Power to change the real world

Jem Jones looks at sci-fi and fantasy

Words have meaning. A single word can evoke a kaleidoscope of associations within the mind. It can conjure up images, sounds, tastes and smells.

Consider the word, ‘science’. The images that trip through my head are those of musty school laboratories and the searing white light of new and unfathomable technologies. Or the word ‘fiction’. Does it make you think of palatable lies, or entrancing stories? Compound the two to form ‘science-fiction’ and what does that make you think of?

Or how about ‘fantasy’. Do you think of fantastical journeys of imagination? Or have you got a half-smile on your face as you think of films and books set in peculiar locations and populated by make-believe characters with improbable names?

Both sci-fi and fantasy tend to divide people into those who love them and those who are baffled and bemused by it all. Such puzzlement is an understandable reaction. The defining characteristic of the genres is that they are different from the here and now. They are not everyday tales of everyday people. The popular conception of the archetypal enthusiast probably does not help either. Sci-fi and fantasy fans have a reputation for being slightly … odd. They are able to immerse themselves in other worlds, can recall encyclopaedic knowledge about minute details, and are sometimes better able to relate to imaginary worlds than they are to this one. Hard-core Star Trek obsessives, or ‘Trekkers’, are the most notorious group for this, the most devoted of whom have a penchant for dressing up as their favourite characters.

Yet this is not an accurate portrayal of partisans of sci-fi and fantasy. Terry Pratchett, author of the best-selling Discworld series, often talks about how critics describe his average reader as being a 14-year-old boy named Kevin. In reality, his readership is vast and remarkably heterogeneous, for example, a majority are women. You do not sell as many books as Terry Pratchett does unless you can appeal to all kinds of different people.

Far from being the preserve of some mythical troglodyte sub-species of spotty teenage boys, sci-fi and fantasy are tremendously popular. The last of the Lord of the rings films, The return of the king, opened on December 17. The first one gained a slew of Oscars and both the previous films took well over £500 million apiece. JRR Tolkien’s magnum opus has sold 100 million copies and regularly tops lists of favourite books and has recently featured in the BBC’s top 100 reads, up against JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the goblet of fire, Philip Pullman’s His dark materials and CS Lewis’s The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. The concluding part of the thought-provoking The matrix films has recently opened at the cinema, and the seventh series of Buffy the vampire slayer is showing on BBC2. Whether you are the kind of person who counts the days until the next episode starring the eponymous chosen one, or you cannot quite see what the fuss is about, it is clear that sci-fi and fantasy have the power to capture the imagination of a great many people.

However, to recognise that the genres are popular is one thing. It is quite another to ask the question, why? What is it about sci-fi and fantasy that exerts such fascination? Before it is possible to begin to answer such a question, it is necessary to identify what sci-fi and fantasy are. Up to this point I have been using the terms together, but, superficially at least, there are clear distinctions between them. If we were to use motifs to delineate the genres, sci-fi is usually set in the future, whether that may be next week or thousands of years away. It often dreams up new technology, might involve space travel, or alien races, or perhaps the human race has evolved or been modified in some way. It could involve time travel or alternate history.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is usually used to describe fiction set in an alternate, ‘secondary world’, completely distinct from our own. Tolkien is perhaps most synonymous with this. Accordingly it often features magic or ‘fantastic’ races like elves or dragons or Nietzschean, testosterone-fuelled warriors, and has a level of technology equivalent to the medieval era, with swords and armour.

But where does this leave works that do not fit easily into such definitions? Buffy is set in the modern day, but features supernatural entities like vampires and demons. Is Buffy horror? Should ghost stories, fairy stories or urban myths be grouped with sci-fi and fantasy? The International Association for the Fantastic Arts happily defines the fantastic as encompassing not only fantasy and sci-fi, but also ghost stories, fairy stories, mythology and legends. Certainly there is some commonality of theme between these genres. Furthermore there are any number of hybrid works, utilising motifs from different traditions. The best example that comes to mind is Neil Gaiman’s The sandman, a series of graphic novels that blends fantasy, folk tales, mythology, horror and superheroes into an enchanting, multi-layered tapestry of a tale.

Conversely some would draw a sharp distinction between sci-fi and fantasy. Darko Suvin in Metamorphoses of science fiction (1979) describes the grouping together of the two genres as doing a “grave disservice” to science fiction. While Suvin dismisses fantasy as a “sub-literature of mystification”, he describes science-fiction has being characterised by “cognitive estrangement” from reality. Sci-fi is grounded in reality; it follows rational and logical rules, but through the introduction of different phenomena or shifting the setting in time or space, it is estranged from the constraints of everyday reality, thereby allowing the writer to creatively explore possibilities, or impossibilities.

