Since I helped create this site in part as a home for leftover stories from The Sword Laser Anthology submissions, it would be a little hypocritical if I didn’t put one of my own up. I hope you get a chuckle or two from reading it. I think I was inspired by some of the S&L forum discussions on Goodreads. In my defence, I wrote this on the last day and submitted it two hours before the deadline. It’s only 1500 words, but I thought it would have made a good prologue.
Putting the Argument to Rest
By Sean Sandulak
“I can’t believe you like fantasy over science fiction,” said Tyrell. “Elves and trolls are for babies.”
Caprice put the copy of Dragon Prisoner back on the used bookstore shelf and looked at her boyfriend with a mix of disgust and disbelief. “Actually, fantasy is making a huge comeback. It’s outselling sci-fi in print, on television, and in the movies. It’s for everyone, not just kids.”
“It’s just a passing fad. They come and go all the time.” Tyrell waved her away dismissively. “Besides, you can’t tell the quality of something by how many people like it. If anything, the opposite is true.”
“You keep telling yourself that while our fandom grows and yours shrivels,” she said. “Sci-fi is dead like jazz. It’s just for old fogeys and relics of the Cold War.”
“And fantasy is just for little girls with unicorn fetishes like you,” he taunted. He held up the old copy of Amazing Stories that he was still considering buying. “There will always be a place for sci-fi because it’s about contemporary fears extrapolated into the future. As long as people are afraid, there will be a place for sci-fi. It helps them deal with what’s coming and frame it in a way that they can control.”
“Great. So it’s like literary Xanax,” she joked. “Well, fantasy is all about epic tales of courage and morality. We have the great heroes going on noble quests, saving the kingdom from evil. You have a bunch of guys in a rocket going out and shooting aliens. It’s just propaganda without a war. And a little racist, now that I think about it.”
“If you want to talk about morality,” said Tyrell, “then why would you set a story in Medieval Europe. That was a time of unbounded horrors against humanity. You’re just romanticizing cruelty and bigotry because they had shiny armour and held fancy balls. They earned their wealth by exploiting millions of suffering peasants.” He snorted in disgust. “Paragons of virtue, indeed.”
Caprice ran her fingers idly across the spines of the books. She still wasn’t sure exactly what she was in the mood for yet, but she would know it when she saw it. “It’s meant to be allegorical, not historically accurate. The fantasy world exists to tell a story that’s relevant to the reader of today. In that way, it’s no different from warp drive or aliens. It just has a different set of tropes.”
Tyrell leaned over her. “You just like sweaty men in tight loincloths battling it out to see who will steal your virginity.”
“Funny,” she quipped as she pushed him back. “Fantasy doesn’t even have to be medieval. Urban fantasy isn’t set in the past. It’s contemporary fiction.”
“Yeah, but that’s all just vampires and werewolves,” moaned Tyrell. “Teenage masturbatory fodder.”
“You’re disgusting,” she said. Caprice rounded the corner of the book stack to try to put some distance between them, but he just followed her. “Fantasy isn’t just wish-fulfillment. It’s all about transcending the mundane to discover your true character.”
“Science is at the heart of sci-fi,” Tyrell said proudly, “and that’s about the pursuit of real knowledge. We literally expand our understanding of the world with each new discovery.” Somehow they had wandered into the self-help section. He plucked a book on crystal healing from the shelf beside him. “None of your new age garbage like this. Just the simple, honest truth.”
“Oh, and science has done such a wonderful job of making us better people,” she said. “That’s why we have global warming, polluted water, and an arsenal of weapons to destroy the world a hundred times over. In fantasy, power always comes with a price. That shows how evil actions are the source of your own demise. Sci-fi technology is morally neutral, so it lacks the depth that only fantasy can bring.
“On the contrary, you’re confusing ambivalence with realism. A good story shows how people’s actions affect themselves and others. The real world isn’t always good versus evil like in your fairy tales. Life is more complicated than that. We have to learn the rules of the universe to control and manipulate it, and in doing so we create a whole new paradigm.”
“Magic is just special pleading for whiners who don’t like the world they live in,” he continued. “People are sick? Whoosh, healing potion. Want to fly? Poof, fairy dust. It’s just lazy writing. Happy kingdom gets attacked by monster and along comes the brave knight to slay monster, marry the princess and live happily ever after. The end. Boring.”
“You don’t have a romantic bone in your body, do you?” asked Caprice. “It’s not about the setting at all. It’s all about the characters and how they interact.”
“Ugh. Don’t even get me started on romance novels,” he answered, pointing at the long rows of paperbacks cluttering up the back wall.
“Romantic, not romance,” she said. “It means looking at the world in the way you would like it to be, not in the way that it is.”
Tyrell shot back, “That’s also called self-deception.”
Caprice sighed. “You’re a hopeless cynic. And there’s nothing wrong with romance novels. Have you ever even read one?”
“I don’t have to get punched in the face to know it hurts,” he answered.
“If you don’t stop being so obstinate,” she said, “you just might get your wish.”
“Bring it on, warrior princess.”
She smiled. As frustrating as he was sometimes, he could also be charming. They took their books up to the counter to pay for them. The clerk, an old man with hair like steel wool, eyed them coolly.
“All right if you’re so smart, answer me this,” she challenged Tyrell. “If you were to travel back in time to the Stone Age and write a sword and sorcery epic, would that be science fiction or fantasy?”
Without missing a beat, he answered, “If I were to travel back in time, or the character in the story?”
Caprice shook her head. “This is why I don’t read time travel stories. They get complicated so quickly.”
Tyrell looked smug and said, “And that’s why they’re better than fantasy. It all comes down to the magic. If we’re supposed to believe that the magic is real, then it’s fantasy.”
“But it takes place in the future,” she said, “so doesn’t that make it science fiction?”
“No, that’s not actually relevant,” said Tyrell. “The defining difference between the two is whether the forces acting on the characters are natural or supernatural. Anytime something happens because of magic, that is what makes it fantasy.”
“So are time travel and warp drive magic? she asked. “Neither of those is real. If that is your argument, then you can say everything is fantasy.”
“No, those things are meant to be projections of future technology. They are usually just plot devices to move the story along. You can’t have a decent interstellar war if it takes centuries to travel to the next planet.”
“It still sounds like cheating to me,” she said.
“Well, you have to give the writers some leeway,” said Tyrell. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be science fiction. It would just be plain, old fiction. It’s the imagining of the possible that makes it worth reading. With fantasy, you’re imagining the impossible, which makes it worthless.”
“You’re both wrong,” interrupted the clerk. “Genres aren’t about stories, writers, or their fans. They’re just labels that marketing executives hang on to books and movies so they know what audience to target. A good story stands by itself, whether it’s space opera or high fantasy, cyberpunk or steam punk. It’s the quality of the writing and the relevance of the story to the reader that make it great.”
“Actually,” said Caprice, “it kind of makes sense when you say it like that.”
“It does put the entire argument into perspective.” said Tyrell.
“Besides,” the clerk added, “The best genre is clearly horror.”
“Oh yeah? Why is that?” demanded Tyrell
“Because sometimes the monster wins.”
From under the counter, two large, green tentacles emerged and grabbed the bickering customers by their necks. The clerk-monster smiled as they flailed helplessly against his iron grip until their faces turned blue, and their bodies went limp. He squeezed even tighter and the boy’s head popped off of his body like champagne cork, sending a shower of blood over the counter and floor. He picked up the head and cracked open the skull like a nut.
“I love people who read,” said the clerk-monster as he drooled over the boy’s head. “They have the juiciest brains.”
(CC BY-NC-ND) 2013 Sean Sandulak