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Question of the Week: Fantasy and Science Fiction

by Susan Henderson on December 4, 2006

The problem with people who don’t cry very often is that when they do cry, there’s maybe a decade’s worth of sorrow backed up, and they can’t even stop crying when the killer headache sets in. And then they can’t leave the house because their eyes are practically swollen shut and they don’t want even one person to ask them what’s wrong because they won’t tell. This is my way of saying, I’m not having a great day.

Oh, right. The question of the week. Here it is . . .

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What’s your definition of the Fantasy/Sci-Fi genre, and who are your favorite writers?

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Wednesday, LitPark will host a roundtable discussion between Sci-Fi humorists, including an editor/publisher, some writers, and a couple of guys you’ll know from their films. I think it’s especially important for those of us who don’t often read Sci-Fi to listen in, so we can stop the practice of locking ourselves into unnecessary camps and outdated opinions. Okay? So, Wednesday, join the conversation – it should be a good one and a funny one!

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

amy December 4, 2006 at 11:52 am

Oh Susan — what a sad coincidence that I was crying too when I read that paragraph, thanks to the little nonsense I blogged about today.

I hope things turn around for both of us.

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PD Smith December 4, 2006 at 1:23 pm

Hope the sun comes out for you at some point today, Susan!

I’ve just finished reading “Riddley Walker” by Russell Hoban. I guess some people would file that under “fantasy / SF”, but for me it was simply one of the best books (in any genre) that I had read for a long time. And very relevant, given that today in the UK our government is considering renewing its nuclear weapons. (I did a blog about it on MySpace if anyone’s interested…!)

Margaret Atwood calls her novels about the future ‘speculative fiction’ presumably to try to separate her writing from SF. It’s a real pity science fiction has such a bad name among literary writers. As in any genre, there is some bad work (ok, very bad work) but there is also some superb writing. Think of Huxley, Wells, Vonnegut…

Personally, I’m fascinated by good writing that seeks to explore the impact of science on our lives, either set in the present or the future. Does it need a label? I don’t think so.

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Robin Slick December 4, 2006 at 1:34 pm

Ugh, and there’s a full moon – I had a teary eyed night, too…I suspect it has a lot to do with holiday pressures and not finishing and getting our respective novels out and about yet, but I am probably just transferring my misery to you.

In answer to your question, I’ve totally stepped out of the box and become a huge science fiction geek. I started reading stuff by the late Robert Sheckley, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison…and of course you know who precipitated all of this…(does the insert photo thing work here or do you maintain strict control of that, too, Susan? Btw, I am now on board with you not having an edit button for comments. It’s much too entertaining as is.)

Back to your original question…

While it’s not going to turn me into a sci fi writer, reading it is causing me to think a bit differently and take more walks on the wild side in my own thought process when I write. Alice Hoffman gets away with mixing literary with sort of sci fi and chick lit, don’t you think? Ooh boy does she get away with it. Not many people can pull it off…in fact, I can’t think of anyone. Alice is brilliant though she has some pretty awful imitators.

Anyway, can’t wait to see who you have on board on Wednesday.

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Aimee December 4, 2006 at 2:46 pm

As a younger person I was always against Science Fiction and Fantasy. I thought only boys who wore floods and tripped over their own feet read the stuff. But my older brother gave me a copy of A Wrinkle in Time for Christmas when I was ten and I loved it. I also loved The Narnia series. But still, my opinion remained.

In a college Philosophy course I had to read Ray Bradbury and once again I loved it.

I guess my def. is a story in a world that is different from our own, be it completely fictional or an opinion of the future. Usually the world is a vehicle to teach a lesson. The simple Good vs. Evil in Star Wars to the scary things that could happen to women in a Handmaid’s Tale, all hypothetical lessons that needed to be in a fictional world to show what could happen in our own.

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Kevin Noel Olson December 4, 2006 at 3:06 pm

As a youth, I was drawn to works in both the Sci Fi and Fantasy fields. Ordinarily, these genres are easy to define. Sci Fi ordinarily deals with an extrapolation, no matter how extreme, of existing technologies and races of creatures distant and alien even when they come from inside the Earth’s core (Journey to the Center of the Earth). Sci Fi runs on the fringes of what is known and remains within those parameters to suggest what might be possible. Fantasy suggests sword (Conan) and sorcery (Harry Potter). It sometimes occurs in current times(Witches of Eastwick) in forgotten pasts (Elric) or on different, magical worlds altogether (Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle). Some literature blends the two quite nicely, such as C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy or Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet series.

The juvenile book I just published, Eerey Tocsin in the Cryptoid Zoo, is really Science Fiction since it deals with cryptozoological creatures and no ‘magic’ aside from hypnotism and sleight-of-hand. Despite this, people still like to classify it as Fantasy, something I hand not considered until people started to say as much. Now, I see how blurred the line between Fantasy and Sci Fi can be.

