Sunday, January 23, 2011

Entering Some Fantastic Worlds

Greetings, gentle readers.  Welcome to Fantastic Worlds, my first fantastic fiction e-zine.

What do I mean by "fantastic fiction?"  I'm trying to sum up the common factor underlying science fiction, fantasy and horror, that distinguishes them from more "mundane" forms of literature.

I have a strong belief that there is no hard and fast difference between science fiction, fantasy and horror.  Rather, all are "fantastic" fiction, in that they do not limit themselves to the narrow world of known reality, but instead speculate about the possibilities of other realities, ones in which things were or are or will be a bit different from the here and now.  To my mind this distinction, between fantastic and mundane fiction, is far more fundamental than any distinction between types of mundane fiction.  And the different kinds of fantastic fiction tend to flow one into the other.

Really, "science fiction <---> fantasy" is one axis defining the "hardness" of the elements of a fiction in various ways.  The hardest of hard science fiction takes only known scientific and social principles, and reasonably extrapolates from them to present stories which might have been, be, or become true, even though the odds are strongly against them doing so in precise detail.  An example of this would be a science fiction story written in 1965 which depicts a successful NASA moon landing, and takes care to use real-world science and technology in describing this landing.

The softest of fantasy assumes that many aspects of physics are different than we currently believe, and explores the consequences of such alternate rules.  For instance, a world in which magicians can turn their psychic energies into lightning bolts or summon demons from other dimensions is not one which is likely to have been or ever be real, but it can make an interesting setting for a story.  This is pretty obviously fantasy.

In-between are science fiction stories which assume numerous variant physical laws and devices deriving from them (such as genesis effects or hyperdrives), or fantasy stories that make an exceptionally-strong effort at internal consistency and examination of the societal and technological effects of their magical laws.  This is generally called "science fantasy," or sometimes "hard fantasy" -- this is where science fiction and fantasy meet and merge.  For instance, if the magicians learn to automate the lightning-casting effect and use it to generate electricity to work the appliances of a whole city, this is science fantasy.

Horror is also one end of an axis, which I term "wonder <--> horror."  People often wrongly suppose that "horror" must deal with the supernatural, and hence is a subset of "fantasy," but this is not so.  There are no supernatural elements in Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" or John W. Campbell's "The Thing," but both are profoundly horrific tales, which have inspired much imitation.  The real question here is the intended effect produced on the reader by the events depicted -- is he to experience wonder at the beauty of, or horror at the ugliness of, the story's fantastic universe?

This is not primarily an issue of whether or not the story shows friendly or hostile elements of the Universe, though of course friendly elements generally lend themselves better to wonder and hostile elements to horror.  This can be clearly seen in E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series, which has some incredibly nasty aliens on the side of Boskone, and some really alien aliens on the side of Civilization, describes a space war in which numerous planets and many billions of people die, often without warning, and yet is one of the purest examples of "sense of wonder" writing in science fiction.  Likewise, Jack Williamson's Humanoids novels depict very gentle invaders who nonetheless are as bad as anything coming out of the war-arsenals of Boskone, generating true cosmic horror (the more so because one must constantly struggle against the fear that the androids are right). It's all in the attitude.

I'm also a strong believer that fantastic fiction written in the past should be enjoyed as much, if not more so, than the fantastic fiction written in the present (I'd be even more enthusiastic about fantastic fiction written in the future, but my time machine is sadly on the fritz). There are a number of reasons for this, but the most basic one is that the present should not be "privileged" from a critical point of view. The "present" is just a thin slice of time (*), and if one restricts oneself to the fiction which is based on our current understanding of physics or the currently dominant social prejudices, one denies oneself the enjoyment of a tremendous body of work.

We should not take such understandings or prejudices too seriously. I grew up reading science books written mostly from 1950-75, and have seen our understanding of the Universe repeatedly revised. Theories once sound have been challenged and replaced with newer ones; phenomena assumed to be impossible or improbable have been confirmed; other phenomena assumed inevitable have turned out to be imaginary. As for prejudices, I lived through the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's through 1970's, the Reagan Revolution of the 1980's, and the current bout of Poltiical Correctness that currently grips our civilization. I have seen the fashions of intellectual and social life change more than once, and expect them to change again and again should I be so fortunate as to live much longer.

Certainly, we should not let an improbable scientific theory or a now-unfashionable social habit or prejudice ruin our enjoyment of a good story. Poiticians and pundits don't deserve the effort from you -- when's the last time that any of them went out of their way to please your prejudices?

Finally, though this blog will (at least initially) mostly contain reviews, I don't intend to limit it to such. I will also include essays (such as the one you're reading right now) about fantastic literature, and about such aspects of science, technology and history which are relevant to fantastic literature; I will also include stories and poetry.

Guest bloggers are welcome, though I of course reserve the rights of rejection and editing. I can't afford to pay at present, though this may change in time. Since I can't pay, you can keep all rights to any such content save (of course) for its publication herein.

Comments are always welcome, and I love discuassions. I do not want harassment, insults and deliberate ad hominem attacks, and will delete or edit such comments at my discretion. I want this to be a friendly place.

Hope to be hearing from you soon ... you'll certainly be hearing more from me :)

(*)  To be strictly logical, we are always reading something written in the "past" -- even if we were standing over the writer's shoulder as he typed the story, it has to travel from his brain to his hands to the screen or paper and thence from our eyes to brain: and normally, of course, we are not so fortunate; we read stories months to years after they were first written, even if we buy them as soon as they hit the bookstores.

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