Not only has SF lost some of its power, it has lost its innocence in a world in which the products of science include horrifying war machines and seas of waste. SF has always had both optimistic and pessimistic strains, both A Modern Utopia and The Time Machine, but the difference has been largely a matter of one’s view of human nature, not of the capability and fitness of science itself. Now, however, some writers seem to have lost faith in the scientific imagination, looking outside the scientific megatext for other ways of seeing and judging. Yet there are very few alternative megatexts sufficiently powerful, comprehensive, and familiar to act as a commentary on science. Even religion lacks the authority it once had for many readers, because it cannot match the material payoffs provided by science.
The discourse of fantasy can challenge SF, partly because it pays its own tribute to science. Impossibility itself, one of the elements of fantasy, is defined largely through reference to the current scientific worldview, especially where that coincides with common sense. Because it is the current view of reality that is violated in a fantasy, inventions that were once fantastic may be no longer, or vice versa. The transmutation of metals might serve as an example of both sorts of change: once part of science, then impossible, and now achieved. Nonetheless, we can tell whether the transmutation is to be viewed as possible or not by the discourse that surrounds it. If an alchemist’s description of the philosopher’s stone were inserted verbatim into a modern fantasy, it would cease to testify to the existence of such a miraculous substance and become part of the rhetoric of the unreal. The same description within a science fiction text might be used to represent exploded myth or to highlight the mysterious properties of transuranic metals.
If fantasy were only the denial of science, however, there would be no contest between them. But in affirming impossibility, fantasy opens the door to mythology, which is the name we give to cast-off megatexts. Gods, fairies, ancestor spirits, charms, spells: a whole host of motifs no longer convey belief and yet retain their narrative momentum and—and here is one of the great differences between science fiction and fantasy—their congruence with the ways we wish we saw the world. They are emotionally and psychologically, if not scientifically, valid, and therefore most potent where science fiction is traditionally weakest.
I still rarely put in an appearance in my own sex fantasies. I remember being startled and a bit alarmed when I learned that other people—so-called normal people—did: the person squirming under the hail of blows, or lecturing sternly as their arm rises and falls, is the avatar of the dreamer herself. That seemed to me, when I first heard about it, like only half a fantasy. It still does.
What I love about my two-faced fantasies is that I get to body-surf. Sometimes I’m the spanker, strict and loving, doling out punishment and affection, slowly chivvying my charge back into the world of acceptable behavior. Sometimes I’m the spankee, nervous and filled with dread, embarrassed as I drop my pants and bend over, fighting to remain stoical and then losing the fight, collapsing in tears and remorse.
If I’m by myself or nobody is watching, I might even whisper the dialogue to myself, complete with the appropriate facial expressions (indulgent smile, disapproving frown, quivering lip, tearful grimace).
I keep expecting to outgrow these fantasies and mature into something more appropriate, but I turned sixty last birthday, and the fantasies have stayed about the same, changing only in a 21st century update to the casting (Captain Picard spanking Q, Spike spanking Giles—you get the general idea).
So it should come as no surprise that in my kinky life, I am a switch, someone who enjoys both ends of the paddle or strap or cane. Nor should it be all that startling to learn that my sexual persona is male, and that I expect my partners to treat me as such.
But that’s in the bedroom, or the dungeon. What about at the writing desk?
One imagines that one can escape a category by collapsing it, but if one tries to collapse the category, the roof falls on one’s head. There a person is, then, having not escaped the category, but having only changed its architecture. Once it was a category with a roof, now it is a category in which everyone is buried in the rubble made of what once was a roof over their heads.