Fantasy, Science Fiction and Literary Heroes in Our Society – Guest Post Jacob Foxx

Name: Jacob Foxx

Location: Raleigh, North Carolina

How do YOU define fantasy/science fiction/heroism? I define science fiction as human experiences with the fantastic, where the fantastic has its roots in natural and physical laws. Something in our existing body of knowledge about the world provides the basis or explains the spectacular or fantastic thing in the story. To me, it doesn’t matter whether it is hard science, soft science, the future, the past, or an alternate reality, if it has roots in human knowledge, it is science fiction. Some things have a combination of science and fantasy, such as zombie and superhero stories. Both sit on the boundary of the genres. For those, you have to look at each on a case-by-case basis.

Fantasy is simply human experiences with the fantastic, where the fantastic is not rooted in natural or physical laws. It can be rooted in religious belief, mythology, spiritualism, or anything supernatural. There’s no need for an explanation of the fantastic, it simply exists. At the boundary are objects that might be real but are unproven or dismissed by mainstream science as fantasy. The writer might believe the object of their story is real. If the writer attempts to create a scientific explanation, no matter how improbable, it probably fits better in science fiction. If the author doesn’t make an attempt at a scientific explanation, I’d say its fantasy.

I use the word “root” as in foundation. The fantastic object or event must have its foundation in natural or physical laws, not its parts or some tangential relationship. A fictional dragon might obey the laws of aerodynamics or possess biological qualities similar to an actual reptile, but the creature itself is fantasy.

How pervasive do you think fantasy/sci-fi is in our society today?  Why do you think this is? Science fiction is extremely pervasive thanks to the increasing role of new technology in daily life, as well as advances in CGI and other special effects in movies. There are also an increasing number of people that work in the technology sector as opposed to factory floors or farms. Creativity and critical thinking are more highly valued in the new economy. From a societal standpoint, science fiction is a positive force because it encourages curiosity and open-mindedness. Most of all, science fiction makes us think about the future, whether just a few years or generations ahead. We could all do a little more long-term thinking.

Fantasy is enjoying a renaissance thanks to CGI. The biggest fantasy franchises are all classics from the 20th and 19th centuries that adapted to the big screen and television. A few decades ago this was largely impossible. Special effects just weren’t advanced enough for an epic like The Lord of the Rings. Modern filmmaking technology has given new life to fantasy stories, even ones as old as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I think fantasy is also growing rapidly due to increasing diversity of beliefs in the West. I’m not old enough to comment on society prior to the 1990s but my general impression is that older generations had a mild disdain towards the supernatural, pagan myths and fables. It was weird, and weird was shunned. There was a preference towards realism and relatable heroes of the day. Christianity was also the dominant source of allegorical tales and fables, which didn’t leave much room for others. American society has since grown much more diverse in thought and far more open to the fantastic. We live in fantastic times after all.

Fantasy and science fiction used to be seen as very male-oriented, do you think this is still the case. Do you have any experience of this? Science fiction is still male-oriented but not as extensive as before. Sadly, my favorite genre has been the slowest to adopt gender parity. Most science fiction authors are probably men, or at the very least an overwhelming majority of the bestselling authors. The gender breakdown among the readers is probably just as lopsided. Clearly science fiction is failing to appeal to half the audience. There are probably a few causes but it is something I hope changes very soon.

The imbalance has led to some other unfortunate trends in the literature itself. Many science fiction novels are somewhat misogynistic with male-dominated casts. Often there are only one or two female characters that aren’t portrayed in a positive or flattering light. They fulfil the limited role of the love interest. Many embody the adolescent male fantasy: doe-eyed nymphomaniac desperate for the affections of the hero. Such stories don’t appeal to female readers. As a result science fiction has yet to reach its full potential.

I am not as familiar with the fantasy genre but my impression is that it is far less male-oriented than science fiction. If anything, it has reached gender parity. There are plenty of female main characters that are quite compelling. A large number of fantasy authors are women, and probably a majority of fantasy readers. Some antiquated stereotypes remain but they are fading fast.

