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.