Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but I’ve always felt that the literature of science fiction and fantasy — or fantastika, to employ John Clute’s simpler, far more inclusive-sounding term — ought to make us feel uncomfortable in some way. Unsettled. At the very least, a reader of fiction should be left with an experience worth remembering; and an idea presented in a way that’s strange or inobvious is going to stay in the mind much longer than a story told via the path of least resistance. Certainly a work of fantasy should get us thinking about the world in fresh, unfamiliar ways — even, I’d argue, if it makes us feel slightly disturbed.
Consider Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Is there any greater conversation-starter for the topic of social responsibility, or the ethics of suffering, in literature? And I’ve always felt a profound sympathy toward Bradbury’s tragic Leonard Mead, who went out for a peaceful walk in the nighttime air and found himself declared a criminal. The short-story form is a graveyard packed full of these kinds of dystopian injustices.
I once caught an episode of the Outer Limits reboot, circa 2000, about a scientist who uses the preserved consciousness of his dead son to build an android replacement. The acting and writing were pedestrian, at best, but the quietly horrific nature of the grieving man’s ambition, coupled with the dissatisfying end result of his efforts at resurrecting his lost child, is ultimately an unforgettable piece of storytelling. Not that I wouldn’t prefer to forget it; I simply won’t.
This technique made Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” a canonical piece of writing. Call it “shock value,” if you like. But it so often defines whatever genre makes proper use of it. Flirting with human deviance and taboos; exposing the faults in all our technocultural hive-making; not to mention the use of nightmarish imagery to evoke a more visceral reaction in the reader . . .
Science fiction often becomes a study in contrasts, painting for us a clearer picture of what it means to be human by filling the negative space with a reality we’d rather not experience ourselves. There is a perceived dichotomy among critics — between fiction that holds scientific progress in a high regard, and that which shows it to be inherently dangerous or wrongheaded. But I sincerely doubt that any writer working in the field of SF believes that science or invention is a thing to be feared; instead, it seems that the literature concerns itself first and foremost with maintaining the humanity in our global society.
Whether holding to light the frightening metaphysical implications of idealism, as with Dick’s “The Electric Ant,” or showing us just how utterly different we may one day become in our unending quest for immortality through advancing biotech, as with “Married,” “Jenny’s Sick,” or “The People of Sand and Slag,” fantastika is becoming increasingly more imaginative and diverse. More dreamlike. And I think that notions of genre will prove just as elastic in the years to come, whether the intent is to elevate scientific progress, to terrify the reader, or both.
A Study in Contrasts: Fantastika in All Its Forms
“The Electric Ant,” Philip K. Dick, F&SF (Oct. 1969)
“Jenny’s Sick,” David Tallerman, Lightspeed (Dec. 2010)
“Liking What You See: A Documentary,” Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others
“Married,” Helena Bell, Upgraded, ed. Clarke (forthcoming from Wyrm Publishing)
“A Touch of Strange,” Theodore Sturgeon, F&SF (Jan. 1958)
“The People of Sand and Slag,” Paolo Bacigalupi, F&SF (Feb. 2004)
“Real Artists,” Ken Liu, TRSF (Oct. 2011)
“Significant Dust,” Margo Lanagan, Cracklescape
“The Pedestrian,” Ray Bradbury, F&SF (Feb. 1952)
“Anuta Fragment’s Private Eyes,” Ben Godby, Shimmer no. 18 (Feb. 2014)
“The Brave Little Toaster,” Cory Doctorow, TRSF (Oct. 2011)
“She Unnames Them,” Ursula K. Le Guin, The New Yorker (Jan. 1985)
“Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy),” Geoff Ryman, F&SF (Oct. 2006)
“Of Time and Third Avenue,” Alfred Bester, F&SF (Oct. 1951)
“Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland,” Gwyneth Jones, Off Limits, ed. Datlow (1997)
“A Jar of Goodwill,” Tobias S. Buckell, Clarkesworld (May 2010)
“Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” William Gibson, Unearth 3 (1977)
“You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” Joe Hill, The Third Alternative no. 37 (2004)
“Six Months, Three Days,” Charlie Jane Anders, Tor.com (Jun. 2011)