The OF Blog: Ice cream cone?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Ice cream cone?

From the recent CNN article on Arthur C. Clarke's last book, The Last Theorem, co-author and fellow "Golden Age" writer Frederik Pohl says something a bit asinine:

Pohl said the type of work he and Clarke did was different from much of what is written today. He said that rather than delving into difficult subjects like astronomy, math and physics, young writers sometimes turn to an easier route by writing fantasy.

"Science fiction is sometimes a little hard," Pohl said. "Fantasy is like eating an ice cream cone. You don't have to think a bit."

You don't have to think a bit...

While I could just make the simple "I'm rubber and you're glue" response about how apparently he wasn't thinking when he said this, I'm bored enough (and not sleepy enough, alas) to explore this a bit further. Depending on what you call that amorphous (non)entity known by some as "science fiction," the "science" part of the fiction isn't all that hard; you research, take notes, and you incorporate it into a fictional setting. After all, that's what led to those piles and piles of dreck being produced by the pulps in that so-called "Golden Age," no? After a cursory examination of many of the more hallowed texts (Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein), I found myself thinking the hardest part about their fiction was the "readability" of each; in many cases, the stories were rather dry, transparent, and outside of the presumed "novelty" of having Idea co-opt the more traditional place of honor accorded to characterization and prosery (and plot, if I must), the stories often had little to recommend themselves to me. While I had a SF/Fantasy-loving maternal grandmother who introduced me to Ray Bradbury, my general literary experience up until my mid-20s was decidedly in areas where the presumed strengths of such stories are downgraded and their apparent faults became magnified. Therefore, it's going to be quite difficult for me to avoid scoffing (scoff, scoff!) at Pohl's comments.

But to a degree, he is correct about some fantasies, especially of the high/heroic/epic varieties, since those are by their very natures formulaic and episodic. It doesn't take much to follow another's basic framework, but for those who dare to push a bit further and to take chances, it takes a helluva lot of thinking. I'm not referring to the ill-defined "worldbuilding" (a term which I've made it quite clear over the past 18 months that I dislike and think is used too often as a crutch when trying to analyze stories), but rather to how an author is going to structure his/her story. Some of the finest examples of storycrafting have taken place in the speculative/imaginative fantasy branch of literature and in many cases, authors have had to make radical departures from expected literary techniques in prose, setting, characterization, and plot sequencing (or non-sequencing in many cases). "Like an ice cream cone?" Um, yeah. Must be the reason why I like reading all of those "dark fantasy," "New Weird," or "New Wave" writers instead of the "Golden Age" people. Whatever.


Fish Monkey said...

Well, I do write fantasy mostly, but I am a scientist by day, and I would like to point out (in addition to your perfectly valid point) that much of what passes for 'hard' SF is not that scientifically accurate. Don't get me wrong, I love science fiction. But I also think that much of science fiction is to science is like clothes horse is to horses -- the similarities are superficial, and the purposes are quite divergent.

Larry said...

Would it be safe to use the comparison of say any of the CSI shows to an actual forensics laboratory? The form is there, but the mechanics are "off," from what I understand (not to mention the oft-ridiculous posturing on such shows) and sometimes, I get that sense from the "hard" SF, but I didn't really talk about it much because such SF tales never really have appealed to me.

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