When I first started reading science fiction, I thought it superior to ordinary fantasy because science fiction prepared readers for the future. I never believed science fiction predicted the future, but I did believe science fiction could seriously ponder future possibilities. To me, the best science fiction was philosophical, speculative, and extrapolated on current trends. Both the fixup novel The Dying Earth by Jack Vance and the anthology The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan ponders the far future. But do their stories say anything serious about the future? Do any of their stories speak specifically to the adult mind? Or are they just fairy tales for grown up readers?

The Dying Earth is a collection of six related short works of fantasy that imagines life on Earth after the sun grows old, which is a wonderful science fictional concept. The stories are a cross between fantasies about magicians and science fiction about dying civilizations that barely remembers technology. In a vague way, its stories remind me of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights, but that’s because I just read “Ask Yourself Which Books You Truly Love” by Salman Rushdie in The New York Times. Rushdie was writing about our love of stories, especially the ones we first encounter as children. But I thought the Arabian Nights stories imagined when humanity and history were young, and the Jack Vance stories imagine humanity and history when old.

The Dying Earth contain these six stories:

  • “Turjan of Miir”
  • “Mazirian the Magician”
  • “T’sais”
  • “Liane the Wayfarer”
  • “Ulan Dhor”
  • “Guyal of Sfere”

The first three stories feel like Aesop, Homer or Grimm, simple fable or fairy tale in tone, while the later ones grow in sophistication feeling more like Dante or Chaucer. “Ulan Dhor” comes across the most like science fiction, but science fiction from the 1930s out of Weird Tales.

After “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells, and The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, other writers began expanding the end of time theme, but Vance got to name it with this book. Normally, I don’t like fantasy stories, but I did like The Dying Earth. This book was so successful that Vance wrote more stories about living under the dark red sun that were collected in three different volumes. I haven’t read them yet, but I bought Tales of the Dying Earth for the Kindle which puts all four into one book.

Normally, I avoid fantasy, preferring science fiction, but I started life as a bookworm with the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. If you only know Oz from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, then you don’t know Oz. Not that the film isn’t wonderful, but it doesn’t convey the vastness of Baum’s fantasy worldbuilding. I’m not a scholar on children’s fantasy books, but is there any fictional world building before the 20th century that can compete with the Oz books?

I know pop culture has pretty much forgotten Baum’s fantasyland, but for children growing up in the early decades of the 1900s, the Oz books were as popular as the Harry Potter books are today. Many classic science fiction writers grew up reading Oz books, including Robert A. Heinlein, who referenced them in his later World as Myth novels.

I bring up the Oz books here because Baum’s basic plotting device is often used by fantasy and science fiction writers. It works like this. Introduce one or more normal characters, and maybe some exotic or magical characters. Give them a quest. Take the group from one strange location to the next, where they meet wonders and far out beings. Keep it up until you’ve filled a book’s worth of pages. Tie things up with a satisfying insight. Ringworld by Larry Niven is a great example of this, and so is some of the stories in The Dying Earth, especially “Ulan Dhor” and “Guyal of Sfere.” The later story even has an Oz like wizard that explains things at the end.

The Dying Earth theme is powerful because writers usually explore two visions: the end of man, and the end of Earth. Just to meditate on that idea generates a powerful sense of wonder. However, I don’t think Vance’s stories say any more about the future than One Thousand and One Nights says about the past. They are just fairy tales for grownups. Modern fantasy has vastly evolved past these stories in sophistication. I will keep reading in this series because I’ve been told Vance eventually gets more sophisticated too, but I wonder if he ever gets more adult.

I wonder if the 20th century trend of writing stories set in an ever-growing fantasyland might have begun with Baum? That kind of never-ending world building appeals to both children and adolescents, and has apparently seduced many an adult reader too, because it seems like all genre writers are churning out countless books in series. And doesn’t our hunger for story series and complex world building comes from our childhood love of fantasy series?

The Dying Earth as a theme keeps expanding with new writers and new readers. Science fiction writers and readers also love the Far Future as a similar setting for a theme, although the name for that theme seems to have become The New Space Opera. Fans of this theme don’t worry about the end of the Earth or humankind, because they believe humanity has plenty of places to go. And like Baum inventing endless fantasy beings for Oz, the New Space Opera writers have invented endless far out aliens, robots, AI, transhuman, and posthumans to populate stories using this theme.

But to be honest, I’m not that fond of the New Space Opera theme. Oh, the ideas they come up with have a wonderful sense of wonder, but these stories are often presented as hard science fiction, which imply their science fictional inventions could be possible, and I don’t believe that. The opening of “Glory” by Greg Egan is dazzling. It sounds so scientific yet I can’t believe it’s no more realistic than magic. It begins:

An ingot of metallic hydrogen gleamed in the starlight, a narrow cylinder half a meter long with a mass of about a kilogram. To the naked eye it was a dense, solid object, but its lattice of tiny nuclei immersed in an insubstantial fog of electrons was one part matter to two hundred trillion parts empty space. A short distance away was a second ingot, apparently identical to the first, but composed of antihydrogen.

A sequence of finely tuned gamma rays flooded into both cylinders. The protons that absorbed them in the first ingot spat out positrons and were transformed into neutrons, breaking their bonds to the electron cloud that glued them in place. In the second ingot, antiprotons became antineutrons.

A further sequence of pulses herded the neutrons together and forged them into clusters; the antineutrons were similarly rearranged. Both kinds of cluster were unstable, but in order to fall apart they first had to pass through a quantum state that would have strongly absorbed a component of the gamma rays constantly raining down on them.

Left to themselves, the probability of them being in this state would have increased rapidly, but each time they measurably failed to absorb the gamma rays, the probability fell back to zero. The quantum Zeno effect endlessly reset the clock, holding the decay in check.

