A personal take on the distinction between sf and fantasy

When I work on a story, I've got three main concerns. 1: It has to be strong in terms of plot and action, because that keeps my publishers happy. 2: It has to have some thematic depth, something that fleshes it out and makes it more round and whole (because that makes me happy). 3: It has to have a certain level of plausibility.

By 'certain level of plausibility', I mean: it might contain an idea or concept entirely fantastic and/or impossible within our current understanding of the laws of physics and the universe as we know it (force fields, FTL etc), but contained within that idea or concept is the notion that our understanding of the universe is sufficiently incomplete that new paradigms might, maybe, some day make the apparently impossible possible, or at least potentially achievable. When you live in a universe where once-impossible things like atomic bombs and space travel have since become everyday, where the instantaneous teleportation of information is well researched, and where concepts such as multiple alternate universes are regarded as entirely plausible by people incredibly better qualified than me to hold such opinions, the act of suspension of disbelief becomes rather more easily achievable. In fact, for me to say that something is either possible or impossible when I am unqualified to hold any such opinion (by dint of not being a physicist or a scientist) strikes me as entirely foolish.

Yes, personal force fields that let you hit a mountain and the mountain breaks (as in Stealing Light) are completely fantastic, but try and tell me Hugh Everett's Many Worlds theory is any less bizarre (or his theory of quantum immortality, for that matter). And yes, I am aware there's vastly more evidence for Everett's notion of multiple universes than there is or likely ever will be for personal force fields. But that's one of the fun things about being a science fiction writer.

Now to my primary concern here: it has on occasion been suggested to me that science fiction is a branch of fantasy. I disagree, and here's why.

Science Fiction is largely driven by the idea that the universe and its workings are still largely unknown. The human mind is driven to enquire into its nature in order to understand it. That understanding, though incomplete, is increasing. Science Fiction, then, is a form of writing that allows one to speculate on the apparently impossible, given that history is littered with incidents in which the impossible has been shown to be, in fact, possible. It's this latter point that allows for the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of a reader (or this reader, anyway).

This is not to say that all things impossible will eventually prove to be possible; but the incompleteness of our knowledge allows some of us to freely speculate, and to imagine the impossible made possible without feeling too guilty about it. This is particularly rewarding for those who, like me, lack any scientific training and yet have a fascination for the achievements of modern science. Given that scientific history is primarily composed of a series of paradigms giving way to each other as successive generations of enquiring minds throw up new questions with the aid of constantly improving tools, one might feel further justified in speculating on a world in which the current paradigms could perhaps also be superseded.

If we take 'fantasy' in its purest form - which to me usually means elves, magic swords and orcs - I think it's fair to say these are things which neither exist nor are going to exist, ever. One might speculate as to the (im)possibility of faster-than-light travel, time travel or alternate realities; no one to my knowledge has ever speculated on the possibility of finding elves, orcs or magic swords any time soon. Let's be clear: I do not say this to denigrate fantasy in any way, and I also acknowledge that as definitions go, it's an appallingly crude one. However, it is very much my contention that a work of 'fantasy' in this particular sense offers a fundamentally different form of experience from that provided by the majority of works of science fiction. Let me repeat: this is not the same thing as suggesting either form is intrinsically superior or inferior to the other; it is not to suggest a lack of equivalence in the writing skills necessary to produce either. I merely want to make clear my opinion that the suggestion one is somehow a branch of the other is, to my mind, incorrect.

I know there are probably countless examples and counter-examples. I don't lay any claims to impartiality in my reading tastes either, because I've generally avoided books with elves, orcs and magic swords like the plague throughout my life. I have never in my life picked up a book with a dragon on the cover and thought, 'gee, I really want to read that'. So why do I feel the need to make this distinction?

Because I get a bit annoyed when people tell me I write fantasy in such a way that the implication is (to my ears, anyway) that a work of fiction containing aliens and space craft is somehow the same as one featuring magic swords, elves and dragons. They're different forms, with different aims and different appeals. One might as well say science fiction shares many traits with, say, the detective genre, because both are bodies of fiction. It's a statement that is equally, on analysis, both true and untrue.

For me, sf and fantasy (within the very narrow definitions I've used here) merely are what they are; different things with different aims living in different boxes, that sometimes share the same audience - but not always.


Ian Sales said...