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Lance Reynald December 4, 2006 at 3:22 pm

I’m really nowhere on scifi/fantasy, though Gaiman does some neat stuff…

on far more important topics; I’mm sending big hugs and all my best thoughts your way!!

though it never helps when you’re in it I do try to remember this one rule … “it’s all, always, temporary.”

xoxo-L.

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Jordan December 4, 2006 at 3:33 pm

What fantastic timing you have, Sue! Psychic thing, you.

I’m actually writing an article for Writer’s Digest on a hybrid breed of fiction that is loosely described as “fantastic” literary fic and includes in its ranks the likes of Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, etc. This is lit-fic that employs elements of fantasy and sci-fi but is still qualified as lit fic. In fact, If you are a writer of this, an editor who has bought these books, or an agent who reps it, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to email me: jordansmuse(@) gmail(dot) com.

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Juliet December 4, 2006 at 4:09 pm

I am not so much about the Sci-Fi/Fantasy.

I hope you let yourself cry it all out, and then, when the crying is done, fill the empty places with something gentle and strengthening.

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Carolyn Burns Bass December 4, 2006 at 6:01 pm

The land was happy when seasonal showers fed its green meadows and leafy forests. So happy it never noticed when the seasonal showers were lighter. It had enough moisture stored deep inside to satisfy its hungry roots. As the showers became fewer, the land adapted with smaller blossoms, its colors less vivid and slow to flourish. But still it grew. After a few seasons the showers stopped all together. The land’s tongue was crusty and parched, cracking for want of moisture, but it adapted with sparse, heady growth. One day the drought broke and the showers came in torrents of tears, flooding and feeding the thirsty land. So subtle was the drought that the land never realized its need.

Blessings to you, Susan, dear land of tears and sorrow. Tomorrow your beautiful blossoms will be vivid and your meadows lush and green.

My beloved stepdad was a devoted reader of Analog, a sci-fi/fantasy monthly. I was a compulsive reader. If I found myself without a good book, I would sneak back issues of Analog to read in secret. For some reason, I was embarrassed to be thought of as “one of those.” My exposure to sci-fi/fantasy in Analog allowed me to explore of the greats, Robert Heinlein (I grok to this day), Ray Bradbury, Andre Norton, Ursula K le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and Terry Brooks (humor king of the genre).

I am still a compulsive reader and don’t feel the need to join a support group to break the habit. I prefer a buffet of good literature to a single serving of the same dish with different names.

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Susan Henderson December 4, 2006 at 6:45 pm

Well. Don’t kids have a way of pulling you out of your own concerns? Green-Hand is home with me now with a headache. Since he had a concussion two weeks ago, he’s going to see the doctor. For now, he is upstairs with pesto pasta, pomegranites (that was probably a poor choice – it looks like someone was murdered on his bed), Asterix, and a little bell, which he rings now and then so I can bring him things.

I’ll do a better job of announcing this later in the week, but for now I’ll be quick and cheap. The lovely Jason Boog from The Publishing Spot interviewed me last week, and today is the first of five bite-size installments. I think today is called, “The world doesn’t need more blogs,” or some such quote from the interview. Anyway, he’s here, and I like him:

http://www.thepublishingspot.com/2006/12/welcome_to_the_first_installme.html

Thank you for all the sweet notes here and in my mailbox. You guys are dear and I appreciate you in ways you can’t possibly know.

Okay, carry on with the Fantasy/Sci-Fi comments. I’ll be linking everyone on Friday who answers the Question of the Week. I love the discussion so far.

Ooh, there’s the bell . . .

xo

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LaurenBaratz-Logsted December 4, 2006 at 7:41 pm

Well, the world needs your blog, Sue. And I hope life shines on you soon. It’s been crapping on me, so maybe the wind is shifting?

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Ric Marion December 4, 2006 at 8:04 pm

Glad you’re feeling better.
Sci-fi fantasy was never something I consciously picked up. Yet, hours spent roaming Middle Earth, or keening the sublteties of Bradbury, are amongst my richest reading memories.
Definition? Anything that takes you from this world into a place not attainable in your present form.
I might add that I am a big Harry Potter fan – which came in handy in fighting the myopic local church folk who tried to ban it from our public school.
Ric
http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/RicMarion/

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Aurelio December 4, 2006 at 8:37 pm

I haven’t read much scifi either and now I write it – I’ve got some nerve, huh? Although, to be truthful, I’d describe what I write as “speculative satire” (apologies to Atwood, etal.)

I have read and enjoyed a lot C.S. Lewis, both the Narnia books and his theological writings. And some Bradbury.

