Myths of Fantasy and Science Fiction

When I was in junior high school, I got hooked on Star Trek. Fandom was just starting to gain momentum, and conventions were popping up everywhere. Because Star Trek was science fiction, I started reading science fiction. There was something very magical about reading about adventures in space. Then I went to fantasy, for a very different reason–because fantasy has started to give us women chararacters having adventures.

Over on Apex & Abyss, there’s an interesting discussion about the Line Between Literary and Genre Fiction where an editor not only discusses the gray area of literary and genre but the myths of what science fiction and fantasy is.

She notes this about fantasy:

There is also the erroneous impression that fantasy equals children’s fairy tales, and again that’s simply not true. It dates back to Victorian ideas about fantasy being all about such things as THE BLUE FAIRY BOOK; perhaps the worst example of talking down to children ever published. To that, all I can say is that most of the fans of Harry Potter are adults.

I wouldn’t quite say fantasy equals children’s fairy tales, but books for children.  In the 1980s, a fantasy author I was regularly reading suddenly disappeared.  The publisher stopped printing his books and stopped selling them.  Odd for an author who had been on best seller lists and had written 30 books.  About ten years ago I finally found out why.  His books had more adult content, and in the 1980s, fantasy suddenly started being associated as a genre for teenage boys!  Curiously, that was at the same time we started seeing women characters taken on action roles in fantasy.

I think also there’s this myth about fantasy that it’s all about swords, sorcery, dragons, and unicorns.  One of the best fantasies I read didn’t have any of those elements.

On science fiction:

There seems to be a myth that all written science fiction and fantasy is like television and movie science fiction and fantasy: “Lost in Space,” Star Trek,” or “Star Wars” – or kiddie cartoons. The truth is that Hollywood tends to simplify good science fiction or fantasy stories and rely heavily on special effects, and they dumb down most of their plots as a result.

It’s odd that what drew me to read science fiction in the first place is the reason for this myth.  But I also think it’s true that many people think science fiction is all about space battles with spaceships.  In a movie, this makes for a great impact of sound and sight for viewers.  It’s also true that TV shows like Lost in Space were intended to bring kids in–no doubt to convince their parents to buy the products for the commercials being shown.  Even Star Trek, which deemed very cerebral in some circles, was often reduced to kiddie fare in the newspaper.  Whenever there was a convention, the reporters found a little boy dressed up as Spock to photograph.  It lends to the image that science fiction is for kids.

But here’s an interesting truth about both these genres:  Because they are set in a different place/time, the authors can do commentary on difficult subjects that otherwise might be impossible to broach.  Not the trendy political stuff, but the ones that people won’t talk about it.  Star Trek did that, and it’s one of the reasons it became more than it started out.  It stepped sideways and presented the issue in a different environment that wasn’t so threatening.   When I came home from Desert Storm, I was angry at some of the things that happened over there.  I wanted to write about them, but I couldn’t because I was still in the army.  They would have seriously frowned on a soldier writing non-fiction articles showing dirty laundry or even short stories showing the army itself.  I ended up doing fantasy because it was a safe place to bring in some of those things.

After all, fantasy is for teenage boys.  And female soldiers.