TT: So, What’s SF? What’s Fantasy?

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  It’s time to take a look at seasonal rituals in fact and fiction.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we venture more deeply into the jungle of categorization.

The First Division

The First Division

JANE: Last time we were talking about the categories of in speculative fiction.  I was noting that I’m having a bit of trouble categorizing my next novel for Tor because, although it’s SF, I think it has elements a fantasy reader would enjoy as well and I don’t want to chase them away.

ALAN: That’s why trying to categorise these things is so subjective.  (I think that’s really what Damon Knight was trying to say in the quote I used last time). So let’s start at the top. How would you define science fiction and fantasy?

JANE: Basically, for me, Science Fiction extrapolates from the universe as we know it, although those extrapolations can get pretty extreme, as in Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany or Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny.

ALAN: I can’t argue with that, though I would add the caveat that, for me at least, I don’t much care how likely or even how accurate these extrapolations are. Indeed, the more unlikely the setting, the more interesting the story is likely to be.

A central concept in a couple of Peter F. Hamilton’s door-stopping novels (Pandora’s Star and its sequel Judas Unchained) is that the protagonists get on a train to travel to the stars. I don’t normally like Peter Hamilton’s books very much (they have far too many pages in them for my taste), but this central conceit, which was perfectly logical in context, tickled my fancy so much that I really quite enjoyed the story.

JANE: A train…  Interesting.  I think I’ll put one of these on my list.

Going back to my own dilemma, to me, the “Artemis Awakening” books are SF, not Fantasy, because I imagine them in a far, far distant future, but one in which Earth existed and is part of the distant history – rather like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s concept of Darkover or Anne McCaffery with Pern or Clifford Simak with just about anything.

ALAN: Both Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock have had a lot of fun with that kind of thing, though they both set their stories firmly on a very, very far future Earth: Vance with his stories of the Dying Earth and Moorcock with his Dancers at the End of Time sequence. I’m quite looking forward to seeing that idea extrapolated into the universe at large where, I suspect, it more properly belongs. So what makes something Fantasy?

JANE: Fantasy contains magic.  The magic can be overt, with carefully designed rules and laws, like I did with the “Breaking the Wall” books  or more mystic and vague like my Child of a Rainless Year.   Or magic can simply be a part of how the universe works, even if people are still figuring out how and why it works, as in the Firekeeper books.

Whatever the case, magic is there, really there, or the book is not Fantasy.

ALAN: Let me quote Arthur C. Clarke at you: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (I’m also very fond of the converse: Any technology which is distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced). Under this ruling, fantasy as you define it, doesn’t exist. It is just science fiction with sufficiently advanced technology. OK – I’m playing devil’s advocate here and I’m not really serious, but it does illustrate how slippery these things are.

JANE: I agree on the slippery.  However, I will stress that for a publisher, if you put in the least bit of magic, the book becomes Fantasy not SF.

As for Clarke’s Axiom, that’s a point that I’d like to go into next time because for me it’s a pretty complex issue – and one I can get really passionate about.   That okay?

ALAN: Fine by me. See you on the other side.

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12 Responses to “TT: So, What’s SF? What’s Fantasy?”

  1. LunaMoth Says:

    I agree, fantasy has magic, science fiction tends to use more technology and outer space themes. Sometimes it is hard to differentiate between the two, especially when the book has a mix of both elements, but for the most part it is pretty clear cut, magic = fantasy, tech and universe = SF.

  2. paulgenesse Says:

    Genre definition discussions are always interesting to me. I personally like to call Star Wars fantasy when I’m on writing panels, which tends to blow some people’s minds. The media almost always calls it science fiction, but I will contend that the Force, is magic. I look forward to the next post on this topic.

    Oh, I love the pic you uploaded into this post of the pile of books. I must admit it was a thrill to see my novel, The Secret Empire sitting there among books by those awesome writers.

    Paul Genesse

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    I find the distinction essentially meaningless – how ‘real world’ or ‘magical’ things are for any person has a lot to do with the depth and/or breadth of their background in the field being extrapolated. Something I’m sure Jane has run into head-on more than once. One classic example is the Pernese dragon, which is as implausible as they come despite all later attempts to justify them. So, many people stuff it into fantasy, regardless of what the McCaffreys say about it. Even more people just glaze over during the whole discussion, but suddenly come to and say ‘What? Dragons? Fantasy!’ Others, and I tend to be one, look at what she tried to set up and say ‘OK. She made the effort; it’s SF.’

    As that suggests, I think that, to the extent that the division is of any value, it’s as a reflection of the author’s, or sometimes publisher’s, intent, Which is _why_ it’s so hard to distinguish them – more often than not the writer doesn’t even want to draw that particular line. They just want to pursue a particular set of ‘what if…’s. To make things worse, editors and publishers will decide that if they _want_ to publish a story, because they aren’t about to let it slip through their fingers, then it fits their category regardless of appearances. And Pern pops up again: John Campbell did _not_ publish fantasy [he’d tried his hand at it, but failed where others succeeded], but he put Weyr Search on the cover of Analog despite the fact that there’s not even a hint in the story, or the rest of Dragonrider for that matter, of any sort of tech background. Even worse, from the categorizers point of view, during that period two of the most popular on-going characters appearing in the pages of Analog [a magazine labeled as Science Fiction-Science Fact, for those who didn’t grow up with it] were Lord Darcy and Master Sean O’Lochlainn. The existence of the Laws of Magic doesn’t make it any less magical, but Campbell clearly wasn’t going to sign off on the proposition that magic=fantasy if it meant he couldn’t publish The Eyes Have It or Too Many Magicians. By the same token, some of Guy Kay’s books are fantasy only because the history in what would otherwise be historical fiction isn’t, quite. And, of course, because that’s what they’re sold as, although a lot of what passes as ‘historical’ fiction is far more made-up despite being supposedly set in the real world.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I was at the World Fantasy where Anne McCaffery was given an award for her body of work. In her acceptance speech, she twinkled: “Of course, I write science fiction…”

  4. Heteromeles Says:

    I think invoking Clarke’s Law is too facile. Campbell could get away with substituting psionics for magic back in the 1950s and 60s, but there’s no good evidence that psionics is real science (cf: the Mythbusters building a psionic amplifier and trying to use it).

