Why fantasy and not sci fi?

Over on the Deep Genre site for 25th June, there’s an interesting discussion going on about why fantasy outsells science fiction. They had some excellent theories, many of which might explain the difference. Here’s my (expanded) comment:

With fantasy, it is possible to have the ordinary person triumph over the most horrendous situations.

I think that in today’s society, we face a myriad problems which seem unsolvable (even to sf writers, unless there is huge intervention at governmental levels and the massive investment of capital). We have problems like global warming and the war in Iraq, to whether my office block/tube train is going to be hit by terrorists, to whether there really is going to be a future in which I can clear my credit card debt, find a decent job in a place I want to live in, bring up my kids to be decent human beings, and end up with enough money for my retirement and health care.

When people faced with this kind of life buy a book to read, they want to do more than just “get away from it all”. They want to be left with the feeling that an ordinary person can make a difference. Not some genius scientist, or an astronaut – but an office worker from Milton Keynes or Hoboken, or a medieval shoemaker from Upper Yikmak. Fantasy leaves them feeling better about themselves, and gives them a sense of the possibility of empowerment. So what if it took a magic spell or similar, the struggle to obtain that spell or that magic can still inspire if the book was a good one. The little man (or woman) can triumph.

In a topic like this, I think we should never lose sight of the fact that people who read a site like Deep Genre – and leave a comment – are a very small minority of sff readers. We are the writers and the fans, the editors and the con goers. The people who buy most fantasy and sf are just people who want to get away from it all and be left with a good feeling, when they put the book down, about the possibilities open to them in their own lives.

And, of course, everybody reading this blog is instantly going to think of twenty exceptions where complex, thought provoking, depressing books hit the best seller lists


Why fantasy and not sci fi? — 10 Comments

  1. I agree with you. Too often I think critics of fantasy throw around the accusation that fantasy fans are all “nostalgic” and that it is about reinforcing the status quo. But I think a lot of people turn to fantasy for the opposite reason, because it posits a world in which “making a difference” is still seen as possible, which is something most people don’t feel in their lives.

  2. Hi Glenda, I was most pleased to find your blog (via Bibliobibuli – really hope Sharon gets well soon!).

    I’ve read and enjoyed your Isles of Glory series and am looking forward to your next. You know, I would never dream of writing to an author (is it possible to get tongue-tied in a letter, even email?) but on a blog everyone is somehow more real and accessible and I seem to get over my shyness.

    I have never seen fantasy novels as reinforcing the status quo (although some might), and have enjoyed them precisely for the sense of triumphing over adversity. I also love the vivid and rich worlds authors create.

  3. I agree.
    Have always been very fond of the little guy/apparently helpless type turning the tables, showing unsuspected strength and talent – like the little old lady kicking the mugger in the crotch.

  4. Hah, i like the last comment.

    I would have to agree to, not just being a young reader and getting away from the life that “i dont like”.

    I find it a good way to leave the world behind and travel to another and I like the little guy winning in the end. Gives you a sense of pride.

  5. Thanks for the tip for the discussion site, will go and check it out!

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, pretty much. Within fantasy I think (for the most part) there is still a place for optimism, for triumph, for good and decent people to defeat the forces of greed and selfishness and darkness that threaten to steal all the light from the world. Life at the moment is pretty dark, in many countries. Fantasy helps to keep the dream alive.

    I think it’s sad that within the spec fic community there are so many folk willing to scoff and sneer at the idea that such optimism is a good thing. And not only at the idea, but at the people who write it and read it and by extension, believe in it.

    Cynicism is rampant and its pernicious, it’s a nasty sneak thief out to steal that flicker of hope.

    Really well written fantasy doesn’t deny the existence of darkness, it shows us how it’s possible to shine a light into it and thereby chase some of it away. Small people can and do make a difference. To stifle that truth is to do a great disservice to people everywhere.

  6. Hey, nice to see lots of people agreeing! The argument that I thought was really weird was the one that came from Greg Benford some time ago(and doubtless others) that fantasy readers wanted to go back to the past and thought it was a great place to be, and were against any kind of modernity/technology.

    Whereas SF was the forward-looking, scientific-based realm of the real world. (He hates Star Wars and such).

    Huh? Is there anyone wants to go back and live in the Middle Ages? Or even, say, Afghanistan under the Taliban – who had much of the same Medieval thinking? Why is writing about a technologically underdeveloped world an attempt to return to it? and hadn’t he read any modern fantasy?

    Actually, probably he hadn’t. SF writers who are so scornful of fantasy never read it and rarely have any idea of what modern fantasy is about.

    I love SF and read it just as much as I read fantasy. They both have much to offer; it’s often just a different vehicle to get to a similar place.

    Glad you like Isles of Glory, CW! And I am so glad you have dropped by and written a comment. Isn’t blogging wonderful?

    One of these days, Bernita, I would love to meet you…lol

  7. From one WOW ( wicked old woman) to another…likewise, Glenda.

    I sometimes think that fantasy writers search the past to ensure the future while SF writers imagine a future to protect the present.

    Have found more true philosophy on the nature of good and evil, light and dark, in fantasy than any other genre.

  8. Yes Glenda, blogging is wonderful 🙂

    Looking forward to reading more here (and more of your books too) now that I’ve found your blog!

  9. Hmmm. I agree that readers of fantasy like the feeling that people can triumph over adversity. But I don’t agree that it’s always an ordinary person. When I wrote the Black Magician Trilogy I was utterly sick of royals having all the adventures. If they appeared to be ordinary at first, they always turned out to be lost heirs or have some kind of noble parentage.

  10. I see your point, Trudi, but I think that often when the protagonist is royal, they start off being the runt of the litter so to speak. Or they lose their position of power by being thrown out of the castle (like GRRMartin’s Song of Fire & Ice)so that they become ordinary.

    And the two of us, of course, had to go to the extreme with our first trilogies, – and choose heroines from the slums!

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