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On Fantasy and Utility... (A Rant for your Consideration/Critique)

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message 1: by Rob Secundus (new)

Rob Secundus (quintessential_defenestration) | 1035 comments So, after getting very behind this past December/January, I'm finally catching up on the podcast and picks. And one recent discussion really bothered me-- that concerning the usefulness of Science Fiction and the less-apparent usefulness of Fantasy.

I think these kinds of discussions are at best misguided and at worst destructive.

The idea that literature should have a use is an old one and a common one, particularly in America, and this idea is pretty related to the stigma against SFF-- the TLDR is that frivolity is bad, and so one should focus on reading Improving Literature that might increase your virtue, knowledge, godliness, etc etc. Even in secular culture, this hasn't gone away-- see the general reaction against the humanities, any STEMlordy rant about how real intellectuals read nonfiction, etc etc.

When we accept this idea, we not only endanger existing good literature (remember what the Trisolarons thought about literature?), but also encourage the production of bad literature. We get Pilgrim's Progress, or, at best, The Magic School Bus.

In the end, literature is great because it is useless. David Jones, the World War 1 poet, said the following:

"It is the intransitivity and gratuitousness in man’s art that is the sign of man’s uniqueness; not merely that he makes things, nor yet that those things have beauty. For it must be noted and stressed that works of meticulous perfection and beauty of many kinds are commonly produced by beasts of many kinds… in none of the animalic making is there any evidence of the gratuitous, nor is there any evidence of ‘sign.’ This making is wholly functional, these activities are transitive."

Making stuff that is gratuitous, that is useless, but that is in itself True/Good/Beautiful is the most human thing we can do-- at least, that's what I think David Jones is saying.

Looking this over, it maybe kind of looks like I'm accusing Tom and Veronica (and the S&L community) of preparing us all for our fascistic Trisolaran overlords-- which I'm not! I'm just saying that the impulse to look for uses-of-literature can be oriented in a dangerous direction, and there's good reason to just stand up and proclaim "THIS FANTASY NOVEL IS USELESS! AND THUS-- IT IS AWESOME."


message 2: by Tassie Dave, S&L Historian (new)

Tassie Dave | 3466 comments Mod
“I, for one, welcome our TriSolaran overlords”

I think most of us here read books that are purely for entertainment, even delightfully trashy at times.

But it is good to have Sci-Fi and Fantasy that rises above that and makes you think about deeper subjects. The first 2 books of this year fall in to this category.

I don't think Veronica and Tom were asking what should SFF be good for, as an all encompassing statement, but what could some SFF be good for.

Like all art, the best (good and bad) should make you think. Even if that thought is ,WTF?
But if a piece of art is just pretty to look at and makes me feel good then thats ok too.


message 3: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Morgan (elzbethmrgn) | 272 comments If you read fantasy, especially sword-and-board oak-forest-and crenellated-castles type fantasy, I can tell you you've absorbed a great deal of cherry-picked Actual History. Even with wizards and whathaveyou, fantasy is a great place for exploring alt-history.


message 4: by Matthew (new)

Matthew (matthewdl) | 341 comments I disagree with you Rob. I've read good books and bad books; meticulously crafted books and the apparently slapped together. I've read complex books and shallow books; books that grasped for greatness and books that embraced pulp. What I have never come across is a useless book.

Reading has utility whether it's Moby Dick, Captain America, or the back of the Fruit Loops box.

Empathy, creativity, a sense of wonder, imagination, the ability to critique/analyze, patience, determination, etc. are all skills aquired through reading.

The rest of it (ie genre distinctions and their relative worth) all boils down to socially constructed value systems that change over time. One generations 'great works' are another's trash and vice versa. Some, Robert Louis Stevenson comes to mind, get to experience alternating praise and scorn over time.

But at a more individual level the books we love become a part of us in a very real way. They shape how we see ourselves and the world around us. How many of us carry a Hundred Acre Wood in our hearts? Or a Neverland, Oz, Wonderland, etc.

I get the whole art for art's sake argument and to some extent I agree with it. But I cannot abide the term useless being applied to books.


message 5: by Rick (new)

Rick | 2770 comments I've not listened to the podcast in question so I can't comment based on that but I think utility needs to be defined a bit more here. Reading alone has a usefulness as Matthew notes. Are books of a given genre 'useful' past the utility of the act of reading? Eh. Define useful for me and we can talk.


message 6: by Serendi (new)

Serendi | 828 comments Kinda my reaction. "Useful" seems to be used two different ways here.


message 7: by Rob Secundus (new)

Rob Secundus (quintessential_defenestration) | 1035 comments Rick, for "useful" I'm thinking "something whose primary end is pragmatic/practical."


Matthew wrote: "I disagree with you Rob. I've read good books and bad books; meticulously crafted books and the apparently slapped together. I've read complex books and shallow books; books that grasped for greatn..."

Yeah, I guess my terminology is bad, (maybe even hypocritical-- since I also posted something about Three Body helping me with anxiety). Jones' is gratuitous vs utile rather than useless vs useful, and that's got less oomph, but maybe it's better.

And I agree that reading does things like generate empathy and imagination. I'm just not comfortable with saying that the use or the point of reading is those things, and my worry is that if we worry too much about what good stuff fantasy gives us, we start down the path of reducing it to a utilitarian thing.

Like, ok, some guy makes a big 'ol statue, and I declare it useless/gratuitous-- it's just a statue, it's only point is to be beautiful, or maybe not even that, just to be itself. We can probably come up with uses for that statue-- maybe it provides shade, or maybe it's a useful marker for directions in a town, or maybe a cool place for a pokestop, or maybe it can be used as a battering ram in times of war-- my basic worry is that too much concern for those ends results in statue-gazers who start to look at statues like they were battering rams, or are more inclined to use them as battering rams, or are more inclined to sculpt battering rammy statues or fund the creation of battering rammy statues, and that the more battering rammy a statue is, the less statuey it is, and the whole thing is kind of fruitless anyway because if one wants a battering a ram even a super duper battering rammy statue is going to be less useful than an actual battering ram.

In those terms, are we maybe closer to agreeing than we were with my original more poorly-worded rant?


message 8: by John (Nevets) (new)

John (Nevets) Nevets (nevets) | 1524 comments Good point, I'm not sure that the "Cloud Gate" A.K.A. "The Chicago Bean" could be used for any of those things. It might be OK for checking to make sure you got the last of the mustard off your face, but I'm not even sure of that.

Oh well, guess we just have to appreciate it for what it is.

Sure, I like the fact that a lot of sci-fi books are based on the premise that they make you want to think a little harder, but I also like me some escapism too. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a fun book, and it does have a bit of an all inclusive message, but for the most part it's a lighter fun read. I do think things labeled as fantasy tend to have more of the later, and less of the first, but that's fine too. If you don't look at The Name of the Wind and see a deeper story, I believe you are missing out, but if you enjoyed it, I guess that is fine as well.


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