Scott (scott_lynch) wrote,

Back to Vacuuming the Cat

Greg Benford weighs in on the "fantasy vs. science fiction" discussion (not in relation to the threads making the rounds recently, but rather in relation to imaginary happenings in his own mind). Look, I've read some of Benford's stuff, and while it can be dry as unbuttered toast he's clearly an extremely intelligent and driven guy. It's a damn shame that his opinions on the subject are such monstrously uninformed balderdash that I balk at even grappling with them, but having slighted the guy like that I feel compelled to offer some reasons. His words are in bold:

Fantasy has very, very cleverly managed to capture the apparatus erected by science fiction fandom and pro-dom, and fantasy writers now dominate the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Benford uncorks a fine vintage of historical revisionism in the first paragraph. Belly up to the bar, folks, the bullshit's free.

Apparently nobody read, enjoyed, or published Robert Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Harlan Ellison, J.R.R. Tolkien, Fletcher Pratt, Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, or Ray Bradbury. Nobody cared for William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, E.R. Eddison, or Manley Wade Wellman, just for starters. Science fiction and its fandom was never inextricably linked with all flavors of fantasy, from 'sword-and-sorcery' to 'weird fiction'. Yes indeed, at some point fantasy fans just appeared on the scene and pulled a fast one on the decent, hard-working folks of science-fiction fandom.

If you believe all that, I also have a line on some fine beachfront property on Venus, priced to sell, sell, sell!

If I may be permitted a cheap shot, it's telling that the actual name of the organization, incidentally, is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

They’ve taken over the Hugo awards—which I thus usually don’t attend. A Harry Potter novel won a few years back and I walked out.

Popular book wins popularity contest. Is this the end of civilization as we know it? It was certainly a worthier book than the inexplicable 1955 Best Novel winner They'd Rather Be Right, or the 1983 Best Novel winner Foundation's Edge, in which Isaac Asimov took a vast cosmic dump on all the struggles and meaning encapsulated within his previous Foundation trilogy.

I think this move to fantasy has led to a core lessening of what I value in the larger genre, with a lot less real thinking going on about the future.

Because if we're not writing books about it, we're clearly not thinking about it. It's not as though we might, say, be worrying rather desperately about current and future events in our private lives, at conventions, in our blogs, and in our correspondence. Commercial fiction, for some reason, bears sole burden for defining the zeitgeist. If I may be permitted another cheap shot, that's a pretty lazy goddamn thing for a science fiction writer to posit after examining the media culture of 2005.

Instead, people choose to be horrified by it, or to run away from it into medieval fantasy.

All fantasy, after all, is medieval in nature and in setting. Jeff Vandermeer, Hal Duncan, and Neil Gaiman held a science-textbook burning on the campus of MIT last week!

The American culture that once read Heinlein and went the moon now puts George Martin (a very good writer, who started in sf) on the bestseller lists, and goes nowhere.

Except, of course, for staggering advances in computer sciences, biology, chemistry, medicine, nanotechnology, and practical/theoretical physics on every level. No sir, if we're not firing shit into space, we're not going anywhere. Don't get me wrong; I'm ga-ga crazy to have an active program of space exploration, and a sustainable, ever-expanding foothold in the airless black yonder. But the Apollo program, magnificent and wondrous as it was, was a Cold War-fueled quick-shot not even remotely suitable for scaled-up expansion into a more general and cost-effective space program. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, anyone?

I see all of this as a retreat from the present, or rather, from the implications of the future. I don’t think it’s an accident that fantasy novels dominate a market that once was plainly that of Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, and Phil Dick.

Not to quibble too much, but was Phil Dick ever anything more than a cult success in his own lifetime? The poor guy was legendarily impoverished, unstable, and frequently miserable. I personally cherish his work, everything from Solar Lottery to Radio Free Albemuth, but c'mon.

I think it’s to the detriment of the total society, because science fiction, for decades really, has been the canary in the mineshaft for the advanced nations, to tell us what to worry about up ahead.

The Science Fiction Messiah Complex. It's one thing to believe that your own work has some greater validity, and to strive to illuminate or offer warning with it. It's another thing entirely to presume that everyone else in the field feels the same way, or that the world at large ever justified this attitude with its response. After all, without the guiding light of science fiction, worry for the future would be left in the hands of mere journalists, political activists, social leaders, advocacy groups, and concerned citizens...

I don't want anyone to imagine that I'm somehow slagging on science fiction in general; get real. I love science fiction; I just don't like pretending that a leisure preference, an aesthetic inclination, in that regard, gives me super-powers or piety beyond ordinary human beings.

