The Dragon's Path by Daniel AbrahamToday, I woke up to find an interesting comment on my review of Daniel Abraham‘s The Dragon’s Path.

One of my readers, Jim Cormier, had this to say:

What’s unfortunate is that despite all of the great new authors that seem to have sprung up in the last few years, the criticisms leveled against Abraham (and presumably Tor’s decision to drop him) suggest that the genre is still in a sad state. I’ve only just finished A Shadow in Summer, but I can’t see how anyone of even marginal intelligence would have trouble “grasping” the poses Abraham worked into the primary culture. He describes it organically but in a way that makes it perfectly obvious how the custom works. It also seems inspired, at least in part, by the nuances of Japanese bowing, something that many people might know anyway. The feeling of some that readers might not understand something this basic seems to be another example of the publishing world vastly underestimating its audience and prioritizing the lowest common denominator.

I remember reading reviews of the Long Price Quartet before beginning the first book: most of them mentioned how amazing it was that Abraham worked economics into the plot of his story. Going into it I was expecting some kind of complex, macroeconomic subplot involving finance and evil market influence. I was surprised to find that the “economics” referenced by the reviews referred to the simple (but effective) point that the Khaiem, having yet to invent the cotton gin, rely upon their andat to clean the seeds from cotton instantly, thereby making them a dominant force in the cotton market.

It’s a great idea, it works, and I respect Abraham’s originality and talent, but the fact that this was seemingly all viewed (at least by publishers and some critics) as being beyond the grasp of fantasy readers is sad. The reason we don’t have more authors like Abraham is not because they don’t exist but because so few publishing houses are willing to take risks on stories that don’t fit a stereotypical fantasy pattern.

Even writers like Joe Abercrombie, whose work I love, seem to have become the successes they were because they were willing to work from the inside out: writing something that bore the hallmarks of traditional epic fantasy but twisted to produce something new.

It makes me wonder: do publishers see fantasy fans as somehow “dumber” than science fiction? I can think of any number of science fiction stories that involve extremely complex scientific and even economic ideas, yet those authors aren’t set apart for those complexities.

Instead of responding there, where the conversation would not be seen by the majority of my readers, I thought it would be interesting to open the board to the community, so we can discuss as a group this idea that Fantasy is being held back by a perception that the genre and its readers are not as smart as Science Fiction and its audience.

To those of you who read both Science Fiction and Fantasy, would you say that one genre taxes you more than the other? To those who write Fantasy, how do you respond to this allegation that smart Fantasy exists but isn’t being published?

Is Fantasy dumber than Science Fiction?

So what do you think?

  • Jeffrey Beesler February 3, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    I happen to enjoy both the genres equally. Sometimes I’m in the mood for sci fi, and other times for fantasy. I don’t think it’s a matter of intelligence, but rather a matter of preference. Some people like reading something complex, while others go for something simpler. Publishers may at times seem to focus more on the simpler, but in this day and age of self-publishing, it’s becoming harder for one not to find what he or she is looking for, even if publishers have no interest.

  • John Stevens February 3, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    Well, since Aidan said it was OK: fuckin’ seriously? ::headdesk::

    OK, with that out of the way. . . .

    My first thought is that we are talking not about intelligence, but about knowledge. Fantasy works focus on the humanities, social sciences (mostly anthropology, a bit of sociology, some psychology, and a dash of economics); SF focuses more often on the physical sciences, computer science, much more on “hard” psychology, etc. So it may be that publishers are concerned that, given our educational system, people might not apprehend what some fantasy novels try to do. SF, for all of its complexity, is frequently more straightfoward, and I am talking here about the harder SF, which it seems is being contrasted with squishy fantasy. There are a lot of depths and twists in fantasy works that are no so clockwork as the hard science stuff, and it may be that publishers think that readers will not pick it up or follow it so easily.

    So, one could then ask: “are SF fans less knowledgeable about literature and human behavior than fantasy fans?”

  • Sam Sykes February 3, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    I preface this by saying I don’t read a lot of Sci-Fi.

    As I mentioned on Twitter, I suspect that Fantasy and Sci-Fi readers’ priorities are different.

    Fantasy, I think is more character-driven. That’s not to say that characters aren’t important to Sci-Fi, but rather that fantasy relies more on creating something vast and sprawling. Thus we’re less interested in the economics and more interested in the monsters and the races and the things that can kill us. You could argue that Fantasy’s intent has always been about escapism and thus, its worlds are always about repainting the world as we know it in a more colorful light, but I’d say it’s more that we’re slowly seeing “world building” mean less about societal nuances, industry and economics and more about how people interact with each other.

    Given that sci-fi is more geared toward the future and advancement of mankind, though, it has to take into account things like economics and industry, as those are core parts of our lives that will presumably evolve into parts of our future.

    Fantasy is looking down at the ground and figuring out how it feels. Sci-Fi is looking up and figuring out what’s out there.

    As far as publishers are concerned: if you want new stuff, buy new stuff.

  • Foreverlad February 3, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Dumb is probably a poor word choice. “More accessible” would likely be more accurate and PC.

    Plenty of genre (say, generic SFF) enthusiasts would never watch Star Trek because of technobabble, this was made worse when plots were resolved through it.

    Realistic or not, much of sci-fi thrives on the technobabble, whether it’s Dyson Spheres or ringworlds or whatever. Some enjoy learning about future potential tech, others like space combat. If none of that matters to the reader, they’re pretty much reading a fantasy in space with exotic locales and fresh lifeforms.

    I don’t believe one genre is more taxing than the other. It takes as much effort to understand a faux-medieval society, the geography and systems of arcana as it does the trappings of science fiction (hard, or otherwise).

    As for LPQ, I don’t believe most compliments on the economy are as cut-and-dried as was alluded to. In most fantasy, magic is used for fireballs and shapechanging and providing a well-timed deus ex machinas. LPQ was far more realistic: magic (technology) effects the growth, shape, and value of a nation. More, over-dependence on a resource is dangerous and short-sighted.

    The economics of LPQ is fairly simple cause and effect, nothing amazing in and of itself. The fact that Daniel shaped his cultures and nations around it is what made LPQ stand out.

  • Adam Whitehead February 3, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    I don’t think it’s intelligence, more conservatism and a lack of willingness to accept new ideas. As you say, there’s little in Abraham that is challenging or original to readers in general, but hardcore fans of identikit secondary worlds (the people who keep Salvatore and Feist going decades past the point when they’ve written anything truly worthwhile) find it unfamiliar and the lack of action in favour of the examination of characters and their emotional development ‘boring’. ASoIaF’s success may be because it successfully brought on board some new elements to the mix (a greater focus on character development and motivation, less sanitised violence) whilst under the cover of a traditional fantasy narrative (young kids rise to power and – perhaps – save the world), similar to what Joe Abercrombie has also done more recently.

    This conservatism isn’t restrained to secondary world fantasy. The most popular, biggest-selling SF authors, particularly in the USA, are those who write familiar military SF: spaceships, big battles and so on (Weber, Ringo, various tie-in franchises). Some of the hardcore readers of these books would scream and run a mile if you put them within sniffing distance of THE DERVISH HOUSE or NEW MODEL ARMY. At least the biggest-selling British authors, like Reynolds, Hamilton and Banks, like to mix up ideas and stories a bit more than that, but again through a familiar jumping-on point (through the lens of space opera).

    In summary, hardcore readers of lots of very similar books – whether that’s epic fantasy or space opera or other subgenres – will tend to develop conservative tastes and myopic comfort zones, and will reject other books put before them. Intelligence I don’t think has anything to do with it.

