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.