I read a discussion recently about why, within the field of speculative fiction, fantasy is so much more popular than good, old-fashioned, technical science fiction.
I expect there are a number of reasons all working together — kind of like the parts of an elephant.
One viewpoint says it’s a matter of the demand determining the supply.
Traditionally, boys ate up the sci-fi stuff, but today, girls’ tastes dominate the world of Young Adult books. What the female chromosomes go for, as a rule, is the magic stuff, the romances, the neck-suckers. And whether you’re talking about books or movies, if that’s what the buyers want, that’s what the producers produce.
Of course the menfolk do watch plenty of things on the screen, and the action-filled stories they go for are well represented. But you don’t see a lot of scientific stuff anymore. Even what goes under the SF heading is usually far more “Fi” than “Sci”.
We can examine this elephant’s trunk, tail, tusks, etc., and come to any number of conclusions. But I’d like to step back and take a look from a broader perspective, if possible.
In its infancy, SF spoke of brave new worlds where technology would improve our lot in life and humanity would solve every problem. The atom bomb, among other things, caused people to realize that science was as likely to spawn ruin as redemption, and in the 1950s and ’60s, SF often contained warnings of the dangers of technological irresponsibility.
(Note, I’m speaking in generalities here. Mary Shelley created her Frankenstein’s monster almost two hundred years ago. My point is, though not all utopian SF predated the Bomb and not all of the gloomy stuff came after it, that seems to be the wider trend.)
Nowadays, the trend seems to be a retreat from the frightening world of hard reality into the hopeful fuzziness of fantasy. We see this not only in the realm of speculative fiction, but in many aspects of life.
Video games allow us to kill without killing and die without dying. Easy credit lets us usurp a lifestyle that isn’t rightfully ours. Situational ethics tells us there is no final authority, and feel-good amorality teaches us to think our actions don’t have lasting consequences. Big Brother’s revisionist history books work with popular culture’s docu-dramas and bio-pics to distort our view of the past. PhotoShop and “reality” TV skew our concept of the present. In many ways, the line between truth and fantasy has become blurred.
Science has given us a world that seems almost magical. Technology has provided us with so many amazing things, it’s easy to think that anything we can conceive is possible – someone just needs to invent a way to do it. Every fantasy, then, becomes a possibility, and just because it wasn’t real yesterday doesn’t mean it can’t be tomorrow. So we eat up fantasy with the same “what if?” curiosity with which our teenaged forefathers devoured Buck Rogers and Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Of course, some of that fantastic SF stuff became reality later, because the writers based their imaginings on hard science. However, the chances that the world’s population is divided between Muggles and witches/warlocks, or that some of those Goths you see walking around are really vampires, or that Middle Earth was real, are not likely to be proven or developed by science. But plenty of people like to escape to those worlds as often as they can, and stay there as long as they can.
What’s the appeal? Why would we rather be vicariously bitten on the neck than journey to Mars? Could it be that the promise of science has failed to deliver?
Fantastic advances have been made, and even the common person in this society lives in more comfort and security than the wealthiest of ancient kings. But despite our high-tech world, life still disappoints. Human nature is still corrupt. Diseases still ravage, wars still mutilate, parents still abuse, neglect and abandon, the powerful still oppress, and every improvement merely opens the door to new opportunities for exploitation.
Perhaps we grasp at fantasies because we sense that salvation can only be found in the spiritual realm, not the scientific. True, what we’re so hungrily reading and watching is as much a deception as a politician’s promise — but at least it gives us hope that maybe, just maybe, there’s something out there that’s true, and eternal, and worth pinning our hopes on.
It’s not elves or hobbits, it’s not extraterrestrials, but something buried within tells us that what we deeply, desperately need cannot be provided by science.
What is this elephant we’re examining piece by piece? Could it be a creation of God?