The All-Too-Real Split Between SF and F, a Rebuttal

  • by Gitabushi

…Here I come.
Walking down the street
I give the craziest takes to
Everyone one I meet!

PC is putting his SF&F thoughts on a new blog, for branding reasons.  I originally tried to leave this response over there, but my browser was choking on the wordpress log-in.  What the heck, yanno? Let’s have dueling posts on this topic.

as you wish

Here goes:

Okay, we’ve had this discussion before, but I’m going to disagree again, even if means retrenching the battle lines we’ve fought so many times.  I actually think you have some new points, but I have some new counterpoints, too.

I think David Brin has a point. Not as much of one as he thinks, but a point.

I think SF&F doesn’t and shouldn’t really matter to the reader. But I think it does and should matter to the writer.

You have to know what you’re writing, and why.

Sure, there are some space operas like Star Wars that can be re-written as fantasies, and probably vice versa, but they wouldn’t satisfy the audience.

Because when I think of all the fantasies and all the science fiction stories I’ve read, I have noted that science fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and fantasy is about extraordinary people…who sometimes are just dealing with ordinary things, like revenge, and rejection from parents and/or being orphaned, or things like that.

Speculative Fiction is really about exploring what it means to be human. Science Fiction tends to be things like, how much can we distort Person and still be human. Fantasy tends to be things like, how much can we distort Reality/Environment and still remain human, and/or how much does power distort humanity versus merely amplifying the baser instincts.

Sure, there are exceptions. Frodo is really just an ordinary person who does great things, as Bilbo was, really. But every non-hobbit in that story was a singular example of something 10 standard deviations above the mean.

Star Wars was both good *and* clearly science fiction when it was just an average farm boy who helps destroy an enemy aircraft carrier with an atomic bomb capability. (Force isn’t magic, it’s *psionics*. #Duh). But it got worse, disappointed many of its audience, and became fantasy when it became a mundane estranged family relationship story. Not that “becoming fantasy” means “gets worse”, but it started as SF, and so got worse the farther it got away from SF and more into mysticism and fate and seeing the future and stuff.

Okay, that explains they difference.

But why does it *matter*?

Because if you are a writer, think of your story. Should it be SF or Fantasy? It depends on who the main character is, what you want him to do, how you want him to change. If you want him to be just an ordinary kid with some exceptional abilities that he can use under duress to save a bunch of people, then you should write a Heinlein juvie fiction SF&F story. If you wan to write about someone who seems normal, but is *really* the heir to some huge power, or huge wealth, or huge kingdom, and he’ll spend his time dealing with office politics, then you are probably better off writing a fantasy.

If you want to write about a humanoid race that thinks differently than human, but just as well, you’re probably going to write science fiction. If you want to write about a humanoid race that is pretty much fully human in intent, motivation, love hate, etc., just go ahead and write a fantasy.

If you want everyone to have the same tools and powers and opportunities, and just one person has the drive, insight, or persistence to benefit from it, you’ll probably use a SF setting. If you want someone to have access to special tools, powers, or opportunities that aren’t available for general use, then you’ll probably write a fantasy.

Yeah, Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Well, Arthur C. Clarke was wrong, and if he’d thought it through just a *little* bit more, he’d have realized it. And if he disagrees, he can come here and post his disagreement.

…okay, that was supposed to be for humorous effect.

The thing is, I think Orson Scott Card nailed it when he said that if you include magic, for it to be interesting, there must *always* be a price to using it. Or else, it’s just unlimited power and that’s boring.

But with technology, there is no price. The price was paid in the development, or in the working out of how to use it without destroying society.

Going back to Star Wars, the Force was fine when it was psionics and there was no price. It became magic when the price was having to struggle with the dark side, maybe cut yourself off from human affections, etc.

There is no price to learning to play guitar except that time it takes to work on muscle memory. But if you sell your soul to the devil to get good…

…that’s the difference between science fiction and fantasy. The reader just wants a good story. But if you want to write a good story, you need to know which you are writing, and stick to it.

