Living Safely in a Fantastical Universe

So, to return to the promise I made you on Thursday, here’s a quick meditation on the exceedingly blurry line between Fantasy and Science Fiction.

There are two main genres of division I hear frequently. The first separates fantasy from scifi on primarily aesthetic grounds. Both involve fantastical settings, but one tends to be all blinking lights and brushed chrome, while the other is all thatch and dragons. This probably isn’t the definition we want to embrace, but I do want to give it credit as the standard surface criteria. If you’re flipping channels, or browsing book covers, these atmospheric clues give pretty good positive predictive value. And, to their credit, these categories fit good and bad examples of the genre. (I’ve seen plenty of attempts to narrow the definition so that lousy work won’t fit, even when it’s clear it’s part of the tradition).

The distinction that comes back a little closer to what Steve Davidson was talking about in his original post. Science fiction protagonists are more likely to be free of supernatural constraints. They’re not as likely to be destined for anything; they rise by their own merits. Of course, if you really stick to this kind of definition, Luke Skywalker, Jake Sully, and many others quickly get written off as fantasy protagonists in scifi drag.

But both genres can only flourish in a relatively narrow band of the “self-made man – pawn of the gods” spectrum. Take inscrutable powers and magics too far, and you just end up with a mess, in either genre. Characters’ choices aren’t meaningful if their world is so chaotic and poorly explained that we can’t estimate the consequences of their actions. And even without an in-book destiny, protagonists in any genre can end up out of step with normal causality due to what Noah Berlatsky calls “a direct line to God” – the author pulling them into situations where individual choices have an impact completely out of proportion with the agency of non-fictional people.

Ultimately, I’m less interested in the difference between science fiction and fantasy and more intrigued by the boundary between those fictional worlds and our own. William Gibson pointed out, “The future is here; it’s just unevenly distributed,” reminding those of us privileged enough to live in developed countries of the enormous technological power at our command. But despite our quasi-lightsabers and HIV-doped cancer-killing T-cells (cf. xkcd’s reaction), I’d say we come perilously close to living in a fantasy.

We are surrounded by powerful artifacts that can only be placated by an arcane priesthood of technicians (and our awe/dread of them was well predicted by Asimov’s Foundation). Apple and others have taken Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) as a divine design commandment. They provide machines that appear seamless and actively frustrate any attempt to see how they tick. This is a hobby-horse of mine (it showed up in two of my favorite papers in college), so I won’t beat you all over the head with it. I’m just wondering why we tend to turn up our nose at the ineffable magic aesthetic in fiction but embrace it in life.

P.S. I can’t write a post on the division between fantasy and scifi without giving a hearty recommendation to Sylvia Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars which is a fantasy/fairy-tale type adventure for one POV character and a scifi story for the two other perspective characters: visitors to his planet.

And on television, Battlestar Galacticakept slipping back and forth between genres for a truly splendid result (minus the last hour of the finale). The miniseries/backdoor pilot is available via Netflix Instant Play, and it’s spectacular.

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  • Touchstone

    Enchantress from the Stars is great, but her other series (Children of the Star) addresses the themes of your post even more directly. Have you read it?

  • Michael Haycock

    In fact, ALL of BSG is on Netflix Instant Play 😉

  • @Touchstone: I've read only the second book in that trilogy (which I didn't realize wasn't a standalone novel)! I'll have to do a library search, I see.@Michael: I've rewatched about half of season three while working on Chris's costume for the RenFaire this weekend. 🙂

  • Hibernia86

    My personal definition is that science fiction has to include technology more advanced than our own that might theoretically exist in the future whereas fantasy has to include either magic or mythology which we would never expect to exist in real life. Some might protest that Star Wars bridges the gap because it has magic in it in the form of the force, but 1) it is presented as a religion which unfortunately most people don't view as magic and 2) they even try to explain it scientifically by mentioning midi-chlorians.

  • Anonymous

    Phil Foglio answer this in What's New with Phil & Dixie

  • But what about Clarke's "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"? I believe this is known as "handwaving".

  • Hibernia86

    Gillimer, any sifficiently advanced technology is NOT indistinguishable from magic if you know how the technology works. The point I was making is that in science fiction events happen which are supposed to be viewed as at least theoretically possible in our universe, even if it cuts corners here and there, whereas fantasy is supposed to be viewed as something that could never happen in reality.

  • @Hibernia86: You need to add – “whereas fantasy is supposed to be viewed as something that could never happen in reality…” without the intervention of science & technology.

    The point in my original piece over at Grasping for the Wind was mostly a then-current internet discussion about “separate magisteria” – which at least in my opinion comes down to saying – we know religion doesn’t represent anything other than fantastical beliefs, but we who want to believe in it are going to ignore that anyway.

    The discussion, both on GftW and here, seems to be greatly muddled by indistinct definitions. The article mentioned that Luke & Sully are fantasy in scifi drag. Absolutely.

    Science Fiction (not “scifi”) is based in and extrapolates, to varying degrees of rigor, from reality. A story that calls itself SF but doesn’t engage in the foregoing is only SF by virtue of marketing. It is better described perhaps as “science fantasy” (the trappings are SF, the science is not there or is ignored in pursuit of story).

    The real divide between good fantasy and good SF is found in the degree to which the author accepts the commonly understood constraints of each genre – and SF has by far the greater set. This may be missed by many readers who enjoy the genre but who are not sufficiently informed about the various scientific disciplines involved to truly understand the hoops an author went through to tell the story AND adhere to good science and good extrapolation.

    I find it very interesting that over the past several decades there has been discussion and argument over the nature of SF’s predictive powers. Today, most contemporary authors avoid the subject or make some kind of statement designed to indicate that they’re writers, not prognosticators – whereas in at least the 50s thru the 80s, (good, rigorous) SF authors were more than happy to accept the mantle of seer. (You can find video of both Clarke & Asimov stating as much on YouTube.)

    I view this change, the blurring of lines between fantasy and SF and the expansion of the SF realm to many sub-genres that are clearly not SF as part and parcel of the same thing: less rigor, less willingness to accept constraints, an audience that is far less discerning.

    For a really good fictional treatise on the divide between fantasy & SF, one need look no further than Niven & Gerrold’s The Flying Sorcerers (misspelled Magishun), in which Asimov defends the SF side of the argument and a whole host of his contemporaries are name-checked throughout.