Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Fantastic SF Or SFey Fantasy?

     The argument over where the boundary – if any – between science fiction and fantasy lies will probably go on forever. Now that I have one foot in each world, it’s on my mind with increased force.

     I’ve often thought of SF as a realm in which there are rules, even if those rules are not those of our contemporary reality, whereas in fantasy it’s “anything goes.” Yet several great fantasists have put a lot of effort into rationalizing their fantasy worlds, imposing binding rules and limitations upon their operation, while in SF important technological motifs are often presented as “part of the scene,” such that the reader must take them on faith despite the clash with known physical law.

     Perhaps it’s really a matter of “feel:” the sense the reader gets from the setting and the key motifs. Elves? Fantasy. FTL travel? SF. At this point in my own writer’s journey, that might be the best I can do.

     But there’s another aspect of fictional construction that’s on my mind at the moment.

     “It’s really going to happen, isn’t it?” Martin murmured.
     Althea felt him pull himself more closely against her back.
     “Yes, it is,” she said. “Tomorrow afternoon or evening at the latest.”
     “Why, love?”
     “Because I’m ready, the ship is ready—”
     “No, not why tomorrow.” He rotated her in his arms until she was facing him. “Why go at all? What makes it so bleeding important?”
     She studied his face in the evening gloom.
     “I’ve already told you,” she said. “It was my grandparents’ deathbed request. Grandmere Teresza said it was what she and Grandpere Armand wanted for me. They left me five million dekas’ seed money. But you knew all that. What else can I say?”
     He took a moment to respond.
     “Yes, you’ve told me all that,” he said at last. “But that just tells me it was important to them. What made it important to you?”
     She started to reply, bit it back, and thought about it.
     “You’re right,” she said. “There’s a missing step. It is important to me. It’s the thing I want to do most in all the world. It has been since I was eighteen years old. Even with all the expense and the effort and us about to be apart for three years. But I’ve never thought much about why that should be.”
     He waited in silence.
     She put her hands to the sides of his face, pulled it close, and rubbed her lips gently over his. His lips parted and she ran the tip of her tongue over their inner surfaces.
     “Do you like that?” she whispered into his mouth.
     “You know I do,” he said.
     “But why?”
     “What? Because—” He paused, drew a little back, and looked at her curiously. “I just do. It feels good. It’s you, you loving me. It's a little reminder of all the rest of our intimacies. Why do you ask?”
     “Because,” she whispered, “I don’t have any better answer. I want to go to space, Martin. I just do. I want to wander the stars. I want to see other worlds, and rub their soil between my fingers, and learn to love them as I’ve loved this world. I need to know whether there’s life on any of them. I hope there is. It will mean more to see and learn...more to love.
     “Grandmere Teresza once told me that I have the look of an adventurer. She said she expected that I’d be unsatisfied with a single world. I was very young, but I knew what she meant. When she told me about her and Grandpere Armand’s ambition for me, it became my ambition too, right then and there. The five million was just help getting started.
     “Life is pretty pointless if you don’t have an ambition. If you have a really big one, complete with dreams of fame and fortune, and you have even a ghost of a chance of pulling it off, you’d be a fool to point yourself in any other direction. It’s got its downside, of course. If you succeed, you get the sense of fulfillment, and the fame and fortune, but if you fail, you have to live with big failure. There’s the what-next problem, too. The bigger your successes, the tougher it is to think of something to follow them up with. But the alternative is accepting mediocrity. Boredom. Doing what other people could do just as well, and never knowing what you could do with your full powers.” [From Freedom’s Scion]

     Althea Morelon is my most fully realized character. She fulfilled a number of desiderata for me. She’s a woman of a kind otherwise unknown to speculative fiction. She combines great physical, intellectual, and paraphysical powers, yet she’s also a woman of strong emotions, who needs to be loved, especially by her husband Martin and her large, widely extended clan. Beyond that, she’s afflicted with a yearning for adventure that can only be slaked by doing what others have never done...indeed, what others cannot do. In other words, her needs are as imperative as her powers are potent.

     There are no Altheas in the real world. In all probability, there never will be. The psi powers I granted her are impossible to the human, low-voltage, direct-current brain. Yet her adventures in the Spooner Federation novels have the “SFey feel,” such that ten out of ten readers would classify those books as science fiction. The central character’s impossible powers don’t seem to dent that feel.

     My most recent novel, The Warm Lands, was my first step into fantasy fiction. It’s equipped with fantasy trappings: magic, a pretechnological milieu, a social separation between nobles and the common folk, and between sorcerers and everyone else. Yet it garnered this review:

     That got me thinking. There is a “sciency” cast to my depiction of sorcery and sorcerers in The Warm Lands. While not everyone has “the gift,” even the gifted require training, discipline, and access to a “natural resource.” The master sorcerers of the Scholium Arcanum are thinkers as well as magicians. They know they can’t merely wave their hands and command that the universe “make it so.” They study the world and the nature of Man, that they might grasp accurately what they can and cannot do, and just as important, what they should and should not do. The Precepts of the Arcana, the “laws” by which sorcerers are governed, illuminate this:

The Seven Precepts Of The Arcana

1. The mind of Man is sacred. It is not to be violated.
2. Mana is the most powerful of all known forces. It is not to be trifled with.
3. By the natural order of things, the world will resist the operations of the sorcerer. Be ever mindful.
4. The sorcerer must know his business. He must refrain from the uncertain course.
5. The sorcerer will always be feared. He must harm no innocent and must speak only truth.
6. The sorcerer must always suspect hidden motives in one who petitions him to act on his behalf.
7. Of only one thing must a sorcerer be perfectly certain: There are laws which he does not yet know.

Theron of Malagra
First Grand Master of the Arcana

     Those strictures seemed to me to be essential to an orderly, comprehensible fantasy: one in which mere power doesn’t suffice for all things and the deus is kept far away from the machina. “Sciency?” Yes. But as with the Spooner Federation books, ten out of ten readers would unhesitatingly declare The Warm Lands to be fantasy, because of its “fantasy feel.”

     These are just a few thoughts about a pleasant, unthreatening subject, Gentle Reader. The news is uniformly bleak. The nation is in turmoil. I’ve been looking longingly at the Barrett .50 and wondering how long it would take me to hunt down racialist huckster and counterfeit Negro Shaun King, whose cranium could stand to be enhanced by a round of high-velocity lead. So today instead of a political Jeremiad, you get a piece about one of the oldest and most contentious subjects in speculative fiction.

     Have a nice day.


daniel_day said...

NYFC lets you have a Barrett .50? That I did not expect.

Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) The Myrmidons of the Vampire State don't know everything, Daniel. They don't need to.

ontoiran said...

pppfffffffft...we better hope no alien life forms find us. that's ALL we need.

RJM said...

Terrific idea, the 50cal and its use. The minor confusion starts after the 1st shot as in with such a rich target environment, who is next? The Barrett will certainly open his mind to new thoughts, however, a strong uppercut would be most enjoyable.