24 thoughts on “The All-Too-Real Split Between SF and F, a Rebuttal

  1. A writer can know what kind of story he wants to tell without limiting himself in that way. I’d point to Jack Vance’s Gray Prince as a good example. Mostly it’s a scifi tale. There are native barbarian (alien) peoples who are spoken of as using magic, but it’s mostly written off as superstitious nonsense. Until the protagonists encounter them, that is, and there is actually real magic. It works in the story, genre restrictions be damned.

    The difference between magic and “psionics” strikes me as a matter of semantics here. Lucas never said or implied the Force was psionics. It was a mystical force that bound the universe together.

    This way of thinking means that any time you want to have magic minus this necessary cost, you can just hand way it away and say it’s psionics.

    Another interesting point is that maybe there is a cost and it’s just not explicit. In Earthsea, you don’t find out for a while that magic is limited and is getting used up. And you may say this is a good device, because magic must have a cost. But it wound up sinking the series when the protagonist went from a cool wizard to a boring old man with no more magic.

    You could also say that magic, like any other power, corrupts. Is this a cost?

    What about magic that requires a catalyst or reagents? Does that count as a cost?

    I would say that magic needs rules and limitations; not necessarily explicit cost.

    The thing is, ultimately it’s all speculative fiction. You can box it however you like, but there are always going to be exceptions, and you’ll have to draw new lines and make new (sub) boxes. And I think that’s a good thing. Artificial boundaries, like that between, scifi and fantasy, stifle creativity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “You could also say that magic, like any other power, corrupts. Is this a cost?”

      Okay, probably have to agree to disagree. I still think the best stories are those in which the writer chose science fiction or fantasy for specific reasons of writing mechanics, and constistently develops the story based on those writing mechanics.

      FYI: Postman is a good story, overall, but there’s a point where Brin lost track of what he was writing (SF or Fantasy), and it damages the impact of the story. Let me know what you think when you read it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Right, but I think for me it boils down to this – why can’t you have scifi elements (advanced technology, aliens, etc) AND fantasy elements (magic, knights, etc)? It seems to me that especially when it comes to the consideration of magic, there is so much in the universe that is unknown and unexplained that there’s certainly room for it in certain scifi stories.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. One place (timeline? genre? discipline?) that blends them effectively, in my opinion, is Shadowrun.

        Maybe there’s no reason you can’t combine them freely. But I still think there is a difference between SF & F on the nature of power itself: how it is iinfluences, how it is applied to the story. When you use SF, elements, treat them like SF. When you have Fantasy elements, treat them like Fantasy. But to do that, you have to be extremely clear in your mind which is which, and why.

        The Barsoom series has SF “furniture”, but treats them like fantasy elements. He wasn’t really that careful with the science behind them, and it makes some of his plot developments and resolutions weaker.

        Interestingly, The Master of Five Magics probably treats magic more like engineering, but I can’t recall it enough to draw conclusions from that. I need to re-read it.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Regarding psionics versus magic, it isn’t just semantics. At least not at first.
      In the original movie, the Force was just a mental enhancement, so subtle that most doubted it existed. It had *limits*.

      And the movie treated it as psionics: it just was. You didn’t need to know where the power came from, you didn’t even need the scientific explanation for it. It was as science (and non-magic) as gravity.

      But in the later movies, it helped you jump higher, it let you throw heavy things at people, it helped you communicate telepathically, it helped you see the future, it let you shoot lightning from your fingertips. Then it became a question of how you got the power, and at what cost. I.e., magic. It was no longer just a force like gravity.

      So psionics is SF because it is simply a natural ability that everyone has to a certain degree, that science just hasn’t really defined yet. But magic is a power, with malleable limits, and only certain people can use it, or there is a cost to using it, to help the story be interesting.

      In Star Wars, the important thing was that Luke’s father was a great pilot. In later movies, they did a handwave to that to focus on the acquisition of magic power. Star Wars was ruined because it started as a SF story, but changed to a Fantasy story, betraying the premises it established for the audience.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. After exposure to the older science-fantasy of the pulps, I tend to look for other aspects of differentiation between the two, aspects which are distinct but also allow for some crossover. And really, I just think it’s a spectrum.

