Informal Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction

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Tarzia/Essays --

Informal Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction
by Wade Tarzia, © 2007
I started writing essays for publication in 1987 when Jeff Yule, editor and creator of the science fiction and fantasy magazine, The Mage, in­vited me to a write a column after he published one of my stories. My first essay, “A Place of In-between,” (later the name of the column) set my tone: a mixed goal of writing aca­demic analyses of the fantastic genre for layperson readers (The Mage had a mostly college-level audience, I think). My only payment for the work was the enjoyment of seeing myself in print. These essays were great fun to write because I was given a free rein. The editors of The Mage kindly kept their fingers from my pie, except in a few instances, and their changes were minor (occasionally even an improvement). The Barrelhouse magazine (Doug Coulson, editor) reprinted two of these essays.
Later I tried publishing op-ed pieces with local newspapers; I published one, but have failed with others. The newspapers are really not the place for my kind of essay. The Chronicle of Higher Education, a national periodical, has been more open to my kind of tone in two instances. Most of my recent essay writing has been more in the genre of Internet listserv group discussions and blog-writing (as on the site). Though not too structured, these genres keep the creative juices flowing.
Publication Credits
“A Trace of Inbetween.” The Mage, Winter 1987 (commentary about imaginative fiction; additional essays in this column are listed below:)

-- “Decay in the Hero's Way.” Spring 1987.

-- “The Contrast of Ghasta.” Winter 1988.

* Reprinted in The Barrelhouse. Spring 1993.

-- “The Plausibility Problem.” Summer 1988.

-- “'...And Trim those Damn Ears!' -- Racism in Fantastic Genres.” Spring 1989.

-- “The Still Air, the Stained Glass: the Storms to Come in SF Movies.” Summer 1989.

* Reprinted in The Barrelhouse, Winter 1992.

-- “Death Warmed Over: the Endless Suicide.” Winter 1990.

