Why sci-fi and fantasy matter

'The Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursula K. Le Guin
'The Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursula K. Le Guin
Courtesy of publisher

Updated: Dec. 13, 1:10 p.m. | Posted: Dec. 12, 2:30 p.m.

Science-fiction and fantasy readers have been dodging stereotypes for decades: Just because their books have the audacity to imagine new worlds or ancient magic or alternate histories, the genres as a whole get slapped with labels like dorky or juvenile or "unliterary."


This kind of wild storytelling has been around for centuries, as Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of "Never Let Me Go" and "The Buried Giant," points out in Wired.

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"These are tools that have been used ever since people sat around the campfire as cavemen," [Ishiguro] says. "The Ancient Greeks used it, the Romans used it, Scandinavian folk tales, Japanese folk tales, European folk tales. We've used them all along. Why have we suddenly got rather snobbish and sneer-y about it in just the last few years?"

Science fiction and fantasy books are often dismissed as unrealistic — but going beyond the real is exactly where their power comes from. They make the known world strange again, giving readers distance and perspective. They're rife with social commentary.

To dig into the truths that sci-fi and fantasy can deliver, authors Ann Leckie and Daniel Jose Older joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to discuss the genres and their possibilities. Leckie is the author the "Imperial Radch" space-opera trilogy; Older is best known for his young adult fantasy novel, "Shadowshaper."

And yes, they have a reading list for you.

On the difference between science fiction and fantasy

There is no bright, clear line down the middle here, no Sorting Hat that puts dragons on one side and spaceships on the other.

"The best way to start a really knock-down, drag-out fight is to ask someone to define the difference between science fiction and fantasy," Leckie laughed. "I feel like they're two shades on the same continuum. They're working with material that's maybe not completely, 100 percent recognizably realistic, but in ways that can short-circuit our assumptions about the world around us and tell stories that will give us a different perspective on things."

Older agreed: "It's a spectrum." People may try to draw that line — the argument goes that science-fiction is theoretically possible, while fantasy involves elements of the impossible — but Older said "impossible" can be subjective.

"I believe in ancestors helping us out," He said. "That's considered an 'impossibility,' because ghosts are in the realm of fantasy. So who you ask is going to determine what your answer is going to be."

On getting "sneer-y" at fantasy and sci-fi

Some people say that "because we write about monsters and goblins and space ships, somehow we're not up to par, we're not telling a deep story about humanity," Older said. "When the truth is, sci-fi and fantasy are full of deep stories about humanity — and great 'literature' is full of monsters and spaceships."

Look at Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," for example. The book is widely considered to be a modern literary classic — and the beginning of the sci-fi genre as a whole.

On the myth that women don't write — or read — science fiction

"I feel like women have always been writing and reading science fiction, probably in larger numbers than people realize," Leckie said. "Over and over, the women who read and write science fiction become repeatedly invisible. It seems like every 10 years or so, someone will say 'Oh, look at all these women writing and reading sci-fi.'"

Ten years after that, the same thing happens all over again, Leckie said. But "they've always been there."

"Fantasy really changed when a wizard showed up — written by a woman," Older said. "J.K. Rowling has changed the game in so many ways — changed young adult fiction, changed fantasy fiction. And ['Harry Potter'] doesn't always get categorized as fantasy because it's young adult, but it absolutely is fantasy, and it changed the world."

On the power and depth of sci-fi and fantasy

"I don't it's healthy to say what a literature should or shouldn't do," Leckie said. "I think it's helpful to point out that it can do so much more than what its run-of-the-mill version can do. You can do medieval fantasy that really explores interesting stuff. Nine out of 10 of them probably aren't doing that — that's okay, you need candy — but you can do more interesting things."

"Nine out of 10 shoot-'em-up space operas are just about blowing things up, and that's awesome, but it can totally do more — even with those explosions. I'm more interested in saying what it can do than what it should or shouldn't do."

Older agreed: "You can blow up spaceships and have dragons — you can even have dragons blowing up spaceships — and still say something deep about the world. ... It's worth looking at sci-fi and fantasy and trying to enjoy it, and take in the depth of what it has to offer, because it's multitudes. There's so much there."

A sci-fi and fantasy reading list

Ann Leckie and Daniel Jose Older joined listeners in sharing some of their favorite reads across both genres.

• "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula K. Le Guin

• "I Remember Babylon," a short story by Arthur C. Clarke

• "Parable of the Sower" by Octavia Butler — Butler was doing "The Hunger Games" long before "The Hunger Games," Older said.

• Anything by Tananarive Due, Anne McCaffrey, Nalo Hopkinson, Neal Stephenson or Margaret Atwood

• "Doomsday Book" by Connie Willis

• "Vintage Season" by Lawrence O'Donnell, a pseudonym for Catherine L. Moore and Henry Kuttner

• "The Queen of the Tearling" series by Erika Johansen

• "The Kingkiller Chronicle" by Patrick Rothfuss

• "The Ballad of Black Tom" by Victor LaValle

• "Stories of Your Life and Others" by Ted Chiang — this collection includes the story behind this year's blockbuster movie, "Arrival"

Tell us your favorite sci-fi and fantasy books on Twitter @TheThreadMPR.

To hear the full discussion, use the audio player above.