    And I read way too much scholastic philosophy, so I’m using that framework.

    Science-fiction deals with specifically natural elements of reality. By natural I mean those things which are finitely bounded in such a way that they are accessible to human reason. The world and it’s elements are limited to that which is is accord with what we know to be true.

    Fantasy is defined by an openness to the supernatural. By supernatural I mean those things which are in some fashion beyond the capacity of human reason. The world and it’s elements, while still have clearly natural bounds, also point to some greater reality which, to greater or lesser degrees, manifest within the natural bounds.

    Summary: Science-fiction is “natural” speculative fiction, limiting itself to the natural with perhaps only vague intimations of the supernatural (“wonder”, “religious insight”, “pondering mysteries”), while fantasy is “supernatural” speculative fiction, opening itself to the supernatural in clear and obvious ways (magic, elves, insanity-inducing horrors).

    As I’ve outlined it, they overlap in such a way that all fantasy is a species of science-fiction, while science-fiction need not be a species of fantasy. All fantasy requires some versimilitude as regards it’s natural setting – few stories can be “purely” supernatural or they could not be understood by humans (themselves natural and thus requiring the supernatural to make itself known). The farmboys and kings and such have to be believable (read “natural”) for the fantastic elements (read “supernatural”) to actually manifest in an intelligible way.

    This also explains how fantasy is an older genre than science-fiction. It wasn’t so much the science that was missing, but older generations had such an intense belief in the supernatural that the natural world could not be properly understood without it. As that started to eat away, science-fiction became a more prominent genre. The first was speculation WITH the supernatural, the second speculation WITHOUT the supernatural. Of course, we still craved speculations which gave us wonder, so science-fiction often appealed to “the future” to give this wonder.

    This is also why much early science-fiction is deemed “science-fantasy”. It’s not that the genres were mixed, but that the natural insights of science were not yet divorced from the earlier supernatural worldview. Only later, under men like Asimov and Campbell, does the shift really occur as the supernatural to removed to leave only the natural.

    I would argue the most successful science-fiction tends to find ways to let the supernatural back in, because that is more in line with reality (being a believer in the supernatural, so I’m assuming that position). Star Wars is of course the best example, but one can also point to Peter F Hamilton’s space operas, Battlestar Galactica, or the tendency of space horror to be about mysteries beyond human understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good argument, well developed.
      – 10 points for mentioning Asimov in a positive manner.
      Now apply/describe how psionics works in SF in your formulation without becoming Magic.


      1. (((This got really long and involved and I rewrote portions and had to stop because this was becoming an essay and I’m just going to leave this here for other’s to parse out or as a monument to my own incomprehensible loquaciousness.)))

        Well, I’m not sure I mentioned Asimov positively because… I’ll come back to that.

        Why can’t it become magic, haha? We want psionics or similar “powers” to be considered natural, but they are supernatural on the face of it – powers which are clearly beyond human nature.

        The two, SF and F, are a spectrum. You rarely find one without the other, really. Even if the “supernatural” is limited to something like “providence” – happening upon the unobtainium – or “mystical math” – Seldon’s psychohistory – or “mysterious evolution” – mutants getting powers (like psionics). Science-fiction, in its most “rigorous” form, just ignores these supernatural manifestations and gets on with the story.

        They get away with this through the assumed whig history we all have. Those backwards people in the past believed in the supernatural; now we know there’s only the natural. Thus if anyone has “magic” powers now or in the future, they are really scientific powers, explainable by natural means with no reference to the supernatural. Thus the force, while perhaps having mystical trappings, is really just the connection of man’s intellect through these midichlorians to the fields which all things have and the ability to manipulate them (or some other naturalizing BS).

        Modern speculative fiction is a paradoxical backlash against this worldview while still being trapped within it. Reading older fiction, a supernatural manifestation was rare and dangerous, but the supernatural itself still existed all around and was present to all peoples in everyday fashions – e.g. religion, folk wisdom, warnings about the faeries in the woods out back. Of course, this everyday fashion was most people’s assume mode of life, and stories were just about the extraordinary manifestations.

