Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's Winter Break, and I'm working on my syllabus for my upcoming Short Story: Speculative Fiction course. The class I taught this past semester was incredibly successful, but I wasn't happy with the textbook and I just like to change things up so I'm always learning new things as I'm teaching.

My question this week is: what does fantasy literature offer us? Why do we read it? What big questions does it ask (or answer) for us?

I'm a little frustrated with this question, because I can't hit on any answers that I am really sold on. Last semester I taught that fantasy looks backwards, to our human past, while science fiction looks forwards, towards the future. I still think this is, in essence, true. Much fantasy literature written in English deals with mythology such as the creation myth, the nature of humanity, the fall of humanity from a blissful state into chaos, an epic battle between good and evil. Quest stories deal with coming-of-age issues; princess/prince stories treat issues of gender roles; stories about magic discuss issues of power and responsibility.

Even though I can point to and name these things, however, I am still frustrated that fantasy doesn't categorize itself as neatly as sci-fi. Sci-fi literature deals with concrete social issues: race relations, the impetus to conquer and colonize, different sexualities, the relationship between progress and morality, technology and human values. Most fantasy stories could be shoehorned into one of these categories or another, but I want distinctions that arise naturally from the stories themselves.

Maybe I'm too theme/issue-oriented in the way I teach. Maybe I should stop looking for distinctions between fantasy and science fiction, and just teach it all mixed up together. Maybe, since it's a literature class, I should categorize the stories based on literary techniques I want to discuss, rather than topics and themes.



Катя said...

Fantasy looks back??!?!?!?! Fantasy looks inward to myth. I don't think of myth and folktale as previous, I think of them as ever with us. We keep recycling the characters and patterns with new names and settings over and over again because they speak to us in a powerful way. They allow us to explore alternative answers to the problems of our day in a liminal "green space."

See Roberta Krueger on romance as a discursive space in "Questions of Geneder in Old French Romance" in the Cambridge companion to Medieveal Romance, and replace the word 'romance' with 'fantasy.' (Yes, I'm arguing that romance was the fantasy literature of its day, or the corollary that fantasy is the inheritance of romance.)
See also the Introduction to Jack Zipes's _Why Fairy Tales Stick_ on the ever-with-us-ness of myth and folk tale.
For a super psychological reading, check out Bruno Bettelheim on _The Uses of Enchantment_.

Is there really such a sharp divide between F&SF? Fantasy leans toward magic and the supernatural where science fictions leans toward the technical and the superscientific. George Lucas engaged in intentional myth making with the original Star Wars trilogy (you should be able to google the interview with him).

While science fiction tends to engage our issues in a recognizable way, fantasy tends to sublimate them.

You can have the soapbox back now. kthnx

Wee Katie said...

Ooh, I like that. "While Science Fiction tends to engage our issues in a recognizable way, fantasy tends to sublimate them." Great.

I've read those essay you're discussing; I have a whole class period introducing the kids to medieval romance. And no, I obviously don't think f/sf are that easily distinguished. That's what's making this difficult--how to create "learning units" in a class where everything is a mishmash. It's frustrating, tantalizing, challenging. I love it and I hate it.

I still maintain fantasy (IN GENERAL) looks to a mythic past while science fiction (IN GENERAL) looks forward to a utopian/distopian future.

Wee Katie said...

(pressed enter too soon)

Because, IN GENERAL, I think even though myths and archetypes are recycled, they are still a way of trying to understand the nature of things. How was the world made? Why are women different than men? Why are humans different than animals? Why is there suffering? These things already exist, have existed for a long time, and the myths, recycled and retold, are different ways of understanding how they came to be, which is in the past. Science fiction looks towards potential, what can be but is not (yet). Again, all statements modified with the hugely capitalized, triple-underscored IN GENERAL.

Катя said...

I see what you're saying, but I think they are recycled and retold in order to apply them to the now. Myths are certainly origin or explanation stories, but once they become folktale / fairytale / fantasy, they are applied to the now and the future.
Zipes has another book whose intro might speak to this "Fairytale as Myth, Myth as Fairytale." All my Most Favored Critical Texts are in Lafayette, and I'm in Michigan, or I'd pull some quotes for you to ponder.
I'm enjoying the discussion. Thanks!

Катя said...

I thought of something else. I think fantasy is more inclined toward the happy ending, with everyone all happily married, than science fiction is, but I can't coherently argue why. It's been so long since I've done any sci-fi reading.

So, what are the texts in the syllabus?

Wee Katie said...

I will post my reading list on my blog when I'm finished with it. Most readings are from Heather Masri's Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts, and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2008, with some episodes of Buffy, Star Trek, and some online readings where they were too wonderful to pass up (like China Mieville's "Familiar," or Susanna Clarke's "Ladies of Grace Adieu," or Stephen King's "The Raft").