I’m going to start again by saying that I love science fiction. This time, I’m going to drag in it’s sibling genre: fantasy. I’ll even share my oft-repeated story of how someone once scoffed at me and said “science fiction is only for people who can’t handle the real world!” and punctuated that statement by sitting down to watch “Charmed.” I was so overcome with the absudity of the statement that I didn’t point out that, for most intents and purposes, “Star Trek” and “Charmed” are from the same genre. (We can split hairs later, but I’m not the first person to say so… just in case anyone’s of the same mind. I also have nothing against “Charmed” or any other fantasy show or story. Let me wrap up the introduction by saying that I also love fantasy.)
So, my struggle with the genre this time is a counter-point to part 1 (when I argued that the heart of science fiction stories wasn’t necessarily the science). Sometimes, the whiz-bang-wow element really is central to a tale. Stargate is one of the best examples of this. The fact that characters can arrive in the midst of almost any environment and any culture with a bare mimimum of travel time and that they have so many direct routes between Earth and myriad other places makes the story what it is. While I loved hearing whatever sarcastic thing Jack would say next and stayed on the edge of my seat waiting to see who would get captured by the Wraiths, the existence of the stargate and the problems/upgrades/maintenance to it were as key to the story as the characters themselves.
Farscape is another example. Crew flying around in a ship that’s also a space-dwelling animal? No amount of character drama can ever fully pull the spotlight away from that. Verging into fantasy, the matter gets even more muddled. I can’t decide if that’s because, unlike science fiction (which seems constrained by the expectations of “Popular Science” subscribers), audiences seem more willing to take it at face value. Certainly, if there’s an explanation provided for the magical elements (mages get their abilities from certain deities, or wizards are born with inherited magical abilities, or gifted individuals are granted powers by the forces of nature), we’ll take that with a smile. But if not? We’ll still probably take that with a smile. Between fairy tales and Tolkien we have an ingrained idea about mystical folk casting spells. I’ve yet to see anyone snap a book shut and say they wouldn’t read another word because the source of a character’s magical abilities weren’t explained thoroughly enough. As absurd as it will sound, I’m just going to say it: the idea of magic is so old, we’re willing to take it for granted.
A wizard, you say? Well, I know about those.
But, a living space ship? A gate that unlocks doorways through outer space? Robots who look human, bent on vengeance for their own creation? People going places instantaneously? Well, someone has some explaining to do.
That’s not to say that fantasy can’t have rich, complicated foundations, but its familiarity makes audiences a little more forgiving with the details. I’m not entirely sure where that leaves the aspiring author. Struggling, still, to find the balance between character drama and cool ideas, I guess. (If only it were as simple as calling for a pinch of stargate and some eye of newt.)