Monday, September 30, 2019

Fantasy, Science Fiction, Or What?

     Yesterday, David L. Burkhead addressed one of the most contentious subjects in speculative fiction: whether there is any clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy, or whether those terms are largely a matter of opinion:

     Some folk have given long, involved definitions about when something is Science Fiction and when it’s Fantasy. Me? I like one similar to Orson Scott Card’s from one of his writing books. Science Fiction has rivets and engineers. Fantasy has trees and elves.

     It’s a good piece, if you’re interested in such arguments (which I am). As I write tales that have been called by either term and was feeling intellectually frisky, I decided to take it up with him. We’ll never come to any conclusions, but the discussion itself is the sort that stretches the mind, even a rigidified old boulder like mine. And just a few minutes ago, it occurred to me that the border between F and SF, even if one can argue cogently for its existence, moves with time and technology.

     For example, David, who believes the terms to be expressions of opinion rather than objective meaning, noted this:

     Psychic powers on one hand and the genius who understands things that are impenetrable to other are both well establish SF tropes, as is the alien who can do things that humans cannot.

     Psi powers, which I’ve employed myself in a tale that’s generally regarded as science fiction, are an interesting case. At this time, they’re definitely fantastic; the brain, being a direct-current organ, cannot muster the power required to transmit a perceptible signal beyond the confines of the skull. But we’re learning how to interface the brain with devices of all kinds. It might well be the case that someday, an implantable device will make “telepathy” possible. It might not resemble “traditional” telepathy. Indeed, it might be confined to the transmission of Morse code. But head-to-head communications of a sort that resembles telepathy would then be a matter of technology rather than fancy.

     Consider also the case of “elves.” Now, Tolkien’s elves – potentially immortal beings with magical powers – might be a stretch, but as we get more capable with genetic engineering, beings that physically resemble the “traditional” elf might enter the realm of possibility. A great deal would be required, including the ability to create a very unusual zygote that would survive full-term gestation. Nevertheless, the possibility is difficult to dismiss.

     If we venture a century or so into the past, we can find cases of the dividing line having moved since then. Consider Jules Verne’s early tale From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon. Both were deemed fantasies when they appeared. There was no technology capable of propelling living human beings to the moon; Wells’s “Cavorite” and Verne’s giant cannon capable of propelling a vessel to the moon were plainly fantastic. The same is true for Edward Weston’s solar-radiation-powered interplanetary vessel in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.

     But technological development since then has allowed men to reach the moon, albeit at great expense, with great difficulty, and at great danger. The line has moved to make interplanetary travel scientifically plausible. Whether it will move further, such that casual travel among the planets – say, for a weekend jaunt by a couple weary of “city life” – no one can say at this time. As for interstellar travel, let’s just say I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime, and I doubt you will either.

     When the late Poul Anderson, a highly accomplished writer of both fantasy and science fiction, addressed this subject some forty years ago, he took a position similar to mine here, except that he omitted to consider the possibility of technological developments unimagined at that time. Anderson was regarded as the foremost practitioner of “hard” science fiction – another fuzzy term – before the ascendancy of Larry Niven. His novel Tau Zero, which was shortlisted for the Hugo Award (and lost, albeit narrowly, to Niven’s Ringworld) was a valiant attempt to write a completely plausible tale of an interstellar journey gone really badly wrong. (I shan’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it.) He came very close...painfully close. But he had to postulate zero-loss recycling to do it, a blatant violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. So even the greats have to fudge a little. (Ask Alastair Reynolds about his “Conjoiner drives” someday.)

     As I said, conclusions are difficult to reach, and could well change with time. But it does keep the brain from petrifying completely. Meanwhile, I’ve got this fantasy novel on the anvil that’s been giving me absolute fits. As a former physicist I have a really hard time with anything involving magic, so I’ve been toying with the idea that the utility of sorcery is merely a matter of very small changes to a couple of fundamental physical constants that divide our “real” universe from the one where my tale is set. Eventually, of course, we learn how to alter those constants within a defined region, and...oh, never mind.

     (Cross-posted at my fiction-promotion site.)


Cordolf said...

I wouldn't say that there's a hard-line between sci-fi and fantasy, but I always thought of it as a matter of whether or not the explanation of the inner workings for whatever speculative/fantastical elements in the story mattered to the story.

