A Voyage To Arcturus
Russian Science Fiction
The distinctions between true science fiction and what is called fantasy literature are zealously guarded even by consumers of the magazines which publish both sorts of material. In general, science fiction appears to be more toughminded, and its aficionados tend to think of the fantasy product as being somehow intellectually inferior. And yet the evidence is strong that the same sort of people like both sorts of thing; it would be hard to tell whether a rather typical kind of anti-literary, know-nothing, do-it-yourself American intelligence, that of an engineer or a technician, would gravitate more towards one than another. (Nasty footnote on the two cultures: It is said that M.I.T. decided to start up a decent humanities program when a shockingly high percentage of a group of students interviewed declared that the book that had been most important to them was The Robe). Indeed, it is a moot point whether never having read anything good would make one prefer science fiction’s gimmickry or fantasy’s romantic corn.
The two genres are easily distinguished. Kingsley Amis has remarked that “while science fiction maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact, fantasy makes a point of flouting these; for a furniture of robots, space-ships, techniques and equations it substitutes elves, broomsticks, occult powers and incantations.” From another point of view it might appear that fantasy uses the traditional imaginative materials of romance and ghost-story, inheriting along with these a moral climate in which beauty is virtue, and an Unnatural Presence is. by and large. a Bad Thing. Fantasy is imaginatively “softer” than science fiction, and very often weaker, despite its literary sources—the mythopoeia of the English romantic poets, for example. Sometimes, in a writer like H. P. Lovecraft, there will be a conscious effort to create such a mythological cosmos. But in general, fantasy literature, unlike much good science fiction, never strays too far from the Victorian-Gothic world shadowed by latent sexuality, and shrilly defiant of science. In general, too, mood is favored over the structural gimmick of science fiction, just as, in the writing, image triumphs over idea. So that while, at worst, a science fiction story will be a bungled bit of slick-magazine drivel, creaking along on some traditional science fiction donnée invented by a writer back in the Thirties, a fantasy story will usually end up as a bad poem.
The sub-literary genre of science fiction has contributed to the history of the novel by providing models for Orwell, Eugene Zamiatin before him, Huxley and, more recently, William Golding. The legitimate projections of fantasy would perhaps be in the novels of Charles Williams, in the Tolkien trilogy, or in The Man Who was Thursday. Golding, as a matter of fact, seems to have more in common, in a book like The Inheritors, with this latter group: tragedy and its moral world, for example, are illuminated by means of the technical devices of science fiction, but for vastly different ends. The basic science fiction narrative and …
Science Fiction January 23, 1964