Frazer’s Goddamned Golden Bough

Geoff Ryman is a very nice man, and I like what I’ve read of his fiction. But his luncheon speech at the 2007 International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts included a throwaway line that had me wanting to spit nails: something in the vein of “fantasy fiction, another means of turning away from the future.”

I am so sick of this notion.

The idea, as espoused by way too many people for my taste, is that fantasy is nostalgic for the past, that it turns away from the future. (Generally coupled with an implication that science fiction is therefore better, since it isn’t trying to hide its head in the sand.) Given: yes, some fantasy is nostalgic. (I’d argue that some SF is, too, but this is a rant, not a comparative textual survey.) Not all fantasy is nostalgic. I wouldn’t even say the balance of the genre is nostalgic. Yet this image persists, and I think I have put my finger on why.

Sir James Frazer had an idea, expressed in his book The Golden Bough, that went something like this: when you’re primitive you have magic; when you’re more advanced, you have religion instead; and when you’re truly civilized, you have science. And you know what? One of the common (though not universal) differences between fantasy and science fiction involves exactly those three things. The future, as often seen in SF, means more technology, less religion, less magic. Therefore, since fantasy often involves less technology, more religion, more magic, it must be anti-future. QED.

It’s warmed-over nineteenth century unilinear cultural evolutionary theory. It’s shit we debunked a century ago. And it’s alive and well in the minds of a lot of people out there.

There was at one point a discussion on Toby Buckell’s blog about the prevalence of religious plots in Battlestar Galactica and other stories. I don’t mean plots that use religious imagery, or that deal with religious themes; I mean plots that involve active religious belief and/or divine action in the story. How much future-oriented SF out there (as opposed to, say, alternate history) includes religion as a part of the daily lives of the characters? How much of it involves religion for the protagonists, instead of the aliens or Those People Over There? Some, but the prevailing idea seems to be that we’ll have gotten over the religion thing by then. Like it’s something we’re going to leave behind as we get more “civilized” — read, more technological.

Progressive views of time, of history, of human change, and if we’re not going forward (toward more technology, barring apocalypse of course), then we’re going backward, and that’s a Bad Thing. Fantasy =/= Technology. (With exceptions.) Therefore, Fantasy =/= Future. Therefore, Fantasy = Past. Therefore, Fantasy = Bad, Shameful, Pathetic, Whatever.


Obviously fantasy, science fiction, horror, mysteries, romances, and your hard-core mainstream fiction “three generations of women . . .” dynastic sagas are all, in one way or another, about the present, because they reflect our present ideas and feelings and concerns. But they can also be about the past, and about the future, because they’re about ways human beings live or have lived or can live. It’s sloppy reductionism to say science fiction as a whole is intended to predict the future, and it’s even sloppier reduction to say fantasy as a whole is nostalgic about the past.

And the next person who suggests that in my presence may find themselves with a faceful of nails, and me clearing my mouth to deliver this rant in person.