Sunday, June 6, 2010

Fantasy and Science Fiction: Is there a difference?

Greetings! Unfortunately I was sick all this past week so I didn’t get to follow through on my rescheduled plans to stay with a host family in Komono, but I did have the chance at some rather though-provoking correspondence with my friend Richard in North Carolina about the nature of my writing, the false division between fantasy and science fiction and the future of the “two” genres.

Richard noted a tendency of mine to mix elements of fantasy and science fiction while reading my young adult novel Treasure Traitor and my middle grade book Dargon the Human Slayer. He quoted a philosophy of Orson Scot Card, one of my favorite authors who writes in both genres, that “fantasy has trees, and science fiction has rivets.” I took the liberty of looking up the interview he was referring to and it went on like this, first quoting Card and then giving the interviewer's opinion. " 'That's it, that's all the difference there is, the difference of feel, perception.' He was saying many stories labeled sci-fi were really fantasy-in-a-futuristic-setting, and vice versa.” (Orson Scott Card Interview by Howard Mittelmark, first published in Inside Books, 1989.)

I whole-heartedly agree, and it’s even more true now that it was back in 1989 when he said it. Just think about urban fantasy. Cosmopolitan vampires, the witch that lives next door in a high-rise apartment and works for Google over the internet and by cell phone. No forests there. Also steam punk, which is sort of an alternate history of the Wild West with vampires and demons and asks the question, "what if steam technology was super advanced and we focused on making more of that instead of other types of science? Where would it have taken us?" And as for sci-fi, back in the day it focused on technology, but now more and more you see books and movies like Avatar and District 9 where the technology is just a small side note. The main focus is alien cultures and how they interact with humans, often very blatant analogies of conflicts between human nations on earth. Much of the technology and how it works is simply glossed over, explained as "we don't know" or even given magic-like mystery.

In District 9, for example, the main human character mysteriously transformed into one of the Prawn aliens. There was not even an attempt to explain this except that it had something to do with the magic-like black goo the aliens used as fuel for their spaceship. In Avatar, there was the “network” links between the aliens and their forest. This was given a brief scientific explanation, but was still treated in a mystical, even spiritual way. No attempt was made to scientifically explain the aliens’ goddess, and her existence and power were even acknowledged by one of the main human scientists as she died. I just finished a really cute, funny short story called “Petri Parousia” about the second coming of Christ brought about by science. Another story in the same magazine was about scientists going back in time to study the Paleozoic age. It's a very rural setting with nothing but trees and ocean, without a scrap of technology save the small time machine/boat. In these stories, even Card’s definition of the difference between science fiction and fantasy falls apart. You find stories labeled as science fiction in ancient, rural settings and stories labeled as fantasy in modern, technological settings and everything in between. So as you can see, the edges of sci-fi and fantasy have been blurring for years. I call it "sci-fan," fantasy with scientific or technological elements, or science fiction with fantastical elements.

The truth of the matter is, for most of us, technology is magic. If someone from the 1600s were to appear in your house today and you turned on the light for him, he would exclaim, "Magic!"

"No, science," you'd reply.

"Science? So how's it work?"

An intelligent person would probably mutter something about electricity and filaments and how light can travel around the earth seven times in one second, but anyone besides a high school or college science teacher probably couldn't get much further than that. Even if you asked a scientist who specialized in photons and energy, that person could only tell you so much about how it works until he or she finally have to admit, "I don't know." No one knows where light comes from or why it travels the way it does. It is both a particle and an energy wave and seems to defy nearly all laws of physics. So in a way, even to scientists, it is magic. Even with seemingly simpler forms of technology like a gas stove, most scientific explanations of how they work are about as intelligible to the average Joe as a magical incantation. Mathematical formulas might as well be murmured spells. So it always strikes me as funny that when a character designated as a "scientist" spouts off a bunch of mostly nonsense equations and explanations for why a speculative invention works, we call it science fiction, but when a character designated as a "mage" or "wizard" recites some ancient Elvin chant to do exactly the same thing that the "scientific" invention did, we call it fantasy.

In my middle grade novel, Dargon, I created a dragon society that highly values tradition, but is also technologically advanced. This is very similar to many human cultures, but unfortunately not so for Americans. Think about the Jewish bar mitzvah or the Japanese tea ceremony. It is not at all uncommon in Japan to see a maiko (apprentice geisha) walking down the street in a full kimono, her face painted white and practicing the steps of her traditional fan dance, while holding a cell phone in her other hand. It is not at all strange in China to see elderly people practicing tai-chi at 8:00 in the morning while the town intercom system blasts the day’s latest gossip about elections and the stock market. In India, you may find elephant herders dressed in traditional male saris on their break time, sitting atop their elephants, bartering back and forth on their wireless internet laptops about the price of the latest electronic gadgets. This is the world we live in! The traditional and the modern, side by side. Why shouldn't our literature reflect this?

In Treasure Traitor, I did another thing all together. Instead of having a "pre-industrial society" or a "post-industrial society," I created a society that has tried technology, been there, done that, and it didn't work for them. Because of their traditions and the problems that the technology caused for them, they discarded most of it. Some technology still prevails, but most is considered evil, or at best, a waste of time, energy and resources. This is also not that radical of an idea. What about the Amish, certain sects of Islam, and even other groups totally apart from religion like some Roma (Gypsies)? All of these people practice degrees of limited technological contact. There have been and always will be technophobes in society. But, as with all such groups, they will retain the technology they deem to be not so evil (or rather, just extremely convenient and unable to be lived without). Thus the universe of Treasure Traitor has "shuttles" that can take people from one place to another, even one planet to another instantaneously, but no cars. Cars take fuel, which has to be drilled for or extracted from plants, and on harsh desert worlds, they can't afford those kind of resources on unnecessary luxuries. It also has to do with control. A society where the populace has access to cars and guns is very difficult to control. So by banning such things and enforcing strict adherence to authority in the name of living "simply and godly lives," this government made up of several resource-depleted planets with nearly no cultural, linguistic, and religious connections can be more easily held together. This is what I call a “post-post-industrial society.”