“To Trash or Treasure Writing Style in Fantasy and SF.” The Scavenger’s Newsletter. Ed. Janet L. Fox. Issues 156-157, 1997
A Trace of In-Between
(Published in The Mage, winter 1987, my first of several columns for them; this one rambled a little; I tried to do too much, but the theme was, in the end, carried through.)
We are creatures of In-between.
Readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy are as extraordinary as their beloved alien worlds. Let me grapple with still useful ' crossroads' metaphor for a moment. At some point in its life, a being comes to the crossroads of the universe and stays there. Naturalists have known it to stand recklessly at that point for several hours without rest, quite happy and often earning the enmity of passers-by in the process. Soon the being metamorphoses into a creature of in-between. From its vantage point, it (we) can look up all roads and see things unseeable from the more conventional paths worn safe with heavy traffic. More importantly it (we) combine(s) visions gained from all directions into new and vital worlds.
Consider the results by comparing science fiction fantasy and how they work with themes often thought to belong to one genre or the other. In particular, look at two kinds of themes, one general, the other specific, that are the threads tying the genres together and linking them in ancestry.
Start with the general characteristics that each genre shares -- the implications of knowledge, that is, Magic and Science. Like science, magic requires specialized practitioners -- whether we call them wizards or proto-scientists is unimportant. What counts is that the magic operates according to internally consistent rules, and it had implications of good an evil. We certainly see these implications in examples of the genre like The Lost Continent, in which Atlantis is ultimately doomed by the abuse of politics and magic. And the One Ring of Tolkien's saga is in effect a totalitarian, Big Brother “technology” over Middle Earth, a legendary event that is brought to an end by the imbalanced use of magic which will eventually change the times into something very different.
Now look at our science fiction worlds. Need I mentioned the world changing or destroying themes in science fiction, of which many examples exist? Destroying worlds or terraforming them are both technological possibilities that exist like yin and yang, attracted together like oppositely charged particles. As for the agents through which these forces work -- whether we call our special practitioners scientists or magicians is of little importance. Our magic/science, like Tolkien's rings, offers ample opportunity to end worlds or remake them. The special knowledge that concerns each genre almost always has power over the structure and principles of the world, in the comparison between science fiction and fantasy is complete that this level.
However, the comparison of themes may proceed to more fundamental details -- indeed, as fundamental as the strange noises I heard in the woods for my childhood bedroom, as basic as the boogey man. Most of us heard the ogre out there. Most of us have been chased by It in our early dreams, often after Creature Double-Feature, although that television show was only the catalyst, not the cause. For the monster is so fundamental that we need not be surprised to find it dwelling equally comfortably in both science fiction and fantasy, and somewhat closer to home. Let me bring to your attention the theme of the 'ogre in the depths'.
I will start with a familiar example. Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back descends beneath the earth, under an evil tree, to be exact, and cuts the head from a dream image of Darth Vader. The head, it turns out, is image of his own. Ged of the Earthsea trilogy descends beneath the tones of Atuan and later escapes past the ogrish eunuch, Manan (Manan is not quite a man, and thus is not quite human). In both cases the hero escapes with knowledge: Skywalker brings knowledge back from his encounter underground, the ancient wisdom of “know thyself” which Yoda would have him learn. Ged returns to the upper air with more material stuff -- the missing runes of Erreth-Akbe (inscribed upon half a ring).
I can cite examples of less familiar works than those discussed above. In Clifford Simak's “Goodnight, Mr. James,” Henderson James has imported a dangerous, illegal “puudly,” for study. The beast escapes to reproduce itself and threaten Earth (it hates anything that can threaten its existence; that is, that hates everything that isn't a puudly). Henderson tracks it to a zoo where it has attempted to conceal itself among other interstellar oddities. He must descend into a dark, muddy moat (the as yet uncleaned cage of some other creature which has been moved elsewhere) before he finds the monster in the exhibit and kills it. From this encounter, Henderson obtains certain important knowledge about himself.
A similar descent and winning of knowledge occurs to Ransom, C.S. Lewis's interstellar “missionary” in Perelandra. He has his final confrontation with his enemy, Weston, deep in the planet Venus. After his victory over the enemy on his own turf, so to speak (Weston is possessed by the devil), Ransom is able to see that native, nonhuman life in a new way. We see that the devil has clouded Ransom's senses while he was manifest in Weston (in Christian mythology, Satan is, after all, the father of lies), but after Weston's/Satan's defeat, Ransom understands that there is no need to fear or scorn another form of life the matter where it lives or how it looks, that each has its own significance in the scheme of things. Ransom had come to this conclusion earlier in the first book of his adventures, Out of the Silent Planet, but its restatement arrives in the time when Ransom will come to a fuller understanding of the subject. The descent to gain important knowledge is vital to Lewis's attempts to write a 'unified field theory' that unites religion with ancient themes, seen in the burgeoning fantasy literature of his times, and with the growing influence of science fiction, which was soon to enter its golden age.
