Dissertation Chapter IV
Chapter IV: A Haven From Reality

Science-fiction is often used purely as escapism; sometimes it is not important to think about what you are reading or watching. However, even escapist texts have to have realism, and this can mean that although often fun, the world also has to be shown to be a dangerous place. Also, enjoyment can lead to a subconscious awareness of the underlying issues usually being propounded.

Close examination of the genre enables it to be broken down into sub-categories such as cyberpunk, or television and film tie-in novels/novelisations. These account for quite a large section of the market, and are the fastest growing areas. However, other genres which started off as the ‘poorer brother’ have gone on to establish themselves in their own right.

Fantasy writing has experienced a renaissance recently, with the arrival of the all-conquering Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels, which spend months on the bestseller lists. Pratchett is Waterstone’s most successful author, having sold over 9 million copies of Discworld books in their shops alone. To some extent, fantasy is still the closest relative science-fiction has, as it uses many of the traditional elements of the latter, but relies on imagination and magic rather than science itself. Magic itself often comes across as an alternative science, in the way it is responsible for great inventions and advances. As Arthur C. Clarke pointed out,

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Science-Fiction In The 20th Century, p.179

The rise of fantasy is mainly predicated on the publishing of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord Of The Rings’, as it was the first major fantasy cycle to appear, with a plot set in another world over many years. Much fantasy writing consists of books which are parts of a cycle of stories. Its sheer scope and imagination is astonishing, as shown by this comment:

“‘The Lord Of The Rings’ does for fantasy what everyone hopes someday some writing genius will do for science-fiction.”
Potboilers, p.155

Tolkien’s is an astonishing voyage into imagination that appeals to both adults and children, thereby spanning both ends of the readership. ‘The Hobbit’ is a book with a more innocent approach, about dwarves, dragons and elves, and comes across as more of a quest. It is very popular with children through its lack of complication. ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ is a much darker, more adult work; too long in its three parts for a child, it has an epic sweep that puts it on a much more mature level, and contains more wars, death and destruction. Adults who remember ‘The Hobbit’ from their childhood are drawn back into the fantasy world through its sequel. Much of the writing of fantasy seems based on the ‘sword and sorcery’ elements and features barbarians, wizards, ogres and dragons. There are however exceptions, such as the recent novel ‘The Time Ships’ which was based on one of the greatest science-fiction works, H.G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ but reinvented for a different audience. The time machines in this book are all modelled as sailing ships that can travel through space.

“The borderline between fantasy and sf is one that has been endlessly debated.”
Science-Fiction In The 20th Century, p.178

This is an important point. We know that it is not possible to sail through space, at least, not in this way, but work by some of the founding fathers of science-fiction is now starting to fall into the realm of fantasy. Much of Jules Verne’s work is not scientifically possible, and so has more of an air of fantasy about his adventures to the dark corners of the Earth. On the other hand, as there is no way to prove or disprove the existence of witches (in fact, many people claim to be one) or wizards, there could still be such a thing as magic, whether it has a scientific basis or not. In fact,

“Writers... will often, playfully, treat magic with rigorous logic, effectively making it an alternative science.”
Science-Fiction In The 20th Century, p.179

Even when furthest from science-fiction, fantasy can still retain premises that exist in the former genre, even if it is only the basic principal of a parallel universe in which the story’s events can happen. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is one of these parallel universes, and is an interesting world as Pratchett rewrites scientific concepts for comic effect. The Discworld itself is balanced on the backs of four elephants, who stand on a giant turtle, purely because “the gods like a joke as much as anyone”.

However, some physical laws still apply; years ago, we believed that the Earth was flat and anyone exploring too far would fall off the edge into nothingness. What was once seen as true is used by Pratchett as a reality for his world, in which water flows over the edge of the Disc in what is called the ‘rimfall’. Even the gods’ domain is held in place by being impaled on the highest mountain of the Discworld. The cleverest element of the book series is the way Pratchett pokes fun at other genre conventions and characters. There are appearances by Cohen the Barbarian, an old man who has lost his false teeth on an adventure and the Four Horsemen of the Apocralypse, who spend their time in a pub drinking until they’ve forgotten why they’re even there and just keep ordering more peanuts for Famine. The Discworld even includes Death, complete with scythe, sinister voice and a horse called Binky, but just as comic as any other character, especially as he is even able to take a holiday.

