Friday, September 30, 2022

Rings of Power: Digression

This weeks Quite Interesting discussion on the Twitter was "What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy."

My answer was "If it has swords it is fantasy, but if it has ray guns it is science fiction." 

More pedantically: if it has only swords (Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings) it is fantasy, but if it has both swords and ray-guns (Dune, John Carter of Mars) it is science fiction. 

My favourite answer was "Science fiction has light swords because the writer believes they might be possible; fantasy has light swords because the writer believes they are impossible."

Definitions of this kind always break down: to sustain your argument you have to say that beavers are fish, carrots are fruit, and Star Wars is science fiction. Since people like George R.R Martin and Robin Hobb appear at science fiction conventions and Forbidden Planet sells Tolkien books, the distinction is probably not all that important.

The most useful definition is "Science fiction is the kind of thing that is liked by the kinds of people who like science fiction." This definition also works for Folk Music and Socialism, incidentally. 

Tolkien was troubled by Orcs. There is a scene in Lord of the Rings where Sam looks at the body of a human soldier who has been killed fighting on Sauron's side, and wonders if he was misled rather than evil. Orcs on the other hand are a kind of vermin that can be killed freely and without compunction. Gimli and Legolas have a competition to see how many they can kill at Helms deep. (Peter Jackson turns this into a running joke across two movies.)

Tolkien toys with the idea that Orcs are a kind of automata, mere extensions of Morgoth's will; or at any rate that their wills have been totally overridden by Sauron. They talk among themselves, in lower class English accents, obviously, but he speculates that they may merely be imitating the sounds of human speech without understanding what it means. But the published texts seem clear that Orcs are people: they have agency and feelings and subjectivity. In origin, they are probably twisted or corrupted Elves. This is a fairly major theme in the mythos. Evil does not create, or have independent existence: it only twists and corrupts the good. Trolls are broken Ents, Orcs are broken Elves, evil itself  is a discordant counter melody which God will incorporate into the great cosmic concerto.

Unlike the Christian Satan, Sauron is capable of repentance: Morgoth himself may come back to the light at the very, very end of time. But there is no hint that there are, or could be, good Orcs, or that Orcs can be redeemed. Dead humans pass beyond the circles of the world into an unspecified but presumably Christian afterlife; dead elves' spirits find their way back to the Undying Lands and may become re-embodied. I suppose dead orcs remain in middle earth as ghosts or demons.

Joseph Campbell, who is generally wrong, said that "mythology is psychology misread as biography". Ursula Le Guin, who is usually right, said that poetry and dragons speak "the language of the night" -- they follow dream logic rather than logical logic. 

Le Guin is thinking about the way in which characters can be both people in a story and also symbols: that at one level Gollum is a Hobbit who desires a powerful magical Ring, and happens to become the guide of Frodo, another Hobbit who resits the Ring's temptation. But looked at another way, Gollum is Frodo's distorted reflection: he represents what would have happened if Frodo had succumbed to the Ring. Gollum tripping over his silly feet and falling into a volcano is a dumb event which just happens to happen; but it also represents the fact that the Quest can only be completed by Frodo's dark side -- what Le Guin calls his Shadow. (Astonishingly, this is also the plot of a Wizard of Earthsea.)

C.S Lewis complained about Dickens' handling of the character of Jingle in the Pickwick Papers: it is okay, he said, to ask the audience to laugh at a comedy rotter; but to show the baddie facing the real-world consequences of his actions is not playing fair with the reader. I have found this a problem in "serious" situation comedies like Rev. or even Friends: the more real characters become, the harder it is to laugh at their comic antics.

If you like fantasy, you have to accept that it is not real. You make a tacit agreement to put certain hard questions on hold for the duration of the story. I think this is as true for meticulously constructed worlds like Middle-earth as it is for more whimsical constructs like the Discworld. Why does Gandalf, an immortal Maiar sent into the world to defeat Sauron, wear a pointy hat? Because he's a wizard. Why don't the Fellowship fly to Mordor on the back of an eagle? Because it's a story. (That was Tolkien's exact answer. The eagles are part of the machinery: what we would be more likely to call a plot device.) Why are Orcs evil? Because that's what Orc means. 

