My "Young Whippersnapper" Rant

I really don’t think of myself as old, but sometimes I do feel like I am because the definitions of the genre writing I’ve loved almost since I started reading have undergone a radical shift.

This is somewhat of an extension on my Arabian Nights rant, and a certain someone will snigger to read this. Her comments might have triggered this post, but the thoughts behind it are old.

I had a somewhat dicey initial experience with reading, which may have informed my attitudes somewhat. Because of that, I’ll begin at the beginning and hope you’ll stay with me.

I grew up believing I was a slow reader and just couldn’t get it…an impression that my dyslexia probably contributed to, but one it turns out was completely inaccurate. It wasn’t until much later I learned the true story, which was this:

I went to a Montessori school much earlier than most kids because my older sister got to go, so of course I had to ;). When I joined the traditional school system, they made me repeat kindergarten three times because I was too young to start first grade. Add that to a family that reads and by the time I started first grade, I read at a reasonably sophisticated (for someone of my age) level.

That’s the part that I didn’t remember or recognize. I only know it from my parents telling me.

What I remember is that I was introduced to “reading” with the Dick and Jane books. These books were instantly worthless and boring so reading was obviously not worth learning. Looking back, they also have many similarly spelled words which are a nightmare for a dyslexic because the letters aren’t the same each time you see them, a fact that may have contributed to my reaction.

So, in the most revolutionary way possible, I rejected the concept. I have my early report cards and they’re laughable. I could not, or rather did not, read.

At the same time, my father would read Kipling to us every night out of these big black hardback books that were so removed from the Dick and Janes that I literally did not associate what he was doing with reading. I guess I thought it was just a prop because he was as likely to tell us a tale of his own making as to read it from a book. I have wonderful memories of all three of us girls in Jenn’s room while Dad read from those books or told us tales. But it’s the memory that focuses on the physical book. At the time, I really didn’t comprehend that.

Then my older sister, a die-hard, avid reader even back then, forced books on me. I discovered there was so much more to the world of reading than Dick and Jane (though at this point I was reading more, just not avidly). She introduced me to Marion Zimmer Bradley (MZB) and Anne McCaffrey at about seven or eight years old. I don’t remember whether it was my parents or Jenn who sucked me into the colored fairy tale books, but they all came at the same time in my memory.

Suddenly reading was wonderful. But I had it stuck in very distinct categories, that initial arrogance in rejecting Dick and Jane filtering through all my reading options.

Fairy tales were very structured and served their purpose.

Science fiction (which both MZB and Anne McCaffrey were classified as at that time) was wonderful, the harder the better, though I loved the soft sciences as well.

Fantasy? Well, that was stupid unicorn and fairy stuff, like the Dick and Jane. Okay, I didn’t say I was discerning, just that I was adamant :).

My older sister spent years trying to push me to read fantasy. She occasionally succeeded, but it was *always* an exception. I would reluctantly admit that particular fantasy novel was a good read, but give me a hard SF any day, some Clarke, MZB, or Heinlein. I would never choose a fantasy novel on my own, or by my choice.

With this as my background, though I do read fantasy now…and a surprising amount of it is good ;)…I’ve always got a bit of a superiority complex, not for me, but for SF over frou-frou unicorn stuff. It’s not supported by my reading habits, nor how I feel when I discuss specific works, but like not being able to fall asleep with gum in my mouth because my mother once told me I’d choke and die, it’s ingrained, instinctive.

So you can imagine how it feels to have my favorite, the wonderful anthropological SF of MZB and McCaffrey, reclassified as that dreaded word…fantasy. And it’s not right; it doesn’t make sense. They’re nothing like the fluffy unicorn or staid Tolkien high court fantasy. They’re cultural, anthropological, and telepathic, all good scientific or scientific-based things. Nothing magic, nothing “you just have to accept because it is” about them.

The other day though, I had a breakthrough.

A friend who is not too much younger than me was introduced to Mercedes Lackey and Valdemar before she read MZB and McCaffrey. She says to me that psionics is clearly fantasy because magic horses use it. She says the elaborate cultures and social structures are clearly fantasy because…well…fantasy’s like that.

At this point I fall to the floor and start kicking and screaming…okay, not literally, but how frustrating. When MZB wrote Darkover, fantasy wasn’t like that. Fantasy has slowly moved from the pure fantastical to a more logical and cultural social basis. Bit by bit, fantasy is nibbling at the edges of what is clearly science fiction, stealing motifs and common elements of my favorites and undermining the definition of soft sciences so that the science part is left out. Instead of Tolkien and his constructed cultures or the random little races who exist for no other reason than to plague humanity, we have wars over resources, diplomacy, first contact, and half a dozen other traditional SF areas that are now claimed under the fantasy umbrella. For the first time in my life I understand the scoffing and embittered clinging of the hard SF folks. It’s not that they really are trying to exclude the soft sciences or limit the definition of SF, it’s that they’re trying to hold something back, keep something sacrosanct before those fantasy writers take that away from science fiction too. I mean, look at it and tell me I’m wrong. Now magic has to follow rules, has to have physics either natural or created. It’s not acceptable to just claim it works, you have to know why. How is that different than a science fiction that extrapolates so far beyond our current science that the only things they have in common are defined, consistent rules?

