Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Failure of Fantasy Revisited

Castle Of Sin by Frank Frazetta
Some time ago, I wrote an essay surrounding the literary tradition of fantasy. Upon rereading that essay, I wish now to recant many of what now seem parochial and limited opinions of that genre.

(I will, however, reproduce the one worthwhile attribute of that essay, a painting by the late and great Frank Frazetta, depicting some spectacularly well-muscled feminine pulchritude).

My greatest crime against fantasy was the contention that science fiction was socially relevant, that fantasy, as only an escapist vehicle depicting simpler times, or, as I said a "jerk-off fantasy about medieval romanticism.

I regret that remark. There are forms of fantasy, I believe now called "urban" or "modern" that are devoted to exploring social themes, and in some ways not permissible to science fiction (or at least the "hard" variety).

What changed my mind? I think the course correction was two-fold. The first, though only a trigger, was picking up the Vernor Vinge's new book "Children of the Sky" from the library. The book itself, so far engaging, was not the real impetus, but a trigger, in that it made me go back and reread Vinge's 1993 essay on the Singularity. This essay was intended as informed speculation, though I think Vinge still believes that a technological leap towards a transcendent superhumanity still lies in our future. As to whether that future is all happily-ever-aftering, or something more less than perfect, the point is that future becomes opaque. All conjecture becomes pointless. All bets are off.

But within the context of literature, of world-building, Vinge, I think, rather than setting up a barricade, threw down a gauntlet.

"All of your ideas about the future, the posthuman or superhuman future, are based upon historical trends", Vinge seems to say,"and thus, your futures of galactic exploration utilizing the metaphor of the age of sail, or of a machine intelligence using cogs and steam are as ludicrous as they sound. Imagine better! Make it fucking awesome! Make it... psychedelic!"

In other words, stories set for the far, far future, which typically allowed for more phantasmic elements, were now allowed for advanced technologies.

Which brings the second vector component of my course correction, Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law:
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
I interpret Clarke's statement in two ways, or rather, suspect he interpreted it in two ways. The first being that in terms of future predictions, one can afford to be a little crazy, provided that there is some method of grounding the miraculous technology with in the known laws of physics. (And my take there is, for example, it's probably a good thing, good in scare quotes, that humanity can build H-bombs, in that it means we have a pretty good handle on the known laws of physics. I have covered some of the physical limitations that technology must recognize, but these limits in no way preclude some pretty amazingly magical shit in our speculative future). 

The second being that, in that clever and classic British no-nonsense pragmatism, Clarke suggests there's a logical explanation behind all the hocus-pocus, and we are not savages or scared little children to be frightened of ghosties and goblins and things that bump in the night. In other words, regardless of the usual sense of awe and wonder that the so-called supernatural evokes in us, it is no less (or does not compare to) the awe and wonder of the natural world. In other words, the actual explanation, prosaic to some, actually turns out to be even more bizarre and spectacular than the mystical mumbo-jumbo bullshit.

What's my point here? I guess it's that, Vinge's literary notions of the Singularity, rather than limit the number and kind of stories to tell, actually liberates us into a whole new realm of fantasy.

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