How important are ‘facts’ in fantasy/science fiction – does something need to be plausible to be believable? In fantasy, consistency is more important than plausibility. As long as a fantasy world has its own “facts” and adheres to them throughout the story, it works. Obviously, they don’t have to correspond with any real-world facts. Plausibility is rarely a factor. However, world-building is just as important to fantasy as it is to science fiction. The more fantastic the world, the greater thought needs to go into how everything fits together. Problems arise when the fantasy facts don’t seem to fit the world or don’t seem to give rise to the world the author created. If the world breaks down, the story breaks down.

In science fiction, plausibility is important but not essential. I used to think scientific plausibility was essential but often times a story is better served by playing a little loose with the science. Inaccuracies tend to drive hardcore fans nuts but I’ve become more tolerant of them as long as they aren’t blatant nonsense. My general rule is the closer a fact is to the central conflict in the story, the more plausible or grounded it has to be. Science fiction world-building also needs the same consistency as fantasy. Whatever new technologies or facts exist in the author’s universe, they need to have to fit within the overall setting. In other words, it has to be very clear how we got there. Here, science fiction has a smaller margin of error than fantasy.

How has science fiction changed from the days of Mary Shelley and Jules Verne? It is getting much harder to impress audiences these days. Mary Shelley and Jules Verne had almost no competition. Today, science fiction is a crowded genre. Theoretical technologies are now the norm, thanks to the maturation of the genre and advances in real-world technology. Shelley and Verne also used fantastic technologies to make social commentary. Sadly, fewer and fewer science fiction writers do this today. There seems to be a reluctance to challenge readers intellectually or to stimulate critical thinking on controversial issues. It may have to do with the reluctance to betray one’s own beliefs for fear of alienating readers. Shelley and Verne didn’t have mainstream ideas and certainly weren’t afraid to present unconventional perspectives.

Shelley and Verne also wrote about technologies that were truly out there. H.G. Wells was another that sought to see farther into the future than anyone had previously. Contemporary writers tend to utilize established sci-fi technologies already familiar to readers. There is also a strong preference towards familiar character archetypes and stories. Most movies are sequels or reboots of 20th century classics, or are adapted from old comic book heroes. This might be a temporary nostalgic phase, but as a whole, science fiction has lost some of its creative edge recently.

What science fiction/fantasy has influenced you most?  What would you say the most influential writers/film-makers? Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek has had the largest impact on me. It brought a positive and hopeful vision of the future but also presented the serious challenges we will face as well. Knowledge and critical thinking were essential to the success of Star Trek missions. In most conventional fiction, the protagonist triumphed through feats of physical prowess or tactical genius. Star Trek was about problem-solving and creativity. It much better resembled the major challenges of the real world. Most of all, Star Trek was about progress. It wasn’t about making the best of an imperfect world but finding ways to make it better. There were futuristic technologies of course but there were also new political, social, and cultural advances in Roddenberry’s future, many of which are those we aspire to today.

The ideals of Roddenberry were embodied in Captain Jean-Luc Picard. He was part commander, part statesman, part explorer, part scientist, and part philosopher. He is the ideal Starfleet citizen and a portrait of everything we could be in the future. The principles of the Federation, such as the Prime Directive were also impressive given that they applied to situations we have yet to face and probably won’t for centuries.

From a literary standpoint, Frank Herbert’s Dune is the best sci-fi novel I’ve ever read. The planet of Arrakis came alive in a way no other fictional world has for me. H.G. Wells and George Orwell have also been very influential. In terms of influencing the genre as a whole, I think the big three probably have had the greatest impact on science fiction: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. More recent influences are Orson Scott Card, Michael Crichton, and William Gibson.

James Cameron is probably the most influential science fiction filmmaker of our time. Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, and Avatar are classics that everyone should see. George Lucas, of course, inhabits a special place in science fiction.


3 thoughts on “Fantasy, Science Fiction and Literary Heroes in Our Society – Guest Post Jacob Foxx

    1. Fantasy is all over the place – think of your childhood, or the tales you tell your kids – fairy tales, which are another type of folklore. Also think of the recent movies – Hobbit, Guardians of the Galaxy, the forthcoming Star Wars, Star Trek, even Disney. I believe fantasy, folk tales and influences us far more than we know.


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