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Do Sci-Fi and Fantasy Describe Opposite Ends of Humanity?

by Samuel Marlow. Published 18th May 2012

I need to be hacking away at some aluminium and polystyrene, but it's raining and there isn't room in the garage.

You know what that means?

Yep. Time for a Tumblr article!

I was included in a Twitter discussion yesterday evening, and the ending of John Carpenter film Dark Star came up. I won't give away the details, but it is fair to say it is not what one might called a "happy ending".

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After my article on Star Wars (which I would still argue is a fantasy film wearing science fiction clothes), it got me wondering if the long-standing animosity between hardcore sci-fi and fantasy fans may be because the views they present of humanity are fundamentally irreconcilable.

I am aware I am going to attract criticism here, in part because my definitions of fantasy and science fiction may not be what people usually think of. As I have already said, I consider Star Wars to be a fantasy series. The same is true of Star Trek. The case for this is easier to make with Star Wars - they have laser guns and space ships, but the science to make these work requires leaps of faith that put in the realm of fantasy. While Star Trek is better at hiding this with technobabble, subspace, transporters, phasers, warp drives, "chronometric particles" are so fanciful or far-removed from their science-fact counterparts that the seemingly "get out of jail free" card of the deflector dish may as well be a magic shield given to the crew by a wizard.

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By and large, Star Trek manages to keep its technology internally consistent, which softens the effect, but a lot of good fantasy also stays internally consistent.

It is rarer, if not entirely unheard of, to see this trend working the other way. This may be because, since there aren't any real elves, confining them with hard science is redundant if not impossible.

For the purpose of this article, then, I am defining science fiction as fiction that deals with the repercussions of real or possible science, while fantasy requires the suspension of disbelief to make it work, even if it uses advanced or invented science as a form of magic.

The opposite ends of humanity I referred to in the title are that, by and large, fantasy seems to have a very positive outlook on humanity, while sci-fi's outlook tends to be far more cynical. In short, the forward trajectory of humans in fantasy tends to be up, in sci-fi it tends to be down. Put another way, fantasy shows us at our best, sci-fi at our worst.

A simple example may be to compare Batman and Superman (again). While most people would call Superman the more sci-fi of the two, he is pure fantasy. I don't care what planet you come from, there is no way you are born with the ability to defy the laws of Newtonian physics, blow out a star or shoot laser beams from your eyes. Batman by contrast is an, admittedly exaggerated, normal human who uses advanced though entirely grounded technology to help him. Which of the two portrays humanity in a better light?

There are of course exceptions to the rule. Apart from the main hero being moved into the realm of "real" world Messiah, there is nothing in the Matrix films that is unimaginable. Assuming there is programme code to allow the Agents to cheat the simulation's rules and the "unplugged" humans can hack those, everything it describes makes sense, even if they in-story explanation does not.

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I expect there are many examples more knowledgeable people than myself could draw on, but I am restricting myself to well-known examples. Many of the hard(er) sci-fi stories we are familiar with come from a fairly small number of authors, and variations on famous works such as Nineteen Eighty-Four.

What I find curious is that both sci-fi and fantasy seem to express the same hypothesis that things were better in the past, and/or worse in the future. This may stem from the feeling many people seem to share that "things were better in my day". In the past people were nobler, more honourable, while in the future the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.

Of course, neither of these things are true. We have to remember history is written by the victors, and most of us tend to remember the positive things while forgetting the negative. This can even be seen in the tendency among critics and commentators to claim that "films are dumbing down". They cite films like The French Connection and juxtapose it with Transformers. They forget the, doubtless, thousands of brainless films made in the 70s because they are forgettable. They remember The French Connection because it is worth remembering. By the same token, I suspect as people get older they get better at spotting the BS and are more prone to question what they are told. Technology may have made it easier to snoop on us, but we have more freedom and governments are more answerable to the people they supposedly represent than ever before.

I suspect if we were to make two-way travel between now and the 1960s available there would be a lot more permanent settlers moving from 1962 to 2012 than the other way round. Healthcare is better, people have more rights and freedom, technology is cheaper and more accessible, civil rights for women, ethnic minorities and the gay community are all better. I would like to think the these trends will continue. The present is cleaner, safer, more comfortable, easier and more enjoyable than the past.

In general I would say, fantasy shows us an existence where there is something special about humanity and individual humans, where as in sci-fi we are just protazoa that got lucky.

While these two outlooks are, on the surface, incompatible, I would say they are both true. Creationists argue if we are just smart chimps there is nothing special about us. I would argue that we are special because we are smart chimps. We were not given anything. We started from the same point as every other life-form on the planet. We have earned everything we have achieved.

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In fantasy there tends to be a grand design, while in sci-fi there is none. The pro-fantasy view is that each of us has a purpose, wile sci-fi shows us a basically spinning through space without direction. The pro-sci-fi interpretation is that we are the masters of our own destiny.

Ironically the pros in both are also the root of their cons. Fantasy tells us an individual can ascend to a god-like level of understanding and control, but they are usually born special or otherwise "chosen" in some way. Sci-fi tells us we are nothing special, but that each of us has a shot at greatness.

So which is better? There's only one way to find out...

Watch or read them.

I find Nineteen Eighty-Four and films directly based upon it such as Brazil or Equilibrium fairly bleak. I also recently saw Never Let Me Go, which also left me feeling underwhelmed. The film Eragon, bad Doctor Who and the BBC's Merlin are all examples of fantasy I find tedious.

By contrast Blade Runner and Ender's Game (currently being made into a film), I find interesting if not enjoyable. Despite the fact it is almost a verbatim retelling of the Flood myth, I would call Pixar's Wall-E science-fiction, and I love that movie.

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So in answer to my own question, I think sci-fi and fantasy do describe opposite ends of the spectrum, but it is a spectrum based on a fallacy - that the trajectory of civilisation is down, that things were better in the past or will get worse in the future.

Curiously, the only exception I can call to mind is Star Trek - it is recorded that Gene Roddenberry intended to create a show that depicted the future as a positive place of a technologically advanced, but tolerent society that has all but done away with illness and poverty. However, it is worth noting that successive series and films have moved further and further from this ideology until we again find ourselves looking at a dangerous and militaristic future.

It's almost like we can't help ourselves. I have to admit that when I find myself writing science-fiction, it tends to be bleaker than the fantasy or science-fantasy I write. It is almost like the leap of faith of the world or technology I am creating demands a leap of faith for human nature too.

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While it may make for good story-telling, let's hope that Darwin got it right and things do indeed evolve as they go. Otherwise we're all in trouble.


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