Every now and then, somebody says something that's so lucid, so obvious-yet-hidden-in-plain sight, that your mental landscape changes when you hear it. Orson Scott Card is one of those people. (He's the author of Ender's Game, and other brilliant SF novels, in case you've been locked in a Supermax prison watching reality TV since the mid-1980s.)
In Serenity Found (Jane Espenson's latest anthology of essays on the late, great SF TV series Firefly and the big damn movie that followed), Card defines the distinction between fantasy and science fiction. And defines it brilliantly.
To paraphrase: Readers come to science fiction for radically new experiences. They want their expectations blown to hell. Readers come to fantasy for the same experience, over and over again. They want their expectations confirmed.
Brilliant. But let's let Card tell it in his own words.
Be forewarned, in his eyes, Star Wars and Star Trek are fantasy in SF clothing.
The money quote ...
"People reading Star Wars and Star Trek novels are getting the opposite of the experience readers of the genre always looked for. The science fiction genre, in print, had always been about having new experiences.
There were series and sequels, of course, but the best writers prided themselves on having each entrant in a series be quite different from the others. And, unlike the mystery genre, the sci-fi genre allowed writers of successful series to do completely unrelated books -- and the readers would follow along.
[He offers examples.]
Whereas with media tie-in novels, readers are disappointed if they don't get exactly the same experience they had before. The story is cosmetically different, but it takes readers to the same place; that's why they buy it.
It is an exercise in familiarity.
So not only was film and television sci-fi mired in an old-fashioned kind of story, it had become so financially and culturally successful that it was driving real science fiction into a corner, both in print and in film."
Amen, brother. Wish I'd said it first.
I remember the days when New Wave and Golden Age and hard SF titles bumped shoulders like so many angry, talkative smart drunks in a bar. All those titles, clamoring for attention in the back of the bookstore, right next to the pornography section. Heinlein and Ellison and Clarke and Silverberg and Zelazny and Lem and Niven and Dick and all the rest, all fighting to be heard, fighting to top the others, to be the book you buy, the book that blows your mind.
Then, like a cloud no bigger than a man's fist, the Lord of the Rings series appeared. Then the Lord of the Rings imitators. Dragons and elves, elves and dragons. Then Conan and friends. The inevitable Frank Frazetta rip-off cover of some humongously muscled, bare-chested freak holding a sword to the threatening sky while a blonde in breast plates coiled around his ankles. Then Star Trek spinoffs. Star Wars spinoffs. One after another, like the demonic brooms in the Sorcerer's Apprentice, they multiplied. They crowded out Dr. Bloodmoney, The Big Time, Childhood's End and all the stuff that made you think. They ate up the shelf space.
And the clerk looked up at you. Eyes untroubled by the thought process.
"Asimov. Uh. I think we've got him in the self-help section?"