    Moreover, we do know a lot about real magic. There’s even a book by that title by Bonewits. You can get grimoires, tools, and spell materials online and in stores in some cities. While it’s a lot of fun to say “what if this works?” you can test it objectively and see for yourself. Generally it doesn’t.

    Clarke was very partially right, in that we seem bent on making high tech “magical,” with voice operated doohickeys, objects that “think” (why does a toaster need a processor and a bluetooth connection to your phone?), and so forth. However, it’s sheer laziness to say that Clarke’s Third Law allows magical things like, oh, perpetual motion machines, or curing broken bones through the laws of similarity and contagion, and so forth. I’d also point out that substituting the latest speculative science and technology (psionics, electronics, nanotech, and now synthetic biology) for magic is old enough to have gray hairs. L. Frank Baum wrote a book about the Daemon of Electricity a very long time ago.

    So I’d say that “what if magic works?” is one of those what-if extrapolations that take one out of SF and into fantasy. It’s not the only one, but it’s the biggest.

  5. Sally Says:

    Perhaps part of the problem of distinguishing science fiction from fantasy is that–in the broadest sense–it’s all fantasy. None of it ever happened. We made it up. It’s just the hand-waving–the explanations–that differ. Science fiction uses the language of technology & science to explain _how_ things happen, though _what_ happens may not be much different than in a story that’s labeled fantasy. Diving through wormholes or riding a Pernese dragon Between or Disapparating all get you from one place to another without having to travel through the intervening three-dimensional space.

  6. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I can’t help laughing a little because being a major Star Trek fan (though not quite a total fanatic), my thoughts are going straight to Deep Space 9 (DS9), and The Next Generation (TNG). For DS9, you have the changelings, who can become any form they want. Even fog or fire (only one episode, but it does happen). Not to mention the Prophets, who exist so out of time the concept is hard for them to understand. As for TNG, beyond just the Betazoids, you have Q. A being of infinite power and “magic”.

    I could just imagine Gene Roddenberry coming to a current publisher with these characters and story lines, trying to sell them as pure sci-fi. I bet many would have a hard time picking it up because by the strict boxes of this genre or that, it doesn’t fit any.

    I suppose if there was “science” behind these beings, it works as a sci-fi. But sometimes it’s nice to have that “magic” behind the creatures that fly the space ships. Which by the way, have technology that today’s science says is impossible. In that, I’m with Alan. It doesn’t have to make perfect scientific sense. Just enough to make it believable. (Perfect example: Star Trek Transporters)

    • Heteromeles Says:

      You’re right, of course, science fiction’s just a subset of fantasy (except when it isn’t). Still, there are (a small minority of) SF writers who try really hard to color within the lines of known science, and a bunch of what-if artists who loudly insist that they’re writing science fiction too, it’s just that they use light sabers, TIE fighters screaming through the vacuum, transporter beams (even if they had one, who’d use such an infernal device, especially if it was manufactured by the lowest bidder?), and red matter.

      I reserve special scorn for Star Trek (sorry), not because they got goofy on occasion, but because, according to what I read of the script writing directions, they wanted the story writers to ignore the technology. Reportedly, when some character was supposed to say something technical, instead of filling the writers inserting something that would help the story, they were supposed to write something like “the tech tech techity-techity tech tech tech” and the props department would then fill in the blanks with some gobbledygook that sounded good. I dislike this level of contempt for the science part of their fiction, and you know, it certainly showed in the franchise.

      Still, I think that people who try to write hard SF (limited to real science) deserve some special admiration. They don’t get it, as hard SF is really a bit of a fringe genre, but they deserve it.

  7. Paul Says:

    I may well have been reading this stuff longer than anyone on this list, and so can pick some trends (age has its advantages). When I began reading the 25-cent paperbacks, it was practically all called “science fiction” even when it wasn’t — I suspect because mostly the same writers wrote SF and fantasy and it was too much trouble back then to separate it. About the time of the re-publication of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and people like Lin Carter resurrecting fantasy tales that really were fantasy, the fantasy tail started wagging the SF dog. Campbell actually did publish fantasy for a time, until World War II paper shortages killed “Unknown” magazine. And as Sally indicated, you can tell basically the same story using either genre depending on what you call the things your characters use.
    Maybe Rod Serling came up with the best distinction: “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.”

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Hmmm… I’ll have to look, but I’m sure you’re right – IIRC, my 35-cent Witch World books are marked Ace Science Fiction on the spine, so they didn’t bother separating them until the latter part of the ’60s. I remember Ballantine introducing their fantasy colophon, too, and it wasn’t around for LOTR. In fact, Deryni Rising may have been their first use of it.

      It was a marketing thing, but one that marked a substantial cultural shift, too. From the 30s through the 50s Science was king, and people wanted to read it [well, some people, anyway] and so that generation of writers was able to untangle science fiction from fantasy and give it its own name and identity. Science is still king, but from the mid-60s on, it’s been seen as a Great and Terrible King. Many people would rather _not_ read it, so they look for books marked otherwise.

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