Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Rule-of-Thumb on Fantasy vs. SF

If I had to point to one idea that divides most fantasy from most sf, it would be “Born to the Power.” In fantasy, there are at least two sets of physical laws. One for the special people (magicians, heroes) and one for everyone else. In sf the laws of the universe hold for everyone: anyone can pick up a gun and fire it, as opposed to a magic sword which may only activate for one person. [Let me point out right now that I don’t believe that this is the end-all, be-all, one-size-fits-all, Final Answer to the sf vs. fantasy genre split. It’s simply been a handy rule of thumb that I’ve found useful over the years. Certainly there’s a lot of slipstream and magic realist fiction for which this idea wouldn’t be particularly useful.]

Let me use a specific case. There was a side conversation in this thread at Torque Control about Perdido Street Station winning the Clarke award as sf. (Paging Richard Morgan!) I tended to read it as sf because the magic in its universe is technological. There are many species with many differing abilities (like aliens) and the ReMade are much like cyborgs, and the scientist Isaac is trying to learn about his universe and its laws, which seem to consistently apply to everyone there. Even the appearance of the Slakemoth, which is by far the most fantastic element of the story, is much like an alien intrusion from another dimension (a hoary sf trope). Just because it’s not our universe doesn’t mean that Bas Lag isn’t a scientific universe. There’s no one in the story wielding unique power by virtue of birth or something similar.

I should mention that in ‘wielding unique power’ I mean some sort of magical or physical power. Even in our mundane universe, lots of people wield political power by heredity, and there’s nothing inherently fantastic about that. In fact, I believe that the “Born to the Power” idea stems from the historical notion of the divine right of kings: some people are simply more special that others, by birth, and nothing can ever change that. Thus we get heroes such as Aragorn--Gondor doesn’t get to vote about who to lead them, the story simply assumes (and confirms) that Aragorn is the right person, by virtue of birth. Whereas sf is literature born during and after the enlightenment, and (mostly) rejects many of those notions of inherent ‘specialness’ and looks at science and technology as a somewhat more level playing field.

This does lead me to a few odd categorizations: Star Wars becomes a fantasy because of the Jedi (and no silly ‘midichlorian’ ret-conning will change that). Gail Carriger’s recent Parasol Protectorate series becomes sf (as well as being steampunk and romance) because in its universe: a) there is a soul and it is measurable; b) anyone with enough of it can become a werewolf/vampire/ghost with some reliability; c) its existence or lack thereof appears to be heritable.

So I’m not drawing the line based on whether things are possible or not. After all, huge amounts of stuff in sf is not actually possible (warp drives, time travel, etc.) And I’m not assuming that sf has to be set in ‘our’ universe, or anything recognizable as such. I’m focusing instead on the physical laws of the universe of the story. Are they consistent? Do they apply equally to everyone? To go back to LotR for a moment, the dagger Sting is fundamentally technological--it glows in the presence of goblins no matter who is wielding it. But spell-casting magic is the preserve of the select few. By the way, having admitted that some of the magic in Tolkein acts as technology, I must admit that in my rule-of-thumb take on things, one drop of fantasy makes it fantasy. A story with a universe exactly like our own (or even with spaceships) except for one magic sword that can only be activated by one special guy winds up in the fantasy category.

One counter argument is all the super-spiffy heroes in sf: don’t they count as being ‘Born to the Power?’ Lazarus Long is an amazingly Competent Man, as well as being effectively immortal. That’s true, and it certainly indulges the same emotional satisfaction of having a super-special fantasy hero. But Lazarus was the product of a very specific breeding program, and while he is the longest lived of his brethren, he is not fundamentally unique in his universe. So I’ll still call that one sf. I don't need much of an explanation--I just need something I can pretend is an explanation.

I now look forward to teh Internets letting me know just how wrong I am. Thanks!


Ace said...

Where does that put Dune?

Karen Burnham said...

First off, let me admit that I last read Dune about 20 years ago, so my memory is pretty shaky. I'd be happy to be presented with counter-evidence.

But on first blush, I think that Paul was the product of selective breeding, and Spice is a technological item that anyone can use. So even though the very feudal plot is structured much like a fantasy, I'd say that it would count as sf.

But I may not be remembering some of Paul super-specialness that could make it into a fantasy.

Ace said...

