Sunday, 16 October 2016

One F or two?

I've never hidden my preference for science fiction over fantasy.  In fact, I've always found it strange how the two have become cousins, because to me science fiction is a quasi-philosophical activity, social gedankenexperiments that would be impossible in any lab.  And fantasy is, well.. all a bit ridiculous.  Like standing in the dock, ready to defend your public protest on points of principle, and turning around to find your fellow accused has a revolving bow-tie and a plastic flower that squirts water.

Granted, science fiction can rapidly find itself embroiled in silliness; basically anything that would have been portrayed on Sixties television with a rubber suit and lots of arm waving, or portentous dialogue spoken whilst holding a weapon made out of plumbing parts.  But, if it doesn't leave the Ballard, Gibson and Dick end of the spectrum, it doesn't need to go there.  It's just that fantasy starts off in the world of Thring-son-of-Throng-son-of-Thrung-son-of-Thrang-son-of-Threng-of the-Hairybols, and you can't get back to plausibility from there anytime soon.

Yes, I sat through the Lord of the Rings movies ("Nobody tosses a dwarf!"), but mainly because I loved it when I was thirteen.  Harry Potter, too, but being a children's book (and a great one) you could enjoy it as such.  And that, I thought, was the key issue: fantasy was one of those childish things that you leave behind together with colouring books and 'being a racing car'.

But I think there's a more fundamental issue for me.  And it struck home when I saw the following quote, from Jim Kay, brilliant illustrator of a new edition of Potters, which chimed with me like Big Ben chimes with the hours:

"JK Rowling describes the castle as being 'supported by magic' so this gave me the opportunity to bring something different to the architecture.  The odd thing is that it becomes habit to draw architecture to look like it should stand up, and it has taken me a while to 'unlearn' common sense physics and embrace the fantasy elements."

The castle in question is, of course, Hogwarts.  But the more general point is that Kay's Hogwarts doesn't stand up, and neither does a great deal of fantasy.  It doesn't need to, because you can always get out of your hole with a mirror that talks back to you or an enchantment or a potion.  You can cherry pick the rules of the game as you want.  And conveniently forget others - like if the castle stands up without supports, why don't you levitate off the doorstep?

Sure, sci-fi does enough of that.  Faster than light travel, portals, and so forth that conveniently drop you in strange worlds.  But there's a greater sense of working within a consistent set of rules in sci-fi; no privileged magic-user who has a monopoly on bending the principles of physics.  If the storyverse has FTLT then it's available to everybody with the price of a ticket.

There's something about science fiction that restricts, whereas fantasy allows, and that's not necessarily a good thing.  Alec Issigonis, car designer, said something along the lines of anybody can design a large car, but it takes talent to design a small one.  And promptly came up with the Mini.  And it's the same with science fiction.  It sets you parameters to work within and, in doing so, forces you to think.  In sci-fi there's no deus ex machina, no eagle - or bloke in a rubber suit - to grab you by the epaulettes and fly you out of Mordor.



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