One thing we learn from these examples is that both fantasy and science fiction have a common ancestor. This has been recognized for some time, but perhaps not quite in the same way that I wish to show here. The hero's dissent into the earth to fight a monster is an ancient reflex -- Beowulf's fight with the ogres, updated. Readers of Beowulf will note that he too descends beneath the earth to fight an evil being. After the fight, Beowulf returns with the head of the monster as well as ancient knowledge inscribed upon a sword that he finds in the monster's lair. The knowledge concerns the lore of the giants who once contended against the creator. The ancient epic associates struggle in a deep dark place and its guardian demon with the winning of knowledge, and the nature of this knowledge itself may be entrenched in a theme of mythic contention. I will return to the subject.
Also important is a subtle possibility -- that the heroes of all eras fight monsters who are the shadowy reflections of themselves. The monster Grendel is a crusher, and Beowulf forgoes weapons to kill Grendel by crushing -- the hero essentially makes a transformation in order to deal with the monster. Take this poem as the model, and note its intriguing application in today's 'epics'. Ged passes by the murderous eunuch by pushing them in the pit into which the eunuch had intended to push Ged. In effect, Ged switches places with his enemy. Henderson James's monster is about to bud off to duplicate itself, and he learns from the dying monster that he himself as a duplicate. Skywalker's dream fight with Darth Vader ends with the eerie suggestion that both men are somehow related. Finally, when Ripley of the recent film Aliens climbs inside the hydraulic lifting suit so that she can meet the alien with equal strength, does she not become a monster herself in order to defeat the alien? If we look deeper, we see in her “adoption” of the little girl, one of the survivors of the alien's ravages, an expression of motherhood -- and isn't the alien monster a mother itself, protecting her eggs and getting revenge for dead children? In the end, Ripley climbs from the airlock pit, at the bottom of which is the open door, in deep, dark space from which the monster came and in which the monster is finally defeated. The knowledge that she wins? Hard to say, and here the theme may be incomplete, unless we see it in the final frame of the movie where she calmly sleeps in suspended animation beside the little girl during a long voyage home. This is Ripley's final realization of community and family, where before she was a lone figure amidst treachery and contention. I fear lest the producer envisions another sequel to Alien; it would spoil both my theory in the complete, symbolic structure that has been formed through the two films.
These similarities are not coincidental. The heroes and heroines of today's fantastic literature search the hideous depths of the world and of themselves and return with greater understanding. This is their right; this is their inheritance. I think that these echoes stem from the fundamental beliefs of tribal culture, which underlie all complex societies like our own. Tribal shamans, sometimes less precisely called ‘witch doctors’, often claimed to transform themselves into animals in order to take on their characteristics, perhaps to take on natural powers to help the community. Whether the actual physical transformation occurs or not is unimportant; I am interested only in the claim, for belief can function almost as well as the actual occurrence when it is sincere. And I venture to say that no better way to control the world around us exists than to transform ourselves into that which we must control. It makes little difference whether the transformation is literary or physical, since creatures of in-between become by imagining, suspending disbelief for awhile and believing.
In summary, the themes of good science fiction and fantasy are not mutually exclusive; both are sensitive to the themes of far older tales. I have good reasons to suggest that we should read ancient literature and folklore alongside tales of swordsmen and star ships if we want deep awareness of the role of fantastic literature. Surely, creatures of in-between are well equipped to appreciate the wisdom offered by the various places in time and space. We dwell at the crossroads of worlds; we are excellently poised to assimilate ideas from all directions -- our prime element in our transformations, in our remaking of reality.
That is, after all, what we do. All of us participate, writers and readers, transforming ourselves and our worlds. We shared responsibility, for the concoctions of our minds are both wondrous and dangerous. “Dangerous?” you say. “I need only stretch my hand from the safety of my armchair and reach for Tolkien or Heinlein.” True enough. But some danger lies in the ability to look equally into the past, the possible future, and the alternative present. We are shape-changers in a very real sense, rearranging our structures with every fantastic thought, ready and able to comprehend any kaleidoscope of ideas put before us. But this warning holds for us as much as it does for any mad scientists: the danger lies in what we make, in risk arises in the way our transformations change the world. For place and time simultaneously mold to our imagination and mold us. No one is ever quite the same after participating in a well-told story. This is especially true for those of us to whom the stage of well-told story is more multi-formed than any other art form.
Like sorcerers delving deeply into dark matters, we are affected by dangerous visions. Imbued in wonders up to our eyebrows, we can't too readily accept the spending of billions of dollars on wonders meant to save us from real and imagined threats, sometimes with simpler solutions may suffice. This kind of danger ordinarily arises in shortsighted politicians and commentators. But for us danger lies in 'long-sightedness'. We who stand at the crossroads and see all ways stand at the center of dizzying possibilities that can paralyze us as we wait for the last unicorn to foal and bring back the magic again. The best of our literature tells us just that. It tells us to sweat and struggle now with difficult concepts and decisions.