One of the things we like about High Fantasy -- and superhero comics, and cowboy stories -- is that the differences between good and evil are exaggerated. Black hats are crueller and more callous than any actual cattle rustler is like to have been; white hats are kinder and less corruptible than we can really expect from our police officers. This doesn't necessarily imply a simplistic morality: High Noon is quite a sophisticated little morality play exactly because Gary Cooper is so perfect and and Lee Van Cleef so nasty. Fantasy takes it a lot further: a Black Hat on a Black Hatstand in the Land of Mordor where the shadows are leads an infinitely large posse of ugly deformed Uruk again armies of immortal, beautiful, incorruptible cavalry with the light that existed before the sun and the moon literally shining out of their arseholes.

People who don't really do fantasy very naturally see this as a vile colonial metaphor. And vile colonialists certainly sometimes interpret fantasy in that way. "We, the light shiny people have the right to kill you, the dark ugly people, because we are light and shiny and you are dark and ugly." But if you do like fantasy, you will probably understand that the elves represent us but that the orcs represent us as well. Elves are what we aspire to be and Orcs are what we are afraid of being. The eternal war between Light and Dark (which light wins but at great cost) represents an inner conflict which is happening in the head of all human being at all times. It was the people who mindlessly vandalised trees that Tolkien was inclined to call Orcs.   

Okay, most people who read fantasy probably wouldn't say that at all. They would be more likely to say "Life is messy and complicated but the Lord of the Rings is fun. In real life there aren't Light Shiny People and Ugly Horrid People -- there are just people. But one of the nice things about Lord of the Rings is that it is simpler than real life." Tolkien had no objection to people who called his books Escapist.

It is not okay for the Dark Lord's Minions to have feathers in their headdresses. It is not okay for them to have slitty eyes, hooked noses or for their bankers to have a Star of David mosaic on their floor. There has been lots and lots and lots of High Fantasy over the years and maybe we don't need any more of it. Realism has something to be said for it. Circe and Joffrey were arguably more hateful villains just because they were humans as opposed to shoggoth. The people who say that Dungeons & Dragons can't possibly have a racist subtext because African Americans don't really have yellow scaly skin, 1D4 hit points and treasure type A are insufferable twits. The Star Wars mythos was rather improved when the Sand People stopped being "injuns" and became an indigenous nation with their own culture and language.

Some people say that stories about Chosen Ones -- swords in stones and empty thrones awaiting sons of Adam and daughters of Eve and boys with funny marks on their foreheads -- are irredeemably aristocratic. Some people are born to rule, and some people, you and me, are born to chant "All Hail The Long Lost True King of the Northlands" in silly naarthen accents. And you can read the stories that way. And the fact that they can be read that way may make them dangerous stories. But wasn't Joseph Campbell on kind of the right track when he said that the point of Star Wars and the Sword in the Stone and Harry Potter is that we are all the Chosen Ones -- that the journey of the hero is a way of thinking about everyone's trajectory through life. 

We are all Anakin and Mordred and Tom Riddle unless we make a positive effort to be Luke or the Wart or Harry.

Richard Bach wrote a silly book called Confessions of a Reluctant Messiah; a sequel to the even sillier Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. At the the time, I thought it was saying "You, Andrew Rilstone, might turn out to be the second coming of Jesus. Wouldn't that be wild?" I now, of course, understand that it was saying "Everyone is the second coming of Jesus; terms like son of God and Messiah are just ways of understanding what it is to be human." Which is very poor theology but quite good psychology.

