Monday, 21 December 2009

Romanticism and Classicism Revisited

A while ago, in fact, Christ, it was more than a year ago, I wrote a post about Romanticist and Classicist approaches to fantasy. It seems unusual that at the time, and since then up until this point, it never occurred to me that a similar dynamic applies to science fiction too. Just as you have the romantic fantasy authors (M. John Harrison, Lord Dunsany, Michael Moorcock) and the classicist fantasy authors (George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Phillip Pullman) there exist romantic and classicist science fiction writers too. And just as in fantasy, the distinction comes in the approach taken to mystery.

Broadly, romanticist fantasy writers celebrate mystery (think of The Wizard Knight or Time and the Gods) while classicist fantasy writers attempt to nullify its effects (a key aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire is that its characters do not see the world as being somehow beyond their ken). In science fiction the dynamic is slightly different. The romanticist science fiction writers do not celebrate mystery so much as they rely on it - the reason why Star Trek technologies like transporters and warp drives can exist is that both we as the watchers and they as the writers accept that by necessity the way these technologies work has to remain a mystery. Classicist science fiction writers (Arthur C. Clarke, Alastair Reynolds, Kim Stanley Robinson) on the other hand are all about smashing mystery, about casting off its shroud and creating a knowable and understandable vision of the universe which stands up at least in theory to scientific rigour.

As with my thoughts on romanticist and classicist fantasy, I'm pretty conflicted about science fiction too. The handwavium of Star Trek is what allows it to do what it does. But there is something to be said for the sheer technical skill and intelligence it requires to create a classicist vision of the future.


  1. Hard vs Soft scifi dualism is dualistic. ;)

    At one end of the continuum you have romanticist wish fulfillment like Skylark of Space, Flash ("Aaaaah-ah!") Gordon and Star Fleet/Trek/Wars. These are aka 'skiffy', and can be typified as a bunch of tacked together Shakespearean and/or classical allusions with an effectively disposable sci-fi trappings and backdrop. Star Trek is effectively nothing but the voyages of Captain Cook in spaaaaaace.

    Personal note: I love me some skiffy. Fun can forgive almost any amount of lack in intellectual rigour.

    At the other end of the slide rule you have classicist 'horn-rimmed glasses' SCIENCE fiction (Wells, Clarke, Saberhagan, Bear, Sagan and Baxter) which is all about the ideas: the writers want to talk about the implications and possibilities of aspects of science. Characters? Plot? Pacing? Sometimes, not so much...

    Only the latter is proper sci-fi, the former is fantasy with "pew pew" laser fx.

  2. That's one of the reasons the original Star Wars worked so well--the ideas were romantic but the visual details were made by rigourous classicists. Everything impressive about both sides of the coin.

  3. First of all, I agree with all of you, but my division would look like this:

    2001 Space Odyssey - (if we omit the ending) would exemplify what Chris calls Hard SCIENCE fiction.

    Star Trek - although it has some ideas that are assumed just for the sake of the plot (like teleportation, which was actually created to avoid expensive "landing on the planet" scenes), there are many pseudo-scientific "inside" explanations provided (like all that constant gibberish about the warp crystals etc.). I'd also go with Soft Sci-Fi.

    Star Wars - let's face it. it has nothing to do with science... I've once read someone call it Space Fiction and I think it's great tag.

  4. Chris: I disagree that Star Trek is the voyages of Captain Cook in space. Original series Star Trek is that. Next Gen is something different and better.

    Zak: Oddly, the same can also be said for the "new" Star Wars films. Except unfortunately, the "romantic" ideas were dreamt up by somebody who had become an utter tool.

    Squidman: I've heard "science fantasy" used for Star Wars, but "space fiction" works much better. Actually, I think "space fantasy" would be even better.

    Iain M. Banks is probably the best example of a space fantasy novelist.