For instance, in the Lord of the Rings works, the specifics of why elves are magical, or how dwarves forge items with mystic power, or what training Sauron had to go through to become a wizard aren't material to the story.

Some of it may be explained in bits and pieces, and some of it may tie in to other aspects of the story, but none of it is explored as a part of the story, and no one's knowledge of any of that has any relevance to how the story evolves or is told.

Therefore, since there is no scientific inquiry into, nor application of, any of the fantastic or speculative elements, I'd call this fantasy.

On the other hand, in something like the Foundation series is explicitly about how the technology at issue (specifically, psychohistory) can be used to work with and drive the actions of the characters in the story. The mechanism doesn't have to be explained in great details, but the essence of the story is for us to believe that this element that is central to the story, psychohistory, works on scientific principles, and is subject to exploitation and use by anyone who can follow the rules of how to use it.

So I'd class the Foundation books (generally) as science fiction.

As a practical matter, a lot of sci-fi (by my definition) will have rivets and robots, because stories that rivet- and robot-related things often are about how exploiting the nature of these things produces the action of the story.

Stories about magic often aren't sci-fi to me, because most of them are not about how the magic works.

So to some extent, you could say, if the physics (or even the meta-physics) of whatever is being invented by the author matters (and isn't already known and/or real), then it's science fiction. If the physics of those elements aren't known, or don't matter, then it's fantasy. If the elements aren't speculative (that is, the physics are known or real), it's neither (non-speculative fiction).

I think Star Trek is usually sci-fi, although the parts of it I like best usually don't matter that much. DS-9 was probably the least sci-fi-ish of the series, and is my favorite.

Star Wars (and most space opera) tends to the fantastic in my estimation, although dressed up as sci-fi. What matters is usually not the "how" of any technology, but that varies. Yes, a technical flaw in each Death Star is what allowed for the destruction of each. However, it was the Force that allowed that flaw to be exploited, and the Force (in the original trilogy) was not explored as something subject to detailed rules that were explained to us. Later attempts to re-scientificate the movies (midichlorians, Khyber crystals, etc.) are weak hand-waving, since the details are never explored in a meaningful way (in the movies).

The Matrix tries to be sci-fi at most levels, and the explanations appear to be meant to matter (at least in the first movie or so), but there are a lot of elements of fantasy in it. On the whole, I'd call it sci-fi, but heavy on the hand-waving.

A recent example of something dressed as fantasy that is really sci-fi is the "Magic 2.0" series. Magic turns out to be a hack of a system file in the simulation that is our universe. Someone discovers this and goes back to medival england to exploit this as a wizard. "Off to be the Wizard" is the first in this series, and the physics of this magic are the central conceit of the story.

My two cents.

Tracy Coyle said...

I hate fantasy. Ok, that is too strong a term. I don't like it. I am not a 'magic' realm kinda gal. So, 'magic' turns me off. What is the quote...'any technology sufficiently advanced enough is indistinguishable from magic' if I can remember.

So, what we know (believe) is magic is some natural process we can't, as of yet, understand. I btw disagree with you about telepathy - and a slew of 'psychic' powers/abilities. I absolutely knew what my partner was thinking too often to count. I had the same with my mother and to a slightly lesser extent my daughter. My mother and I remained so connected throughout our lives (she passed 3 years ago). My daughter has mostly slipped away but she has been on her own for the last seven years (six?). We are fundamentally energy, as is the entire Universe, how we are connected is beyond our ability to measure/confirm - FOR NOW.

So, magic MIGHT be possible, I don't KNOW enough about the whole Universe to say something is NOT human does. But back to fiction...

There have been some fantasy books I have liked - LOTR of course, but also:
Magitech Chronicles by Chris Fox
Starship Mage series by Glynn Stewart (the Onset series also)
Pyreans series by SH Jucha
The Enhanced series by TC Edge

My hard tech/war tech orientation creates a bias in my choices of books to read - I've liked your Futanari series which is outside both realms in my opinion.

BOTH however deal with that which we don't understand or know for facts today. As you point out, what we might come to learn in the future is what makes 'sci-fi' in all it's forms exciting to me - I plan on living in the future and I want it to be a good place (to paraphrase someone...)

Anyone that tells a story of the future will get at least a look from me. History is fine, I've read tons because I want to understand how we got to HERE, but I live looking forward, and I want my fiction to do the same.