Bringing a 90’s sense of humour to the fantasy world seems to be very popular at the moment, and taking advantage of this is the popular American series ‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’. The main character has been imbued with more than just the brawn of old, and does more than just running about killing monsters and flexing his muscles. This Hercules could be alive now, as his speech patterns are certainly not of ancient times.

Never ignoring a bandwagon that can be jumped on, the other US networks are currently looking out some of the old fantasy heroes and giving them another chance to shine. So far, Tarzan and Sinbad have made a reappearance, but more will probably follow. A new ‘Conan’ series has recently been commissioned. Nothing has proven to be as popular as Hercules yet; this may be because with myth it is easier to build stories that cannot be contradicted. However, characters who have appeared in Sinbad’s adventures are of the wrong time period, ruining the show’s credibility. ‘Hercules’ has even spawned a spin-off, ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’ using the same style, and one of the recurring characters from Hercules’ series, which has become more popular than its inspiration. Some of the more popular fantasy ideas such as Hercules also become comics, or the comics take their inspiration from current popular trends in fantasy and science-fiction television.

“Comic books seem as popular as ever, with their super-heroes and super-villains, often with science-fiction and fantasy themes.”
Potboilers, p.101

The fantasy world of comics also has close connections to the world of science-fiction, especially in the area of super heroes. The comics industry has always had to compete against its image of men in tights and women in skimpy costumes, and although much of this still appears, comics have grown up a lot over the years and now provide better, more rounded characters that are not always the morally superior heroes of the past. Both of the major US comic publishers, DC and Marvel have an interesting superhero universe. However, with recent money problems, Marvel has relied on its tried and trusted characters such as Spider-Man and the X-Men rather than expanding and diversifying into new areas. However, comics have always existed as a genre all their own, as they are able to take ideas from many different sources and put them into comic form. For instance, DC have recently created a separate science-fiction line, and also run ‘Vertigo’, a selection of titles ‘for mature readers’ which deal with more adult topics, and often contain strong violence and sex.

DC has always had two flagship titles featuring their two major characters: Action Comics with Superman and Detective Comics (from which DC took its name) with Batman. When they were created in the 1930’s, both characters were similar. Both had secret identities, both fought crime in their respective cities and both were eventually revamped to make them more than mere heroic ciphers. However, this last similarity has sent both characters in opposite directions.

Originally, their only major difference was their background. Superman was born Kal-El of Krypton and sent to Earth from his dying planet before it exploded. Here, he was brought up with the Kents on their farm and given the name Clark. He developed super powers as he got older as the cells in his body were changed by Earth’s sun. Batman on the other hand is human, and his only powers are the martial arts abilities he has learnt. Having seen his parents gunned down in a mugging when he was a child, Bruce Wayne decided to fight crime in his native Gotham City.

Both origins owe much to American culture; the Kents are a typical southern couple with a farm in the cutely-named Smallville. The insinuation is that with such a kind caring background, Clark could only become a wonderful, loving child wanting to help solve a world’s problems. Bruce Wayne’s city upbringing has shown him the real horrors of very human evil, and his pent-up rage and frustration at surviving the gun attack in which they died has driven him to seek recompense by punishing others like his parents’ killer. Both characters were created by the setting in which they were placed, rather than their own free will.

The science-fiction aspect of super heroes is often downplayed to give more weight to character building, but many storylines throughout Superman’s different books owe much to the genre. The idea of a friendly alien who wants to help was fairly unusual in the 30’s, when authors were writing about alien attacks and invasions. Knowing nothing of his heritage in the beginning, Superman adopts human values taught by his parents; this makes the reader overlook the fact that he is Kryptonian because he behaves as a human would. The Man of Steel’s foes also owe much to science-fiction, ranging from alien monsters to those created by human error or accident through magical beings (an element to which Superman is vulnerable) and humans in the possession of advanced technology.

Since his update in 1986, Superman has barely changed; however, the supporting cast of the comics owe more to science-fiction than they ever used to. Characters lost in the revamp have since been introduced in a different form. Previously, Supergirl was another native of Krypton, Superman’s cousin. Now, she is the only survivor of a pocket universe, and is made of protomatter, which allows her to change shape at will. Superboy used to be the young Superman; now he is an attempted clone of Superman with the ability to simulate many of the Man of Steel’s powers. One of Superman’s closest friends is Professor Emil Hamilton, a genius with the latest Earth (and indeed several other worlds’) technology.

