Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Guest Post: How Science Fiction and Fantasy Have Changed Over the Years

I'd like to welcome author Scott Seldon to the blog today to share his thoughts about a topic I've begun to investigate. It's good to share ideas and the thoughts of others and I hope to be able to add to them when I relay my own findings in the future. This is a starting point and I'm grateful to Scott for kicking it off. Please share your own thoughts in the comments.
What we think of as genre fiction didn't really exist a century ago. Jules Verne did not write science fiction, he wrote fantastical adventures based on his knowledge of science and where it could lead. H.G. Wells projected his hopes and fears of the future, again based on science. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote romances (then the term did not mean what it means today; it referred to stories like Le Morte D'Arthur and Ivanhoe) set on other worlds. Today we consider all three and their works to be the foundations of science fiction. Their stories stand the test of time, but they are nothing like what we see modern writers producing.

You just have to look at the changes in our world to understand some of the changes to science fiction. In 1915, WWI raged in Europe. Einstein was a German. His Theory of Relativity had yet to be proven and was only ten years old. Atomic energy and weapons had not been dreamed of yet. Airplanes and automobiles existed, but were not much more than toys of the rich, though there already was an electric car. Spaceflight was a dream and Goddard hadn't even conducted his experiments yet.

Language has also changed, as has education. Latin was nearly always included as were the classics. It was to this world that science fiction and fantasy were born. Science fiction pushed into the future and to the other planets then known. They were swashbuckling adventures and their science was questionable by today's standards, but they let their imagination fly. Isaac Asimov was born in 1920 and grew up on the short stories produced in that period. C. L. Moore set out to write westerns, but ended up writing science fiction and fantasy. The stories for both genres bore some similarities because they still relied on the romance model. The difference was they were stories set in the future in space or in the past. Nearly all of the authors that would become well-known icons of science fiction and fantasy were growing up or starting their first works. J. R. R. Tolkien was about to begin his construction of Middle Earth as he manned the trenches.

But a century ago, none of this had happened yet and what we think of as a complex genre had yet to really be born. People did write what we today consider to be genre works, but the genre had yet to even be born. Typically the founding of science fiction as a genre dates to 1926 with the publishing of Amazing Stories.

Let's jump forward 50 years to 1965. Science fiction was in what I think of as a golden age. The greats were publishing stories and new writers constantly sprang up. Isaac Asimov had retired from fiction while Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein were going strong. The Lord of the Rings was complete and the seminal work of fantasy. The space age was on. Satellites orbited our planet and astronauts and cosmonauts had been in space. Science fiction graced our TV and movie screens. In fact, 50 years ago as I write this, both Lost In Space and Star Trek were in the works and Doctor Who had been on the air for well over a year. 2001 was still a few years away as was the Apollo program.

Gone were the Romances in space that filled the early years. Monsters, aliens, strange worlds, amazing sights, and incredible encounters filled the pages (and screens). Writers looked to the future, hopeful that we would soon be doing these things. Stories were set 20-40 years in the future with incredible ideas of where we could be. Some dreamed further and created the civilization they hoped we would develop into. Science fiction roamed the universe, peeing into every corner and finding amazing things. I would use one word to describe the tone of most fiction from this period - hope.

Language has changed. Latin was not yet gone but the classics were being studied less and less. Instead there were new topics to cover in schools. Science abounded with new discoveries. Medical, chemistry, and physics textbooks were filled with new things that previous generations had been forced to learn the hard way. We spoke in a more direct manner and the writing reflects that. Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and the others used simple and clear language.

Some things in life had just begun to change. The Civil Rights Act had only been passed the previous year. No one had heard of LGBT and marriage equality referred to interracial marriage. Gene Roddenberry was forced to cede his female second in command and had to fight to keep the alien character. Uhura had yet to be cast and he had to fight for that. What we see today as a token African American and Asian American on the Enterprise bridge were hard won fights for diversity.

Which brings me to today. I feel that science fiction has lost that hope. 50 years on and the space program is routine. We have not even started a lunar colony or sent a manned mission to Mars. We are 15 years past 2001 and we have done none of these things that movies and novels projected. Science has come down hard on some of the old tropes such as FTL, time travel, anti-gravity, teleporters, and the like. Consequently, you don't see these those things as much any more, though Star Trek and Doctor Who refuse to give them up. Instead of professional scientists churning out the likes of Foundation, Caves of Steel, 2001, and many others, they stick to the facts, what could be real. Hard science fiction is no longer just for scientists, but it is braked by what the scientists deem possible. Our dreams of the future have gotten closer to home and are less fantastic.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is having its own golden age. The publication of some very epic tales by Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin are truly incredible in scope. Terry Brooks and Stephen R. Donaldson have given us some great dark evil in their stories and given their heroes the talents to overcome. The likes of Sam Sykes and Mark Lawrence are currently showing us how dark the world can be. The adventure continues in the pages of the many fantasy writers out there as they explore ever more interesting worlds.

Tolkien still inspires. His language, as fitting a professor of linguistics, is an art of its own and that pushes fantasy writers to make good use of language. His world building set the bar high and few truly come up to his level, but not for want of trying. That isn't to say that it is in any way out of reach of readers, but I have noticed writers spend a few more words to help paint the picture.

Science fiction is producing some truly great works as well, but the tone is different. The sense of the incredible that was there a century ago and the sense of hope from 50 years ago has been replaced with exploring society. Science has cut off many from exploring the limits of theory, but they make good use of practical science and weave incredible tales. There is no lack of story telling skills.

Scott writes science fiction and prefers that idea of hope found in mid-20th century science fiction. He is currently writing about a space trader in the far future and looking for interesting ideas for his next novel. He is a big fan of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Jack McDevitt.

You can find him at his blog and on Smashwords.

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