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Science Fiction And Fantasy

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The question is whether it is possible to distinguish between fantasy and true science fiction. I am reminded of the analogy, attributable I believe, to Theodore Sturgeon, of the elf ascending vertically the side of a brick wall. In a science fiction story the knees of the elf would be bent, his center of gravity thrown forward, his stocking cap hanging down his neck, with his feet quite possibly equipped with some form of suction cups. In a fantasy, on the other hand, the elf would simply stride up the wall in a normal walking posture, with his stocking cap standing straight out from his brow. What is the difference between these scenarios? The typical answer is that the science fiction story must play by the implicit rules of the universe; in this instance, gravitation. Fantasy, however, need not "tip its hat" to the Law of Universal Gravitation the story can bend the rules in which gives it the fantasy genre.

But what if, for some specified reason, in the local vicinity of the elf on the wall, the vector of gravitational force just happens to be perpendicular to the side of the wall rather than parallel to it? In this case the behavior of the elf in the fantasy would be in perfect accord with physical law. One might then say that the fantasy is actually science fiction since we have posited a "scientific" explanation for the behavior of the elf. Both science fiction and mainstream fiction explore the political and social implications of religion. The chief difference is one of setting. Science fiction considers what religion may become under vastly altered circumstances. Leigh Brackett The Long Tomorrow (1955) suggests the possibility that one religion might better prepare its followers for post-holocaust existence than others do. Kate Wilhelm Let the Fire Fall (1969) takes place in a future United States swept by millennial fanaticism. Frank Herbert Dune stories examine in some depth the effects of political rule by characters that are regarded as divine (Martin 1981). Certainly this is not a complete list of the ways science fiction writers treat the theme of religion. But it is suggestive of a much deeper and wider interest in the theme than many has been willing to recognize. So far, literary criticism has not adequately dealt with this fact. In light of the cultural influences already mentioned, these essays, by and large, take a generally Christian and theological approach to the topic. This is by no means the only possibility, but it is a good beginning, especially as numbers of works recognized as outstanding science fiction have overtly Christian content the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, for instance.

In many books intended to introduce science fiction and/or fantasy to those who are not familiar with the field, there is a curious shilly-shallying about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. Typically the author starts off by stating confidently that the difference consists of the fact that science fiction deals with what is scientifically possible, whereas fantasy deals with what is not scientifically possible. Then the author loses his or her nerve a bit, because, after all, faster than-light travel is, so far as we know, scientifically impossible, and much modern science fiction could not do without it; the solar system is now too small for science fiction. And then there is that good old science fiction theme, time travel, which may be not only scientifically impossible, but somehow logically impossible. So, the grand generalization dies away in a flurry of qualifications, and the subject is tactfully changed. It was J. R. R. Tolkien who put it all together, who produced adult fantasy that has invention and vision that is more memorable as itself than as the vehicle for any system of beliefs. He began with The Hobbit in 1937, of which he wrote to W. H. Auden, "It was unhappily really meant, as far as I was concerned, as a 'children's story,' and as I had not learned sense, then . . . it has some of the silliness of manner caught unthinkingly from the kind of stuff I had had served to me . . . I deeply regret them. So do intelligent children" (Paul 1972). It is Tolkien, in his superb essay "On Fairy-Stories," who claims the name Fantasy for the genre in which he himself aspired to work. He knew exactly



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