        As we lost this sense of the supernatural (sense of the transcendent, the numinous, enchantment – it goes by a lot of names) our fiction, strangely, became far more populated with the supernatural (fantasy) or the supernatural-like (science-fiction). However, we also have a tendency to naturalize it because, being good little moderns, we KNOW the supernatural doesn’t exist as SUPERnatural, but just an extraordinary example of the natural. In fantasy, this leads to creating intricate mechanical systems for your magic or explaining it away with pseudo-science (midichlorians). In science-fiction, this is all about rigorously ignoring supernatural themes by giving them natural bases (Superpowers? Given by science/evolution/being an alien. Strange, non-human beings? Just humans of a different biology/culture. Traveling far distances or using powerful destructive powers? Just advancements in technology.)

        Because of this, I find the more rigorous science-fiction somewhat disingenuous. Asimov is a perfect example. His science-fiction, specifically the Foundation books, are just retellings of history according to his biases gussied up with lazer guns and spaceships. Biases which tend to eschew the supernatural, which is the only real important speculation in his books – discussing the ramifications of psycho-history and what it is would have been far more interesting than just outlining events (characters wondering if they’re caught in fate, other wondering if life is just cyclical, others embracing nihilism simply to prove Seldon wrong – and maybe proving him right? Is Seldon some sort of prophet with this knowledge that apparently no one else can wield? [Does this happen in later books? I’ve only read the first.])

        To turn the gun around, a lot of Burroughs tends to do the same – just an adventure novel with Mars/Venus as backdrop. The Therns are his symbol for denouncing the supernatural in it’s more wild forms, though his sense of heroism tends to have a soft affirmation of it. He’s more complicated than a lot of science-fiction writers, I find.

        Fantasy proper tends to confront the speculative aspect head on, tending to dwell on the supernatural, either in a “let’s naturalize” fashion which seeks to make the magic play by rules (Sanders), the wonder of the good (Tolkien), or the horror of the supernatural/irrational (Lovecraft/Howard). The first is starting to become gussied up bad science-fiction (see below), the second really good science-fiction with this supernatural focus, and the third pure (and horrific [though amazing]) fantasy with the supernatural fully SUPER-natural (above nature).

        Really good science-fiction lets the science open up to the supernatural without breaking the wall. The supernatural does not always “manifest” (magic and the such) in science-fiction, rather the natural world itself becomes a mirror of it. Questions of life and death, meaning and purpose, heroism and selfishness: all of these tend to place one in connection with the supernatural.

        I may have misspoke in saying all F is SF, but not all SF is F. Rather, I see F as the more “robust” genre – nature open to the supernatural even in wild manifestations – while SF tends to, at it’s best, recognize the Supernatural in reflecting upon the Natural, and, at it’s worst, be a way of fleeing and hiding from the supernatural. I find Asimov (and most agnostic/atheist authors) tend to use the field just for that.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. This is really good. I don’t know whether I agree with it or not, but it is a powerful and compelling paradigm, obviously consistent.


  3. The original Star Wars trilogy is oriented much more as a fantasy in the first movie before shifting in more of a science fiction direction from there.

    It is also clearly both fantasy and science fiction. The genres overlap.


    1. The thing is, Brin is not self-aware. One of the problems with the Postman is he changes the nature of the book near the end. It becomes the fantasy he decries (albeit, with scifi furniture, which is probably why he doesn’t realize it).
      Brin is not a great writer, but he’s done some significant things in SFF history. If you can find it, read the Practice Effect. Good fun!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. After reading his “Earth” and 2 or 3 of the Uplift Saga I was done with Brin. He’s a high priest for earth worship and when he’s burning in hell, you won’t find me crying about it….


  4. I like people who make me think, even if I don’t agree with their worldview. It may annoy me, but if the idea is worth exploring, even if to just tear apart, I can enjoy the story.

    I got bored with the uplift saga, so I’m not saying I think he’s a great writer or anything…


  5. It is a “fun” point of view to imagine everything on the same spectrum. But it makes little sense in that we (as a species) learned it, then forgot it, and then it again in a post-apocalypse world learned it again

    Liked by 1 person

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