Saturday, January 22, 2005

Fantasy and SF: Dividing Lines (1) Eleanor Cameron, Time and Mr.Bass (a Mushroom Planet Book), Boston/Toronto,Little, Brown and Company, 1967.

Bear in mind when reading this quick post that I'm currently writing another book as well about the ways in which fantasy is constructed, and that in the process I might change my mind about some of the following completely.

One of the issues that keeps cropping up in the children's sf I'm reading is the issue of education and learning--systems of the two specifically. I've got this tagged as something to explore later, but I'm beginning to wonder if the ubiquity of this theme is not just about children's literature but about the fantasy/sf divide which is a constant issue for critics. It ties into my arguments with City of Ember.

I've decided to categorise Eleanor Cameron's , Time and Mr.Bass as fantasy, even though there is a voyage to a planet. I'd already decided I wasn't thrilled with it: the real adventure belongs to the adult Mr. Tycho’s and the boys (Chuck and David) simply accompany him, and they don’t do even that in the bone/treasure hunt at the end. This in itself rings “fantasy” in my mind because this kind of construction where the protagonist takes part in an older person's quest is quite common to fantasy: Frodo and Aragorn for example. But the real divider for me is how the treasure hunt is solved.

Mr. Tycho's ancestor went missing many generations ago. The missing scroll might tell where he is. In the book. the scroll is discovered, a translation found, and the scroll tells us everything that happened to him. All of this is found knowledge, None of it is, to use an old fashioned phrase, worked out from first principles. If you read the book carefully you'll see that for Chuck and David this is also true of the technological and interplanetary aspects of the book, they are all handed to them on a plate. And in none of these moments does anyone question that they must be true and accurate and perfect (and of course they always are. In the (still to be revised) chapter I have written on Quest fantasies, I've called this (stealing from John Clute here) the Club story.

Going back to the beginning, here is a thought: knowledge in fantasy is fixed, and immutable, It doesn’t change, it can only be lost and refound which is what we saw in City of Ember (I promise to stop talking about this book soon). The idea of “making” knowledge in the sense of finding out new things about the universe is largely unthought of. In science fiction, knowledge is precisely about the working out, the puzzle (hence the long recognized tendency of sf readers to chose mysteries as their “second genre”) and frequently the making of new knowledge to help in new situations At the conclusion of Ben Bova’s
End of Exile
this is precisely what happens as Linc secedes his place as leader to Stav, the farmer, who as he points out, has the right skills and mindset for a pioneer colony.

This is also why we can end up arguing about the status of some books: fantasies which use the concept of "made" knowledge (K. J. Parker's The Colours in the Steel for example, end up feeling like sf. Science fiction novels which end up with someone having a dream and on the basis of this dream dispesnsing with all their carefully acquired evidence, as in Robert Charles Wilson's Blind Lake end up feeling like fantasy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such fantastic sci-fi vs fantasy twaddle meant nothing to me when, in fourth grade, I discovered "The Mushroom Planet" books in my elementary school library. I consider them the first science-fiction I ever read. As far as the fourth grade me was concerned, there were rockets and other planets and so they're science fiction. I loved it, and they started me out on a lifetime journey of reading (and writing) science fiction. I haven't read one since fourth grade, but why would I?

I don't like mysteries, either.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Farah said...

Ah, a salutary reminder to me not to impose my own likes on others [g].

4:15 AM  

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