In Defense of Rockets and Quests

You see it everywhere.

Whenever you look for articles on writing SF and fantasy, you always get an article on their subgenres. And those always start with "When you say 'science fiction', everyone thinks of rocket ships and aliens" or "When you say 'fantasy', everyone thinks of epic sword and sorcery". And then they say, "But the genre is so much more." And then they list the subgenres like Alternate History, Dystopia, Cyberpunk (for SF) and Magic Realism, Dark Fantasy à la Martin, Moorcock, or Mieville, and Comic Fantasy à la Prat-Shit Pratchett.

Well, to me, I must confess, that's a bit like saying, "When you say 'society' everyone thinks of office workers and skilled laborers, families, couples and single people. But society is so much more. It's also drug-dealers and assassins, pedophiles, rapists, bigamists, and assorted pimps and human traffickers!"

Because seriously, there are two kinds of not-shit SF: space opera and hard SF. There are two kinds of not-shit fantasy: high and low.

Here's a hint. Dystopias, Alernate History, and to a slightly lesser extent Cyberpunk, are all praised by the mainstream literary press. Pratchett got knighted, and Martin's crap has been made into a miniseries on Showtime (the fact the network itself is fee-based means each individual show is partly exempt from market forces—thus anyone who subscribes to follow one show is subsidizing the Sturgeon's Law of the rest of it). If you'd suggested, even at the height of LotR's popularity in the 70s, knighting Tolkien, there would've been another English Civil War; huge swaths of Airstrip One's litterati expressed their dismay when LotR was voted for various "best book" lists at the end of the last century.

What's my point?

Those people avowedly don't like science fiction and fantasy. They like alternate histories because even they learned about Byzantium and the Civil War in school; not so much, fusion rockets and orbit mechanics. They like comic fantasy because it lets them jeer at real fantasy that takes itself seriously. They like Magic Realism because, for all the trappings, it's still about their oh-so-precious present, and the petty infidelities of the bourgeoisie. They like Cyberpunk because even they have computers (not so much rocket ships), and Transhumanism because it appeals to the Gnostic sensibilities of all art elites. They like Dystopias because even they know a little social "science" (also because dystopias generally make whoever the critics disagree with the cause of dystopia—when they don't, the work's reception is nearly always significantly cooler). They like Dark Fantasy (in the Martin-Mieville sense) because it feeds into their chronological snobbery, never mind that the World Wars and modern Africa make even the Hundred Years War look like a quilting bee.

More, they like those subgenres because each and every one of them has no sense of wonder or adventure. It also goes for Mundane and Naturalistic SF: how dare you think, for one moment, that there's anything interesting beyond the sky. They're like the bear in Toy Story 3—they want us all trapped here with them. They're like the villagers in Gurren Lagann—don't worry about the sky, stay down here in the caves forever. They're like the Green Witch in The Silver Chair, insisting that the better, brighter world Puddleglum and the children remember is only a silly dream.

It is not a dream. It has never been a dream. Troy once stood, and the black ships bore the Achaeans to destroy it, and Priam, and the sons of Priam, and the people of the good ashen spear. We have found a tomb of an Arturus Rex, and there really was a knight named Roland who died in Charlemagne's service at Roncesvalles, against an alliance of pagan Basques and Muslim Moors. Given that that—and Audie Murphy and Napoleon Bonaparte and Hijikata Toshizô—are our past, why shouldn't our future be the same? Given that our real world has held such men—and women like Jeanne D'Arche, Maria Theresa, and the Teresas of Avila, Lisieux, and Calcutta—why should our fantasy not contain things even grander?

I understand, of course, why literary critics are convinced that only small, petty, contemptible people ought to be the focus of fiction—they believe that to be the human condition. Only, generalization from the self is a logical fallacy.

They insist that this soul-rotting uninspiring garbage is "realistic" (which in itself isn't a term of praise anyway) because they are fundamentally pessimists. People not failing in the last clutch, families that aren't warrens of incest and abuse, religions that aren't corrupt: those things break their suspension of disbelief because they think evil, failure, ugliness is the world's true nature.

Or to put it another way:
"There again," said Syme irritably, "what is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I'm hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It's mere vomiting."


"It is things going right," he cried, "that is poetical! Our digestions, for instance, going sacredly and silently right, that is the foundation of all poetry. Yes, the most poetical thing, more poetical than the flowers, more poetical than the stars—the most poetical thing in the world is not being sick."
—G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
Why are a bunch of spiritual bulimics running our art world, anyway?


penny farthing said...

It's because they think the purpose of art is to challenge. I used to think they had it wrong, but since my is still blown from watching the last three DVDs of Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood in one go, I'm actually ready to concede that point. But challenge what?

Critics steeped in critical theory who (surprise surprise) find themselves and their lives lacking something, think art ought to raise its fist and scream a challenge to God for making things so crappy. Or they would, if they weren't also wussy. And Marxists. So instead they raise their middle fingers and sneer an insult at the past, or the public, or anything that someone else might earnestly enjoy, for being, well, better than them. They tell us that stories about pathetic people being pathetic are realistic, because it's all they know, and they've settled for it.

But the purpose of art is to challenge. Us. To be heroic, not to give in when the odds are against us, to depend on our friends, to find and hold something or someone that makes us able to face down whatever life throws our way, to pick ourselves up when we fail. And not sneer at normal life and people, because that is what we are protecting, and what we will return to or start again when the story is over, until the next adventure.

We should accept art's challenge, not use it as an excuse to settle, and eventually decay and collapse, because the challenge is too much.

