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 :).