  • Andrea K Host February 3, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    That’s a tremendously difficult question to answer. My first response is ‘no’, unsurprisingly. There’s nothing inherently dumber about fantasy than science fiction (and a hell of a lot of science fiction is, after all, better described as science fantasy). Both genres lend themselves to exploring, for want of a better phrase, the nature of humanity, whether by looking at aliens or elves, through uplifted animals or men enchanted to be monsters.

    But I do think that science fiction trends towards outright exploration, where the ‘idea’ becomes the story, while in fantasy it is rarer to see the idea foregrounded. It doesn’t mean it’s not there, but I don’t often see fantasy marketed on ‘idea’ rather than plot and character. And I’m far more aware of SF, particularly classic SF, where plot and character aren’t necessarily a strength.

    In terms of publishers’ choices, publishers want things that will sell and make money (with occasional exceptions for things that they think are _really good_ but won’t necessarily make as much money as something with zombie vampires).

    I gather that science fiction sells considerably less than fantasy. I’m sure there’s lots of reasons for that, and part of it may be that SF is being automatically tossed in the ‘too hard’ basket by a portion of fantasy readers. The genres do share a “core group”, so to speak, of readers who read both, and I can’t say I’m aware of a big call for “less complex” fantasy, but you’ll soon hear complaints about any fantasy story which lets the plot and characters slide, or “pushes an agenda”.

    But then, I also read people complaining about too much world-building, too much romance, too little romance, too little world-building, too much exposition, too little exposition. Everyone has different tastes.

  • Brentus February 3, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Science fiction might seem more mentally taxing because it tends to have a scientific basis for the magic system. If you are comparing hard science fiction to Forgotten Realms novels, then sci-fi will certainly seem smarter. And science is something an author can study as a hobby for his/her entire life, and thus bring a lot of scientific depth to a sci-fi novel. Fantasy authors make the magic system up, so they haven’t grown up reading about it. Even when magic is structured in a more scientific way, the author doesn’t have the advantage of a long education on the topic and must invest more thought to make it feel as genuine and complex as actual science. It’s easier for fantasy authors to be lazy when they don’t need to show how their system doesn’t contradict the laws of physics. Of course, some sci-fi authors don’t get into that either and thus have no intellectual advantage over fantasy.
    But one you get into things other than science vs magic, science fiction is no smarter than fantasy. Complex plotlines, numerous characters, and political intrigue can exist just as easily in sci-fi or fantasy. So while Asimov is more likely to be a smart read than a swords and sorcery book, the Malazan series beats any space opera I’ve read for complexity.

  • John Stevens February 3, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Just to clarify: are you saying that fantasy is “simple” and SF is “complex?”

  • Aaron Lariviere February 3, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    It’s surely a generalization to say so, but it sure seems that way sometimes, at least given what tends to get published. I think it’s safe to assume that publishing companies try to avoid making the same mistakes while attempting to replicate their successful… hence, they publish what is most likely to sell, those works that more closely resemble existing titles that sell well. We, as readers and consumers can lament the way things are, but if the publishing companies really thought people would buy these things they’d be publishing them.

    The Malazan series seems like an obvious exception, though, and one I can’t easily explain away.

  • Tea and Tomes February 3, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    I think that viewpoint lies in the fact that science fiction has the word “science” in it, while fantasy calls up the image of daydreamers and people who can’t or don’t want to deal with reality. A friend of mine says they prefer science fiction to fantasy because so many fantasy authors use magic as a McGuffin – it does anything the author wants it to, with no need to explain anything about it because hey, it’s magic! Magic doesn’t have rules and laws and explanations, because it’s magic! Science, on the other hand, is the realm of the smart.

    Yeah… it sounds pretty flimsy and narrow, doesn’t it? Especially when you consider that a good number of fantasy authors come up with rules and laws and explanations for how magic in their world works. Then I consider works like Ender’s Game, where the characters freely admit they have no idea how the ansible works. But it was science, and they knew science worked, so it must be a smart person’s book. or something.

    It’s like the divide between “hard science” like biology and chemistry, and “soft science” like anthropology and psychology. Both require a lot of intelligence to understand and succeed at, but so many people view hard sciences as more worthwhile and more complex that anyone who studies soft sciences gets snarked at for being less intelligent, and ignorant enough to call their field a science.

    On the other hand, it’s probably a lot easier to write fantasy than sci-fi. You can have a fantasy where magic does anything without limits or reason, but it’s a lot harder to have sci-fi where the basic laws of physics get thrown to the wind with no explanation whatsoever. That being said, though, it doesn’t mean that fantasy, and fans thereof, are dumber than sci-fi. To insist on that is like saying that a kindergarten teacher is inherently more stupid than a junior high teacher, because of the messages they convey and how they teach. It may be true in some cases, but not all, and it’s a gross oversimplification.

  • Bush League Critic February 3, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    I don’t believe that fantasy readers are dumber than science fiction readers for one second. But on the other hand, I think it’s painfully obvious that publishers don’t WANT their fantasy readers to be too intelligent. They just want their readers to buy the next installment of whatever never-ending cash-cow (oops, I mean series) they are currently pimping; and to patiently chew their cud (while being milked) until the next installment is released.

    Franchise or perish. ;)

    Let’s face it… entertaining, pleasantly distracting (or distractingly pleasant) stories that don’t quite cross that “truly intellectually stimulating” line are the bread ‘n butter of the Fantasy Publisher. Why would they want to jeopardize that by requiring their readers to “step it up a notch?”

    Sure, they’ll occasionally take a chance on an author who wants to stretch the genre, but in no way, do publishers want that type of author to become the norm. So the fact that Tor felt the need to drop Abrahams has nothing to do with the quality of his work (or it’s intelligence, for that matter), but rather the fact that he wasn’t producing fans in Harry Potter proportions — hence, he must be asking too much of the average reader. He’s gotta go.

    So while I don’t think that fantasy readers tend to be dumb, I think Fantasy Publishers tend to push dumb fantasy.

  • Raphael February 3, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    I have yet to come across a sci-fi series as long, complex and epic as some fantasy series such as “Wheel of Time” certainly is or “Stormlight Archive” promises to become.

    Granted, I have not read much sci-fi besides Star Wars EU (with many dumb or otherwise bad books). Pointers appreciated.

    So, I say no, Fantasy is not dumber. If anything, my experience points in the other direction.

    You should note, though, that today’s industry is very hype-sensitive. Whenever a book from one genre has a huge impact, crap that would otherwise not have been published is prominently advertised (see “urban vampire fantasy”, erks). Therefore, you should really compare the gems from both genres if you want to get a good impression.

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  • Blue Tyson February 3, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    The characters are dumber – generally unable to come up with any new ideas or advance their society or improve their technology.

  • Jon February 3, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Just going to throw in that part of the problem is the perception of fantasy as being dumb in general. Sure, some of it’s just popcorn reading, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “dumb.” Granted, there are dumb books out there that are classified as fantasy because stores didn’t know where else to put them (ahem, Twilight). But they (hopefully) don’t reflect the whole fantasy world. For every Terry Goodkind (whatever he says, he writes goddamn fantasy), there’s if not a Daniel Abraham then at least a Jim Butcher, whose books are entertaining if not incredibly complex.
    Honestly, though, I don’t believe that fantasy readers are dumber. If we can keep up with WoT or ASoIaF, then we’re not dumb. Part of the problem is the definition of dumb, really. I mean, sure, an SF book involving “complex economic ideas” or some crap like that could go above the heads of some fantasy (and SF) readers, but then again, a book with so much emphasis on, say, the merits of a capitalist economy over evil socialism (*cough* Terry Goodkind *cough*) would start to get pretty boring and unreadable.

  • Tea and Tomes February 3, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    I can’t count the number of fantasy novels where this isn’t the case at all. Seriously. There are way too many of them where technology is improving or new ideas come about, or any number of advances are in the process of happening. I don’t doubt that there are plenty of novels in which the societies have stayed relatively the same for hundreds of years, but there are far more that have changes and improvements because the authors are smart enough to realise that societies that stay frozen in time for too long tend to crumble from the pressure within.

