The Truth is Out There, But is It A Fantasy?… on the X-Files and the difference between sic-fi and fantasy
(Note: Some of my thoughts here are riffed off of comments I made in Jaybird’s Explanation! post over at Mindless Diversions. I recommend that site a lot. For those that have never jumped over to Mindless Diversions, you should. Have fun. You think about politics too much. Relax.)
Over at American Times, Erik has been toying with Alyssa Rosenberg’s musings over whether the X-Files is science fiction or fantasy. I found this question intriguing, despite my having no question that the answer is clearly science fiction. Something about the subject was tickling my brain, but it took a post by Jaybird over at Mindless Diversion to make clear what it was that was nagging me.
The question in the back of my brain whispering to be heard wasn’t “is X-Files science fiction or fantasy?” It was “what is the difference between science fiction and fantasy, anyway?”
This is an oft-debated subject in the nerdesphere, I realize, but none of the methods of categorization ever work well for me. For example, using spaceships as a sci-fi litmus test seems perfect at first blush. Yet I have always considered Star Wars, cinema’s leading creator of awesome spaceships, to be fantasy. Similarly, a book that requires the mechanism of unexplained magic seems to beg to be shelved over in the fantasy stacks. But I have never considered Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven, which has a protagonist that magically recreates the world to mirror his dreams, as anything other than science fiction. As I was responding to Jaybird’s query, it hit me what the differences between the two closely and tangentially related genres are – for me, anyway.
For me, the best differentiator between sci-fi and fantasy is not plot device, settings, props or costumes; it’s characters.
Fantasy book characters are mythic, and their stories are a way of tweaking and putting new spin on classic archetypes. Fantasy protagonists are heroes and heroines in the capital-H way that Joseph Campbell might use those words. Their authors draw their developments in ways that best allow them to follow quests, chase destinies and vanquish villains. Great fantasy writers are, in their heart of hearts, plagiarists in the best sense of the word. They take the oldest and best stories – the ones that speak to us over time – and they slyly and cleverly rework them so that they feel new and fresh. The best fantasy authors rarely cause us to reflect on our world so much as inspire us to be better in it. This is why for me Star Wars fits so seamlessly into the fantasy genre, the Millennium Falcon not withstanding.
So in a story like Harry Potter, for example, Harry isn’t just a protagonist who happens to be a really good wizard. He is a twist on the lost scion myth, fulfilling his capital-D Destiny to depose the usurper and restore goodness and order. We love Harry because his heart is Pure; his destiny has less to do with his skills than it does his bloodline. Harry might be the quintessential rascal of a boy, but his literary lineage doesn’t stem from Huck Finn and Tom Brown so much as Arthur and Perseus.
Sci-fi characters, on the other hand, are usually people like us who are put into odd and alien situations to make metaphorical points. The writer might well create a world thousands of years in the future where we all live forever in robotic bodies, but the protagonist is generally someone with a 20th or 21st century mind. Though science fiction protagonists are also heroes, they function as a way for us to explore our world’s current trends and fears (on steroids) with eyes similar to our own.
So Guy Montag is a guy very much like us, plopped into an chilling future that allows us to consider the effects of censorship. We read the experiences of Winston Smith to peek at what the potential horrors of a totalitarian Britain would be like for common folk like you and me. The Battlestar Galactaca reboot took people exactly like us, shipped them off to another part of the galaxy, and gave them an enemy within that allowed us to wrap our heads around the specter of terrorist infiltrators, public safety and compassion in the years following 9/11.
At it’s best, Star Trek succeeded in using the crew of the USS Enterprise to explore worlds that weren’t really strange and new, but remarkably like our own. Through their outside-observer eyes they helped us grapple with issues such as race relations, same sex relationships, the efficacy and morality of torture, the rules that govern war, or how we approach our own mortality. The first two series even gave us major characters – Spock and Data – that in different ways allowed us to explore what it is to be human by constantly poking at likable characters that weren’t.
This is why I have never even considered the possibility that the X-Files might be fantasy. It has little to do with whether or not there is a “scientific reason” given for a monster or plot. Erik says he thinks “the show is strongest when it is at its most inexplicable, when it veers off into its most mysterious and confounding plot lines” as a way (I think) to suggest that the show might be fantasy. I disagree, and certainly part of that disagreement stems from the fact that I think that science is at it’s best when tackling “the inexplicable,” things “mysterious and confounding.” Mostly, though, I disagree because I find the characters of Mulder and Scully to be more reflections of us and our internal battles than I do Mythic Heroes.
One of the most human aspects of their characters over time is a dynamic I reflected on over at Mindless Diversions. The series starts off with the premise that Mulder represents Faith and Scully Reason. But as the series continues I would argue that they shift in that dynamic. As the events of each episode (and the movie) passed evidence continued to accrue that there was something to “the supernatural” in general, and the existence of extra-terrestrials more specifically. At some point Scully’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the definite probability of either is the very opposite of adhering to scientific method; over time it becomes a kind of faith that these things can’t exist in the universe she want to believe in. (This part of Scully’s character development – or lack thereof – was unceremoniously and inexplicably dropkicked at the end of the Duchovny era, which was one of many, many reasons that the show had ceased to be watchable by that point.)
I know that there will be those that will find this way of separating fantasy and science fiction ridiculous, but for me this is the best of all tools to make the sticky distinction.
Oh, and also fantasy has dragons.