Later in the book, Paul drinks the Water of Life which causes his latent powers to manifest and turns him into the Kwisatz Haderach, the prophesised messiah. I was thinking that this is akin to "Born to the Power," hence making Dune a fantasy.

Would a messianic subplot negate the SF-ness of an SF story?

Karen Burnham said...

Hmmm, I'd forgotten about the prophesy thing. Let's see, Messiahs are usually Chosen Ones by definition--unless you're Brian from Life of Brian or similar. ;-)

It seems like Paul being the Kwisatz Haderach would trip over into fantasy... unless his Mom and the Benegesserits (sp?) specifically bred him to fulfill that prophesy...?

Puss in Boots said...

I started out being resistant to this idea, but by the end of your essay I somewhat agree.

I still think you can draw other lines which are equally convincing and have nothing to do with this particular division, but I like this one.

The attractive part for me is how you're deducting all of the surface junk and its connotations and applying the "fantasy" or "science" to the fundamental mechanics of the world. Unicorns, rocketships, sorcery, large hadron colliders... those aren't any more important to a story than rocks, cheeseburgers, or body jewelry.

Karen Burnham said...

Exactly--You can have sf dragons and fantasy spaceships!

And you're right, there are lots of ways to slice this pie.

Daryl Gregory said...

My own rule of thumb is that if the characters act like they're in an sf novel, then it's SF. If one hobbit says, "But HOW does it turn you invisible?" you're not in a fantasy anymore.

Liviu said...

I would not formulate this way, but I completely agree that one of the main differences is the 'blood" thing; in fantasy you need the right blood so to speak and while kings and nobles can be created from commoners, magicians cannot.

But there is another crucial difference - scientific outlook and I do not think you can have sf without that; the science and tech may be lost in the apocalypse so to speak, but people have to be aware of it; so Legacy of Kushiel is fantasy not because of the "right blood" since nobody of importance has any magic there but because of the pre-scientific world view; same with The Folding Knife by KJ Parker

I would say that sf is "blood is irrelevant" + scientific outlook of society, fantasy is the rest

And then sf divides into two: materialistic (mind needs engineers and scientists to act on matter) - Reynolds, Banks or "idealistic" where there are souls and the like - PF Hamilton for example

Ted said...

I've said something similar in the past about the difference between magic and technology (for example, here).

Karen Burnham said...

Daryl - how beautifully tautological of you! But that ties in well with what Liviu's saying about the scientific outlook. Although I'm not sure I'd label Peter F. Hamilton as 'idealistic' in this context--Liviu, could you give me an example?

Ted - Yes, and I'm pretty sure we've talked about this at some point in the past. I've had this kicking around in my head for 5 or 6 years. The question from Richard Morgan on Perdido Street Station and then a blog question from Larry Nolen finally spurred me to get it in writing.

Liviu said...

Peter Hamilton's universes - both in the Confederacy with the souls of the dead and in the Commonwealth with the Silfen for example - are non-materialistic; for example Bradley Johanson transfiguration at the end with the Silfen medallion is a clear example - of course you can invent a way as below, but I do not think PFH intended that.

Now IM Banks pulls the same trick in Surface Detail with Ledejde as PFH with Johanson but in a very explicitly materialistic way.

Comparing Surface Detail and Night's Dawn as "souls" go illustrates for me the difference between the two positions.

And for your examples - I think that both Star wars and Dune are idealistic sf since you can make a statistical argument that if the universe is non materialistic and there are enough people out there, some will be able to act on its fabric directly, so the Jedi...

Again IM Banks made same statistical argument materialistically in Consider Phlebas and the humans that out-think the Minds on occasion

As for Perdido Street, I would buy most arguments as to its sf-nality, but I would have a much harder time with The Scar and while Jim Grimsley pulls the sf/fantasy same (multi) universe in Kirith Kirin/The Ordinary/The Last Green tree, China Mieville's work is clearly set in the same world...

dougsmith said...

Very interesting blog post, Karen. I've put a sort of followup on my blog HERE.

S Johnson said...

This is a fairly good rule in many ways, focusing on the way that fantasy is the preferred mode for so many writers because it evades reality.

Still, I'm not sure that identifying fantasy as a literary mode with its other meaning of "daydreams" isn't more pejorative than clarifying. Fantasy can address wishful thinking honestly, while lots of science fiction is daydreams in IMAX 3-D. As indeed most popular fiction and drama do.

