Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Five Thousand Words (part two)

It had been a marvelous Tale, one that the fathers would find worthy to tell their children at night, one that the scribes would never weary of reading in their libraries, one that the bards would never tire of weaving into song. It had all the classic elements: a fallen ruler, a young unknown prince, a group of faithful comrades, a false lord who held the kingdom in his very grasp...

Sarazen always loved a good Tale.
- "The Final Tale"

Sometime in late July, Dean Alfar let his adoring public know that he had already begun reading through the mountain of submissions for his Speculative Fiction Anthology. Surprisingly, he noted, the majority of the pieces so far were of a science-fictionesque approach; One would normally expect a large number of fantasy-genre entries from Filipino writers.

This was bad news for me. I personally find it easier to write redeemable science fiction, and I've always assumed that the genre is inaccessible enough around here for me to have a clearer shot at good reviews. But all things change, I suppose.

I wonder if there's some mental link between Speculative Fiction and Science Fiction. The phrase "Speculative Fiction" implies an experimentation with literary style, approach, and voice -- and the science fiction genre is more unexplored territory around here than anything else. We've seen elements of Filipino fantasy in artsy novels, urban legends, and video games; but so far, we've held Filipino science fiction to the realm of the comics creators. Sci-fi is still more of a novelty around here.

Whatever the case, I ended up spending the last two weeks hunting for a good fantasy story. The trouble with fantasy, you see, is that it doesn't seem to have much in the way of redeemable themes.

Science fiction has at least one redeemable theme, and it's a big one: Humanity in the face of change. Sci-fi, more often than not, compares human characteristics to the world around them and singles them out for their day in the sun. The rampant technologism that is a staple of science fiction stories only heightens the contrast and makes these qualities easier to pick out. As a result, you get James T. Kirk's high-stakes attitude in an exploratory space expedition. You get Lin Minmei's love song used to defeat two warring alien races. You get Darth Vader destroying the Emperor in order to save the life of his only son.

Isaac Asimov, I think, was the epitome of the science fiction writer in this way. The vast majority of his stories seem to deal with the humanity inherent in technological constructs, e.g. robots. His body of work, for that matter, shows us that science fiction doesn't even need human characters to showcase human qualities.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is oversaturated with human references. Part of the problem, I think, has to do with the fact that fantasy is akin to an open creative exercise: You can do anything you want with it. A world where an all-seeing power attempts to dominate the races of men, elves, dwarves and hobbits? Done. A realm where metal is scarce and the land has to be defiled in order to cast magic? Done. A setting with random Frenchmen, knights who say "Nih!" and the occasional killer rabbit? Also done.

Open fantasy, it appears, sets few boundaries on what authors can and can't write. The problem is that, if you're busy constructing a world from scratch, it's difficult to build insight and redeemability into the project.

Let's take The Lord of the Rings -- a powerful epic of heroism, duty, and the battle to keep one's soul against an overwhelming tide of corruption. It's a very good story, and one of the few redeemables in the Fantasy genre. Even then, however, it's easy to see that the setting had to be thoroughly established before any insights could be mixed in. For us to realize the heroism in Eowyn's battle with the Witch-King, we had to realize just who the Witch-King was and how powerful he could be. For us to realize the weight of the burden that Frodo carried, we had to understand exactly what the One Ring was, and why only he could carry it.

Science fiction has it a lot easier. For us to consider the definition of humanity, we just have to be shown a talking, thinking, feeling robot. That's it.

Looking at things from this view, it's perhaps more difficult to write a good fantasy story than it is to write a good science fiction story. It's technically easier to write for the fantasy genre, as fan-fiction advocates have probably found out. In the long run, however, I think that the technophiles simply have an easier time making their point.


kat said...

I'm more of a fan of fantasy than sci-fi (maybe because I prefer magic to technology?), but I have to agree with you here. It's more of a challenge for me to write fantasy without having to worry that it might sound like a rip/spin-off of Tolkien, Eddings, or Final Fantasy (as seen on my last attempt). I thought maybe it's just me and my lack of good ideas. Oh well.

banzai cat said...

Hey, just bloghopping from Dean's. :-)

Interesting points you made here. A lot of things to debate, actually. For example, I think that fantasy is also about humanity in the face of change (in fact, most stories are about that). Even Tolkien's epic was about change coming to Middle Earth (the coming of the Age of Man). Look at the opening sequence of Froddo and Sam leaving the Shire, which was unimaginable to Hobbits until Bilbo did it the first place.

Also, fantasy isn't just about epic/ sword-and-sorcery world-creation. There are a lot of fantastical stories (those you would call speculative fiction) that deal with redeemability and insight. Graham Joyce, Neil Gaiman and Angelica Gorodischer are just three writers who do so but can't be put into an SF box.

Personally, I think insight and redeemability depends on the writer's ability to put it into the story. :-)

Sean said...