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Jim December 4, 2006 at 9:05 pm

Sci-fi/fantasy intimidates me, scares and confuses me. So I don’t try to write it.

You’d think you could make anything up, or almost anything, because it doesn’t have to conform to the world we know. In fact, it can’t conform.

(Okay, that’s not true, I know, the part about making anything up.)

And so many people write it– or try– especially adolescents, the young and adventurous with wildness in their veins. They invent death angels, utopias, saddle time warps, and five-dimensional spells.

So which of it is good and worthy? How does the good stuff differ from the average, or worse?

It’s a foreign land, a foreign language to me, another continent at least. Another galaxy, even if the landscape is Kansas.

Me? I’m stuck where I am, trying to mimic the heart and the last fine detail of reality where I live every day when I write.

Those other guys, the sci-fi fantasy geeks, I’ll have to say, do look like they’re having fun, though, with those other-world fantasies, those seeming gibberish rules.

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Sarah Roundell December 4, 2006 at 9:06 pm

I rarely think about it, but now that it’s come up I’m actually quite a big fan of Sci-Fi and Fantasy writing. The things people imagine up years before they are invented and the ways they imagine life on Earth or somewhere else in the universe to be always fascinate me. I have a soft spot for writers like Huxley, Orwell, Wells, and Douglas Adams when it comes to this genre.
I do hope your day brightens with each passing moment, Susan. We love you!

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Gail Siegel December 4, 2006 at 9:41 pm

I’m so sorry for whatever is causing you pain. I hope this ill wind blows by quickly.

When I was young I was a big Vonnegut fan, and have enjoyed Italo Calvino. Read Dune at some point, never quite finished Stranger in a Strange Land but remembered a passage from Heinlein about kissing that stayed with me a long time (something about the alien’s attentiveness). There was an old sci-fi book I read that presaged Star Trek’s ‘beaming’ with ‘januting’ (British maybe). Can’t remember the title. I thoroughly admire Philip Dick’s imagination but not his prose. Not at all. I haven’t read sci-fi in years. Can’t say I miss it, but it filled the bill at a certain point.

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Ronlyn Domingue December 4, 2006 at 10:18 pm

The term “speculative fiction” works because its boundaries are elastic and includes a wide variety of books. (Industry marketing has done its part to taint and marginalize the genres of sci-fi/fantasy.) Who knows what we’ll be calling these works in a decade or more, anyway….

Favorite authors include Madeline L’Engle and Margaret Atwood.

May those tears dry soon, Susan.

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Scott R December 4, 2006 at 11:30 pm

My definition of science fiction… fiction involving the effects of technology or science on society, usually some form of futurism. Fantasy, the inverse — a fictional environment involving magic and mythic tropes.

Favorite authors in science fiction: Bruce Sterling, Robert Heinlein, and Charles Stross. Fantasy: Homer.

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*Joe* December 5, 2006 at 6:48 am

Shouldn’t that picture be captioned “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?” as opposed to framed? OK, I won’t spoil your surprise if I’ve guessed right. Watch, I’ll have egg on my face when you walk in on Wednesday towing Steven Spielberg at the end of a rope.

I get a kick seeing how people feel a need to justify or excuse reading Science Fiction or Fantasy. It’s like watching a contortionist stuff himself assbackwards into a plexi-glass box. Very entertaining. It must be painful.

Defining Science Fiction is a tough one. Labels, labels, labels. I guess it helps you authors sell your stuff. Me, I’ve never liked the term “Speculative Fiction” (it was actually Heinlein who coined it). It just comes across all hoity-toity like calling a store a “shoppe”. Speculative fiction as opposed to what, Proven Fiction? I read Science Fiction: Classic Science Fiction, Pulp SF, Alternate History, Time Travel, Social Fiction, Alien Invasion, Space Operas, Dystopian Fiction, Cyber Punk, Biopunk, Steam Punk, New Wave, Retro SF…. and so on. I don’t know of a definition that would encompass all of that. It’s like pornography, I know it when I see it. Woo hoo! I’d just say that good SF or F is true to it’s own internal logic – regardless of how far from familiar territory it takes you.

My non-exhaustive list of authors might include – In Sci-Fi: Frank Herbert, Dan Simmons, David Brin, Vernor Vinge, John Varley, James Tiptree, Jr., Joe Haldeman, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, HG Wells, Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick, Samuel R. Delany, Arthur C. Clarke, Alfred Bester, Walter M Miller, Jack Vance & Ray Bradbury.

In Fantasy: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Ursula K. LeGuin (she fits in to both SF & F) Guy Gavriel Kay, T. H. White, China Mieville, George RR Martin, Stephen R. Donaldson, Tad Williams, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Roger Zelazny and of course William Shakespeare though he did cross over into other genres.

