Fantasy and Politics: A Criticism

by Thomas Manuel

Image001In both academia and in the minds of the general reading public, there seems to be a hierarchy when it comes to fiction. ‘Literary' fiction is (infuriatingly) deemed to be more noteworthy than genre fiction, for example. Similarly, within the supercategory of genre fiction, there are some subtle, mystifying hierarchies. Most readers identify genres as sets of tropes, archetypes and milieus and know they're employing purely subjective preferences when picking one set over another. But at the hands of many literary theorists, thought leaders and my mother, obscure aesthetic principles are deployed to bolster these hierarchies – such as the claim that science fiction is somehow more redeemable than fantasy fiction. This has gotten my one-horned, fire-breathing goat.

Dragons and faster-than-light travel

Science fiction possesses the heady connotations of science-ness, extrapolative thought experiments and futurism. Fantasy, on the other hand, seems to lack any logical rules whatsoever and is thus relegated to the dustbin of escapism. Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone, opened one of the show's episodes with the claim that science fiction was the improbable made possible and fantasy was the impossible made probable. While framing the dichotomy as the improbable versus the impossible is cool, it's also completely wrong. As China Miéville once wrote, "a certain generic common-sense… has allowed generations of readers and writers to treat… faster-than-light drives as science-fictional in a way that dragons are not, despite repeated assurances from the great majority of physicists that the former are no less impossible than the latter."[i] Science fiction's embrace of the language of science and technology makes it seem particularly rational and forward-thinking but on closer inspection, exceeding the claims of science – being irrational – is one of the key features of the genre. And that's okay.

If this fact has to be elided over at all in the popular discourse, it's because the benevolent dictatorship of our Silicon Valley saviours depends to a certain extent on the blurring between the idea of science and technology – that iPhones somehow take us closer to Mars. The reputation of technology as the only thing that still works in a nonsensical world that's choking on itself is propped up by a lot of questionable assumptions. A similar situation exists with the industry of futurism. These institutions never seem to like science fiction for the complex philosophical and moral questions it raises about the world as it exists today. How strange.

While space is cool, it's the philosophical and moral weight of science fiction that makes it such an affecting experience as a child. We definitely come for the robots but we stay for the humanity.

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