Science fiction and fantasy are ways of reading, not ways of writing. If you speak the language of the night, you look at the Lord of the Rings and see a vast tapestry of symbols. If you speak the language of the day then you see a not very coherent or believable collection of facts. If you read the Lord of the Rings and ask "I am sure this poor Orc as its own feelings and point of view -- as it would have if it existed in the real world" then you probably find that Lord of the Rings doesn't work for you. If you read the Lord of the Rings and say "In this world there are the forces of good and there are the force of evil and that's cool" you are probably on Tolkien's wavelength. (If you read it and think "There are good white people and it is natural they should rule nasty dark people and that's true in the real world as well as in Tolkien's" then lots of people on Twitter agree with you.) But if you are uncomfortable with the whole idea of evil races, maybe you aren't the person to be developing a prequel to Lord of the Rings?

Science Fiction is when you write about Evil Races because you believe that some Races are really evil. Fantasy is when you write about Evil Races because you don't. Discuss. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Mark Schaal said...

Generalizations, not even half decent generalizations, but why not:

Science Fiction is where you don't write about Evil Races because you don't believe in Good v Evil. Fantasy is where you write about Evil Races because you believe Good v Evil is the basis of everything.

Our main popular fantasy series, Star Wars, is so committed to Good v Evil that its main focus is the Light Side and the Dark Side which floods the entire universe. On the other hand our main popular science fiction series, Star Trek, has spent years showing how the Klingons, Vulcans, Ferengi, etc aren't evil but instead have a different set of cultural values explaining their different behaviors.

Though really most of these things are just Action-Adventure and whether they choose bows, guns, lasers, or optic blasts doesn't make the slightest difference.

Andrew Rilstone said...

If you are looking for rules of thumb that work, then “if it has good vs evil in it, then it’s fantasy” works for me. Another good one would be “if it’s got magic in it…” In both cases, Star Wars turns out to be a fish, because you can eat it during Lent.

David Pulver said...

It is pithy, but I mislike the good vs. evil definition; one might say cosmic evil or evil species are fantasy, but any story in any genre can depict a conflict between truly good and evil individuals.

I do remember a time when people felt that science fiction was something that *in part* at least might be *possible* in the future, for good or ill, or at least, that feeling was a literary effect to be strived for. That a Star Trek-type future might actually exist in some form (prevalent among fandom in the 60-70s), or that psi powers might be proved to real science, or that we'd discover teleportation or whatever. On the other hand, fantasy contained key elements that the reader/viewer was not intended to believe were possible in our own world, whether in the past or future (with the possible exception of the occasional divine miracle should the authors or reader be a strong religious believer).

The details of science fiction stories tended to evolve with the times as things were discovered or invented or disproved that were once unknown to the average writer or reader. This persisted through until the late 20th century, and then came the change that began to erase the distinction between SF and Fantasy: the media franchise.

The media franchise meant that science fiction TV or movies were stuck with whatever technical background they had invented. They could evolve *socially* - they could have a more diverse cast, stories could be more sophisticated, aliens didn't have to be bad, or versions of nazis, russians, native americans, or chinese, etc. - but they were stuck with whatever implausible scientific assumptions underpinned the core franchise. Spaceships had to whoosh, the Fermi paradox had to be ignored, faster-than-light had to be the standard, humans had to ride around in giant space liners or tiny space fighters, etc. And people who grew up on this went on to write and read new "science fiction" as well, so it was all like this.

Now, SF has always been as much or more about telling stories about the present or at least people in the trappings of the future, but then again that's also true about fantasy, except it's the trappings of the impossible. And of course things like, say, the Hand Maid's Tale or any other near future story (e.g, Ex Machina about AIs) retains that sort of "this could happen" vibe that gives SF its distinction.

But so much modern science fiction, especially the "interstellar" sort, has, I think, lost some of the sense of "this happen" that existed back in the naive(?) period before scientists managed to convey to the public just how HARD it was to do interstellar travel and some of the other things that SF love. But because this both screws up story telling and because of the power of the big franchises this much SF still remains bound to the common tropes that we KNOW are impossible. And thus we have a Star Trek that is beloved because of its franchise, and maybe its optimistic social ideals, but not because anyone thinks people will be zipping about among the stars in giant space cruisers anymore. And so Star Trek (and most other interstellar SF) has become fantasy, because neither the writers nor the the audience believe it is possible any more.

