One of the things that distinguishes science fiction and fantasy is the direction they look to for greatness. In SF, we expect things will be better and greater in the future than they are now. In fantasy, the great days are behind us.
Both F&SF recognize that things change over time. Empires rise and fall; discoveries are made and lost; human ability to control the environment expands or contracts. Both of them help counterbalance our mental inertia and remind us that things will not always be as they are now.
Our present era is particularly alert to changeability. “Disruption” is the watchword of today’s businesses, and Moore’s Law reminds us that technology can be expected to improve. But the two kinds of literature tend to look in opposite directions.
The Bright Future
Modern science fiction started out by anticipating scientific and technological advances. New inventions like the railroad and the telegraph suggested further developments like flight and advanced weaponry. This is so obvious that we might overlook the key assumption—that we will know more, and be able to do more, as time goes on.
The trend has a familiar resonance, after all, in our own experience. As individuals grow up, they learn more and become more able. Shouldn’t we expect society to do the same? Stories of wonderful inventions and daring discoveries were the meat and drink of early modern SF.
Of course, “more powerful” does not automatically mean “better.” But a future dystopia presented an extraordinary menace precisely because advanced technology or social change could allow a tyranny to expand its oppression. The two-way television sets of Nineteen Eighty-Four made it possible for a government to observe its citizens’ private lives at any time. Now that such surveillance is actually practical, we are grappling with the issues of privacy and security that Orwell’s novel raised hypothetically.
The notion of technological progress in SF was reinforced by the parallel of biological evolution. Primitive forms of life, from one-celled microorganisms to dinosaurs, develop into today’s dominant humans; the future may see further evolution into some superhuman being. While the idea of evolution by natural selection does not actually imply that later creatures are “better” than earlier ones—they are simply better adapted to recent conditions—it has been almost irresistible, in SF and elsewhere, to assume that later species are improvements on their predecessors. (The traditional way of fudging this issue is to refer to the later creatures as “higher” forms of life, which suggests “better” without quite saying so.)
The Past Glories
In classic high fantasy, on the other hand, the present day tends to be presented as a come-down from the great days of old. The Golden Age is in the past; we understand less, and can do less, than our predecessors.
The archetypal example, of course, is The Lord of the Rings. The War of the Ring (taking place in the “Third Age” of the world) is small potatoes by comparison to the immense conflicts of the First Age (depicted in The Silmarillion), no matter how cataclysmic it appears to those involved. The heroes of the First Age are of legendary stature; Aragorn modestly points out that he is not a hero on the same scale as his ancestors Elendil and Isildur. The most powerful weapons, such as Gandalf’s sword Glamdring, are handed down from an earlier era. No one in the Third Age, we gather, could craft such weapons. The downward trend even continues forward from the time of the story. The Elves are leaving Middle-earth, the Age of Men is coming, and we’re led to expect a gradually more mundane (if perhaps safer) world from which the colorful magic and variety of LotR are absent.
Robert Jordan’s immense fantasy series The Wheel of Time operates on the same pattern. The story is set in a world where the vast powers and knowledge of the Age of Legends, three thousand years before, are largely lost. The magic that remains is far less capable and much less well-understood than in ancient days. Relics left over from the Age of Legends, if one can discover how to use them, have powers vastly greater than anything contemporary characters can exercise on their own.
The earliest books in Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series take place in a world where the magic-wielding Deryni have been largely pushed into hiding, and even those still active hardly understand their own powers. Later on, Kurtz wrote prequel stories set in that earlier era when Deryni magic was in common use. Seeing for the first time that earlier, more civilized era produced a fascinating effect—as did the publication of Tolkien’s Silmarillion, decades after LotR.
In a similar way, when Lucasfilms released Episode I of Star Wars—the first of the prequels—we had a chance to see for ourselves what Episode IV had called “a more civilized age.” The appearance of this fantasy trope reminds us that Star Wars has a good deal in common with high fantasy, despite its spaceships and droids.
There’s a psychological basis or resonance for fantasy’s backward gaze. As children, we are wards of larger people whose knowledge and power far exceed our own. We grow into adulthood ourselves eventually—but it’s still hard to feel equal to our parents’ generation, because we don’t feel all-powerful and all-knowing when we get there. We’re too aware of our own limitations. So as our parents move offstage and we take over the reins, there’s a vague sense that the Great Ones of the past are gone and the world has devolved upon our more modest powers. Remember when you were a high-school freshman, and the seniors who ran clubs and activities seemed larger than life? When you yourself were a senior, you weren’t larger than life; it was hard to feel equal to the older leaders you remember.
Mixing Things Up
Having noted this very broad general tendency—SF looks forward, fantasy looks back—we can say a word or two about the numerous exceptions and nuances.
You can get interesting results when you mix things up. Another classic SF trope is the discovery that some great vanished civilization or species preceded our own. They may seem godlike to us; our own people may even have considered them gods, if there was an overlap in time (see the first Thor movie). Here we get some of the high-fantasy ambiance mixed in with regular futuristic SF tropes, for a distinctive overall feel—as, for example, in many of Andre Norton’s later novels. We may learn from the Forerunners’ technology, or we may make use of it without understanding it, as in Frederik Pohl’s Gateway series or Poul Anderson’s The Avatar.
If there’s a collapse of civilization, we ourselves may be the fabled precursors, whose lost technology must now be rediscovered. Any number of post-apocalyptic stories take this tack. In A.E. van Vogt’s Empire of the Atom, a far-future priesthood uses power sources and spacecraft it barely understands—until the genius Clane Linn appears on the scene. SF can also show us decline from a lost golden age. It’s significant, though, that the SF story tends to be set at a point where we’re going back onto an upward trend after the collapse, beginning to reinvent or recover lost arts and abilities.
Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern stories throw us a sort of double-reverse. The opening story Dragonflight feels like a fantasy, with its dragons, its medieval-style technology, and its feudal society. But the introduction makes clear that this is a human colony on another planet that has lost (or given up) its technology—the story is really science fiction. When the characters begin reinventing devices like the telegraph, there’s a fascinating sense of acceleration and change that plays simultaneously against the fantasy atmosphere and the SF basis of the story.
Reading both fantasy and science fiction helps us gain a balanced perspective. Great days may be behind us, in the Age of Legends. They may be ahead of us, in the Age of Tomorrow. Or even today may be a moment of greatness, by contrast to where we’ve come from or where we’re going. As Carly Simon once put it, “these are the good old days.”