Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

I submitted this to Slice of SciFi as an editorial, and I want to thank Shaun Farrell for providing me with the incentive to think, and for the inspiration to write about it.  If you are not listening to Adventures in Science Fiction Publishing, you are missing out on great interviews with leading authors in the SF&F field.


Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

Adventures in Science Fiction Publishing just Tweeted the question:

Why do you think fantasy sells so much better than science fiction, on average? Why is the fantasy audience larger?

The way I see it science has surpassed what science fiction has to offer.  I don’t have time to read books, but I do see it in short fiction.  We are offered characters amid regular science rather than characters amid fantastic science.  Even when placed in other worlds, there is seldom any breath-taking, mind-blowing science involved.

FTL – old hat.

Genetic improvements – old hat.

Robots or AIs – been-there-done-that.

Aliens with better versions of the same science we have – boring.

Sure, the story telling can be great, but the wonder quotient is not what it used to be.  We have become jaded by our success across the scientific spectrum.  The frontier has shifted toward the engineering angle (how do we implement what we have learned), and away from “wow, we have so much more to learn”.

There are still many discoveries to be made, but they reside in the higher levels of physics, often outside even the comprehension of other physicists, let alone the general public.  Someday those discoveries may drastically alter our lives, or those of our children, but the best imagination of today’s authors is no match for the stuff considered matter-of-fact by the forerunners in various scientific fields.

Couple that with the fact scientific knowledge has also brought us face-to-face with limits which unless ignored or broken make the story implausible, and we have a recipe for apathy.  We wanted to elicit a sense of awe for the vastness of the universe, and we succeeded.  But our success does not play well to our own self-image as intrepid explorers.  You can write about humans spreading across interstellar space, and maybe make it compelling, but everyone knows certain things are no longer possible, at least not in the near future (and maybe never).

So why is fantasy selling?  They offer something that is equally implausible, but it is not limited by knowledge.  We can imagine fantastical beasts, creatures of magic, things totally impossible as long as we stay outside what we know.  In a way, that is what science fiction used to give us.  It used to offer limitless imagination, and boundless possibilities.

We might have known we would never see any of it, but the ideas held promise.  Humans spreading across the universe; today that vision bumps up against the reality that we can’t even get to the moon, let alone band together to build interstellar crafts.

The harsh reality of the world we live in, combined with the knowledge of what it would actually take to go out there, effectively removed the pleasure of imagining it, the fun of the escape.  If I think about visiting other galaxies, of traveling across the Universe, of humans as shapers of solar systems, it gets me depressed, not filled with determination and hope.

Hence the problem . . . the science fiction we know is anchored deep in the vision of traveling beyond Earth, beyond our solar system, and doing so for adventure and profit.  That vision now seems more like a cruel joke that the inspiration needed to move us forward as a species.

Not so for magical realms.  There we can still dream of limitless and boundless frontiers.  After all, anything is possible with magic.  We used to think the same of science, but now we know better, and now it’s fantasy that offers to lets us escape the limits of our imagination.