Science fiction and fantasy have been a centralizing force in the creation of a thoughtful community. In the community of in-between we select what worlds we create and enter -- and what stimulating ideas we will bring back to share with the outside. This is otherwise known on the mundane plane as buying books and seeing movies, selecting stories for books and movies, responding to writers and editors, and responding to each other. Stop to think about it; you may find that your literary hobby is more complex than you once thought. Most importantly, our hobby has directly affected this country -- the government invokes fantastic solutions to problems nearly every day (see need I mention that overworked and abused phrase? [ ‘star wars’ strategic defense initiative, at the past time of this writing constantly in the news]). And fellow creatures: the way in which the public interprets these invocations ultimately returns to us, the creators and maintainers of the field.
I'm happy to observe that out community has so far done well. In our literature, the aliens don't invade earth much anymore -- more often we meet them in starport bars and share some jokes if we can't share each other's drink due to anatomical differences. We've learned from aliens, too. If we look at many of our stories, we find that the worst enemy is ourselves. I'm not surprised that the primitive aliens in Cherryh's Downbelow Station , come off rather well compared to the humans in conflict, as the Martians do in Heinlein's Red Planet. Neither does it surprise me that, in the movie Aliens, although the monsters are terrifying enough, far more sinister was the young company official who would sacrifice his companions in order to further his corporate career. Fantasy and science fiction are the keys to such realizations. We have used that key to delve into that abyss and meet the monster, and it is us.
Our literary genre makes thoughtful comments to the denizens of the 20th-century. It allows us to build new worlds so we creatures of in-between can leave this one, then stand back objectively to see and judge ourselves from a more than human vantage point. Thus we fertilize our fiction, allowing it to sound notes of caution from its many places.
Welcome, I say! I'm pleased to meet you in In-Between, our vital little mote in the Universe's eye. Enter the Prime Plane; hang up your sword and stay awhile; my star ship is yours.
...And Trim Those Damn Ears!” Racism in the Fantastic Genres
(Published in The Mage)
What an awful damn topic to write about. I feel like a traitor. After all, I grew up read­ing fantasy and science fiction. Red Planet is the first book I remember reading. Science fiction was my escape during the few lumpy parts of my life, while others in similar crises chose to damage their bodies instead -- I owe F and SF quite a bit. But here goes.
I first thought seriously about this dis­tressing topic when I saw the movie Predator last year. Most idealistically, I dashed off a movie review for The Mage before realizing that the next issue would be out in six months. Bad timing for a movie review. The topic reared its leprous face again as I read Interpreting Folklore, by Alan Dundes.
What does folklore and fantasy have in common? Dundes and many others define folklore broadly -- it need not be constrained to Snow White. Folklore can be any common belief shared by a group of people. Folklore can be fairy tales or shared concepts trans­mitted through modern mass media, espe­cially in TV and cinema. Dundes writes, and I think this is important for us: “I am inter­ested in folklore because it represents a peo­ple's image of themselves... Folklore as a mir­ror of culture provides unique raw material for those eager to better understand them­selves and others” (p. viii).
In a chapter he discusses 'projection', which is “...the tendency to attribute to an­other person or to the environment what is actually within oneself” (p. 37), or for our purposes, we might say projection occurs when an individual or group projects their beliefs into a fantasy story. In this chapter I suddenly came across an analysis of the old TV series, Star Trek, as a model for American values:
Typically the space ship makes an unin­vited visit to some alien culture which somehow threatens the existence or safety of the ship (or the ship itself is invaded by the alien culture). ...Its leader heroes, of obvious Anglo-Saxon ancestry (Kirk, Spock, Scotty, McCoy), assisted by various assorted ethnic underlings who obey rather than give orders, take whatever action they deem necessary to free the ship. Since the ship's name is Enterprise, we have an all too thinly disguised pro­jection of what Americans will do in the name of free enterprise. And what does the crew of the Enterprise do? The usual solution consists of converting or destroy­ing the alien cultures. (p. 50)
This is a heavy indictment of a TV show that holds a warm place in many of our hearts. We might object to some of the particulars of the indictment, but on the whole, doesn't some of that objection come from a missile that has struck uncomfortably close? Hurts, doesn't it?
Dundes is making a charge of racism against Star Trek. But this is simply an in­tensification of things we have already no­ticed in the series. For example, I have to laugh when I see Yeoman Rand trying to get Kirk to look at her because the sexist values of the show -- filmed in the 1960s -- are so far from the stated values of the 1980s. And geez, don't you feel so sorry for Chekov, constantly cut off by snide jokes, his Russian ancestry often poked at? Sulu comes off a bit better -- in the 60s we were mad at Russians, not Japanese.
We've noticed these things and made al­lowances for the times from which they come and the fact that TV does well to come up with anything worth watching -- but it is racism, far from the gushing admiration that you get from Trekkies who claim how progressive the series was. And the new movies have not im­proved much on that score. (author's note 1/24/91 -- The new TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, does appear to have fewer racist and sexist themes than former Star Trek shows or most TV shows in general).
It is almost too painful to turn to Tolkein -- no! I won't do it. I can't do it. I will not re­mind you that the colored races live near Mordor and are Sauron's allies in the war against the Whites -- I mean West, sorry. And don't the Orcs have some oriental traits? When you raise that sword against an Orc in a D&D game, look twice -- it may be your neighbor.
Star Wars! We can rescue Star Wars! Aw, shit. I won't even try that one. White, WASPish heroes, alien subordinates, alien enemies, Darth Vader in black, a white princess in the forest being fawned over by furry little critters dressed like African Pygmies.
