This morning (establishing a temporal anchor that will be overtaken by events soon), my good friend and compatriot Emily30Red (soon to be known as Kikanshabushi) posted these categorizations on twitter:
Those a pretty good definitions/categorizations as far as they go. She developed them herself from her own readings and analysis, so they are organic and original.
I have a slightly different take, because my set of readings are different, and my analysis comes from a different brain (naturally). For instance, I think Fantasy is also about what makes us human, but from the opposite direction than Science Fiction. To me, they are both speculative fiction because speculative fiction is grouped by the question “What does it mean to be human?”, as explored through “What if humans were in this sort of society, or encountered that scenario of events?”
So with that common starting point for speculative fiction, I divide SF from F thusly:
Science Fiction is about normal people doing great things, and Fantasy is about extraordinary people chasing mundane goals. There are probably lots of holes you can drive through with that formulation (for example, Frodo is nothing special, but achieves a great success through sheer, dogged determination, which fits more under Science Fiction), but I think it works fairly well for a rough starting point to divide the two.
But another difference is the way the fantastical elements are handled.
This is something I’m a stickler about.
Arthur C. Clarke famously ruined everything by saying, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
I say “ruined everything” because he’s not technically wrong: if you can find a previously-unencountered tribe deep in the amazon, and show them some technology, they’ll freak out as if it is magic, because it is beyond their ken. In contrast, a 2-year-old exposed to amazing tech will take it for granted, like the baby that thinks a magazine is a broken iPad:
So his formulation is already of limited utility, unless you happen to have some primitive tribes hanging around. And it ruins everything for writers, because no, significantly-advanced technology is not indistinguishable from magic. To the reader, maybe. But to the writer, they must be handled differently.
Go read this. Then come back.
And then, I guess you should read the post he was responding to, here. And at this point, maybe the lesson is I repeat myself, because I had forgotten that I had already slagged Clarke for his 3rd Law.
And while you’re at it, might as well read this, too, because I think it captures what my thoughts were on genre early on, before refining the views with challenges.
In fact, you could probably stop there and not miss anything. However, the value in this continuing post (if there is one), is to sum up some of these views, and go deeper into the difference between magic and technology (in my arrogant opinion).
At one point in my running battle with PCBushi, I referred to magic & tech as furniture, as in, the term gun people use to refer to the things that change the appearance of a firearm without changing its function. PCBushi correctly countered that another way to put it is like a skin on an app or character.
At one level, technology and magic are like that. This is particularly true in video games or roleplaying games or superheros. If you blast the bad guy, does it matter whether it is a laser blast or a mana blast? Not really.
Maybe it doesn’t matter much to the reader/audience, either. No one cares what the tech is behind lightsabers in Star Wars, and you can go round and round arguing whether the Force is magic wielded by Space Wizards or psionics, and it doesn’t matter. It’s just a skin for power.
Except as a writer, it does matter. And to the audience, perhaps it should matter, too, because Lucas doesn’t seem to really be clear what they war, and he made a bunch of missteps as a result. From my formulation above, Star Wars got worse when it changed from an ordinary farm boy using the exercise of a talent to defeat an Empire to Space Wizards trying to reunite an estranged family. I.e, a normal person doing great things through effort => special people dealing with normal life problems.
So what makes the difference? How the power is handled.
Orson Scott Card teaches in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy that magic must have a cost to make it be interesting in your story. I think that’s correct, but I don’t think Card really goes far enough, or explains it well enough. I have the hubris to think I can.
My notion is that fantasy is about great people (special people, uniquely-powered people) doing mundane things. To the extent this is correct, it is an exploration of what it means to be human, because it shows that even great people deal with normal life problems. Magic is part of that, because it is magic that sets them apart, and magic must have limitations and a cost to make the story make sense.
This is because if there are no limitations or costs, everyone will have it, and then what’s the story exploring? A story where everyone had the ability to make wishes come true would probably be a boring story. But a story where only the protagonist (or perhaps, only the antagonist) had this power…now that creates some interesting opportunities for drama.
The counter to this argument is possibly: well, technology has a cost, too. It’s just the cost was paid in development, or in the expense (not everyone can afford body modifications that include hardwired reflexes?). But that counter doesn’t work for me. Televisions provide a communication ability that would be magic to a primitive culture, but what cost is there to the average person in the US? It’s factored into life. US cultural statistics went from Zero Anywhere to how many families have one to how many per family.
