What fantasy ever did for humankind (except New Zealanders)?

I am taking part in Coursera’s  Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.  Recently I was disappointed to learn that from the literary point of view SF (spaceships and robots) is a sub-genre of fantasy (kings and wizards), and not two separate, opposing genres.

So why do I  think that SF is better? Firstly, fantasy always happens in the past, even it’s “past in our future” as in  King’s  “The Dark Tower”.  And the past means outdated forms of social order, where your future is determined by your birth and you have no say in how the kingdom is run. Of course, everybody imagines herself being a princess with golden hair and blue eyes or an exceptionally gifted brunette sorceress, who will transgress the class boundaries. But I read witty short story, of which I don’t remember the author or the title (sic transit gloria mundi) about a young man, who is told that he should have been born in a fantasy and offered to transport him there. He agrees and becomes a groom, who shovels dragon dung all day long. There is only one princess for a hundred thousand of illiterate, half-starved peasants, so your chances of being a princess are negligible.

Prof. Rabkin from Michigan University in his excellent lectures have said that in granddaddy of modern vampire stories, Stoker’s Dracula the vampire represents aristocrats, an outdated social class, which is being replaced by a ragtag band of commoners including even a woman, representing emerging democracy. Likewise, werewolves represent middle class and zombies – underclass. In one of the most notorious modern fantasy franchise, Twilight, the heroine has a choice between a decent but poor werewolf and a very rich vegetarian vampire. It is the sign of our time of capital concentration and decreasing social mobility that, opposite to Dracula’s Mina and similar to another notorious pop-culture phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey, she chooses the millionaire with kinky sexual habits. A fantasy world means acceptance and detachment from the real world. I don’t think Nineteen Eighty Four would have been so chillingly effective if it was set in a world ruled by an evil wizard.

Secondly, it may not matter from the literary point of view that in a fantasy people communicate via telepathy and in a SF novel via an ansible. But it matters in real life. The golden age of SF, 1930th – 1960th, raised a whole generation of engineers and scientists, who constructed bridges, buildings and dams, put man on the Moon and machines beyond the Solar System. A rational explanation leads to incorporation of cutting edge science into the public consciousness and results in discoveries. A purely fantastic explanation is an escapism, pleasant but not harmless.


One thought on “What fantasy ever did for humankind (except New Zealanders)?

  1. By

    Tracey Tomashpol

    As for the question of what “fantasy ever did for humankind,” I’ll use the implied reference to Tolkien (New Zealand as the setting for “The Lord of the Rings” movie) to give my own answer in terms of literary fantasy. In some ways, what fantasy literature can do for humankind is the same as literature in general. If good (or great) it can teach morals, inspire, or present readers with the consequences of human choices. In the “Lord of the Rings” saga, Tolkien (writing partly during World War 2), lays out the battle of choices between good and evil, between technology bent towards evil rather than good and the power of nature.

    The ring – with its power to control and dominate a world – is rejected by some in the saga (Galadriel, Faramir, Gandalf, Aragorn) even when wielding it would result in Sauron’s overthrow. Saruman, on the other hand, turns an idyllic valley into an industrial furnace producing a new breed of orcs, with the intent to seize power on his own. The misuse of power, or the choice to turn away from an ill-gotten and uncontrollable power, is a reasonable theme for any work, and I’d argue that humankind is better off when authors encompass those ideas, even when they’re cloaked in fantasy.

    And among the “masters” of SF, the works they produced usually weren’t solely technological tales, or I (for one) doubt they’d have had as much staying power. For all his flaws, many of Heinlein’s stories encompass both technology and moral choice (including many instances where someone sacrifices himself for the good of others). Philip K Dick can imagine a world far beyond our current technology, but human emotion (and even animals!) still matter.

    Good thought-provoking question!

    P.S. This article on Wells describes how one of his fictional works describing nuclear reactors inspired Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard to consider nuclear sources of power. He went on to work with Enrico Fermi to develop the first self-sustained fission reactor. http://www.vqronline.org/essay/hg-wells-and-scientific-imagination .

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