This science-fictional element also extends to companies such as STAR Labs and the Cadmus Project (who created Superboy), who pioneer new developments in technology, often helped by the recovery of alien devices. Overall, the stories are wonderful escapism, but often have a moral message behind them, and tackle issues such as race, sexuality and serious illnesses such as cancer very effectively. Batman is a very different character. Although quite approachable originally, the revamped version is not as pleasant as once he was, becoming today’s ‘Dark Knight’. Seeing both parents murdered would be enough to unbalance anyone, so it is natural that the Batman is now the dark angst-ridden figure he really should have been from the start. His parents’ deaths, later followed by the murder by the Joker of his partner, (the second) Robin, has made Bruce Wayne an almost classic tragic figure and has changed the way superheroes are seen:

“Batman and the whole super-hero theme have received a critical treatment in the sophisticated comic books or graphic novels of the late 1980’s, notably ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ (1986) by Frank Miller.”
Science-Fiction In The 20th Century, p.48

While Superman fights otherworldly threats, Batman has to deal with the psychotic and crazed denizens of Gotham City’s underworld. Science-fiction has had a different influence on Batman; Bruce Wayne still carries high-tech weaponry, but the look and feel of the comics owes more to the darker realms of cyberpunk. Gotham City has definite similarities to the futuristic vision of Blade Runner, with large buildings towering to the sky, huge companies doing often shady business, and Bruce Wayne’s empire getting bigger and bigger, although he is always shown to be generous with his money, helping those in more need of it than he. The strange warped characters of William Gibson novels also bear more than a passing resemblance to some of the lunatics Batman has to face.

Well known for his skewed view of reality, Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ film took this vision, created a forbidding city and counterpointed it with the dark madness of the Joker, a man tipped over the edge by a botched facial reconstruction after a dousing with chemicals. The character of Batman was also made more unbalanced, with only a fine line between his personal madness and the Joker’s. The idea of this sort of anti-hero has spread into recent additions to DC’s line. Current ‘heroes’ include Catwoman, an expert thief; Hitman, exactly as the title suggests; Starman, a man who is more interested in antiques than in playing superhero, and Lobo, a psychotic maniac killer. Batman is in a similar category in that he comes across as too grim and distant to be a sympathetic character to the reader.

Both Superman and Batman have proved themselves unable to deal with each other’s problems. Batman is currently in the Justice League of America, made up of DC’s most popular and powerful heroes, but can only function as an advisor due to his physical weakness.

Superman’s brush with madness came when the Toyman became insane purely because his toys were not bought by children, and kidnapped some to find out why. Superman’s actions indirectly led to the death of the son of Cat Grant, one of the comic book’s supporting cast.

Batman also owes something to the horror genre, with depictions of serial killers, and this genre has also seemed to remain linked to science-fiction. Although ‘Frankenstein’ is credited as the beginning of science-fiction, it also had a major effect on horror, through its later links to the Hammer films of the 1970’s. It remains rather an elitist genre, with most people either loving or loathing it. Maybe this is because it has obtained a reputation for copious blood-letting and very little plot or character. The only person who seems to buck the trend is Stephen King, who (however bad his books or films are) always seems to survive. Perhaps this is due to his being the only ‘recognised’ horror writer.

Horror is connected to science-fiction by default; it appears as a different type of fantasy, where there is a heavy occult/supernatural/magical basis. Whether summoning demons, or evil witches, conjurors and wizards, at its basic level evil is a powerful force in horror, brought into existence by the evil of the world or the darkness in the human psyche. However, the forces of good always seem to win through, even if only temporarily.

Whilst most genres have an element of escapism, science-fiction almost always has a message embedded in the lightest of texts. The brighter worlds of science-fiction offshoots such as fantasy and the comics industry also mark a respite from the dull, depressing world around us. The darker side of escapist work is more prominent, as the industry gears itself more towards what people want, and this seems to be more along the paranoid, conspiracy-happy lines of series such as ‘The X-Files’. Perhaps the darkness makes people feel that in comparison their own lives are not so bad when compared to the problems of fictional characters.

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