So those are my thoughts on "science fiction versus fantasy." Honestly, I think it's a false segregation created by the marketing departments of traditional publishing houses for the sake of "pigeon holing" their audiences. Heaven forbid we ever have dragons with nuclear ballistic missiles or elves that can dissect an orc, find out how their physiology works, and then come up with a spell to better destroy them. I have news for you. For the most part, fantasy and science fiction have the same readership, plus, it's being done! Right now it's mostly through fan fiction and small press, or things labeled "experimental", but genre blurring is the future of publishing. So let's tear down the wall! No more segregation! Writers of sci-fan, unite!

Of course, I really make things difficult for myself by adding in a third genre. Religion. I just can’t keep away from the subject. Whether I’m writing newspaper articles or travel logs or science fiction and fantasy novels, my Christian faith always comes out. Of course I try to do it in subtle ways. In Treasure Traitor the words “Christian” and “Jesus” never appear in the book, but there are Christian characters even if Renagada, the protagonist, doesn’t know that’s what they are. I have one scene in which a character named “Agape” gives Rena “two pieces of wood crossed in the middle” as a sign of eternal friendship and whispers the words “Xulon Chrio.” “Agape” is Greek for “Christian Love” and “Xulon Chrio” means “the cross of Christ.” Of course, most readers won’t pick up on that. They’ll just think she’s uttering some ancient blessing and giving Rena something to remember her by. That’s fine. You don’t have to understand that or any of the other Christian references in order to enjoy the book. But it’s there for those who care to notice. And you’d be surprised how many people notice. The Treasure Traitor trilogy, as it progresses, gets more and more into the realm of faith, though to try to market it as a “Christian” series wouldn’t work at all because the main character herself never makes a decision one way or the other. Besides, she’s exposed to all kinds of beliefs and religions throughout her adventures and travels. Christianity is just one of them.

However, this has posed problems for me in other ways. You see, the Treasure Traitor trilogy isn’t really the beginning of my overall series. Chronologically, the whole entire series of fifty plus books starts with a trilogy that takes place during the Great Awakening of the 1730s. So its science fiction fantasy Christian Historical! Think C.S. Lewis meets Orsen Scot Card meets Diana Gabaldon. You can see why I didn’t try to sell that one first. Every publisher I’ve mentioned my Great Awakening trilogy to has given me the sucking through teeth “well…I don’t really know anyone who’s looking for that sort of thing…” cringing response. So I’m doing it the Star Wars way, starting in the middle.

So that’s what I’m trying to figure out now: what to write next. My entire series of books is based in the same universe revolving around a massive war between two interplanetary governments, but it’s told in trilogies, and each trilogy can stand on its own. Should I finish the beginning Great Awakening trilogy that I started last year, which tells how Dictator and Empress rose to power? Should I write about the resistance and its clever leader, the changeling child Kyra? Should I finish the Treasure Traitor trilogy even though I haven’t sold the first book yet? What about the traveling rock band from Earth that get’s caught up in the intrigues and politics of the war as neutral outsiders? And how should I write them? Should I take a break from novels for awhile and try a comic book or graphic novel series? I would love to do something like that, but I would need an artist and I haven’t the faintest clue about how to go about organizing, layout, formatting, and other technical details. What about my life long dream to see my series as an hour-long weekly television show like Star Trek? Should I write a pilot episode and if so, where should I start the series? I just don’t know where to go from here! I need guidance…and I suppose lots of prayer. I’m just tired of spending hours and hours writing my stories, polishing and perfecting again and again, with very little results on the publishing end. I guess what I really need is an agent, someone who’s comfortable with multiple genres and mediums and can help me figure out the best way to move my writing career forward.

Prayer requests for this week: I think I covered most of my concerns in the above paragraph. Guidance for my writing. Specifically I will be submitting two of my novels this week to a Simon and Shuster publisher and two agents who requested them, so Lord willing, one of them will accept and all my worries and concerns will be over! I just have to surrender my fears to Him. Even if I don’t make it this time, “All things work together for the good of those who love God.” God has a perfect plan for me and my work. On a more practical level, prayers for health would be nice. It’s rainy season in Japan with allergies, colds and flues in full swing and I just spent the last week flat on my back in bed. I’d rather not repeat that. (My boss actually called me on Friday and told me I couldn’t repeat it, ever, so I really don’t have a choice. The only thing I hate more than being sick is having to go to work when I’m sick.) And on a final note, we have some wonderful outreach plans coming up in the church for movie nights, international parities, and special guest ministers. May God bless our preparations and be glorified through them!

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,

L.J. Popp


Rich said...

If you don't mind that I post a link...

Claire Dawn said...

Hey, good luck! I'm also in Japan and a writer. I'm sitting next to Stephanie, from your BS right now. The world (especially the JET world in Japan) is avery small place!

I'm also on the author path, although nowhere near submission yet. Feel free to check out my blog too.
I'm having contests all week long!

I agree with your take on sci-fi/fantasy. They're actually the only two genre which, of neccessity, are set in a word that's different from ours. The only difference between the two is science vs magic. Sometimes that's a big difference. Some times, not so much.