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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Rachel Parsons

In reference to “Between Science Fiction and Fantasy,” in issue 197.


This is a response to your letter in the latest edition of BwS. And I hope you share my opinion that this should be shared with everyone.

It is true my Crucible of Pain is virtually indistinguishable from some kind of “high tech” device in a science fiction novel. This is due to one of my inspirers, Lester del Rey, who wrote an article (he honestly did — I can’t find it anymore) called “Stuff and Nonsense,” in which he concluded that space warps, hyperspace and the such were a lot like saying a spaceship was powered by black magic, for all their scientificity (Is that a word?).

And I once read a series where it takes place in an alternative universe where the Tudors (or is it the Stuarts) are still on the throne of England, and sorcery is being used by His Majesty’s Government. Only it is sorcery that is subject to laws.

When we are in a future world, or an alternative universe, we don’t know the technology, but we don’t know the technology of our world either. (How many readers of BwS really know how a microwave works?) A possible difference between fantasy and SF is that the world is more personalized, less lawlike. The gods can interfere, even if they don’t.

But then what is one to make of a Zelasny story where a man gets absorbed into a planetary computer, whose task is to terraform a planet. His ex-wife takes off her clothes, gets absorbed into nature on that planet, and fights back?

My favorite story along these lines is one I cannot remember the title of. It was in Analog and involved a dispute between a medieval king and a grand vizier. It seems that aliens (humans) had landed on their planet. The king was convinced they were magical beings, and the grand vizier was convinced that they simply had a technology that was too advanced, and thus seemed like magic. Well, using only high school chemistry, the “aliens” escape, convincing the king that magic is real.

So what is the difference between a golem and a robot, anyway?

Fantasy projects out our inner wishes, fears; thoughts. Uncontrollable lust becomes vampirism; the repression of the inner child becomes demonic; the “beast” must be tamed. Raoul, a character I have just invented, acts on every gross thought a man might have.

And of course what woman doesn’t want to (if she can get away with it) parade around nude, as the cynosure of male eyes? (Only kidding about this one, of course.)

Leaving you all with that visual,

Rachel Parsons

Copyright © 2006 by Rachel Parsons

Some years ago, a lady challenged the local dress code laws in court. She wanted to be able to mow her lawn topless, just like men. As I recall, she won her case. However, our town has never been flooded with tour buses seeking topless lawnmoweresses. In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever heard of the matter again. As I always say, nudity and clothing need each other.

You’re right: fantasy can let our otherwise repressed features hang out; writing — indeed, all literature — has a way of doing that. And speaking of clothing in a figurative sense, pardon my taking a tangent obvious to you, Rachel, but not to all: a character who is entirely vampiric, demonic or beastly is a pathological force of nature; multidimensional characters are a mixed bag. For example: a one-legged pirate who doesn’t hesitate to stab a crewmate in the back but is such an affable con man that we like him. Truly fascinating literature needs vampires, demons or beasts — and us, both.

Your point about microwave ovens is a good one. Tala Bar says much the same thing in her companion letter in this issue. I have no idea how a microwave works, I just push buttons. Likewise, how can the Moon-beings shoot pigeons all plucked, spiced, and roasted out of the sky for Cyrano’s benefit? Cyrano didn’t have a clue how their “pigeon rifle,” to coin a term, might work. And yet, some 355 years later, we now have a real-life equivalent in fast-food franchises.

In reality we can take a tour of a fast-food establishment — or just peer behind the counter — and see how it works. In science fiction we take for granted that the Moon-beings’ superlative kitchen gadget will work; but in fantasy we would have no way of knowing how these succulent fowl fall all roasted on our plate.

Was the pigeon-rifle fantasy then and science fiction now? No, science fiction in both cases, just like the Moon-beings’ portable tape or CD players. Likewise, it’s sufficient to imagine a device — maybe even a Crucible of Pain — that has a well-defined purpose. Wait around long enough and somebody just might build you one — or something close enough as to make no difference. Invention needs imagination more than the other way around.

As you say, fantasy is rooted in reality; that’s why we’re often moved to allegorize it and give it a meaning we can understand; otherwise the story will be incomprehensible. Fantasy and reality need each other.

Dr. Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog, a magazine of “science fiction and fact,” prefers stories in which science plays a key role. That approach can be both interesting and educational. But I think the pitfall is obvious: if the fiction is subordinated to fact, it may be no more interesting than yesterday’s newspaper.

And yet what room would Analog have for going to the Moon in a rowboat? Sheer fantasy — which, however, has its place: when Achab jumps ship from Noah’s ark, she brings a brash and refreshing breath of feminism to a fantastical and faintly ridiculous all-male Paradise that is an integral part of The Other World. What more classic example is there of the way in which science fiction and fantasy need each other.


Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb

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