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Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

ISSUE:  Summer 2015

It is a strange thing that California, the land of sunshine, oranges, the Beach Boys, and other signs and portents of optimism, should also have bred some of the darkest visions of the future known to fiction. Or science fiction, more specifically. Or, better, “sci-fi”—a term coined by California editor and novelist Forrest J Ackerman in the 1950s. The Golden State’s contributions to science fiction are many, and they are relentlessly gloomy, from the dystopian visions of Philip K. Dick to the dyspeptic scenarios of Harlan Ellison, the cryptofascist man-versus-insect dreams of Robert Heinlein, and the authoritarian shoot-’em-ups of Jerry Pournelle. Even the comparatively kindhearted Ray Bradbury had his doubts about earthlings—as one might, caught in traffic with so many of them.

Whereas the proto–science fiction of a century past (H. G. Wells, Octavia E. Butler, Edgar Rice Burroughs) looked to a bright if complex future, we can now scarcely imagine one that’s not irredeemably awful. Not so in the sunnier realm of fantasy, a genre that is a cuddly Ewok crammed up next to the Darth Vader of sci-fi. (California creations again.) The two literary lineages share distant ancestors but only a few common practitioners. They’re really quite different—though it doesn’t help us forge a distinction that writers in both genres share an umbrella organization, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

One difference, as bi-genre writer Matthew Dickerson notes, is that science fiction is based on science, “or, more accurately, on the assumption that everything is explainable by science.” Science, of course, is naturalistic: It is replicable, depends on material laws, follows a rigorous logic. Fantasy, conversely, looks to the fairy tale for inspiration: It hinges on magic. Its classics (mostly British, including J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series) often feature wizards, witches, and warlocks—to say nothing, these days, of werewolves. If its protagonists move across time and space, it is not because they have figured out wormholes in space-time, but because a grimoire figures in the arsenal somewhere.

California is science fiction’s domain, though there have been talented fantasy writers from the state, even a few top-tier books that might fit into the category. Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel, Ecotopia, is one. Though inspired by the science of ecology and the “soft-energy” advocacy of Amory Lovins, it holds technology and science as things to be discounted against the larger wisdom of homegrown weed, rooftop gardens, and under-the-redwoods bonhomie. The novel belongs to the California of Jerry Brown, in other words, and not the one of Ronald Reagan, the California of Aldous Huxley and not Charles Manson. Almost forgotten now, Callenbach’s Bay Area novel is the polar opposite of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the source text for the through-a-glass-darkly Los Angeles of the movie Blade Runner.

Mix in vampires, sorcerers, and changelings, and you’ve got fantasy. Whip up technologism, war, and totalitarianism, and you’ve got science fiction. Which is more fitting to the place? Get out on the 101 for a few miles, and you’ll know. 


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