Wednesday, September 23, 2009

After Litfic Dies: Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

Face it: literary fiction is dying. The question is, what will replace it as the new mainstream? I've been championing science fiction in recent posts; I'm convinced that its method will be the core of the literature of the future, and indeed of the present. However, from what I've seen lately, it isn't the most popular potential successor to the old litfic. What is? Fantasy.

In the bookstores, science fiction and fantasy are always put together in the same section as if they were the same. The assumption seems to be that they form a single genre. But the official publisher and bookseller category is misleading. You see, science fiction and fantasy have opposite worldviews. Science fiction usually relies on some sort of scientific logic and a whole lot of awesome future technology, but fantasy always requires at least one supernatural thing.

True science fiction, no matter when it is set (in the future by genre convention; but in the present if it's a technothriller, and the past if it's steam/diesel/atompunk), needs some kind of scientific worldview. No matter how hostile the world (a hostile alien planet, or a cyberpunk ghetto), it can be understood by human minds, and our heroes must understand it if they want to survive. Fantasy, on the other hand, can do away with this, or any logic other than story and/or dream logic.

I'm not saying that fantasy doesn't have its place in the post-litfic mainstream of the future. It does. Science fiction will definitely not be alone in the new mainstream. Fantasy is a metagenre like science fiction; it too has assimilated all sorts of genres, including mystery, horror, and romance. And fantasy has a fuzzy boundary with horror, creating the trendy and fast-growing subgenre of dark fantasy, just as science fiction has a fuzzy boundary with mystery fiction and technothrillers. What is now relegated to the genres by the snobbish aristocratic literary elite will become the mainstream once the tottering litfic dictatorship finally collapses.

My point here is that the genre that dominates will reveal the dominant ideas of the culture, in this case American culture (the one In'm most familiar with, needless to say). Right now, between the two, I see fantasy dominating: getting the biggest book sales, movie views, and television ratings. This has a lot to do with the sorry state of science education in this country and a high rate of belief in the supernatural. Even within science fiction, you have a whole lot of "alien abduction" and "space brothers" stuff that has only gotten more intensely popular since the failure of the mass spaceship landings to occur around 1975 or so. And more of this stuff has been intersecting with fantasy, as in The X-Files. And this hybrid SF/fantasy draws heavily on the strange religion called UFOlogy.

To sum up: Litfic is dying out. The sales are dismal; sooner or later they will be nonexistent. The vacuum will be filled. What will replace litfic in the literary mainstream? The fiction currently marginalized into the genres, of course. But especially the two metagenres that have their own specific storytelling methods: science fiction and fantasy. Neither will be able to marginalize the other, really, much less destroy it. But the balance between them, or the dominance of one over the other, will be telling.

Me, I've left my old New Age beliefs far behind. I think the wonders revealed (or at least explained) by science are so much more fascinating than the uncanny phenomena I used to assume existed but which I never saw (e.g., ghosts, psychic phenomena, UFOs, etc.). And so today I write my fiction using the method of science fiction, no matter what genre I write in. Even if that genre's fantasy.

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