A couple discussions were going on a while back on different message boards regarding the relative position of fantasy and science fiction. Ignoring, for now, the assertions that there is such a thing as “true” sci-fi (by which the posters meant “hard SF”), some interesting and disturbing points were made. The most disturbing, from my perspective, was the statement that “true SF makes people think and no fantasy series does that.” So, I thought I’d collect my thoughts here, as a fan of both fantasy and sci-fi (or SF if you want to be academic and separate the fandom from “serious” stuff).
My knee jerk reaction to the above assertion is to say it represents general ignorance and poor reading skills. Of course, that gets into ad hominem attacks, which it is best to avoid. Therefore, let’s dig a little bit into examples from the fantasy genre and discuss what indeed fantasy asks us to think about using a few well known authors.
1) Discworld (Terry Pratchett) – Discusses and asks us to think about racism, jingoism, morality, the importance/power of stories, the press (its freedom and responsibility), how government works, how society works, stereotyping, technology (its effects on society especially), religion, faith, blind obedience to dogma (political or religious), family, the nature and use of power, and many other things (could go on for pages)
2) Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling) – Discusses and asks us to consider the nature of morality, power, government, life, aging, death, racism, fads, consumerism (Harry only “wins” after he loses all of his “cool stuff”), wealth/poverty, the Other (the outsider, strangeness), family, respect, loyalty v. blind obedience, relationships (as she presents pretty realistic relationships), destiny v. free will, nature v. nurture, etc.
3) Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien) – Discusses and asks us to consider history (and its effects), morality, destiny, technology, social progress (Cleansing of the Shire; Shire democracy v. Gondor & Rohan’s absolute monarchies), nature v. urbanization, the potential pitfalls of industrialization (which we’re seeing now), etc.
4) Conan (Robert E. Howard) – Although many dismiss Howard’s creation as frivolous, I think that comes more from the movie versions than actually reading his work. Howard discusses and asks us to think about issues of race/stereotyping, religion/faith, alien contact, morality (his hero murders, steals, etc. but is at heart a good guy), and other issues depending on the story.
5) American Gods (Neil Gaiman) – Primarily discusses and asks us to think about faith, belief, destiny, and morality (in terms of what one would do if simple survival was on the line).
6) Videssos (Harry Turtledove) – Mostly discusses history and wants us to think about the power and knowledge of history, but also includes issues of race, government, cultural conflict/hegemony, faith/religion, and morality.
7) His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman) – Clearly focuses on religion/faith, morality, and related issues, but there are also discussions of sentience, learning, and other important features as well.
8) The Eternal Champion (Michael Moorcock) – Including Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, Von Bek, etc. the series discusses and asks us to think about the nature of reality, morality, race (especially with Elric), relationships (especially with Elric and Dorian Hawkmoon), history (especially with Von Bek), and scores of other issues. One of the major “changes” in the genre being the shift from a good-evil dichotomy to law-chaos, with law typically being seen as good, but both law and chaos alone being negative until they exist in balance.
As I’ve done in my classroom, I challenge readers to go back to these series/books and re-read them with one or more of these issues in mind. I think the results will be enlightening. For instance, I have used Rowling’s books (one per semester) in a course that focuses on discussions of race in literature. Initially, the students are invariably confused as to why she is on the reading list (and the handful who know of Pratchett are equally confused about why he is there with her). However, about a third of the way through the book—I’ve used Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban so far—the light in the attic clicks on, revelation occurs, and many of them rush off to re-read the other books in the series with serious issues in mind.