Now the funny side of this is simple. All these changes? Well, they’ve drawn me in. I now read more fantasy than I would have ever imagined I could. I can get my anthropological fix as easily from Robin Hobb as from Karen Traviss, my first contact from Wen Spencer whether she’s writing about aliens invading the Earth or elves shifting between realms. I’ve been tricked! Deceived! Snookered into liking fantasy. It’s all a sleight of hand. Don’t look behind the curtain all you fantasy addicts…guess what you’ll find? Science fiction.

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Judging from my to be read pile, yes.

But no matter what, no matter how many of my old favorites you shuffle to another shelf, I’ve figured out the truth; I’ve figured out the trick. It’s not that science fiction is becoming fantasy, it’s that fantasy is becoming science fiction :). Now the prejudice against unicorns on the cover suddenly makes perfect sense. After all, whose roots can current fantasy claim? It’s certainly not those frou-frou unicorn stories :).

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11 Responses to My "Young Whippersnapper" Rant

  1. Mama Rose says:

    Here’s why I don’t write fantasy. It all turns out like frou-frou unicorn stories everyone scorns because I like that stuff. I like Barry Manilow too. (shrug) That said, I love the other stuff, too. I just can’t write it.

  2. Margaret says:

    Hey, I SAID I was opinionated ;). And there are still some of the older style fantasy novels being written, but mostly they’re no longer the trend.

    What’s funny about this is if you read my Arabian Nights rant, it’s the “frou-frou” stuff that I like too. I just don’t admit it to myself. I guess for me, I read those novels for a different purpose, a different mood.

    If I look on my shelf right now, I have SF, urban fantasy, cultural fantasy, mainstream, literary, romance (of many subgenres), philosophy, oh and even religion.

    I choose what to read at any particular moment based on mood. I’ll admit the high fantasy Tolkein-based stuff almost never appeals (though I loved the Hobbit which wasn’t written that way), but pretty much everything else is right up my alley :).

    And heck, I love disco! (/me hears thuds left and right from the fainting :)).

  3. deirdrebeth says:

    Sadly I think your initial observation is off the mark. What makes Fantasy and Sci-Fi different is the setting.

    If (as a general rule) folks ride horses and live in the country it’s Fantasy. If they fly in hover-crafts and live in steel and glass, it’s Sci-Fi. The use of magic and/or science is secondary to the setting.

    If they ride horses to the rocket launching pad…it’s cross-over.

    Now considering we were raised in the same house how did THAT happen?

  4. Margaret says:

    Well, clearly it’s because you’re wrong 😉 :D.

    The trouble with this definition is that beasts of burden are a result of lack of resources/unreachable resources. So should we ever achieve the stars, there’s going to be a ton of colonies that revert to creature support because either the environment is hostile to metal based aids or it’s too expensive to get them.

    Just read an article in the Atlantic Monthly actually about just this thing. It was about how when the Soviet Union collapsed, suddenly Cuba lacked a first world sponsor. Going from having an overabundance of tractors to a lack of petroleum to run them made those few farmers who stuck with oxen over machines in great demand, as were their oxen. Somehow I don’t think anyone would reclassify modern Cuba as fantasy :). But you never know…

  5. Margaret says:

    Ooh, perfect example. Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock series. It’s largely set in a medieval culture even with apparent magic, but because the reader knows this is a colony and because the MC knows it’s psionics not magic despite the locals’ beliefs, this isn’t even crossover…it’s pure science fiction (though not hard SF by any stretch of the imagination :)).

  6. agnes d says:

    This reminds me of music classifications. There are so many sub-groups and crossovers, and I know at one time musical artists had trouble selling because their music didn’t fit neatly into a group.

    And I love that comment about frou-frou unicorn stories.

  7. Margaret says:

    Now the rant against over classification is for another day :). And what a scary thought. Maybe that’s why the reclassification of my old favorites offends me so much. If I can’t go by what I KNOW, then what chance have I of fitting into one of the acceptable boxes? Or of finding reading I’ll enjoy that fits? Hmm, another thought…is the trend toward recommendations only to choose what to read have anything to do with how the classifications have become so confusing that you can’t trust them to have any meaning?