Of course, it's an endless game, depending on one's prejudices. Star Wars vs. Star Trek? In Star Trek, there are entities that are effectively pure evil (e.g., the being in Wolf in the Fold) and despite revisionism, "hostile aliens" still remain common. In Star Wars, humans are the main adversary and most aliens are with the rebels or just folks. Fantasy (e.g., Classic Star Trek) is where almost all robots or AI are doomed to become evil (because playing god is not for mortals). Of course, there may be a rare chosen one (e.g., Data) among the dozens of mad or evil ones. Science fiction (e.g., Star Wars) is where they are either tools or people, even if society's prejudices leave them an underclass, feared or enslaved.

Achille Talon said...

I suppose one does have to say it: is "Genesis of the Daleks" fantasy, then? It certainly has an ontologically Evil Species. In fact, it also has a magic ring.

Gavin Burrows said...

“Some people say that stories about Chosen Ones… are irredeemably aristocratic. Some people are born to rule, and some people, you and me, are born to chant "All Hail The Long Lost True King of the Northlands" in silly naarthen accents. But… the journey of the hero is a way of thinking about everyone's trajectory through life. “

I don’t doubt this is true. And ‘Lord of the Rings’ may be a good example of it in action. But I feel it kind of bypasses where we are right now. As Neoliberalism infects our culture more and more stories about the old aristocracy meet up more and more with a culture based around the new aristocracy.

And that’s a culture very much about the individual, triumphing in the free market/ marketplace of ideas/ whatever it’s being called this week. The emphasis is always on what makes *you* special, *unlike* the others.

You’ve written before about how this has influenced the superhero films, how they’ve gone from ‘Batman’s parents killed by a criminal, so Batman fights crime’ to much more personalised fare, where it’s much more a private vendetta against one particular criminal. And superpowers is a good metaphor for this. ’Some have superpowers, others are mere citizens’ used to be something superhero stories actively worked against. Now it seems part of the appeal.

But I think it’s something you see most in war films. Old war films were very much about collective effort, in which (in the phrase of the day) everybody does their bit. ‘A Walk In the Sun’ for example, is about the Allied taking of one farmhouse. More modern war films have to be about something much more pivotal, and character motivations more personalised than just “I don’t fancy this fascism business much”.

David Pulver, you argue a good case that franchises stymied the development of SF. But I’d say there was a bigger point, the decline of faith in science. “Science will find solutions” has gone from a general assumption to an excuse pedalled by climate change deniers. It’s led to a closer relationship between SF and fantasy, but an even closer one between SF and horror.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, though skepticism of the dangers of science has always been strong (Frankenstein and up, cozy catastrophes, etc.), and fears nuclear war or overpopulation or whatever were as strong and influential in the past. Science fiction also has a tendency to be about change (for good or ill: invention, progress, settlement, colonization, transformation, etc.) while fantasy has a tendency to be about restoration, return from the quest, looking to ancient wisdom, etc. While many modern authors have balked at that (e.g., Moorcock and Pullman's critique of Tolkien), it does still tend to affect the popular view in media. Since franchises tend toward stability (change it too much and it might alienate those who like it) this naturally pushes sf toward fantasy tropes.

Oddly enough, many of the climate change deniers are often as opposed to technical science fiction-ist fixes (e.g., solar geoengineering) as the greens and environmentalists. Many of them distrust all science and "globalist" ideas of the sort that would be required to impose geo-engineering fixes seem like just another chem-trail plot by the Elite...

Andrew Rilstone said...

Does the First Men in the Moon still have a science fiction "vibe" even though anti-grav and lunar life forms are obviously not real? Was John Carter of Mars always identifiably fantasy even when Martian canals and dead civilisations were sort-of-kind-of plausible? Mary Shelly tells us that Frankenstien is not scientifically impossible before she tells us that it's the result of a ghost story competition and a nightmare. But I think we all see that it's got more in common with Mysteries of Udolpho than Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Old Trek was Science Fiction because it was interested in ideas; characters were archetypes to explore morality plays. (My Mum was quite right when she said "Oh, it's just a cowboy story!") Next Gen was Less Science Fiction because it was more interested in the characters as characters; more like a soap opera. Whether the audience believed in heisenberg compensators isn't quite the point.