  • Kathleen February 3, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    if Tor dropped Abraham b/c LPQ was “too hard” for readers that is simply crazy. As the original quote pointed out, LPQ – which I really loved – was not difficult to understand.
    I’m not really sure what my answer to the question is, but it did make me think about what a hard time I had with Reynolds’ Revelation Space, another book I loved. It was genius but it was a difficult book. I had to really concentrate and work at it. With LPQ and RS in mind, I kind of feel like the answer is yes.

  • VoicesInMyHead February 3, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    As a fantasy-only reader, I would have to naturally disagree. Yes, although fantasy writers tend to prescribe a good measure of “It’s magic, therefore it is so” in a world of make believe, science fiction authors do throw in lots of fantastic science which if they were truly and scientifically feasible, it is just baffling that someone with the money and the capability in this world has not already done it. Or are these ideas are not achieveable because of the lack of those SF-invented chemical elements? Or is it the non-existence of extraterrestial planetary systems which make building a space-craft that travels at light-speed simply just pointless? Whatever the reasons are, it boils down to the fact the SF authors do make things up as much fantasy authors and calling one dumber than the other is just like the kettle calling the pot black. But if both of these writers do not make things up, I guess we will be down to reading regular fiction about regular people in a regular world.

  • Adam Whitehead February 4, 2011 at 1:20 am

    Tor dropped Abraham because he wasn’t selling. The question arises why wasn’t he selling? Anecdotal evidence suggests that it was more to do with the books not getting into the bookstores and the marketing not being great (other Tor newcomers published around the same time, most notably Sanderson, sold immensely off the back of huge marketing drives). The reviews were excellent. It’s also disheartening that Tor didn’t support Abraham more, instead letting him go after just one series, especially when his second was deliberately going to be more commercial (longer books, more European-style fantasy). Other publishers have stuck with much lower-selling authors and turned them into huge successes over time (most notably Erikson) so it’s a shame Tor didn’t stand by him.

  • Martin February 4, 2011 at 2:24 am

    Is Fantasy dumber than Science Fiction?

    I know this is boring but I really think you have to define terms first. For example, you aren’t really talking about the whole of fantasy but rather epic/secondary world fantasy. This is the commercial heart of fantasy so you need to compare it to the commercial heart of science fiction.

    And that in itself is interesting because it is a lot less obvious where SF’s commercial centre is. Perhaps we could say it is MilSF and space opera but that is debateable. If it was though, I think it makes a good match because they too have a strong conservative tendency to the unadventurous. But I get the impression that science fiction as a whole is perhaps more cohesive than fantasy and that readers tend to read more widely within it (perhaps as a result of its smaller size).

    So no, obviously fantasy isn’t dumber than science fiction. But commercialised fiction does inevitably tend to the dumb and as fantasy is a more commercially successful genre than SF you are probably going to more dumbness within it.

    I appreciate Adam Whitehead has already said this but it is worth repeating. I enjoyed some of the “fantasy readers drive like this, SF readers drive like this” comments though.

    John says: Fantasy works focus on the humanities, social sciences (mostly anthropology, a bit of sociology, some psychology, and a dash of economics); SF focuses more often on the physical sciences, computer science, much more on “hard” psychology, etc.

    It is often said that science fiction concentrates on the hard sciences but this isn’t really true and hard SF doesn’t form the core of the genre these days (if it ever did). The idea that fantasy focuses on the humanities is even more debateable. Yes, it attracts a lot of historians but those with a grounding in the subject must still be in a minority and as for the wider humanities, forget about it. Someone like Wolfe with a focus on theology or Bakker with a focus on philosophy are not the norm.

    Sam says: Fantasy, I think is more character-driven. That’s not to say that characters aren’t important to Sci-Fi, but rather that fantasy relies more on creating something vast and sprawling. Thus we’re less interested in the economics and more interested in the monsters and the races and the things that can kill us.

    Fantasy is more character-driven therefore it is vast and sprawling and focussed on things that can kill us? I think I missed a few logical steps there. And economics can’t kill you? It is more likely to kill you than a monster.

  • steve davidson February 4, 2011 at 4:15 am

    “Realistic or not, much of sci-fi thrives on the technobabble, whether it’s Dyson Spheres or ringworlds or whatever.”

    Those things you mentioned are not “technobabble”; serious engineering discipline went into determining if they were possible, resolving major issues (Ringworld’s inherent instability, which readers discovered and which led to the installation of attitude jets).

    Dismissing what goes on in GOOD science fiction as ‘technobabble’ would seem to indicate the reader is more at home with fantasy than with SF. The primary difference between the two (used to be) that SF concepts, no matter how outlandish, remained within the realm of possible, while fantasy observes no such dividing line.

    Good SF is rigid in the sense that it must respect reality. Writing it well therefore requires far more discipline. It’s a lot easier to solve your character’s problems when all they have to do is make up some new magical spell. Imagine if Godwin’s THE COLD EQUATIONS had been written as a fantasy. Poof! More fuel for the rockets! Poof! more air! Poof! the epidemic on the target planet is cured. No story in other words (unless you made both the pilot and the stowaway magicians and for some stupid reason they started fighting, but that would create a situation in which one of the two characters wants bad things to happen).

    Two responses to the original question: I don’t think fantasy readers as a class are ‘dumber’ per se – but I do think that some marketing types probably want to sell much more and the perception among marketers (for just about everything) has seemed to be that in order to appeal to a wider audience, their product must be dumbed down.

    I also do think that if you put a group of ‘fantasy only readers’ next to a group of ‘science fiction only readers’, the SF crowd would turn out to be more highly educated, more skeptical, more critical and more discerning than their spell-casting counterparts. (That’s a supposition based on aggregates.)

  • steve davidson February 4, 2011 at 4:36 am

    The position taken reveals a misunderstanding of the difference between science and engineering. And btw – they’ve now found fifty some odd potentially terrestrial-sized planets orbiting other stars; FTL and time travel both remain within the realm of the possible (not ruled out by scientific theory).

    That, and statements like this (@Brentus “Science fiction might seem more mentally taxing because it tends to have a scientific basis for the magic system.”) – ‘scientific basis for the magic system’!? – do illustrate where I think part of the problem lies; I get the impression that many folks ‘defending’ fantasy are a bit confused when it comes to what “science” is and how it and related subjects/discipline are used in science fiction.

    I’ll dismiss the Star Trek/Star Wars distraction now by stating that at best those properties were space opera and at worse ‘fantasy’. They were not even “science fantasy” (a misnomer if there ever was one).

  • Raphael February 4, 2011 at 4:54 am

    Many good thoughts here.

    I want to add that the kind of magic system declared typical for fantasy above (limitless, unexplained, …) would be considered ill-conceived by many fantasy readers. T. Goodkind and E. Haydon come to mind, in whose books characters can do about anything if they are in a pinch. There are, however, lots of books were the limitations, dangers and consequences of magic are very well conceived (if not always explicitly or correctly explained for the sake of mystery). Sanderson is famous for this, Anne Bishop has very strict rules, WoT is a bit more lenient but still ruleified, … Some readers will obviously like the more fantastic approach, but many — me included — like enjoy consistent and plausible narrative.

  • Dave February 4, 2011 at 6:49 am

    Let me preface this by stating that I do read and overall prefer fantasy to science fiction and thusly my exposure to science fiction isn’t as extensive (not that I am all that well read in the fantasy genre mind you…I’m just a nerdy fan).