The next series of pulses began shifting the clusters into the space that had separated the original ingots. First neutrons, then antineutrons, were sculpted together in alternating layers. Though the clusters were ultimately unstable, while they persisted they were inert, sequestering their constituents and preventing them from annihilating their counterparts. The end point of this process of nuclear sculpting was a sliver of compressed matter and antimatter, sandwiched together into a needle one micron wide.

The gamma ray lasers shut down, the Zeno effect withdrew its prohibitions. For the time it took a beam of light to cross a neutron, the needle sat motionless in space. Then it began to burn, and it began to move.

You can finish the whole story here.

The stories in The New Space Opera are exactly what I wanted to believe in growing up. I desperately wanted humanity to have all this potential. I knew I’d never live to see such successes in space, but I wanted to die confident that humanity would go on to achieve these wonders. Now that I’m approaching seventy, I realize my childhood dreams were wishful fantasies, no more realistic than the far-out promises of religion. Sure, we will explore space, but not like the epic super-science visions produced by the New Space Opera stories. We’re not going to transfer our minds into other bodies, whether biological or digital. We’re not going to build spaceships the size of Jupiter. We’re not going to have galaxy spanning civilizations. All those ideas are just fairy tales for adults.

However my problem with the New Space Opera stories is not that they imagine impossible futures, but how the stories are often told. Many of the stories in this anthology cram too many ideas into one plot. Their authors love to jam in so many speculative concepts that basic story gets crushed. Characterization and plotting take a back seat to worldbuilding. And it’s not that these writers are constantly infodumping ideas, but instead they throw out endless hints assuming readers can fill in the details mentally. Often those hints require cognitive decryption which for me distracts from the story. Sometimes stories combine a dozen science fictional concepts into one futuristic setting as if every science fictional speculation to date will come true. The cumulative effect is a goulash of cliché science fiction. That’s why when I got to Kage Baker’s “Maelstrom” it felt refreshingly different. Her speculation about colonizing Mars took a backseat to plot and character. That’s why I prefer Robert Reed’s “Good Mountain” to “Hatch,” his entry in the anthology.

I’m afraid too many of the stories in The New Space Opera depend too much on the big standard theories of current SF. I love science fiction for its ideas, but I also need a good story. Dense worldbuilding isn’t good enough for me. But hey, that might just be me. Maybe my aging brain can’t handle modern science fiction. Maybe that’s why I preferred Vance’s fantasy stories, even though I prefer science fiction over fantasy. Evidently, there’s something in how storytellers need to tell adult fairy tales that count.

Paul Fraser in our science fiction short story discussion group on Facebook makes a distinction between dense stories and story stories in modern SF fiction. I agree. I think the editor Gardner Dozois liked to promote dense stories, and we see that in The New Space Opera. Our group has seen dense stories popular in Asimov’s Science Fiction too. See their list of finalists for their 35th annual reader awards. One example of an overly dense story is Ray Nayler’s “Return to the Red Castle,” where he takes a simple plot of a woman wanting to help her old teacher, an android, recover her memory, by throwing in enough ideas for a half-dozen science fiction stories. I wanted the story to be more about Irem and Umut’s issues with memory, and less about the world building for the Istanbul Protectorate. But obviously, plenty of readers loved it just the way it is.

But whatever you prefer, dense or story, aren’t these stories still adult fairy tales? Isn’t the problem how the story is told rather than issues with the content? Is Little Red Riding Hood and her problems with the wolf any different in true age appeal than Irem’s problem with her android? I’m sure James Joyce and Proust’s novels are aimed at adult minds. But how much science fiction is truly adult in nature? And I’m not talking about X-rated content. If young children and young adults had the readings skills, wouldn’t they find most science fiction and fantasy fiction appealing? Can you name any science fiction novel that only appeals to a mature mind?

I wonder now if The Dying Earth and The New Space Opera stories aren’t aimed at the child in me. That I still read such stories because I never grew up. Or maybe, the wonders we imagined in childhood never leave us. As a ten year-old I wanted to live in Baum’s Oz. As a thirteen year-old I wanted to live on Heinlein’s Mars. It’s taking me sixty-nine years to accept the only place for humans is Earth, but I’m not sure if I will ever grow up and accept that. I have to wonder if I’ve never outgrown fairy tales.

James Wallace Harris, 6/3/21

5 thoughts on “Is Science Fiction Just Fairy Tales?

  1. Some planetary romance novels (which isn’t far from Space Opera subgenre) contribute to ethical topics like gender equality or other. Think of Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness or the Dispossessed.
    There are also Space Operas which make it exactly clear that Earth is the only planet for us, like KSR‘s Aurora.
    But you’re right when you point out that many Space Operas are trivial in a literary sense. There’s nothing wrong about that, but they‘d never get five stars from me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I think George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides might qualify under your criteria.

    The fabulous adventure of life alone to scavenge at will isn’t that great. Its hero has to ultimately realize his plans to rebuild civilization aren’t possible and has to go for more modest skills of survival and not civilization. He becomes sort of a god or mythic hero but knows he, like all men, is doomed to dust and anonymity

    In short, it’s a novel of middle and old age and disappointment mixed with some modest hope.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. My apologies for coming late to this discussion. I haven’t yet read all the works discussed here, but even if many science fiction stories are in effect fairy tales for adults, I wonder if adults really need to outgrow fairy tales? I love science fiction as a branch of fantastic literature, so I’m not concerned about the distinction between SF and fantasy. Many seemingly fantastic, implausible themes (time travel, intergalactic travel, etc.) may still express ideas about the world we live in, however obliquely, so reading (and writing) them isn’t necessarily immature.

    Liked by 1 person

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