Nicholas D.C. Wansbutter said...

Good post. A lot of stuff I agree with here. I am definitely fully in favour of your spirited defence of rockets and quests.

That said, I think there can be good found (or written) in the subgenres. From a certain perspective, A Canticle for Liebowitz falls within the "dystopian" subgenre. It's definitely a very cruddy future (and probably realistic taking into consideration Man's fallen nature) yet still has a certain sense of wonder.

As such, I'd argue that the subgenres aren't necessarily themselves to blame, but the authors who tend to write in those genres. Also, there are subgenres you didn't mention like steampunk which is frequently the very opposite of what you rightly decry. Or my personal favourite, Space Fantasy which is a collision of High Fantasy and Space Opera (or would you say that space fantasy is simply a type of Space Opera?).

And just to deal with George R.R. Martin's stuff, you'll probably want to castrate me for giving his novels 3/5 stars when I reviewed them at Swords and Space. I thought there were certain things that were well done in the first novel and the tournament scenes and the Stark family at it's height threatened to give us the wonder and adventure you mention. Although I did throw my iPad across the room in disgust (well, not really) when he killed off most of them partway through "A Storm of Swords". Plus having a war that lasts uninterrupted for years in a mediæval setting is patently absurd (to put it mildly -- not to mention he never does explain how everyone doesn't starve during decades-long winters) ... okay, as I ramble more here I think you have me and I'll have to revisit my review. I think I let my enjoyment of "A Game of Thrones" overshadow how bad things got after that book.

Which brings me to an important question: What works do you recommend (other than the obvious like L.O.T.R., the Roman and Greek classics, the mediæval chansons de geste)? The majority of stuff out there is just such trash, that may be why I gave Martin's work more credit than was due.

And to start off on a tangent again, have you noticed that not just pessimism but gross perversion are praised? I made the mistake of giving "The Best of the Best Science Fiction Anthology" a try and it was one tale of sodomitic incest after another.

Sophia's Favorite said...

@ Pennyfarthing: hear hear!

@ Nicholas: I agree, it is possible to do the subgenres well, and steampunk is as much a sense-of-wonder genre (at least done well) as space opera is. But the critically praised steampunk is usually bad alternate history (and trying to live up to the second part of its name, which is stupid), so it comes under the same opprobrium as that.

I didn't like Canticle for Leibowitz; it's a decent post-apocalyptic story but I see no real value in post-apocalyptic stories. Aside from the rank indulgence in pessimism, they tend to misread their historical models (e.g., the Dark Ages—I've often thought of writing one where the US states are now called "regiments" and are ruled by people with the hereditary title of "colonel", but the people who write post-apocalyptic stories don't know that the auxiliary commanders took over the Roman provincial governments).

Finally, as for works I'd recommend, for SF, Niven's Known Space stuff is okay (his take on sexuality's a lot less icky than later Heinlein's), especially the stuff set before Ringworld (other than The Patchwork Girl), as are most of Heinlein's juveniles and almost everything by C. J. Cherryh. The societies in those are sometimes dystopian, e.g. Niven's organ banks and population control, but the stories are still about people doing things. For fantasy, you can't go wrong with the classics, like Robert Howard's Conan and Kull stories and Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. Those, too, are often cynical—Lankhmar is one hard-boiled quasi-Renaissance metropolis—but the heroes are still basically sane men who do things. Be warned, though, around about the fourth book Leiber started to get "old SF writer's disease", and included too many of his weird personal fetishes; I almost never touch the fifth through seventh Lankhmar books.

PS. Speaking of Martin, how about those nobles who mock the one guy for letting his peasants into his castle? Uh, that's what castles are for, guys, you can't maintain a warrior aristocracy without a labor force. And if you assassinate people at a banquet to celebrate their alliance-marriage with you, nobody will ever ally with you again—that's as stupid as having a criminal character rob his own bank.

penny farthing said...

Hehe, I didn't mention steampunk, because I thought it would be rather obvious coming from me.

I consider it to be something akin to space opera (I like that you called it airship opera/steampulp), since it is all about a sense of wonder and cool people doing cool things, hopefully with a nod to science in there somewhere (I am a stickler for a bit of realism in steampunk, myself, but I also enjoy the fluffy magic-science stuff when the story is entertaining (Five Fists of Science)) That said, I don't particularly like my steampunk mixed with other subgenres - dystopias, alternate histories, and worst of all, environmentalist screeds, tend to mess it up. I'm not really a fan of post-apocalyptic steampunk either, Abney Park notwithstanding. I prefer shiny machines and a sense of "ooh, science!".

I don't mind some alternate history in there, since it is a semi-historical setting, but I don't care for just swapping out winners and losers in wars and seeing what would have happened. I would consider an example of decent alternate history steampunk to be Westerfeld's Leviathan Trilogy. It's oddly historically accurate for a book about World War I, and it's full of giant machines, Tesla cannons, and flying bioengineered monsters. I have also read some good westerns and mysteries/buddy cop stories that were steampunk. It works well mixed with other big genres, I guess, as a way of flavoring the setting?

Nicholas D.C. Wansbutter said...

I'll have to look into C.J. Cheryh -- but I must admit I was hoping for a more ringing endorsement of something than "okay". But I take it you and I are in similar boats: love sci fi, just don't love most of what's on offer in the genre.

I've read most of the Conan stuff. May try the Mouser stuff, but I've read mixed-reviews. Seems there just isn't a lot out there, which means the likes of us need to get writing!

Back to Martin -- the wedding scene you mention was the one that nearly caused me to throw my iPad across the room.