But now, most of the readership is running away from these problems, perhaps terrified by them. So instead, while reading doorstop sagas they can pretend that they’re really wielding swords in defense of the king, or something—

"Or something." Christ, do I even need to try to maintain my tone of arched-eyebrow sarcasm, if this is the level of intellectual rigor (nonexistent) and the degree of subcultural chauvinism (thermonuclear) on display here?

a retreat that horrified people like Isaac Asimov. He saw this as just an old intellectual cowardice. But of course, people do it for emotional reasons. They like to pretend that they’re really the princes from another land. But they’re really corporate serfs.

"They like to pretend they're the princes from another land." Again with the ignorant condescension, which is bemusing, to say the least, considering that it's deployed in defense of a sub-genre crawling in turn with the stereotype of rock-ribbed, ultra-competent uber-nerds who break all common rules (and shun all ordinary channels of bureaucracy and compromise that scientists in the real world have to deal with to get things done) to unilaterally inflict sociological or technological change on their societies.

Seriously, what about readers who like to pretend that they're high-tech blaster-wielding space warriors and star pilots rather than corporate serfs? The virtues of science fiction and fantasy are shared virtues; the sins of the sub-genres are similarly identical. Pretending that fantasy is the sole domain of wish-fulfillment and reader-identification is nuts.

In some ways, the watershed event was the first Star Wars movie—a fantasy plot with a technosizzle backdrop. That genre, so-called, is bigger than all of conventional science fiction now. To me, this is a progressive failure of the advanced societies. Both in Europe and the US that fantasy outsells science fiction by at least a factor of ten, if not twenty or thirty. It’s a bad signature for the West, that the very idea behind Western civilization, that we could master the universe and create a better society.

Would we really be better off as a society if the ever-popular "Fascists vs. Space Bugs" sub-genre of science fiction, or the other flavors of xenophobic, simplistic reactionary militant sci-fi it tends to hang out with suddenly received a tenfold expansion in commercial viability?

But who can create a better society when you spend your free time thinking about really big problems like dragons?

Or baseball. Or football. Or fishing. Or bowling. Or poker. Or cooking. Or auto repair. Or classical music. Or gardening. Or anything, really. The only logical conclusion to be drawn from this sort of fantastical bullshit must be that hobbies of any sort, relaxation of any sort, are all equally bad. What does Dr. Benford do in his spare time? Is he allowed to think about sports, or wilderness recreation, or drinking, or really wild sex? Why would those be acceptable when "thinking about dragons" isn't?

Of course, part of this is that these are people who never worked on a farm.

Benford must have been busy as all hell, to have met all of 'these people', and to be able to generalize about 'these people' without so much as first defining 'these people.'

They have no idea what life was like even a few centuries ago—almost entirely grunt labor. So they think lords and kings are swell, romantic.

And they never, ever, ever write about them as anything but, no sir. It's especially interesting to note that in the work of the single fantasist Benford bothers to mention by name--George R.R. Martin--titled nobles are generally portrayed as murderous, greedy, shortsighted, mentally unstable, irresponsible, reactionary, opportunistic, and hypocritical.

Sure, there are fantasists whose attitude toward hereditary monarchs is shallow and gimlet-eyed. But there is a very practical reason for focusing on that sort of character in analog-archaic fantasy-- those were the people who had the freedom to move, act, and make decisions. For better or for worse, the advancement of scholarship, war, diplomacy, intrigue, exploration, and the arts in most archaic cultures was guided by a very slender demographic of the privileged hereditary elect. It is quite easy-- and, in fact, quite common nowadays-- to write about "lords and kings" in a manner that isn't wishful hagiography. Of course, I only know that because I bother to keep track of developments in the fantasy field taking place beyond the confines of my own skull.

So I think we should be seriously worried about where the West is going. We can distract ourselves with our fantasy novels, our buzz and sass—but not the Chinese and the Indians and the Japanese…

Words are beginning to fail me at this point. Benford appears to be completely ignorant of actual Japanese, Chinese, and Indian pop culture, and the saturation of fantasy, historical quasi-fantasy, martial-arts fantasy, and bubblegum pop craziness therein. Let's get one thing straight, people-- if the populations of those countries have a more scientific bent than "the West," if they have a more glorious technological future in store, it isn't because they've banished all consideration of fantasy from their immaculate minds. Not even remotely.

The advanced physical, biological and even social technologies will spring from those societies. It’s not crazy to think that a hundred years from now, Europe will be a complete backwater, a place that is essentially seen as a living museum, and the hot, big, where-it’s-happening cities in the world will be Lahore or Delhi, Bangkok, Singapore, and just possibly maybe Perth, or even Darwin.

And it's all your fault, fantasy readers. All your fault, J.K. Rowling!

Darrell Schweitzer follows up with a series of comments that are pretty interesting, far-ranging and, unsurprisingly, better-informed. You'll like them. Right now, I just want to go wash my brain out. The trouble with the sort of us-versus-them skiffy rationalist dialectic Benford imagines is a) it's based on a false history of the art and the fandom, and b) it treats scientific rationalism as a fetish rather than an avocation and tries to measure it by surface trappings.
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