assembled.

But then, today, I've seen long, thoughtful (but not necessarily friendly) responses to Benford from people like Scott Lynch and John Scalzi and Elizabeth Bear. I haven't seen anyone coming in on Benford's side of the argument, though, which may just mean that I'm not reading the right blogs. So I've come to the conclusion that this is Important, and I wanted to think it through myself.

I like to start with the most obvious facts first, since it's surprising how often the obvious gets completely overlooked: genre fiction is what people do in their spare time for entertainment. Seems simple, right? But what it implies is that, no matter how much people demonize "escapism," that will always be what most readers are really looking for. They might not tell you so, but it's what they want. This is why most of the mass-market paperbacks sold in the USA are romances; that's a genre that knows exactly how to push the buttons of a very large audience of people who read a lot of books.

The replies to Benford I've seen mostly run along the lines of "fantasy is, for whatever reasons I want to talk about, somewhat easier for random readers to pick up on." (Only somewhat, since we all need to remember that the whole SF/Fantasy sector is a minor backwater of fiction to begin with.) They mostly haven't jumped on the fact that reading fiction is something people do to relax and have fun, and Benford is presenting SF as a stern duty rather than as anything someone would want to do for entertainment.

Benford, essentially, is trying to defend SF as spinach. He may see it as necessary spinach, as useful spinach, as amazing and spectacular spinach, but he's still selling it as spinach. And readers don't want spinach; they eat spinach all day at work, and fiction is one way to get away from that. (Even the people who prefer hard SF, and I'm intermittently one of them myself, actually enjoy it, and don't read SF as their Duty to the Coming Race.)

But this is all a sidebar. SF and Fantasy may seem to be fighting over precious rack space, but, really, romances have been kicking both of our asses for decades now, and will for the foreseeable future. And mystery/thriller is also kicking our asses, though it's only a little bit out of our weight class, so sometimes, when we're feeling very optimistic, we start to think we might have a chance there. (Though we don't.) We're off in our little corner, and we're stuck with each other; many of the people we're stuck with are just ourselves wearing different funny hats.

Benford's essay leaves me wondering what effect he hopes to have -- is he trying to shame fantasy writers into switching over to hard SF? Or does he expect fantasy readers to rise up and break their medievalist sword-wankery chains? Neither of those seem likely from his essay.

Actually (after spending way too much time re-writing this piece and thinking about it), I do think I know what's going on here; I see this a lot from writers. I think of it as the "What I and My Friends Write Is The Most Important, Valuable, and Necessary Stuff Ever" Syndrome. It doesn't seem to be enough for a writer to believe that what he does is valuable; it must be more valuable than the things other writers are doing in different ways. It's the reason we get literary manifestos; writers don't just want to do their thing, they want to convince everyone that their thing is the only thing worth doing. At least, until they have a better idea in a year or so.

There's very little chance Greg Benford will actually read this very minor blog, but, in case he is out there: I've liked the books of yours I've read, and the world of SF (even the world of SF/Fantasy, to be more daring) is a better place with you writing part of it. I just don't understand why your answer to the problem "there isn't enough really strong SF, of the kind I like to write" is "so I'm going to stop writing novels, of the kind I just explained the field needs more of." That just doesn't track. If you want more of something, do as much of it yourself as you can, agitate for your friends and colleagues to do the same, and seek out newer writers to encourage them to follow you.

Cursing the darkness may be more fun at any given moment, but lighting candles is a much better long-term strategy.

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