Thursday, February 22, 2007

"The Glove of Power" vs. "Power Glove"

This semester, I have my dream job: I get to read SF books, and then get together with other people and talk about them, and get paid for it. Oh, there are a couple things I'd change about this job if I could: 1) I'd make it permanent and 2) I'd pay myself a lot more. But really, to be paid at all for doing something you love and would do anyway...who can beat that?

One of the things we've discussed is, what is the difference between SF and fantasy literature? There are a lot of definitions floating around there proposed by critics who spend their time doing things like defining genres and getting paid for it. I guess that's their dream job. Or at least I suppose it pays the bills. But I have yet to read a definition that beats the distinction proposed by my OR friends: "When the title is 'The Glove of Power,' you know it's fantasy...when it's 'Power Glove,' it's SF."

As I child, I probably gravitated toward the fantasy end of the SF-fantasy spectrum. I read Narnia, of course, and L'Engle, and Lloyd Alexander's series, and Earthsea, McAffrey's Pern books, and a whole host of other things that were less worthy but equally enjoyable for a kid. I also read early Heinlein (Dad kept Stranger in a Strange Land out of my hands till high school) and later on Asimov. And as I got older I found myself gravitating more to SF. I still enjoy a good fantasy series, as long as the author has the sense enough to end the story well before it dies the death of a thousand wordy sequels. But it's SF that most often gets my mind going in the speculative directions I enjoy most.

I'm unsure why this is. It could perhaps simply be a personality thing, a quirk of temperament and preference. But it seems that fantasy, as genre, offers the same possibilities as a good SF story for exploring the matters that concern me most, both philosophical and socially critical. Perhaps the mode of exploration differs a bit; but in the creation of any alternate world, whether it is built on magical or technological systems of manipulating physical reality, there is the possibility of commentary on the sorry state of things as they are through the simple juxtaposition of the world of the text and the world of the reader. So why is it that I find this so much more often in SF than fantasy? Is fantasy inherently escapist? SF inherently realist?

While I'm at it, just for fun, here's a list of Heinlein novels that I read as a kid and still regularly re-read today, that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone who enjoys a good SF yarn. In all of these are direct and indirect commentary on social matters such as education, sexual taboo and norms, systemic economic injustice, racial oppression, politics, gender, and religion; in all, a sense of both the potential and depravity of human beings. (Yes, depravity: I used the Presby word. I wonder why that might be.) Most of these are not terribly philosophical, except perhaps for the first, which asks some direct questions about criteria for life, sentience, and humanity.
  1. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  2. Have Space Suit--Will Travel
  3. Sixth Column
  4. Citizen of the Galaxy
  5. Podkayne of Mars
  6. Tunnel in the Sky, Starship Troopers and Space Cadet

1 comment:

Brian said...

I've read The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress a couple of times. I should check out those others, too.