Kat: That reflects one of my two problems with fantasy: Every story runs the risk being either 1) a seeming ripoff of a more established work or setting, or 2) something that can just as easily be written in a modern contemporary setting. I don't think we get the same problems with science fiction.

banzai cat: Despite the problems I've mentioned with writing fantasy, I'm convinced that it's possible to work insight and redeemability into the genre. The catch, however, is that it seems to be difficult to begin with. I suppose that a good author can build a good story in this way, but that would make it out of reach for most amateur writers...

banzai cat said...

Heh sorry if I'm still hanging around. But then again, you're the only local guy I've found who talks about this.

Re: the catch. It's true that this may be difficult-- but not impossible. I admit that insight is pretty hard to write about without being preachy. Still, wouldn't fantasy be more conducive to writing about insight and redeemability as it's not limited, i.e. it's open creatively? For example, you have M. John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, Patricia McKillip, Sean Stewart and Elizabeth Moon who are known for writing almost (or quite) literary fantasy. On the other side of the literary fence, you have Jonathan Lethem, Haruki Murakami and Michael Chabon doing the fantastical in the literary.

(And I'm not including David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, and Kazuo Ishiguro who deal with SF side of the literary!)

As for fantasy stories running the risk of being ripoffs or written in modern contemporary setting (does this read: mainstream?), that's a bit harsh. Does that mean that Tolkien was ripping off from Norse mythology, etc. or creating something out of it? One's man ripoff can be another man's homage. I guess this depends on how deep or shallow the work is.

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: No, no... I don't mean to say that most fantasy fiction can be dismissed as "ripoffs". I mean to say that it's difficult for an amateur author to write fantasy without feeling that his story is a shallow reproduction of a greater work.

Most people other than the author will probably know better. The vast majority of readers, for example, will definitely not consider Tolkien's work to be a ripoff of Norse mythology. But what about Tolkien himself? Seeing that he produced his works based on existing mythology, was there ever a point where he worried that he was putting together something trite and unoriginal? He was cobbling stuff together from a bunch of different sources, after all.

Readers may think of the better fantasy works as insightful and redeemable, I suppose. But I think that it's really difficult for an author to see things that way when he's still in the process of creating them. It's a question of seeing things from both sides of the fence.

banzai cat said...

That's probably true. However, with regard to Tolkien, it would be hard to tell. After all, Tolkien was the first in dealing in such a creation so I presume the idea (or feeling) of ripping-off/reproducing from other stories wasn't prevalent then. Besides, Tolkien wasn't writing a story for the sake of the story, he wrote LOTR in order to give his created language a place to be used.

Funny enough, most writers aren't actually ripping-off/paying homage/whatever Tolkien, they're doing it to Terry Brooks, who was the first to copy Tolkien but with his own alterations.

Personally, I know what you mean when you say it's the author who has a difficult time seeing redeemable things about one's work. However, I suppose that's where good writing and the determination to avoid cliche and laziness comes into play.

Btw, hope you don't mind if I link to you. Considering how much time I spend here, I might as well be polite. ;-)

Sean said...

Banzai Cat: Go ahead and link. I'm fine with that.

This is weird stuff, really. Maybe we're all just insecure people, writing things that we only hope other people understand.

Ian said...

Science Fiction novels in Filipino or made by a Filipino is scarce.

For the past month I've been trying to create short stories and building up something for a science-fiction novel. Maybe it be hardcore science-fiction or the borderline sci-fi/fantasy genre.

Its quite difficult to research on science material here in the Philippines since we are lagging behind technological advances but I don't think that is a hindrance for Filipino writers not to experiment with this genre.

Fantasy had been part of the Filipino culture. You can connect it with Filipino myths and legends. The recent fantaseryes and the classic stories of comics of the yesteryears. So fantasy is not that bad. We just need more science fiction writers.

Asimov is just one of the best science fiction gods in the world. Add Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova, Frederik Pohl, and Larry Niven.

Sean said...

Ian: Yes, science fiction around here is pretty scarce. For that matter, novels built around themes that aren't romance or social realism seem to be scarce around here as well.

On the other hand, it's not easy to build great science fiction to begin with. I've seen a lot of 70's and 80's American sci-fi novels that have little or no long-term value whatsoever. Asimov was one of those few who have managed to build a redeemable theme to the genre, as do Clarke, Bova, Sterling, and so forth. (My jury is probably still out on Heinlein.)

I don't think the issue is that we lack scientific material; it's more that we lack clear predecessors on the genre. Most of our well-established authors in the Philippines write stories that are centered on social realism, and their influence extends even to the modern generation. In fact, if we do manage to establish a local science-fiction genre, I'd like to see it mostly free of the style of writing that we usually see in today's local novels.

Fortunately, it appears that the new literary generation has shown themselves to be quite open to the subject. "Pasig" (serialized in the late Culture Crash Comics) had one of the most interesting sci-fi settings I've ever seen. Dean Alfar has noted that most of his sci-fi submissions came from a UST-based clique. And you yourself are looking to write a hardcore or hybrid sci-fi novel. Good times, greater potential.

If my memory serves me right, I wrote a science-fiction short story in Tagalog once, and it got nice reviews in my sophomore Filipino class. Sadly, though, it's probably lost among my files somewhere...