Science fiction started out as a niche interest for a few eccentrics. So did Tolkienesque high fantasy, though with a different group of devotees. Fans had their conventions, their own slang, almost their own culture. They had that bracing sense of loving something that most people—English teachers, for example—didn’t understand.
No more. Today, fantasy and science fiction (let’s call them F&SF) have gone mainstream. Half the movies and books these days have fantastic elements. These stories may not “feel like” F&SF, but the trans-normal elements have crept slowly into popular culture. Amy Wallace recently remarked in Wired: “And now that movies are dominated by space and superheroes, television by dragons and zombies, books by plagues and ghosts, science fiction isn’t a backwater anymore. It’s mainstream.” (Nov. 2015 issue, p. 97)
To the dedicated SF fan of years gone by, it’s a little disconcerting. We wanted to get other people interested in what we loved, of course. But we didn’t expect this much success.
As to which variants are woven into mainstream books and movies, science fiction or fantasy, it isn’t always easy to say. Harry Potter is fantasy, obviously; it’s got wizards. The Martian is SF, and “hard science fiction” at that. It has space travel, and the science rates very high on what TV Tropes calls the “Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness.”
But what do we make of Groundhog Day? The fantastic premise that sets the story going has no explanation, whether science-fictional (like the particle accelerator in the similar TV movie 12:01), or fantasy-like (as with the Chinese fortune cookie in Freaky Friday). It’s just there. The one thing we can say for sure is that Groundhog Day has something going for it that we don’t find in slice-of-life mainstream literature.
Even geeky main characters are in fashion, from Chuck to The Big Bang Theory. That’s something we 20th-century geeks never expected .
What happens, then, when F&SF are added to the mix? What do these literatures of the fantastic have to offer, over and above the plot and character and background elements we already love in a purely mundane Brooklyn or Titanic? There’s a lot we can (and will) say about this, but a few things leap out.
Science fiction trains us in recognizing that the future will be different. It doesn’t predict: old-time SF oriduced some strikingly accurate foretellings, but just as many complete misses. But the very variety of imagined futures shows the wide range of possibilities before us.
A science fiction reader naturally thinks in terms of change: in society, in technology, in markets, in manners. A people that’s used to both Star Trek and The Hunger Games will be a little more prepared for a future that’s unlike today, whether or not it looks like either of those two worlds.
This ought to be a reason for hope. The future can be better than today. Of course it can also be worse. Yet the realization that things can be otherwise should galvanize us, wean us away from fatalism and resignation.
But very often, that’s not what we’re getting. Today’s visions of what’s to come seem more like excuses for despair than exercises in hope. Downbeat futures are rampant. Teen dystopias saturate the market. And the grown-ups aren’t doing so well either – ask any character in Game of Thrones.
Even universes that used to be more optimistic get overhauled with less liveliness and more gloom. Compare the J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek with the Roddenberry original. Writers seem compelled to succumb to that scourge of our times, the “gritty reboot.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. We do see tales that evoke a more balanced picture of the world. We can avoid the grimdark pit without falling off the other side into a blind Pollyanna optimism. And we can have fun doing it.
Imaginative stories help us explore the whole range of possibilities – good, bad, and indifferent. The open-endedness of science fiction and fantasy may be their greatest charm.
So let’s kick around some of the cool things about stories and storytelling, especially in the fantastic mode; some favorite (or unfavorite) books and movies and music; even some of the deeper roots out of which these stories grow. It’ll be an adventure!