I agree that science fiction is not a subset of fantasy, but that's because I believe sf is a modernist form of literature. It takes as axiomatic that the human condition and/or the human environment can be controlled - from cybernetic implants to genetic engineering, from colonies on Mars to re-engineering whole galaxies. Even the "unknown" can be subjected to reasoning and control, although it may not produce answers. Science fiction differs from mainstream modernist literature in that the tools used for control of the human condition and/or environment are figments. They either do not exist, do not operate in the real world as described in the text, or rely on science and/or technology which does not exist.

Anonymous said...

scrub Fantasy, call it "Purist Escapism" instead or make up a new pigeonhole, Steve Lamaque style. Alternatively, stop generalising and regard each book on its own merits as a work of entertainment.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

Ian, the tools in SF are usually figments, but not always - depends how hard you want your SF; if it's the really hard stuff, you're talking about untested tools - stuff nobody knows will actually work 'in situ' because nobody's been in the position of actually trying (Project Orion, for instance). But I like what you say. But whether an actual tool or object or idea happens to be achievable or outright fantastic doesn't really matter - it's about the application of reason within the context of the narrative that's one of the primary defining factors of SF for me. Yes, that could bring other things under the umbrella of 'SF', but it's not about what does and doesn't belong in a particular box - this was only ever a personal take on something that bugged me.

See, the implication of sf as 'fantasy' for me in the particular context I referred to - comments made personally to me - is kind of cynical to my ears: that space travel and the rest of the furniture of the genre is really all part of just another fairy tale; the space age is over; it's time to stop pretending SF can have any relevance.

And inside of that is another implication: that history is over, that from now on we have only a process of refining what we already know.

Well, I don't think so. A lot of people in the real world are spending time, money and research on things that would have been laughed at several decades ago - the search for microbial life on nearby planets, the search for evidence of life on faraway exo-planets. If they're doing that, how can people fail to write about such things?

Outside of that, I'm not really talking here about definitions so much as stating a personal attitude concerning what it is that makes SF so important. The 20th Century really wouldn't have been quite what it was without SF's influence on the imaginations of scientists and engineers worldwide. That is by no means to suggest fantasy cannot be relevant and meaningful - just rather more often in a very different way.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the ideal solution would be a list of ten thousand or so genres, to be added to as needed. For example, you could make specific sub-genres of science fiction according to whether or not FTL travel is possible in the novel, the number of alien races, the number of space-ships, and if and when the supporting science has been debunked or found as hypothetically sound.

Fantasy could be boxed as well, under criteria like how many different races appear in the novel, whether or not the story includes a dragon or several dragons, and if the novel contains mystical rings, amulets, or weapons.

Each new genre of course, would need its own shelf, so we'd bookstores larger than football stadiums, and ideally one would have to take a truck to cover the distance between books that have elves in them and books that have spaceships.

Because heaven forfend a reader start to read a work of fiction without knowing whether or not it has a certain level of plausibility.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

Ten thousand? Not nearly enough. My Big Book of Approved Genre Distinctions tells of precisely 48,645.3 clear genre distinctions fluctuating in number two to four% each hour depending on the estimated prevailing mood of the internet as a whole.

For an easy life let's narrow them down to just, say, 3,545; and let's not forget the border patrols we'll need driving up and down between each bookshop section. They'd have cool uniforms, and they'd get to carry tasers.

leonsp said...

If "elves, orcs, and magic swords" are the purest fantasy, then Vulcans, rayguns, and lightsabers are the purest science fiction. The equivalent to Forgotten Realms is Star Trek/Star Wars novels. The equivalent to Tolkien is Frank Herbert.

You shouldn't take the most popular, most visible kind of fantasy and contrast it with hard science fiction. That's not a fair comparison. Hard SF does not represent Science Fiction in popular consciousness. They don't make movies out of Hard SF.

A definition of fantasy that includes China Mieville (who treats magic far more rigorously than most SF writers treat science) and Mary Gentle (who writes the kind of near-historical fiction which gets shelved with fantasy, but tends to have a scifi conceit) and quite a few others is very likely to encompass science fiction. A definition of science fiction that includes all the psionics and milsf and space opera is likely to encompass fantasy.

You did mention that there are countless exceptions, but I think your points of comparison between the genres are not equivalent.