    I think that fantasy and science fiction speak to different parts of the human spirit. Fantasy speaks to our human need for the fantastic. In other words it serves the same basic function that mythology, folklore, and religion have served humanity since the very beginning. I am in no way suggesting that people are out there worshiping the works of Tolkien and company like they would a religious or sacred text (for the most part at least); instead I believe that fantasy stories fill the human need that we have for the fantastical and magical.

    On the other hand, science fiction seems to speak to our intellect and curiosity. Good science fiction, at least what I see as good science fiction, makes you think that the technology is possible because it has been explained well (I hope that makes sense). In a way, when reading good science fiction you should think “wow this could really happen” (at least for science fiction that takes place in contemporary times). So with that in mind, I think that science fiction often requires more research on the author’s part to make sure that the science in the fiction actually makes sense and is plausible. As long as the prose then does a good job of explaining the science, the reader doesn’t necessarily need to be more intelligent.

    Overall I think that fantasy is a genre that touches us emotionally and science fiction is a genre that touches us intellectually. I don’t think that more intelligence is needed to enjoy science fiction, but one’s personality and temperament will most likely lead a reader to one genre over the other.

  • Val February 4, 2011 at 7:51 am

    Well, if I look though the books in my bookcase I’d say the SF titles are on average more challenging reads than the fantasy titles. Personally, I think this has more to do with my selection of what is available (and the way my tastes have developed) than what each genre has to offer.

  • E. M. Edwards February 4, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Is a fence-post dumber (sic) than a spade?

    Not inherently but I’d suggest that they are different types of tools designed to accomplish different if related tasks. One to aid in creating a hole, the other to fill it with something sturdy to wrap fencing material around.

    Fantasy novels have a slightly different remit I suspect, in the eyes of publishers – especially when we speak of the largest and more traditional sort, than does science fiction. Science fiction by its eponymous title, would imply some degree of science being involved. Fantasy suffers similarly. Does science demand more inherent complexity, which isn’t exactly the same thing as cleverness, compared to say swords and sorcery? That depends on what is classified as which I suppose. And very much by author. But I think there are general preconceptions of this which affect the bulk of what is offered in each category.

    That seems to be changing – or at least the recognition that there has long been a more flexible line separating the two, is gaining traction. How much of this translates after whatever template publishers use to calculate the likely success and risk to potential profit involved in an individual book, is applied, I wouldn’t care to guess.


  • Kevin February 4, 2011 at 11:53 am

    I don’t think anyone really believes that fantasy is dumber than science fiction, unless they’re the type of person who needs to sneer at other people’s reading material to feel better about their own.

  • Mark Chitty February 4, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    While I’m not suggesting fantasy readers are dumber, why do you think that it’s a bigger selling and more popular genre than sci-fi? It’s accessible, doesn’t require the reader to think as much about the workings of the world and technologies in the novel, and readers can relate to the character driven story it presents.

    As the saying goes – different strokes for different folks.

  • jackarandos February 4, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    I thinks it’s more tageted at younger readers as a genre and also sci-fi is expected to be complicated and geeky as the target market is intelligent people interested in science – i’ll be honest, although i consider myself relatively intelligent I’m still often put of sci-fi with very complex high concept science

  • BW February 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    I read mostly fantasy, but I find SF and fantasy to have the same basic core. There is some amount of worldbuilding in each, there has to be a suspension of belief in each at some level, and both genres have very overused cliches. It’s harder for me with SF because (being an engineer) the author would have to work harder in order for me to buy into the setting. But the concept is the fundamentally the same. Both go with the premise of “what if…” and the story continues from there.

    With respect to LPQ (a favorite of mine), I think it was hard to market because you can’t easily stick it in a subgenre. Is it epic fantasy? Certainly not the first two books, but you could make a case for the second two. It’s not “the new weird”, it’s not steampunk, it’s not sword and sorcery, it’s not urban. The setting was original and brilliant. The story was deeply character driven, which is never a marketing point of fantasy (or SF). I don’t know how I would market it to the masses.

    Despite my love of LPQ, I don’t often recommend it to people unless I know them well and what they like. Most of fantasy today is very action driven, and LPQ was not.

    I don’t think publishers’ disdain for the intelligence of their audience is genre-specific.

  • Daniel Abraham February 4, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Do we read — or write — as a way to see who’s smarter?

  • E. M. Edwards February 5, 2011 at 2:25 am

    Well, with all due respect Mr. Abraham – I’d say that we certainly do.

    The number of books which have been penned over the centuries setting out to do exactly that couldn’t be fit in the Library of Alexandria. Intellectual muscle-flexing is often at the heart of literary fiction – or at least that with aspirations to the big L. Proving a point, showing off one’s cleverness or exposing the vapidness of one’s rivals – this is not uncommon.

    And how many people choose books, or at least books to be seen with or name-drop, which point towards their own intellectual acumen or superior taste?

    One of the issues long standing in the SFF community is the stigma which is often attached (unfairly) to the genre. That the books therein do not meet the rigorous intellectual standards which make them worthy to be numbered among the best in Literature. Utter tosh of course, as we see the migration of the best of SFF to the cannon of Literature when posterity has approved it. But we won’t change this by dodging the question.

    Until more recognition is given (and better books written?), then likely people will think that fantasy is science fiction’s dim-witted cousin – and that science fiction for all its skill with a slide rule, an outsider to the club which is currently dominated by brainy Literary fiction.

  • E. M. Edwards February 5, 2011 at 2:39 am

    A quick caveat: I’m not claiming that seeing who is smarter is the best motivation for writing/reading books. Or the worst.

    For the most part, I’m only concerned with the end product. If a good book is written or a great book enjoyed, then mission accomplished and I don’t care how the trick is done. One hopes it doesn’t result in the death of too many kittens or required the consumption of litres of blood drawn from endangered species. But I’m willing to make allowances…

    Other than that, well, do what you need to in order to create/get your hands on a truly great read.

    And enjoy.

  • Daniel Abraham February 5, 2011 at 5:55 am

    I respect your analysis, but it seems to me that intellectual one-upsmanship is more likely to result in affectation than brilliance.

  • Raphael February 5, 2011 at 6:20 am

    I believe building a complex book with mysteries, clues and resolutions in an entertaining way is, in part, an intellectual process. A dense writer might have a hard time writing a book that can surprise or convince a smart person. You can see that when authors try to write characters that are more intelligent then they themselves. It hardly ever works out. The other way round, a smart writer who does not give easily discoverable clues will not be able to produce a book that can be enjoyed by dense readers because they will not get the flow. So yes, I think intellect (or maturity) of author and intended readership is an issue. On the readers’ side, there are also different degrees of willingness to approach a book analytically (as opposed to “just being entertained”), so an intelligent person might be a dumb reader.

    That being said, I do not believe that this is inherently a genre issue. Every genre has naively and smartly written books. In every work of fiction, the rules of our world are bent, be it with respect to science, ethics or society. Based on a tolerant premise, a “Why not?”-assumption, by the reader, any author has to construct a plausible world with believable characters and an entertaining plot. Different genres might have different strategies for achieving these goals (e.g. mystification vs (mock) science), but no approach is per se dumber.

    A good writer, no matter how intelligent, will be the one who can write books that are plausible enough such as not to put off intelligent readers, and at the same time accessible enough such as not to frustrate less intelligent readers.

  • steve davidson February 5, 2011 at 7:01 am

    Another thing to keep in mind is the shifting assignment of various works between different so-called sub-genres of SF. I see that now most folks who bother to stick Niven’s Ringworld into a sub-genre place it as ‘space opera’. When I first read it back in the 70’s, it was placed in the ‘Hard SF’ category.
    I see a lot of the classics that were originally considered to be scientifically oriented (even Asimov’s Foundation series – “psychohistory” was considered by many to be a hard extrapolation of the soft sciences of history, psychology and sociology) now placed in what seems to be becoming a catch-all basket, space opera.
    When I was growing up, space opera referred to one thing and one thing only: bad, action-oriented, strictly from the (early) pulps, SF. Star Wars type stuff – a mixing of the impossible, the implausible with a veneer of scientific-sounding concepts layed over it. Technobabble.

