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Fantasy by Isaac Asimov

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Some readers have been objecting to a few stories we have published as being "fantasy." We printed one or two of these letters and promptly (and predictably) got a rash of letters objecting to the objection and urging us to include fantasy, if we wished.

 

This is part of the difference between what I might term the "exclusivists" and "inclusivists" among ourselves. Exclusivists are those people who have firm definitions of what science fiction is and who resent the inclusion of any story that doesn't meet that definition. They would, in other words, exclude the marginal stories. Once you know that, you automatically know what an indusivist is, don't you? Inclusivists either lack a firm definition, or have one but aren't wedded to it. Either way, they would include all sorts of things.

 

I, myself, am an exclusivist in my capacity as a writer and, to a certain extent, as a reader. The science fiction I write is generally "hard," deals with science and scientists, and eschews undue violence, unnecessary vulgarity, and unpleasant themes. There is no philosophical reason for that; it merely happens to fit my way of thought. And, as a reader, I tend to enjoy the kind of science fiction I write, and to give but brief attention to other kinds.

 

As editor and editorial directors, however, Shawna and I are inclusivists, and we must be. We can't rely on all readers having our tastes exactly, and if we insisted on catering only to those who did, we would narrow the basis of support of the magazine to less than might suffice to support it. Rather than pleasing x people 100 percent of the time, it would be safer to please 10x people 90 percent of the time.

 

Therefore, if we were to come across a good and thought-provoking story that might be considered a fantasy by the exclusivists, we would be strongly tempted to publish it–especially if we were short on good, thought-provoking "straight" science fiction.

 

(At this point, I might point out–and not for the first time–that we are at the mercy of authors and of circumstance in designing the makeup of the magazine. Readers sometimes seem to have the notion that we are, for some mysterious reason of our own, deliberately filling the magazine with novelettes and skimping on the short stories, or having too many downbeat stories in one particular issue, or too many first-person stories. The trouble is that if we have a several-month stretch in which very few lighthearted–or thirdperson–or very brief–stories reach us that are good, we can't avoid running short on them. We can't print bad stories just because we need one that's funny, or short, or whatever. This also goes for readers who berate us at times for not including stories by so-and-so in the magazine. We would love to include such stories, but the author in question has to send them to us first. Please keep that in mind.)

 

But back to fantasy. "Fantasy" is from the Greek Fantasia, which refers to the faculty of imagination. The word is sometimes spelled "phantasy" in homage to Greek, but I find that foolish. (In fact, I find the Greek ph foolish altogether and think it would be delightful if we spoke of "fotografs" and "filosofy," as the Italians do.) A contracted form of "fantasy," with a similar meaning, is "fancy."

 

In a very broad sense, all fiction (and a great deal of nonfiction) is fantasy, in that it is drawn from the imagination. We in our group, however, give the word a special meaning. It is not the plot of a story that makes it a fantasy, however imaginative that plot might be. It is the background against which the plot is played out that counts.

 

The plot of Nicholas Nickleby, for instance, is entirely imaginative. The characters and events existed entirely in Charles Dickens' imagination but the background is the England of the 1830s exactly as it was (allowing for a bit of amiable, and in some cases, unamiable satire). This is "realistic fiction." (We can even use the term where the background is made artificially pretty. Surely, the cowboys of real life must have been pretty dirty and smelly, but you'd never think it to look at Gene Autry or Randolph Scott.)

 

If, on the other hand, the background does not describe any actual background as it is (or once was) then we have "imaginative fiction." Science fiction and fantasy are each an example of imaginative fiction.

 

If the nonexistent background is one that might conceivably exist someday, given appropriate changes in the level of science and technology, or given certain assumptions that do not conflict with science and technology as we know it today, then we have science fiction.

 

If the nonexistent background cannot ever exist no matter what reasonable changes or assumptions we postulate, then it is fantasy.

 

To give specific examples, the Foundation series is science fiction, and The Lord of the Rings is fantasy. To be more general about it, spaceships and robots are science fiction, while elves and magic are fantasy.

 

But there are all kinds of fantasy. There is "heroic fantasy" in which the characters are larger than life. In this case, the outsize nature of the characters may be so enormous as to verge on the grotesque, as in the case of Superman or the other superheroes; or the characters may be so human in many ways that we find ourselves accepting them as real, as in the case of the elves and hobbits of Tolkien's masterpiece. The so called "sword and sorcery" tales, of which Robert E. Howard's Conan saga is the progenitor, is a subdivision of this.

 

There is "legendary fantasy," which deliberately mimics the mythmaking activities of an earlier age. We can have modern retellings of the Trojan War, or the voyage of the Argonauts, or the saga of the Ring of the Nibelur gen, or of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. A marvelous recent example of this last is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists ef Avalon.

 

There is "children's fantasy" of which the well-known "fairy tales" are the best example, though these were definitely adult folk tales to begin with. Modern examples can stretch from the inspired madness of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland to the realism of Hugh Lofting's Dr. Dolittle tales (so realistic we almost forget that animals which talk and think in human fashion are actually fantasy).

 

There is "horror fantasy" in which tales of ghosts and malign beings such as devils and ghouls and monsters are used to thrill and frighten us. The motion pictures are rich in this type, from the inspired greatness of King Kong and Frankenstein to the good-natured foolishness of Godzilla.

 

And there is "satirical fantasy," such as the marvelous tales of John Collier (did you ever read "The Devil, George, and Rosie"?)–and this, frankly, is my favorite type of fantasy.

 

There may be other types, and numerous subdivisions of each; in fact, you may have a different system of classification altogether. However, the salient facts are that fantasy is a very broad and heterogeneous field of literature, and that every varied can vary in quality from the very good to the very bad. In every case, the very good will tempt us. After all, fantasy, like science fiction, is imaginative literature and there are times when this cousinship can excuse our being inclusivistic.

 

In fact, it doesn't take much to switch from fantasy to science fiction, and it can be done easily enough if you are a skilled practitioner. I, myself, rarely write fantasy; but when I do, once in a while, I tend to write what I can only think of as Collier-influenced material.

 

I began writing my George and Azazel stories as unabashed fantasies, and my reason for wanting to do them was because the satirical element made possible elaborate overwriting and straight-faced slapstick. My science fiction is chemically free of such things, and I'm human enough to want to indulge now and then.

 

I sold two specimens to a competing magazine and the beauteous Shawna objected.

 

"But they're fantasies," I said, "and we almost never do fantasies."

 

Shawna said, "Well, then, make them science fiction."

 

And I did. Azazel is no longer the demon he was at the start; he is now an extraterrestrial creature. Earlier I had assumed he was brought to Earth and into George's control by means of some magical spell–but I had never described it. I still don't, but you are free to suppose that he is pulled through a space warp.

 

What he does is no longer outright magic. I manage to describe it in tenns of rationalistic (if imaginary) science. The result is science fiction, even if not of a very "hard" nature.

 

Now some of you may find George and Azazel stories too nearly "fantasy" for your tastes, but I will continue to write them and hope that Shawna will buy one or two of them now and then, because I love them. And someday, when I have written enough of them, I will collect them into a book.

 

AFTERWORD: At this moment, I have enough George and Azazel for a book, and my good-natured publisher, Doubleday, will soon publish it.