Fantasy is a mode of fiction and drama where the impossible happens with no connection between our reality and the fictional one.

The handful of fantasies that elaborate a sufficiently advanced magic indistinguishable from technology, complete with pseudoscientific principles and rationales are still fantasies. Alternate realities with no possible connection to ours, like that in the television show Kings, are fantasy, while alternate histories with branch points are SF.

The difficulty is that many people feel God is a part of our reality. The advent of God, usually at the end, just as most people look for him at their ends, therefore doesn't distinguish fantasy from SF. Which is why Star Wars is still SF.

Richard Morgan said...

Thanks for this, Karen - it's an interesting analytical knife you wield here, and I love the fact it dumps Star Wars unceremoniously into fantasy territory. But it seems to me that it's also going to end up dumping Steven Erikson's Malazan books into science fiction, and I don't think anyone is really going to sit still for that.

As regards PSS, I can only submit that any book which includes the existence of several deities, and Hell (and its ambassadors, no less!) has no business being called anything other than fantasy. That should not take anything away from what a magnificent achievement PSS is. What pains me is the way in which so much creative back-thinking and twisting goes into trying to justify the fact that the book won an award it nominally shouldn't have, all so we can maintain our little picket fence dividing lines and territorial disputes, and thus exclude who knows what remarkable fiction in the future.

Karen Burnham said...

I'm afraid I'm not quite following S Johnson's argument--god in Star Wars?

To Ace & Liviu--I enjoy the way this rule-of-thumb makes Dune into a border case instead of being Core SF.

Richard-Well, deities can just be higher forms of intelligence (Q from Star Trek) and Hell can simply be another dimension. Simply because an entity is labeled as a deity doesn't automatically make it fantastic--it could just be a powerful alien. It's still just window dressing. If the deity acts like an alien following a set of natural laws that are discoverable--SF! If it's bending the universe to its whim in a way no other entity can--Fantasy! At least it gets one level deeper than the labels.

But be that as it may, you'd asked how *anyone* could consider PSS to be sf, and I posit that this is one way *someone* could. :-p [Although I want to note that I didn't come up with this in order to shoehorn PSS into a category, I'd been noodling on it before I read any Mieville]

By the way, I want to just put here that Ted has of course put it much more succinctly and more elegantly in his link above than I ever could (excerpt):

"Magic is, in a sense, evidence that the universe knows you're a person. When people say that the scientific worldview implies a cold, impersonal universe, this is what they're talking about. Magic is when the universe responds to you in a personal way."

S Johnson said...

The Force=pseudonym for God. A nicely impersonal one, complete with pseudoscientific rationale. Many people read the Force directly as God and were offended when midichlorians gave an ostensibly natural explanation. People who like magic don't want it to be explained, by handwaving or by second phrases from old science fiction stories. They want it to be something outside mundane reality.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I ALWAYS assumed that Star wars was fantasy! It has a fantasy structure.

Ted said...

To offer some more remarks on Perdido Street Station: I personally consider it a fantasy novel, and am not sufficiently invested in the Clarke Award to be bothered that fantasy novels win it sometimes. All the Bas-Lag novels qualify as fantasy under my personal definition, because the Bas-Lag universe very definitely responds in a personal way, but of the three PSS makes the most gestures toward an impersonal, scientific universe. The one I found most interesting was the device used to invoke the ambassador of Hell. It is explicitly described as a modern mechanical substitute for a live offering; a "victimless sacrifice."

The need for a sacrifice in magical practice would normally be prima facie evidence of the universe responding in a personal manner; it's how the practitioner demonstrates his/her commitment. But that scene in PSS suggests that a personal gesture isn't actually required to open a doorway to another dimension; what's needed is some physical phenomena which in the past was most easily achieved by killing a living thing, but can now be replicated by a machine. The principles underlying that machine should be subject to mass production, so it could be the first step to an industrial revolution.

Of course, the fact that the other dimension is called Hell contradicts this hypothesis. The very idea of Hell means that the universe responds in a personal way, and there's nothing else in the novel to suggest that the other aspects of Hell could be circumvented by technological means.

Bas-Lag doesn't have a rigorously worked-out cosmology; it's a conglomeration of lots of cool stuff, and internal consistency isn't the point. Some of that cool stuff looks like science, but most of the stuff doesn't.