    I find this shift a bit distressing. Works should be analyzed (and categorized) based on the times in which they were written, not forced into some current, ill-fitting now definition. (This is, for example, the same exact issue that Twain’s Huck Finn is going through with the new, N-word-less edition. Wrong, unacceptable, an application of PC as the right defines PC, historically and culturally damaging. If the use of the word offends you – go do some research, find out why Twain used it and learn something for gosh sakes. Stop hiding from the past.)
    At the time(s) that Foundation and Ringworld were written, the (extrapolated) science presented in the stories was based on the cutting edge of our knowledge. It was entirely plausible – then – even if rendered impossible now. The works should still remain in the hard science category and should be discussed as such. Otherwise, a tremendous amount of confusion will ensue during discussions of this sort. If we’re going to start shifting definitions and classification based on the now, we may as well stick everything SF written prior to say, 1985, in the FANTASY category. (Which is unacceptable to me since that turns it into drek by definition and I don’t read drek.)

    That’ll probably keep you all going for another couple of days.

  • steve davidson February 5, 2011 at 7:08 am

    The problem with any “magic” system is that it may be rendered internally consistent and logical by the author, but it still remains in the realm of things that will never happen in the real world (except perhaps through the application of SCIENCE and ENGINEERING – which then makes it fodder for SF, not fantasy). No matter how you want to dress it up, it still comes from the non-logical, unreasoning part of the human psyche and is nothing but an extension of the concept of wish-fulfillment. With (good) science fiction, you are always in the realm of people applying their knowledge and skills, learning and discovering new things and CREATING the new, rather than just wishing for it. Here’s an analogy: fantasy is the couch potato watching exercise programs on cable tv. SF is Arnold Schwazenegger pumping iron and turning himself into the terminator.

  • jason smith February 5, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    What a douchebag. Within any system that is governed by logical parameters — be it science, engineering, baking, totem- pole making, or magic –people (characters) use creativity, intellect, and ingenuity to make new connections and find new applications within that system. It seems very much as if this is an exercise in futility as it trys to quantify taste/opinion. Having said all that, it would be hard to argue that publishers do not generally cater to the proverbial “lowest common denominator.”

  • steve davidson February 5, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    douchebag? that’s terribly intellectual of you. And you can’t include “magic” in your list of things there, since everything except for magic you listed is a real thing.
    You could lump ‘magic’ together with your intellect, since neither exists in the real world though.

  • steve davidson February 5, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    the phrase ‘sense of wonder’ was invented for science fiction. That kind of blows apart the contention that “Fantasy speaks to our human need for the fantastic” and SF does not.

  • jason smith February 5, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Douchebaggery abounds, nothing personal, but if I’ve offended, I apologize. I’ll rephrase . . .” How terribly unimaginative.” Allow me to explain. Any “system” whether it exists in the real world or only within the mind of an author or a reader, can be governed by rules that comply with real world parameters . . . In other words, an effective magic system has to make sense, has to have limits, has to comply with “real world” logic. It is not simply wish fulfillment. Travel that exceeds the speed of light does not exist in the real world, yet it is explained logically (or not) so the reader adheres to that logic, buys into it. As for your analogy, have you seen Arnold Schwarzenegger lately? Getting pretty soft. Anyway, you seem to enjoy SF, that’s great. Why do you feel the need to disparage Fantasy?

  • jason smith February 5, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Who would win if Gandalf and Yoda threw down? Well . . . I dunno, but I tend to believe they would be friends, kindred spirits, different embodiments of similar values and beliefs. . . much like SF and Fantasy. IMO.

  • steve davidson February 5, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Nice. Step over the line and think you can just apologize and move on? Nope. Apology not accepted.

    You’re missing an essential element in all of your statements. “Magic” has no foundation in reality. You start from a null set where any of the tokens you choose to define have arbitrary values assigned to them. Sure you can say this one has x value and that one x+2 value and when the two interact its multiplicative rather than additive – but you can’t solve for X because X doesn’t exist.
    With SF, X has a starting value, at a minimum, the physical laws of the universe

    Why diss Fantasy? Honestly? How about because it’s easy to do and leave it at that. Or better yet, because it’s increasing dominance on the book shelves is a clear indicator that wish-fulfillment and living in dreamland has won the war over intelligence and reason and every time I see the word I’m reminded of how doomed we are and how increasingly fast the end is coming.

  • jason smith February 5, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    steve davidson
    Nice. Step over the line and think you can just apologize and move on? Nope. Apology not accepted.
    You’re missing an essential element in all of your statements. “Magic” has no foundation in reality. You start from a null set where any of the tokens you choose to define have arbitrary values assigned to them. Sure you can say this one has x value and that one x+2 value and when the two interact its multiplicative rather than additive – but you can’t solve for X because X doesn’t exist.With SF, X has a starting value, at a minimum, the physical laws of the universe
    Why diss Fantasy? Honestly? How about because it’s easy to do and leave it at that. Or better yet, because it’s increasing dominance on the book shelves is a clear indicator that wish-fulfillment and living in dreamland has won the war over intelligence and reason and every time I see the word I’m reminded of how doomed we are and how increasingly fast the end is coming.

    Talk about not grounded in reality. Yeah, I’ll go with unimaginative douchebag.

  • aidan February 5, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Okay, boys, keep it civil.

  • brandon S. February 5, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Okay. how’s about this, boys: steve, you can keep reading your SF, while jason and the others can read the stuff they enjoy. all I know is, while Im more of a fantasy person, even SF can have its moments of ‘are you fucking KIDDING ME’ unbelivability (and i’m not just talking about star wars/star trek, take a look at l. ron hubbard’s nigh-unreadable train wrecks such as battlefield earth and mission earth.

  • jason smith February 5, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    OR we could just all post our SAT scores and let the chips fall where they may!
    Seriously though, to each his or her own, I agree with brandon . . . EXCEPT bashing on L.R. Hubbard, that makes me a little skittish. . . I have a hard enough time dealing with thetans : |

  • steve davidson February 5, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    You’re actually going to hold L Ron Hubbard up as an example? Ha. Ha. Ha. That’s like offering up a six year olds refrigerator drawing as ‘high art’ – the the kids piece has a much better chance of actually being considered art than Hubbard’s crap stands of being confused with writing – ANY kind of writing.

  • steve davidson February 5, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    those two novels were written by a committee of “clear” individuals, you know. Just as Tom Cruise is really a committee of second rate actors. You did know that, right? Or maybe it was the folks who castrated themselves prior to their ride on the comet – I can’t quite keep the committees of nutjobs that buy a publisher and then buy up copies of their own book to make it look like there are actually some sales, straight.
    You want a list of real science fiction – ask. I know the definition of SF is difficult to get a handle on, but clearly some books were in the wrong section of the store/library when you picked them up. They actually belong cataloged under ‘Psychology – aberrant behavior’.

  • brandon S. February 5, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    Steve: trust me, even I’ve read enough SF to know that if L.R. hubbard has done anything for Sci-fi, he’s pretty much set the benchmark high for unexscusible BS (sorry, jason. had to say it). hell, I’d take brandon ‘the magic man’ sanderson’s saturday morning cartoon level charactors and magic systems or (if you want to talk SF) some of the less readable works of orson scott card than that.

  • jason smith February 5, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    I’m telling you brandon, be careful. Scientology and its minions are no joke, well actually they are. . . Anyway, what about Jules Verne? SF or fantasy?