However, Suvin’s definition, although clearly intended to mark out sci-fi, can equally be applied to fantasy. In order for any work of fiction to be believable it has to obey an internal logic. The rules must be consistent or the reader or viewer is unable to effectively suspend their disbelief. Soap operas are set in the here and now, but feature improbable plot twists that strain the credibility for the viewer. On the other hand, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the setting for the Lord of the rings, has a rich and comprehensive history that informs the events of the book and lends believability to the narrative.

In his introduction to Historical materialism’s symposium on Marxism and fantasy, China Miéville, the sci-fi author and member of the Socialist Workers Party, develops Suvin’s definition of cognitive estrangement to include fantasy. For him, whereas sci-fi’s “estrangement” from reality takes it into the realms of the “not-yet possible” - interstellar space travel for example - fantasy journeys into the “never-possible”. A subtle distinction, but an important one, and one that potentially draws a sharp divide between the two.

The cognitive process, however, remains the same: the writer still extrapolates from the here and now in order to transport us to there. There is different from here - things are not the same - but whether there is not-yet-possible or never-possible does not prevent it from obeying internally logical consistencies that enable the suspension of disbelief. Arguably therefore, the distinction between fantasy and sci-fi is an artificial dichotomy. Nevertheless, the concept of cognitive estrangement is a useful one, because it not only highlights what defines the genres, but also begins to unwrap the reasons why they are so attractive.

For the reader or viewer it takes them on a journey: it transports them to somewhere different, magical. In that sense it is escapist. But it far more than that. Like all good fiction, sci-fi and fantasy hold a mirror up to reality. They take us to somewhere far away from here, but at the same time they tell us something about ourselves. Fantastical fiction is removed from the constraints of the mundane, everyday world that we live in. It needs something to replace such boundaries with, or else it is a hollow world, flat and two-dimensional, but, perhaps more than other forms of fiction, it enables the writer to give full flight to their imagination. In so doing it enables not only the writer, but also the active consumer - the reader or viewer - to explore possibilities, to pose the question, what if? And then to see where that takes them.

A strong part of the appeal of sci-fi and fantasy is undoubtedly the fact that they are set somewhere other than here, somewhere different. Speak to any fan of The lord of the rings, or Star trek or Buffy the vampire slayer, and they will rhapsodise about Middle Earth, or the Federation, or what is endearingly called the Buffyverse. Despite the presence of grisly monsters or inscrutable alien races, these imaginary worlds are in some ways preferable to our own. They are certainly a great deal simpler. In The lord of the rings and Buffy, evil is something tangible. It is something that exists, that can be opposed and fought and beaten. This is not to say that the fight is easy, or that victory is always certain, and victory is certainly never without cost. But it is possible to make the world a better place.

Good is less tangible, less concrete. The protagonists have tough decisions to make: sometimes they make the wrong ones, and sometimes there is no right one. But there are choices to be made. The protagonists have free will. More than that, their decisions make a difference. One person can make a difference. One person can make the world a better place.

This is a strong theme in sci-fi and fantasy, and (within limits) a positive message. The lord of the rings can be criticised on many levels. Sci-fi writer and former member of prog-rock band Hawkwind, Michael Moorcock, describes The lord of the rings as “epic Winnie the Pooh”. It is racially deterministic, the characters lack depth, and it is a world without women, religion, politics or sex. Yet it is, for all its faults, a truly enchanting, deeply moving story and, despite the presence of mighty wizards and noble warriors, the fate of the world is decided by the actions of Frodo, Sam and Gollum. These characters are not heroes in any conventional sense. Gollum is an anti-hero, corrupted by the power of the ring. Frodo and Sam would be happier tending to their quiet corner of the Shire, but they are caught up in cataclysmic events and rise to the challenge.

In Buffy, the central character has had her destiny as the Chosen One thrust upon her and resents not having an ordinary life, and yet she accepts her responsibility to protect the world from vampires and demons. In this task she is assisted by her friends, who do not have her super-powers, but without whom Buffy would fail. In The matrix the nature of reality itself is questioned, but the messianic character of Neo, along with Morpheus and the other rebels, are fighting for a world where humanity has control of its own destiny, free from the domination of the Artificial Intelligences.

The real world is not an easy place to live in. It is complicated, confusing. Good and evil are not tangible. We often feel powerless. We are told that one person cannot make a difference. Our actions have consequences, but the latter are hard to discern. When we make choices, we do not know whether the result will be positive or negative. Sci-fi and fantasy provide a means for people to give wings to their imagination and travel to the furthest reaches. Inescapably, at the end of our flight we are drawn back to reality, but we are changed by the experience.

The power of fiction is that it speaks to us and tells us about ourselves. What we do with that information is up to us. We can walk out of the cinema, or put the book down and think no more about it. Or we can allow ourselves to dream, to consider what might be, and just maybe try and make the world a better place.