So while the difference between fantasy and science fiction settings may just be a skin, technology should be something everyone in your science fiction world should have, pretty much without any significant cost or sacrifice. What makes the story in science fiction, then, is how the main character uses that technology differently to resolve the central problem of the story.
Example, Larry Niven wrote Neutron Star, a story that included an alien-made indestructible spaceship. Magic! Except that anyone with enough money can have one, and so the main character is given one to explore a scientific phenomenon and discover the answer to a mystery. The answer to that mystery is actually an application of a scientific principle regarding gravity and orbital mechanics. Thus, it is a Hard SF story, despite the potentially magic elements.
Magic, in contrast, should have a cost, or a sacrifice, or a limit of some kind. Not just everyone should walk around your story with magic.
So you have to consider the nature of your magic. Is it something anyone can have with enough effort, but to perhaps varying levels of skill? Compare to playing guitar or basketball. Literally anyone of sound/whole body can play guitar or basketball. What makes a basketball or guitar wizard is the years of study put into it…although someone with greater talent may achieve that mastery with less relative effort than someone else with less talent but more drive. And voila! you might have a story right there.
But mostly not. In most fantasy stories, the magic character is just special, and it often isn’t explained. Harry Potter was just a wizard. He had to work to get better at it, but either you had magic or you were a muggle.
The Force started as a talent. Before the family bloodline storyline entered in later, Obi-Wan Kenobi had no reason to think Luke might not be able to do the Force. It was something to be taught, and you could take it as far as the combination of your own talent, teaching, and effort took you. Everyone had some measure of it, but most just didn’t even try to develop it, possibly because most didn’t have the talent or interest to gain any real facility with it. Like guitar.
But then it changed to a power that ran in the family. Because Luke had it, and Leia was his twin sister, she has it, too. As did their dad. As will their kids, if they have it. I haven’t paid much attention to the reboot sequels, but apparently Rey blows up the blood theory…except that she thinks she’s Luke’s kid because of her power with the force, which just tends to reinforce the “ability by blood only” theory, just her parents were a previously-unknown Force-enabled bloodline.
One theory about magic (to the extent there can be something theoretical about something completely unreal and made up) is that magic should be calibrated so the cost/sacrifice is just slightly greater than the the amount of effort it would take to achieve that goal through mundane means. So if you want a million dollars, the magic it takes to get it with a snap of fingers should have a cost/sacrifice just slightly greater than it would take to compete for a good college and complete a difficult major and work the drudgery job for enough years to get that million dollars. The interest would then be why this person wants the money now, instead of putting in the normal effort. What does that say about his character, good or bad? It should always be a slightly higher cost then the mundane path, to balance out the immediacy of the magic. But this is just a theory of a way to balance magic. I don’t know if I read it somewhere (was it Card? I haven’t read that how-to book in over a decade) or if it is my own sense of proportion. But let me know if you try it.
However, that theory aside, this goes back to Emily’s view of Fantasy: what does it do to the Self if you have power beyond that of the people around you? What if you can snap your fingers and have a benefit or a good that would take others years of hard work to achieve, if ever? Character questions are absolutely about self, the corruption of unique power is absolutely a common theme in Fantasy, in contrast to the SF common theme of overcoming due to unique force of will (which is how Beowulf survives in Neutron Star, btw).
So to sum up: magic should provide benefits that allow the avoidance of effort. As such, magic ability should be unique and have a cost, or it will be imbalanced in your story, and probably damage the enjoyment of the reader. The exact same power can appear in science fiction, but the focus is different: the focus is on the unique application of an ability that anyone else could do, but doesn’t; or the focus is on the unique determination of the individual to overcome, in a high-tech world where everyone has pretty much the same physical ability and powers.
The lesson to you is (should be?) that if you are considering including a power or ability in your story, consider whether you want it to be unique or common. If unique, you might want to write it as a fantasy. If common, you might want to write it as a science fiction story. And then further subdivide from there.
You don’t have to do this, of course. But I’d be interested to hear from those who did, and had it work; those who did, and had it not work (and why); those who didn’t start with this decision and eventually realized they were writing the wrong sort of story; and those who didn’t start with this decision and made it work (not just a random/happy accident).