The Popularity of Fantasy — Reflection of a "Magic World"?

When ANALOG published my first story, there really wasn’t that much of a fantasy genre. Oh, Tolkein had published the Lord of the Rings, and there were some Andre Norton witchworld novels, as I recall, and Jack Vance had published The Dying Earth, but fantasy books were vastly outnumbered by science fiction novels. Today, virtually every editor I know is looking for good science fiction. They can find plenty of decent, if not great, fantasy novels and trilogies to publish [good short fantasy stories are another matter].

What happened?

First, over the last forty years science got popular, and simultaneously more accessible and more complicated than ever. Second, technology complicated everyone’s life. Third, the computer made the physical process of writing easier than ever before in history. And fourth, the world became “magic.”

Science is no longer what it once was. Philo Farnsworth was a Utah farm boy, and effectively he invented television on his farm. RCA stole it from him, but that’s another story, and the important point is that one man, without a research laboratory, made the key breakthroughs. Likewise, Goddard did the same thing for the rocket. Earlier, of course, the Wright brothers made the airplane possible. Today, science breakthroughs that effectively change society require billions of dollars and teams of scientists and engineers. Writing about the individual in a meaningful sense in this context becomes difficult, and even if an author does it well, it’s usually not that entertaining to most readers. Add to that what science and technology have delivered to the average North American or European. We have near-instant world-wide communications, travel over thousands of miles in mere hours, pictures of distant galaxies and the moons orbiting distant planets in our own solar system, lights that can be turned on with a handclap, voice activated equipment… the list is seemingly endless. So much of what once was science fiction is now reality.

As I’ve noted in a previous blog, technology is no longer the wonder it once was. Too often technology becomes the source of strain and consternation, and for all that it delivers, most people want to escape from its stress and limitations. Admittedly, many of them use it for escape into forms of alternative reality, but more and more readers don’t want to read about technology.

Then there’s the impact of the computer, which makes the physical process of writing easier. It doesn’t, however, make the process of learning and understanding science and technology easier, and understanding science is generally useful for writing science fiction. So what do so many of those would-be speculative fiction writers concentrate on? Fantasy and its offshoots.

But the biggest factor, I believe, is that we now live in a “magic world.” A little more than a century ago, if one wanted light, it required making a candle or filling a lantern with expensive oil and threading a wick and using a striker or a new-fangled match to light the lantern or candle. Today… plug in a lamp and flip a switch. How does it work? Who knows? Most young people would have a hard time explaining the entire process behind that instant light. In a sense, it’s magic. Once transportation meant a long slow walk, or feeding, saddling, grooming a horse, taking care of the animals, breeding them, and still having to make or purchase bridles, saddles, and the like. Today, step into a car and turn the key. In more than 95% of all cars the transmission is automatic, and, again, how many people can even explain what a transmission or a differential does? It’s magic. You don’t have to understand it or explain it. I could go through example after example, but the process — and the results — would be the same.

As a society, we act as though almost all our physical needs are met by magic. Even the environmentalists believe in magic. How would many of them deal with the coal-fired power plants that fuel so much of our magic? By replacing them with solar and wind power, of course. But building solar cells creates much more pollution than using a coal-fired power plant for the same amount of power. And wind turbines, while helpful, cannot be counted on to provide a constant and continuing power source for our magic.

This mindset can’t help but carry over into what we do for entertainment. We act as though our society’s needs are met by magic, and we want to escape the incredible stress and complexity beneath the surface of our magic society. How many readers really want to deal with those factors, accelerated as they will be in the future? [And don’t tell me that technology will make things simpler. It never has. Physically easier, but not simpler. Allowing individuals to do more in the same amount of time, but only at the cost of more stress.]

To me, the “magic society” has far more to do with the comparative growth of the popularity of fantasy and the comparative decline of science fiction than the fact that we’ve reached the moon and surveyed planets and their satellites.