  8. Ruv Draba says:

    Fantasy’s much bigger and way older than SF, Margaret. I believe it connects strongly to the way that we dream and intuit. It’s no surprise that every culture has a fatasy tradition (whether or not it includes unicorns and frou-frou).

    For this reason, it’s the very nature of Fantasy to put its dabs on anything that has a deep psychic impact on us – and that includes many of the sciences and technologies we toy with.

    SF does something that fantasy can’t do though – it explores said sciences and technologies in a rational, analytic fashion. Fantasy can’t do that because its nature is to use that part of our mind which dreams. That part is not analytic but intuitive, and shies away from too much detail. Moreover, that part of our mind plays most of all (and best of all) with moral, psychological and relational elements; SF analytics play most of all and best of all at interfaces – competing paradigms and views.

    So SF and Fantasy may overlap in elements of setting – even in plots – but don’t overlap much by way of their concerns and themes; and even less in how they treat those themes. SF is characterised by its strong analytics; fantasy is characterised by its strong symbolics. Each appeal to different parts of our brain and are respectively better and worse at exploring different concerns.

    Perhaps all you’re seeing is that SF and fantasy authors are drawing from a wider palette. Which might mean that if you like the SF story elements, you’ll enjoy the fantasy treatment — or conversely if you like the analytic SFish treatment you’ll enjoy the symbolic world.

  9. Margaret says:

    To some degree I agree with you, but only in the non-genre interpretation of the word fantasy. Yes, fantasy as a concept is a bigger umbrella than SF, but fantasy as the genre based on the shelving is not. And it’s the shelving I have issue with.

    The part I don’t agree with, or rather I feel like you missed the point I was making, is the separation of symbolics and analytics. It is the very adoption of analytics by books stylized as fantasy that I’m complaining about. When a cultural as opposed to a fantastical approach is used, that’s cultural anthropology, a science. Books that take that approach, that explore the intersection between cultures and the conflicts that cultural differences produce, are soft science fiction to my mind.

    When fantasy starts delving into those self same areas, when fantasy requires a physics (created or real) to explain magical occurrences, it is science fiction. It has moved into the analytical arena and therefore out of (or crossed over from) the symbolic world and fantastical that is traditional for those works under the fantasy label.

    But instead of recognizing this trend toward an ever increasing sociological approach, sociological/anthropological SF that is clearly SF and nothing but is being pulled under the fantasy umbrella.

    I wouldn’t care if it made sense, but that’s the analytical side of me. If the distinction is between analytic and symbolic, then these fantasy novels are no longer fantasy. Hence the realization that they are SF in sheep’s clothing :).

    Personally, I think it diminishes both fantasy and SF to have the definitions so loose as to have no meaning. People who want symbolic will be disappointed in half of the fantasy they pull off that genre shelf while the SF folks go wanting because they don’t know their content has been quietly moved under an umbrella where it doesn’t belong. What’s the purpose of a genre classification that fails the basic goal of helping people find what they want on the shelf?

  10. KHurley says:

    I’ll freely admit that the first novel I wrote (at age 16) was a frou frou unicorn story. The next two novels, which I wrote in my 20’s, were frou frou as well. Problem is, frou frou fantasy isn’t selling as well these days. My last few novels, which actually gained an agent to represent them, still have magic, but the magic has logic and rules and the culture the stories are set in is more anthropologically sophisticated. Had I not changed from the frou frou style to this more updated style (which you deem is really sci-fi), I would not have found representation. Pure frou frou fantasy, alas, is much harder to sell these days unless you already have a name in the business or you’re writing for a younger audience.

    I also admit, I like this change to a more logical, scientific side of fantasy for several reasons, not the least of which is that in the past, fantasy was often treated as Sci-fi’s poor country cousin. Adding the science and logic to the magic and blurring the lines a little has had the effect of legitimizing fantasy in some people’s eyes. With as hard as it is to sell a book these days, I’m glad of that.

  11. Margaret says:

    Very good points, KHurley. And obviously I prefer anthropological fantasy as well for all my whining. I guess the real trouble I’m having is that rather than celebrating the science aspects in the “new” fantasy, SF is now the poor stepchild. I’m told my novels that are set on another world with another sapient species are really fantasy in disguise because they don’t have high tech. Since when were aliens fantasy? But because the anthropology basis is similar, the distinction isn’t as easy as “a spaceship” vs “elves.” Heck, thanks to Star Trek, you can’t even determine it based on pointy ears ;).

    And that is sad to hear about the frou frou fantasy, though I’m not surprised. There’s a place for it, and people who love it, even me at times. The good news is that everything is cyclical. Anthroplogy has invaded everything but even frou frou will have its day again :).

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