Thursday, Daniel Abraham posted a brief essay on his blog
entitled “In Defense of Exoticism” in which he examines the role exoticism plays in SFF. He defines exoticism as “the commodification of the Other, appropriating the thoughts or clothing or music or food or religion of an unfamiliar culture for the charm of the unfamiliar.” He goes, in a wandering sort of way, to discuss some other aspects of this thought, specifically the concept of Other. And when I say in a wandering way, I in no way intend anything derogatory. Abraham himself says he’s still thinking this topic through and his post would be a little rough around the edges, and I respect that.
But this essay got me thinking. What’s wrong with the charm of the unfamiliar? And where are we to find it, if not in other cultures, epochs, music, etc. Now I realize that the key verb in Abraham’s sentence is “commodification” and that is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. That’s not a debate I want to get into at this point. Instead, my thoughts went down a different avenue.
I mentioned in my report on ConDFW a panel discussion about whether magic systems should be organized in some sort of way that resembled science. My comment from the audience was that maybe more people of reading fantasy than science fiction these days, and I can well remember when that wasn’t the case at all, because fantasy was providing that sense of wonder that science fiction once did.
There are a number of reasons why science fiction has been supplanted by fantasy, and a number of them come down to sense of wonder. Shelf space in the science fiction section of many books stores is being taken over by media tie-ins, many of them generic. Our citizens are increasing familiarity with scientific and technological achievements while their ignorance of scientific principles is (if anything) increasing. Science, and by extension science fiction, have failed to produce the promised wonders of the future (I want my flying car, dammit). To steal a quote whose source I can’t remember, we’ve reached the future and found it not to be Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov’s future, but Phillip K. Dick’s. Fantasy still provides that escape from the humdrum world, and that future. It provides an Other that, even at fantasy’s darkest, gives that sense of wonder. Horror on the other hand, gives just the opposite: a sense of fear and oppression. And that sense is part of much of science fiction. So much that last year, an anthology titled Shine had the theme of optimistic near futures.
Think about how many new fantasy series have been promoted in the last few years with an emphasis on the uniqueness of their magical systems. The magical system in any fantasy, including urban fantasy, is an extension of the author’s world building, and world building is one of the main things by which an author will rise or fall, be the world a fantasy world, a futuristic science fictional world, or a detailed historical era. It’s not the only thing that can make or break an author’s work, but in any setting that’s not contemporary, mainstream society, the world building can be as important as the characterization or plot.
Abraham says there’s something in his psychology that’s deeply attracted to the idea of an Other. He implies that this a basic human trait. I think it is. Call it exoticism, call it sense of wonder, call it a search for transcendence, call it what you like. There is something in all of us that wants, even needs, to experience the new, the exotic. That will be different things to different people.
As an example, when we were in Kazakhstan adopting out son, we took at trip one afternoon and evening to the city of Turkestan. I’ve written a little about it. One of our lawyers seemed disappointed when we didn’t find the trip to be exotic. We saw lots of flat plains with men on horses herding cattle. I’ve lived most of my life in Texas. There was nothing to me about seeing those things that I found exotic; instead, they were comfortingly familiar in land where even the food on my plate was exotic. The only difference was the cows in Kazakhstan looked both ways before they crossed the highway. (I’m not making that last bit up. They really did wait by the side of the highway to cross. Cows in Texas would have wandered out in front of on-coming vehicles without a thought. I’m not sure why that was the case, but it was.) Now someone who had lived all of his or her life in New York City would have probably found such sights very exotic.
Science fiction used to deliver that exotic sense of wonder, where humans ventured into the universe, with or without leaving the planet, and found all sorts of wonders waiting for them. Of course, these days science has lost some of its luster and exploration is no longer a priority. Case in point: the United States in in the process of ending its manned space program. And if you believe the government’s assurances that it’s only until the next generation of launch vehicle can be designed and built, then I have a bridge I can get you a good deal on. Thankfully, the private sector seems to be picking up the ball and running with it, at least somewhat.
But I digress. Fantasy is filling the role that science fiction, science, the space program, and human exploration in general once did on a larger scale. Magic never loses its sense of wonder or exoticism because it can never be explained. That’s why I think fantasy is now more popular than science fiction.