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Simon Haynes December 5, 2006 at 8:54 am

Sorry to hear you had a rotten day, and I hope things get better quickly.

As to the question: spaceships, swords ‘n’ sorcery, magic … it’s easy to define the core of SF & Fantasy, but when you move to the edges things start to get slippery. Because the SF/Fantasy genre is seen as juvenile rubbish in many quarters you even get mainstream authors loudly proclaiming to anyone who’ll listen that their borderline SF novel is in NO WAY science fiction. There’s enough prejudice that Ansible still has a regular segment called ‘As others see us’ in their monthly newsletter, wherein they quote people saying the most breathtakingly arrogant things about the genre and those unfortunate enough to be writing in it. The Ansible newsletter has been running since 1979.

By the way, SF/Humour is my genre so I’ll certainly be looking out for the round table.

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Aurelio December 5, 2006 at 3:44 pm

Hey Susan, I was thinking that if Green-Hand was eating pomegranites, then he must now have red and green hands – just in time for the holidays!

Clever little fellow.

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teresa December 5, 2006 at 10:19 pm

It’s not answering your topic, but for me in my used bookstore,the best selling genre in the joint is sci-fi/fantasy. The readers are loyal and they buy in bulk. The covers on the books are striking looking and people tell us they like the way they look on their bookshelves. People also tell us they enjoy the various series, because they don’t want to let go of the characters or the worlds they inhabit. And the readers will frequently cross over into reading books about myths and legends as well. And when they resell the books back to us, it’s never just one or two titles, it is usually several boxfulls for some reason. In honour of our readers we painted silver spaceships and planets on the floor in Sci-fi!! And a cut out of Captain Kirk welcomes all and sundry!–teresa

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Noria December 5, 2006 at 10:21 pm

Some favorites in the speculative/fantastic genre: Angela Carter, PK Dick, Philip Pullman, Kelly Link, Karen Joy Fowler.

It’s funny — before I actually became a writer (does one become a writer, or are we born that way?) I assumed that I’d write speculative stuff — that was what I liked to read, and I was brought up on fairy tales and myths. Turns out I’m more of a realist. Go figure. But lately that’s changing, and the world in my fiction is becoming much more plastic and pliable.

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girlgrey December 6, 2006 at 3:10 am

it had to have been the moon. my eyes are still puffy.

as for scifi, bradbury is my favorite and a god (he even writes poetry!), though a friend recently introduced me to robert anton wilson. i’ll always consider madeliene l’engle a seminal influence in my life, as well, though maybe not everyone considers her to be scifi enough. i guess maybe i like old school scifi, and haven’t tried any new for lack of good directions and a sour taste from dabbling in shortstory collections of my middle school’s library.

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Julie Ann Shapiro December 6, 2006 at 3:52 am

Susan,
I’m you’re less sad than when you first posted. What is the crying week? I’ve been on again off again tears. I know I should be happy that my novel, One Shoe Diaries is going to be serialized in 07 and I am. It’s just I always dreamed it would be in print. This month my second novel, Three Drop Pennies has been rejected twice. But alas I can’t be sad. I have my third novel to finish and the fun of the journey.

One of my favorite sci-fi writers is Ray Bradbury. I’ve read his short collections over and over and still think fondly about some of the stories that touched me five, maybe ten years ago. As a kid I loved the Narnian Chronicles and a Wrinkle In Time.

I don’t read much science fiction now, but I do love Magic Realism and stories with ghosts where the paranormal is on the fringes, not in a horror sense but in the shadows of normal living. Some of my favorites are House of Sprits, 100 Years of Solitude and Kafka on the Shore.

Julie

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Kasper December 6, 2006 at 3:12 pm

Aurelio’s comments on the strategies and treacheries of Hollywood are keen here. He ought to know. I have enjoyed the privilege of holding some sheets of his animated character designs in my hands and asking questions about how he got these little genius scribbles past the H-Wood hardheads.

All the comments are neat here– about a genre in which I have always flourished and swum about since I was thirteen.

Maybe part of enjoying sf and the humor attendant therein requires remaining 13 in your head? ( or maybe remaining 7?).

Thanks writers, and Susan, the meta-impresario and cosmic fondness we all thank.

Kasper

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Susan Henderson December 6, 2006 at 10:09 pm

Hey everyone, I’ve been reading along in the comments section, and everyone here will be in the Weekly Wrap. I’m finally back on track with my novel after my emotional meltdown, and then Green Hand’s post concussion headaches (he’s excused from gym for TWO months). Thanks to all of you who sent me nutty things to cheer me up, including the loaded pistol, the photo of my goalie and Lemmy giving me the finger, and some great shoulders to cry on.

Friday I’ll also post the fabulous Publishing Spot interview series Jason Boog did with me.

Okay, sorry for the rambling. Carry on. xo

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