  • steve davidson February 5, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Jules Verne. Are we talking Rober the Conquerer or A Trip to the Moon here? Academically, Verne is generally placed in the “proto-SF” or “scientific romance” category. I’d give high marks to A Trip to the Moon as an early illustrative example of a reasoned extrapolation of the cutting edge of his time’s scientific knowledge. He even chose the mid-coast of Florida as a launching point because it promised to be relatively accessible, was in a developed country and would give his space launch the added benefit of taking maximum advantage of the Earth’s rotational energy. The spot chosen was within spitting distance of Cape Canaveral (chosen in reality for many of the same reasons). Electrically operating the nautilus is another example (as was his ‘scuba’ gear). If he were alive today, I’m pretty sure he’d be writing cutting edge, hard SF, as well as other paying copy.

  • Raphael February 5, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    I think you overrate the accuracy of many SF books. I have yet to read one that is both entertaining and does not include a generous portion of wishfulness (faster-than-light travel, human-like aliens, in-vivo DNA manipulation/analysis, abused black holes, time travel,…). Sure, you might argue for some things along the lines of “it is possible, if with propability next to zero, therefore fiction can use it”. Well, there are people that believe very strongly in spiritual powers, too. I think it would do you good to acknowledge that you take quite a number of things for granted when reading SF. Somehow, “magic exists” is a far more compact premise to build upon.

    Btw, Science Fiction should be called differently. Science is about falsifiable hypotheses, and not many of the premises used are falsifiable per se.

  • Raphael February 5, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Yes, Steve and others, I would really like to see you spit out some titles you think define the genre (or that at least define your view of the genre). So far, you have just kept bullying others without backing up your points with evidence at all.

  • jason smith February 5, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Right on. So those are some specifics on why you dig Verne’s work. I, on the other hand, love 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, not for its proto-scientific marvels but for the world Verne built. Nemo’s world under the sea, it was. . . fantastical.

  • Raphael February 5, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    steve davidson
    FTL and time travel both remain within the realm of the possible (not ruled out by scientific theory).

    Really, that is your key argument? Then please show me the (set of) scientific work that indisputably rules out the existence of magic in its broadest sense. In case you cannot you have to — by the rules of science — agree that SF and Fantasy have equally valid premises.

    By the way, I don’t think such a non-existence statement can be proven, generally. But that does not really matter because we talk about work of fiction here. The action takes place in our heads, not our star system. That enables us to break any rule in fiction. For me, the only thing that really counts is consistency and (internal) plausibility.

  • Bush League Critic February 5, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    I just knew this was going to go all “neener” before it was over.

  • jason smith February 5, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    embrace the “neener” lol

  • Christopher Pound February 6, 2011 at 4:08 am

    I have one objective point to offer on this topic.

    Locus publishes a categorized list of novels each year, sorted by genre and for whether the novel is a standalone, or in a series, or a YA novel. If you compile a list of the Goodreads ratings for each book (as I did for other purposes), you will find the ratings for fantasy novels are noticeably and systematically higher than those for SF novels. Standalone fantasy is rated higher than standalone SF. Series fantasy is rated higher than series SF. That’s just a fact.

    How to interpret that fact is debatable. Perhaps the data is skewed by obscure social factors (e.g. Goodreads participation and fantasy fandom have more overlap). Perhaps SF novels are somehow in their nature intrinsically less accessible or more unpopular (although this seems very unlikely). Or perhaps people who read mostly fantasy are less critical in their judgments than people who read mostly SF–i.e. they inflate grades.

    Note: Locus does make mistakes in how it categorizes novels. However, their error rate is low and does not impact this comparison.

  • steve davidson February 6, 2011 at 4:53 am

    Bullying? I’m bullying after being called a ‘douchebag’? I guess in your definition, “bullying” = “being right despite lots of ineffectual screaming and yelling to the contrary”. Is that what you mean?

    Whoever mentioned ‘spiritual powers’ as if such things like ESP or ghosts or astrology or whatever had parity with chemistry and astronomy and physics & etc – yeah. That’s exactly what I was talking about earlier when I equated the increase in attention being given to fantasy as an indicator that civilization was rapidly falling.

  • Raphael February 6, 2011 at 6:12 am

    “Parity” is your choice of words. I consider sciences to have been proven in part, at least up to out precision of measurement. That can not be said for “supernatural” things at all. But then, the proven parts of science are rarely what forms the core of excitement in SF. It is the yet unknown we consider possible to be proven one day that excites us. Therefore, I claim that SF and Fantasy share “wishfulness” as core premise, yes.

    Steve, I do not know about your background. Right now, my best guesses are very zealous scientist or science-misunderstander (you know how much guesswork makes up research, right?). Or maybe just what jason said, who knows. For my part, I consider myself a (theoretical) scientist (or at the very least I intend to be one in a couple of years) and I still enjoy Fantasy. I hope this does not hurt your world-view. I think civilisation has more severe problems accelerating our demise than people getting dreamy in their freetime.

  • Raphael February 6, 2011 at 6:13 am

    How you can claim to be right in an exchange of opinions beats me. Not very sciency, not at all.

  • jason smith February 6, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    SO. . . the zombie apocalypse that will end civilazation as we know it in 2012 will be a result of lesser intellects consuming increasing amounts of Fantasy literature. . . Well, in that case will someone please, for the love of God, light a fire under GRRM’s ass? Wait. . . er…I guess thast would make it worse. . . damn. We’re doomed.

  • Kat Hooper February 6, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    steve davidson
    Why diss Fantasy? Honestly? …because it’s increasing dominance on the book shelves is a clear indicator that wish-fulfillment and living in dreamland has won the war over intelligence and reason and every time I see the word I’m reminded of how doomed we are and how increasingly fast the end is coming.

    Mr. Davidson, just because you can’t appreciate fantasy literature doesn’t mean that those of us who do are unintelligent and unreasonable. Personally, after teaching neuroscience and research methods classes all day and taking care of my kids in the evening, I enjoy exploring another world and being inspired by the heroes I meet there. How can my little pleasure trouble you so much?
    Kat Hooper, Ph.D.
    Managing editor of

  • steve davidson February 6, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Dr. Hooper,

    did you include your credentials because you think they lend you some greater degree of authority (or is it a regular part of your signature)?

    You do realize that there are plenty of other forms of escapist literature, right? You could be reading mysteries, or westerns, or even ‘shudder’, science fiction.

    If you are implying that teaching a complicated subject somehow makes you immune, it is a false argument . The two are not mutually exclusive.

    Furthermore, you seem to be treating what I said as a personal attack and it was not. How could it be when I don’t know you? I was saying that in the aggregate I consider the increase in interest in fantasy (and paranormal bs and UFO bs and pro wrestling bs and… ) (on the part of marketers and publishers and readers alike) to be an indicator of the incipient decline and fall of western civilization.

  • steve davidson February 6, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    who said anything about zombies?

    No. Go read Pohl & Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants and Kornbluth’s The Marching Morons and you’ll gain a much greater understanding and appreciation for where I’m coming from.

  • jason smith February 6, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    What an amazing and well formed loaf of BS. Seriously, for someone who has done nothing but insult people based on what they like to read, to now use the phrase “false argument” and to use the word “aggregate” AGAIN, just smacks of someone trying too hard. Congratulations on the Word-A-Day calendar.
    “Furthermore, you seem to be treating what I said as a personal attack. . .” Um yeah, that is what happens when you make sweeping generalizations attacking people based on nothing but their taste in literature. You need to be specific, like when I called you a douchebag, it was “a supposition based on aggregates.”
    Here is a woman who has earned a PhD. and teaches classes in nueuroscience, and the fact that she enjoys fantasy doesn’t cause you to pause and reevaluate your narrow- minded stance. . . no, you dismiss her along with the rest of the miscreant, world-ending, apocalypse-ushering fantasy readers. I realize you see yourself as the prophet AND martyr of SF literature, but lighten up man.
    Lastly, the claim of not attacking someone based on the fact that you do not know them is pure cowardice. You have spent considerable time trying to build, what you believe to be, a cogent argument against the danger and the dumbness of fantasy readers, at least have the sac to own up to it, when confronted by a well-meaning, scientific mind from academia.

