The Fuzzy Line between Science Fiction and Fantasy

The line was once sharp and clear.

Science fiction was based on science fact, and provided a story that extrapolated outward from hard reality. Think 2001. Planet of the Apes. The novels of Isaac Asimov, Jack McDevitt, Greg Benford. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. And although it’s more commonly lumped in with horror, the first generally-accepted work of science fiction was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Fantasy was made up of supernatural, otherworldly tales, without a scientific or realistic basis. The Lord of the Rings. Conan the Barbarian. Michael Moorcock’s Elric tales (which I consider far superior to Tolkien). The novels of Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, H. P. Lovecraft.

The line began to blur with media. Radio, movies and television. To reach a mass audience, it was believed you had to dumb the product down. Go for action; forget smarts.

In the pulps, the Shadow was a crimefighter who used technology, illusion and deductive reasoning to bring evildoers to justice in his quest to prove that, “Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows…”

On the radio, The Shadow had the hypnotic and supernatural “power to cloud men’s minds.” He also had a sidekick, Margo Lane.

They dumbed it down.

In the books, Tarzan was an English Lord who was raised since birth by apes. He taught himself how to read English using his parents’ books, learned French, married Jane Porter and ran a huge plantation in Africa.

In the movies, Tarzan could barely utter more than monosyllables, he kept Jane in a treehouse and fought everything that crossed his path.

They dumbed it down.

Star Trek was as intelligent as ’60s sci-fi could get. Then it grew up, birthed an intelligent next generation, and that gave subsequently gave birth to a more evolved galactic battlestar.

The real dumbing down occurred in 1977, when a movie nerd made a little movie that was a fantasy wearing science fiction trappings. It was the spirit of the pulps — space opera — combined with a contemporary imagination…but not much science. It was Star Wars, and it was good storytelling.

Now we have a new Star Trek, a huge success, and a lot of fun — but was it really smart? Is it really the next generation of intelligent science fiction?

Here. You be the judge.

As for me, I’ll be reading McDevitt and Moorcock, Burroughs and Stoker — writers on both sides of that once-distinct line.

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