There’s a willingness to interrogate the past in fantasy that is lacking in most science fiction — not because it has to, but because writers let it. They assume “well, people are living in the present, and the present is this scifi world’s past, so I don’t have to cover it, do I?” Which in turn makes this grand assumption about shared experience that, yes, ignores the very fractured nature of existence on a humanitarian level, but on a storytelling level, just makes for a lame, fake, more unified past that didn’t and doesn’t exist.
Admittedly, fantasy can get this wrong, too, especially high fantasy whose roots go deep into a tradition of bored landed white guys making up languages in their private clubs. They, too, entrench their stories in a one-sided idea of history: of course there were no hobbits who chafed at the Stepford-esque nature of their society; of course everyone agreed to ride to help this or that kingdom in their hour of need. Grandiosity is not served, the authors seem to believe, by noting the exceptions to the narrative of unflinching valor, altruistic selflessness, etc. etc. When people talk about becoming jaded with fantasy as a genre, and when this is why, I understand.
But the fact is not everyone is doing this. With its tendency toward up-by-their-bootstraps rises to power, the genre ends up detailing (intentionally or not) a great deal of dissonance between the official narrative distributed by those in power, and the lived experience of those far, far, beneath those hallowed halls. How often do you hear someone in a fantasy story say, in response to a hero’s strident call to arms for justice, that the commonfolk don’t much care whether it’s one person in charge or the other, because it’s going to go badly for them either way? Granted, such admissions often occur as mere sidenotes to the grander, heroic narrative, but they are there.
Sometimes they’re not even sidenotes. Sometimes that dissonance is front-and-center in a story. Consider Ricardo Pinto’s The Chosen, where the hero’s lovely much-foretold rise to power is rather brutally sullied by the fact that his trusted confidante and lover has to has his eyes carved out for seeing his naked face. Because that rise to power means an increase in status that wretchedly calls for the pseudo-deification of the newly-risen.*
Or look at — I know, surprise surprise — the deliciously contrasting views of the pre-history of Thedas vis-a-vis Andraste and the rise of the religion built up around her. “This is ‘delicious’ to you just because it bears a resemblance to actual historical fracturing of church narrative,” you’ll say, but that’s not quite true, no matter how much I love Name of the Rose. (An aside: In DA:I you can overhear some NPCs in the Chantry talking about whether or not Andraste ever laughed, or whether the Maker approves of laughter. I hoisted an invisible glass to William of Baskerville.) It isn’t the fact that such schisms did happen that makes these issues riveting. It’s that disagreement does happen. Everyone is so damn sure their version of an event is right, but there is no one right rendering of it. (Solas knows this, by the way.)
In their quest to build a solid base for their stories, builders of fantasy worlds often end up acknowledging this plurality of experience, if only to add depth and color to their world and the characters that populate it. This is a good thing. Even if it occurs by accident, it is a good thing. It isn’t that the creators of science fiction worlds cannot do this. They just tend not to. They let the past slide by under the assumption that we all know what it was (is) and agree that it was (is) the same thing, and then they start in on overly-involved descriptions of FTL travel and the science behind it — forgetting all the while that the people making these FTL journeys do not come from a unified, singularly understood past. Making it seem as though they do makes the characters, and they world(s) they inhabit, that much more shallow.
Of course, I freely acknowledge that I may just not be reading the right books. Or enough of them. On the one hand, if they were better written I might read more of them. On the other hand…without consulting a list, I’m hard-pressed to name many scifi books I’ve read, ever. William Gibson’s Neuromancer, M. John Harrison’s Light, the Pern series (which eventually caved and went much more SF than fantasy, ugh), Elizabeth Moon’s books, um. What else? The Leckie series I’m finishing right now, The Left Hand of Darkness, Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland (god how I hate cyberpunk), the original Dune books, half of The Windup Girl which I then quit in disgust at it being yet another hyper-exoticized tale of a gritty government white guy falling in love with almond-shaped eyes…**
That’s not a lot. Certainly not compared to the mountain of fantasy books I’ve read, and will continue to read. If I’m missing out on something that would make me reconsider my position on scifi as a genre, by all means let me know. And if I could put in a tiny note about dystopian futures — they often run up into the same problem more space-obsessed scifi books do: they ignore the faults of the present and attribute any human failings to actions, politics or technology that have not yet come to dominate our cultural landscape. That’s ridiculous. We right now are perfectly capable of ruining everything. We don’t need help. Delve into the way people break now, and the people and civilizations they take down with them. Don’t act as though we’re so perfect we’d need hyper-sexualized humanlike robots, or many-fanged, mind-reading space crabs, to shatter into little tiny pieces. Technology shouldn’t replace human error as the vehicle for drama. Magic doesn’t, in good fantasy novels (and games). Emotions and human frailty always lie beneath it.
Creators of science fiction should take notes on what their less astrally-minded peers are doing.
*Maybe the rest of this series plays down this fact (I don’t know; I haven’t read the others), but the first book at least gouges out your insides with this scene, so whether it’s front and center of the plot or not, it’s certainly central to your memory of the book. At least, it was to mine.
**You’ll notice I try to stick to women writers as much as possible here. The kind of stereotypical BS guys pull in scifi is just so much worse than in fantasy. I don’t know why. Again, it’s probably just that I avoid the worst of it. “How much exposed boob am I looking at on the cover?” is a crude but sadly effective test, for fantasy. The tittier the cover, the shittier the book…and I don’t have a whole lot of boobs on my fantasy shelves, it turns out.