  • aidan February 6, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    If this conversation doesn’t immediately return to the well-mannered discussion of the merits of Fantasy vs. Science Fiction, and away from personal jabs and aggressive behaviour, I’ll have to close the comments.

    Please don’t make me do this.

  • jason smith February 6, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    Well,the Mayans set the date, I’m just really HOPING it’s a Zombie Apocalypse, I’ve seen all the movies and I like my chances. My concerns about the immediate future of Western Civilization are much less literary and have more to do with the lack of compassion and critical thinking skills and the increase in and acceptance of ignorance and apathy in the general populace. . . and Glenn Beck. . . and Sarah Palin

  • jason smith February 6, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    Sorry, I don’t respond well to passive-aggressive. The original discussion has certainly been lost down this rabbit hole of my unmannered rage. I flatly reject the idea that people who choose to read fantasy is what’s wrong with the world.However, I conceed the point that many, if not most fantasy titles are less than engaging to “intellectual” readers. Having said that, I treasure the stories of authors like Rothfuss, Gaiman, and Martin. Writers like Abercrombie and Abraham who share their worlds, their ideas, and themselves. I don’t know who is “smarter.” I’m not even sure how to define “smarter.” Maybe it’s a multiple intelligence, right-brain, left-brain thing. I do wonder this: How does one quantify taste? Perhaps publishers publish more “questionable” Fantasy titles–that does not (or should not) detract from the truly great ones. Perhaps Fantasy is more “consumable” to the masses than SF– that alone doesn’t imply any kind of inherent intellectual superiority. I certainly don’t want to find myself in need of a degree in physics or engineering to enjoy a good read, I prefer to use my imagination and life experience. If that makes me “dumber” than those who become orgasmic over “hard science” hypothetical or otherwise, so be it.

  • steve davidson February 7, 2011 at 1:33 am

    Jqason, it’s not the ONLY thing that’s wrong with the world

  • Kat Hooper February 7, 2011 at 4:51 am

    Mr. Davidson,
    I’ve commented at Aidan’s blog for years and have never used my credentials on my comments here or elsewhere. My point, as you guessed, was to show you that intelligent and educated scientists enjoy fantasy literature, too. Yes, I’m aware of other genres of literature, thank you. I read them all, but fantasy is my favorite. I read two science fiction novels this week.

    Fantasy readers feel attacked by you when you (not knowing us) suggest that we’re stupid and uneducated and responsible for a decline in Western civilization. Don’t be surprised if we defend ourselves with evidence.

    Aidan, I’m sorry and will shut up.

  • jason smith February 7, 2011 at 6:04 am

    I agree there are many things wrong with the world — Wal-Mart, Wall Street, and Paul Walker movies — to name but a few. But you seem to suggest that people who read fantasy can’t or don’t function on an intellectual basis in the real world. As if scientists who also read fantasy don’t use the scientific method but roll their twenty-sided dice and wish for sound hypotheses. That position is deserving of ridicule.

  • steve davidson February 7, 2011 at 6:06 am

    But you felt the need to use them now. This is an appeal to false authority.

    I’ve got plenty of credentials that don’t apply to the discussion that I could roll out. But I haven’t. I’ve offered my opinion and further explained where my opinion comes from. Some of you have contrary opinions. Fine.

    Furthermore, you (and others) are accusing me of saying things that I did not say. In regards to the intelligence of fantasy readers I did not “suggest that (you) we’re stupid and uneducated…”

    What I DID say was:

    “I don’t think fantasy readers as a class are ‘dumber’ per se
    “I also do think that if you put a group of ‘fantasy only readers’ next to a group of ‘science fiction only readers’, the SF crowd would turn out to be more highly educated, more skeptical, more critical and more discerning than their spell-casting counterparts. (That’s a supposition based on aggregates.)”

    Not only did I not say that, but where I offered a comparison, I clearly identified it as a supposition, not as fact. A supposition I also clearly identified as regarding the aggregate and not individuals (Jason: it wasn’t directed at individuals, unlike your personal attacks. It WAS a generalization, and identified as such, despite what you’d like to believe to the contrary).

    I find it (interesting? revealing?) that so many of you are getting so upset over one person who doesn’t like the literature you like. There’s that line about protesting from Shakespeare that comes to mind.

    I have a line I like to use in situations like this: if the shoe doesn’t fit – why are you trying to put it on?

    It ought to have been sufficient for any one of you to say ‘that doesn’t apply to me and all we’re talking about are tastes in literature – he’s wrong/way off base/a douchebag – (well, Jason did say one of those things) but instead you seem to be treating it as if I’ve revealed some deep dark secret about a subject you are uncomfortable with and have to resort to false arguments, ranging from appeals to authority through strawman, to try and make your case(s).

    Regardless. I’m going to leave the field. Not in anger, not in fear, nor making false claims about some kind of victory. Just leaving.,

  • Kat Hooper February 7, 2011 at 6:25 am

    My credentials do apply to the discussion when you suggest that reading fantasy and having a scientific mind don’t go together. I teach the scientific method — it’s my passion. So is fantasy literature. In fact, 2 of the 12 of our reviewers teach research methods at the university level and several others have post-graduate degrees. There are plenty of us around and we don’t particularly enjoy the suggestion that people who read fantasy “live in dreamland.”

    I think Jason’s point is best: “Perhaps Fantasy is more “consumable” to the masses than SF– that alone doesn’t imply any kind of inherent intellectual superiority.”

    Aidan, honestly, that’s my last word. Thanks for hosting this discussion!

  • Budd February 7, 2011 at 7:31 am

    I wouldn’t say that the readers are dumber. They enjoy different types of stories. The fact that there is a lot of overlap in the fandom, shows that the stories are not too dissimilar. I perceive that a majority of SF readers also read fantasy, but that the percentage of fantasy readers that cross over into SF is significantly lower. I won’t say that one story focuses on story, characters, or world building more than the other because I can come up with titles that are for and against for both genres. I will say that good SF does seem to be more about an overreaching idea than most fantasy I have read.

    I tend to enjoy science fiction more. I also tend to learn more from reading science fiction. Some science fiction builds from current minor discoveries and builds on them. I think that SF would be more of an academic read for that reason. Anyone that has read a Neal Stephenson novel can attest to the pages upon pages that he goes through discussing the science or math that he is using as a plot point. It can be off sometimes off putting to me as well. I am not saying that fantasy is not academic and can’t be learned from, but, in my reading experience, science fiction tends to do this a lot more.

    In defense of Ender’s Game; I believe OSC has gone on record about the ansible and FTL stating that he didn’t have the science and didn’t want to explain them with bad science. As they were needed to move the plot along and not put in as a Deus Ex Machina at the very end, this is excusable to me. Ender’s Game was all about the idea of the Battle School.

    Someone mentioned WoT. I hope that no other writer tries to write so many characters into a series ever again. That is complex in a bad way. It has almost turned me off of serials.

  • jeff vandermeer February 7, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    I would submit humbly that the time and energy behind every word of this generic discussion would have been better spent on almost anything else.

  • aidan February 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm


    Instead of a coy remark, perhaps you could ‘save’ this conversation with some insight that moves us away from such ‘generic’ opinions and comments. You are known for thinking and writing outside the box, after all.

  • elelia February 7, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    “Nanobots are the fairy dust of science fiction”.

    I think a fantasy author pointed this out.
    Both genres have their harder and softer books, and this is what I think is being referred to as “smarter” or “dumber”. I’m not sure either genre has significantly more of either type of book.