But in the end, we're safe with monsters, right? Sure we are. Heft that Pearsons Mark IV porta-cannon with no shame, no blame. Power up the fusion rifle, snap down the vi­sor of the battle armor. Sit down and relax if the armchair can take all that weight. Let's finally look at the movie Predator.
The first scene of the movie shows the members of a U.S. Army special forces team jumping from the helicopter, with of course, the camera lingering on the reclining Arnold Schwarzenegger lighting up a bazooka-sized cigar. At first I reacted against the cliché, but then, hell -- fine, Sgt. York types look macho and suck on cigars.
In the next scene our hero gets his as­signment and then confronts an old friend played by Carl Wethers (of Apollo Creed fame). Both men are equally impressive with muscles where muscles are not supposed to be. And then, the requisite confrontation, the HAND GRIP, in which big white Schwarzenegger beats big black Wethers. Wether's character was wearing a tie, so maybe that explains everything; I feel wimpy while wearing one. Finally I admit­ted it had to be pedantic reverse discrimina­tion on my part; but indulge me, and follow on.
Our heroes go beyond the border of an un­friendly Central American country to rescue an American diplomat shot down behind the line. Of course, the jungle is full of Soviet-trained, Hispanic rebels. Now, I suppose we ought to praise right-wing efficiency -- take out Rusky intervention and Central American rebels all in one scene; just another day in saving the Western World from starving Marxist Hispanics, thank God, Guts, and Guns.
Then the monster-movie/super-hero part can begin. No intellectual concepts here, but it's all pure entertainment that has its own function for tired brains. Hey, I like to set down Shakespeare and pick up Fighting Men of Mars, you all know that by now.
But some unnecessary baggage gets in the way of that, sorry. I had to blind one eye to the captive Hispanic woman being pushed and shoved around, or I had to adopt another approach -- just to let myself enjoy the movie, understand -- and that's this: Well, that's what she gets for leaving her maize-cakes back in her hungry village and chal­lenging the status quo; it's a Republican-American-male's jungle out there! After that initial responsibility on my part, it was all a piece of cake. You know, the feeling gets in­fectious, too. Now what was I so upset about?
The first white man to get it from the monster is surprised, obviously, and so he can't defend himself. Forgiven. The second man to get it is another Straight White Male who carries a rapid-fire cannon that I guess he ripped from a Huey with his teeth. Well, he gets it from behind, obviously the only way a real Man like that can be defeated. Get that backstabbing monster!
The cannon-carrier's buddy is black and unerringly loyal (this begins to make sense; what was I so disturbed about?). He devotes his life from then on to avenge his friend's death. He runs out into the jungle alone and even finds the Predator. Carl Wethers helps him outflank the alien, but, I must report that all is well, there are no nasty surprises. The two black men who have their eyes on the monster and are well armed -- they buy the farm, not from behind, but from in front. Of course, of course: they're loyal and brave -- but easy prey from any angle.
The movie goes on. Suspense. Action. Special effects. Great, great! The next prey: an American Indian whose sixth sense tells him of impending doom and he wants to face it like an Indian. That is, he throws away his flack jacket and M-16 (the survivors could have used the ammo, but that's a superstitious Indian for you), and stands entranced before the Predator, knife ready against a laser-guided blaster and neato electronic camou­flage. Damn, but I love it when red men do that! How did that movie director think of ev­erything? Indians are always throwing tom­ahawks in the face of superior weapons, and the good things in life stay that way.
I was worried about racism! Nope. This movie proves it. Sure, the only survivor of the team is the leader, a big white man, but that special forces team was right in line with Affirmative Action: three white men, two Negroes, and an Indian, and just maybe one of the white men was a Jew, probably the polite guy with the glasses and the Uzi.
But best, best of all, the Predator had dread-locks, just like those Rastas with their funny, illegal-alien music that always sounds the same! I almost shouted out with the man who sat in front of me, “It's a dread-head! Go back to Jamaica!”
It all makes sense! Funny looking foes from jungles are always after us. And the producers created a plausible alien monster, for our own Earth history tells us that intelli­gent beings can have arts and technology alongside a barbaric, pointless philosophy that equates foreign beings with animals, monsters, and hunting season. To Hell with the “willing suspension of disbelief”! Panzies! Who has to work that hard? There really could be a Predator! What powerful liquor, and best of all, brewed in the USA!
I'm with Jonathan Swift (see A Modest Proposal) -- let's eat their children, too. Maybe in the sequel?
POSTSCRIPT: I really was in the theatre when some oaf yelled out “Go back to Jamaica!” From such things are articles made of. I have dredged up some of the worst aspects of the fantastic genres. We know there is good stuff out there that fights racism, sexism, and eth­nocentrism. But the bad stuff is so much more visible. The American public pays big bucks to watch or read about white folk armed to the teeth blasting foreigners.
Some of those foreigners are monsters, and sometimes those monsters are just a dis­guised portrait of our neighbors here on Earth. We are projecting our values on a very pliable genre that molds images to our desires and disguises them better than other genres can. Science fiction and fantasy are one huge ink-blot test!
But if our favorite genre has rust under the shine, then it also contains the cure. I mentioned my debt to the genre in the be­ginning. Now I see that debt is greater than I thought. Red Planet, one of the hoary elders in the field, my first real book, tells the tale of arrogant human beings on a Mars colony who have plotted against their own people as well as the native race (we can't call them aliens when we're visitors!). The resident Martians kick us off the planet. We had our chance to get along, the book says, and we blew it. Thank you, Mr. Heinlein. The seeds of the cure are planted at the foundation. We have a chance.
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