A couple of nights ago I saw the film District 9, for the first time. Without wanting to give away spoilers, I can still say that this is what Sci-Fi can be when it grows up and ditches the light swords and aliens who are just pointy-eared humans.
What is it that SF and Fantasy allow a writer to do, that other genres don't?
The simple answer is: create a whole world. A whole culture, with its own history and beliefs, its own superstitions and folk tales, all the million little things we hardly think of but which children absorb as they grow. This is what Tolkien said he set out to do: create a complete, internally consistent mythos for the British people. So it drives me mad when Fantasy authors just spout ripoffs of Tolkien - worlds under threat from (another) returning Dark Lord; Elves living in deep forests and Dwarves under deep mountains, wearing leather and carrying heavy axes everywhere. Terry Pratchett has spoofed this unthinking repetition in the Discworld books, but it's a shame he has to.
Because really, the advantage of writing F & SF is that you can imagine. You can create elves more like the Norse ones, all dark magic and bitterness; or you can invent your own people from scratch, as Robert Jordan (to his credit) did in The Wheel of Time. And then in your next book you can invent it all anew, imagine a different world with different peoples and cultures, different beliefs, and so on. You could create a world with different gravity, for god's sake, or some sort of raptor animal that means humans are not top of the food chain, or whatever you like. I have an idea for a future novel which includes some of these ideas, by the way, so we'll see where that one goes.
But I don't see the point of retelling the same story all over again. It isn't just that some authors copy Tolkien. It's that they then retell the same story again, and again, using the same world/ kingdom/ culture as a background to the tale. I can name two Fantasy writers who have, essentially, repeated the same story over and over now for 30 years, and they're not the only ones.
Why? Why does someone who wants to write Fantasy then not imagine his own world, but borrow someone else's? Why do the fighter-craft in Star Wars perform dogfights that could be right out of World War I? Why are nearly all Star Trek aliens not alien at all, but just humans with one weird feature, like ears or ridged foreheads? It's a failure of imagination, a failure of nerve I think. It's no good saying "This is what sells", because of course it will sell if it's what people have become accustomed to. The trick, surely, is to show the reader or viewer something fresh, something more creative, and do so in such an enticing way that they come into that strange land with you.
I'm not at all sure I'm a gifted enough writer to do that. But I'll bloody well try, because I don't have the slightest interest in adding my name to the long list of dreary copyists who churn out the same old cack over and again. Better to explore those strange lands, and hope some of you stay with me while I do.