    There’s nothing inherently “dumb” or “smart” about either genre. Most people have different definitions of science fiction vs fantasy. I think that the issue that divides them is this: what system of physics does the world abide by? Science fiction extrapolates from our scientific understanding of physics; fantasy creates a new system of physics (maybe to include magic).

    The thing that makes fantasy look “dumber” is that it is represented in our minds more by its softer books, while science fiction is represented by its harder ones.

    I don’t know anything about this particular author or Tor dropping him, but these decisions are about whether Tor thinks THEY can sell his book. This isn’t necessarily always a reflection on whether the book can sell. Perhaps Tor just doesn’t think they’ll know how to / be good at marketing it. Bad marketing can kill a good product.

  • Nick Mamatas February 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Good comment thread! Now we all know that neither SF reading nor fantasy reading is correlated with intelligence!

  • aidan February 7, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    So we can agree, Nick. We all belong on the same short bus.


  • brandon S. February 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Aidan: yes, in fact just looking at the thread itself makes me wonder “how did we get here?”

  • aidan February 7, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    To be honest, Brandon, I was more interested in seeing what morbid road the conversation would take, rather than finding any actual answer to the (frankly obtuse) question.

  • Raphael February 8, 2011 at 5:35 am

    elelia, problems arise if a fantasy replacement/extension of physics does not abide by some fundamental laws, e.g. conservation of energy.

    I think disregarding this whole thread as X is equivalently X, for X any negative attribute. There are a number of distasteful comments, but also many insightful ones.

    It shows, though, that many of us confuse choosing non-demanding entertainment with lack of intelligence. I am with Kat Hooper on that: after a day with theoretical computer science, I do not want to think while reading, watching movies or anything. Others might want to challenge their minds during their freetime, which is also fine.

  • Carolyn Jewel February 8, 2011 at 6:44 am

    I think someone forgot to read Patrick Rothfuss.

  • […] Second, discerning readers will note that at some point I’ll mention that I’ve read and enjoyed most of what Alan has written over the years, including his fantasy series Spellsinger (and Son of Spellsinger).  Some will probably be quick to point out that this would seem to run contrary to statements I’ve made elsewhere regarding fantasy (particularly comments in response to a certain question on Aidan Moher’s Dribble of Ink blog). […]

  • […] Are Fantasy readers ‘Dumber’ than Science Fiction readers? […]

  • ARabbit February 10, 2011 at 5:15 am

    I have yet to come across a sci-fi series as long, complex and epic as some fantasy series such as “Wheel of Time” certainly is .

    Um… do you mean as tired, repetetive, cliched, stupid and badly written? (I’m no sniper from the outside, I read up to book 8 before I came to my senses)

    If we were judging the intelligence of Fantasy fans from that series we would be forced to say that they are simple, easily pleased and not bothered by the quality of what they read, and whether it is dragged out over four hundred books.

    There is so much better fantasy out there which would allow us to be less harsh to fantasy fans. (Gemmell, George R.R. Martin, etc etc)

    Sci-Fi recommendations? There’s so many, and so much, it depends what you like, personally I wouldn’t miss: A Canticle For Leibowitz – Walter M Miller, The Forever War – Joe Haldeman, Citizen of the Galaxy – Heinlein, Foundation – Isaac Asimov, and many more

  • ARabbit February 10, 2011 at 5:24 am

    Wow… I should really have read further seems it al kicked off shortly after the post I got to.

    It should be obvious really that Steve is misguided here. There is no reason that ideas and systems based on the real world must be more complex than those based in magic.

    Or to put it another way – Steve may vastly prefer his made up things to have a basis in the real world, but that doesn’t make him more intelligent than those who prefer their made up things to not have a basis in the real world. Neither is inherently more or less complex than the other, and it is entirely a matter of preference.

    Now if he’d made the argument that there was a preponderance of bad wish-fullfillment fantasy out there at the moment, he might have a point, but that’s an argument that would need to be susbtantiated.

  • […] Are Fantasy readers ‘Dumber’ than Science Fiction readers? […]

  • Raphael February 10, 2011 at 7:09 am

    I think we do not have to argue about virtues and deficiancies of WoT here. Suffice to say that I appreciate an author who spins an extended tale (for the most part) with what he has and does no resort to introducing new enemies, allies and powers whenever needed to drive the plot forward. WoT is not entirely free of that, but much better than many. I think many readers want to be continuously offered new sensations; such people will be disappointed of WoT, yes, and might give it attributes like those you use, ARabbit.

    Thanks for the recommendations. I cannot claim to have looked up every author/book stated in this thread, but I have some. I notice that almost all of them were written before 1970, very few after 1990 and none after 2000. Why? Are you guys just that old? ;) Does nobody write (original) SciFi books anymore? I think that I could enjoy contemporary SciFi more since I will not be able to put a book from the 1950s in its proper context. Just like I cannot enjoy watching Space Patrol, Star Trek OS or Dr Who — they just look silly if you grew up using mobiles, computers and internet.

    In that sense, maybe fantasy has the advantage of timelessness. Narrative style changes aside, old fantasy still works today.

  • The African February 11, 2011 at 9:28 am

    People like Stevie Davidson are part of the reason why I’m tempted to say that, in *theory*, I prefer fantasy but ,in practice, I prefer soft science fiction. I hate the elitism and snobbery that’s associated with hard science fiction. What distinguishes science fiction from fantasy is NOT that the speculative events in science fiction are actually possible (how boring, if I wanted to read ‘realistic’ or ‘possible’ fiction, I would stick to mainstream literature) but that, in the context of the story, they are rationally explainable, even if the explanation is pseudo science, the events are still considered natural phenomenon. Backwards time travel most likely isn’t even theoretically possible but Back II The Future is science fiction, rather than fantasy, because in the movie, time travel is accomplished through technology and not magic. Both fantasy and science fiction deal with speculative events, the ONLY difference between the two is that fantasy explains those events through magic and sci-fi through naturalistic means.

    I love science but stories should deal with societal themes and interpersonal relationships. Humans do not tell stories to learn about the natural world, as important as that is, stories fill an EMOTIONAL need we have to connect and empathize with other people and exercise our imagination, this is why we have always told stories. If I want a physics lesson, I’ll watch Stephen Hawkins on youtube.

  • […] literature, some seem intent on creating a divide.  Most recently, I came across the question “[i]s fantasy dumber than science fiction?”, a nice summary of what has become a long string of laments over the past few years concerning […]

  • Jim Cormier February 22, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    I can’t resist pointing out (at the risk of poking the bear), that the actual question I asked was *do publishers think* fantasy readers are dumber than science fiction readers. I agree with Aidan that, absent the publishing industry angle, the question is a bit obtuse.

    What I’m interested in is whether publishing houses differentiate between fantasy fans and science fiction fans based on perceived intelligence level when deciding who to publish, what to promote, and how to market their products.

  • Krypton Radio December 23, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    I think the general misconception is that fantasy requires less intellect to appreciate than science fiction does; good fantasy requires an internal consistency, regardless of the rules that the fantasy world imposes on the characters operating in it. These rules can be as fabulously rich and complex as any world grounded in the extrapolation of science, so I believe the comparison is unwarranted.

  • P.D.Blake March 14, 2012 at 3:42 am

    I may get my head bitten off for this, but I find no discernible difference between the two. Fantasy is simply fantastical, as in setting or circumstance, but Sci-Fi is too, to me anyway, as most of it is set in a futuristic universe and is speculative. That is to say that the science it uses, however credible and possible, has not yet come to pass, and may never will. Which to my mind makes it fantasy.

    As to the intellect of the readers, are you kidding? I’d much rather question the intellect of someone who asks such questions. I read both, I also read Dickens and Shakespeare. Does that make me smarter than you if you don’t?