Hanging out at Orycon over the weekend I heard a number of people saddened by the fact that fantasy has overtaken science fiction in popular culture. During the last half of the 20th century sci-fi predominated our genre fiction, with a large black monolith waiting at the end of the century to transform us into creatures of the next millennium. Our fascination with the year 2000 transformed both the way we perceived our world, and gave us a way to make peace with the overwhelming pace of technology that at times both threatened to destroy us, or bring us to a world beyond our undertanding.
But, as is usually the case, neither scenario turned out to be true. Over the last ten years we’ve wandered in a bit of a fog, realizing that just because we’re in a new century doesn’t mean that some of our age-old problems won’t follow us. In some ways our newfound cultural fascination with a simpler, more medieval world is simply be a reaction to the end of that orgy of enthusiasm. It may also (ironically) be the beginning of a new realism. Because it may be possible than rather than fantasy being an alternative to science fiction it has become a replacement for it.
Steampunk is the most obvious example. While it is generally considered to be a genre is fascinated with the past, it is, in its own way, truly futuristic. By telling stories of transformed ancestors it allows us to redefine our vision of ourselves from the other end of the telescope. It is a kind of pseudo-fantasy for a world that is clinging onto the real as it moves beyond the virtual. They are tales of a reality where humanity may on the cusp of truly becoming magicians, capable of transforming the physical world in more radical ways than we ever imagined possible.
And fantasy seems oddly predictive in other ways as well. The threat of global warming seems to be something out of Tolkein rather than Asimov, although without the convenient anthropomorphic villain to slay in order to solve our problems and set the world “right”. Our solutions may have to come through acceptance of our abilities rather than an attempt to fight against them.
Our technologies seem to be on the cusp of unweaving the very fabric or life itself, and in response it may be that we are yearning to experience the world in a more organic way. On that is integrated with our fundamental human sensations. As we live longer, and demand more resources from the world, it makes some kind of sense to tell stories about benevolent vampires that sparkle in the sunlight.
By populating our modern urban landscapes with creatures of myth, we could be giving ourselves metaphorical stories for the kinds of radical choices that may soon be coming for the human race. And for a generation that will have far more control over their own biology than any that has come before, it may well more helpful to have grown up with those of fantasies as opposed to rocket ships and space aliens.