Star Wars, of course, advertises the fact that it is constructed from out of date tropes in the first caption.

Genesis of the Daleks is obviously a riff on Abolition of Man: if you could bio-engineer humans so they did not have a sense of conscience or pity, what would you be left with? And it is striking that the next time they appear, they are said, not to be evil creatures, but to be machines -- not life forms at all. The Doctor calls them "evil", but he means it in the sense of very, very, very bad -- not "given over to the dark side". (The Master, and indeed the various Satan figures, are much more like fantasy Dark Lords. The Master is particularly problematic in that they seem to revel in being bad -- evil be thou my good -- but without being actually insane.)

Gavin Burrows said...

Might Anonymous be David Pulver again? It reads as though it is.

So with SF the solution lies with the future, and with Fantasy it lies with the past?
Speculatively, is classic SF so inured in science that it has a tendency to make everything into an opposition between Good Science and Bad Science? Deadly weapons are Bad Science, faster than light travel is Good Science, and so on.

I wonder how these two ideas tie together, restoration and perpetuating the franchise? Franchise episodes normally revert to stasis, but this is scarcely the same thing, sometimes even the opposite. Restoration is normally of something the audience has never been shown, the golden age like the end of the rainbow. Is it easier to keep the carrot of resolution dangling if it’s nominally in the future than nominally in the past?

Climate change denialism is a form of science denialism, so it’s not surprising their techno-fixes turn out to be no more than a handwave. Though I think there’s probably a distinction between outright conspiracy theorists, whose identity is contingent on denying anything that’s commonly agreed upon (the “sheeple” and all that), and free market fundamentalists. The latter group’s response is more tactical. They can deny climate change, but they can also claim that “innovation” will provide a fix, it’s just not here quite yet. And in practice they tend to vacillate between the two. In today’s world, I think its legitimate to be sceptical about techno-fixes.
The notion of morality as a kind of inhibitor, and evil being what a creature could do if created without that inhibitor, seems very common in our culture. It’s as if I’m permanently on the brink of knocking you on the head and nicking your sweeties, but fortunately a constraining chip in my brain prevents me. What if I just don’t want your sweeties? And the first Dalek story has the corollary, the Thals have their inhibitors set too high, so won’t even fight to fight evil.

Louise H said...

I really think they should have made Elendil 7ft 11 tall.

Which is not entirely facetious. Elves are not the same type of people as Men. Numenoreans are not the same kind of humans as Southlanders. Harfoots aren't very small humans. Dwarfs aren't very small grumpy humans. Orcs are not people at all. As soon as you cast human actors as all of the above and give them all English dialogue you've got this problem of trying to make the differences between them integral to who they are rather than just cultural or attitudinal. And if you fail (and I think Rings of Power has failed badly at this), you end up with Elves as upper class people and Harfoots as uneducated country people and Orcs as rough people and Dwarves as funny people and Numenoreans as rich people, and of course they can all be friends and allies and enemies and (ouch) lovers and none of them are better than any others because they are all just people.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous was David Pulver; for some reason I was having trouble posting otherwise.

Regarding the idea of more older SF being thought of as "possible" my caveat is that is primarily after the rise of magazine science fiction in the US, and perhaps after HG Wells. This is not to say that Shelly or Verne is not science fiction, but rather that the awareness of the science fiction story as distinct from fantasy or ghost story or the weird tale or utopia had not entirely gelled in either the writers or the readers.

"Old Trek was Science Fiction because it was interested in ideas; characters were archetypes to explore morality plays"

Sure. And yet I'd still contend that there was a feeling among the creators of Trek that, while they were just telling "Wagon Train to the Stars" with the morality play of the week, that the core idea of "maybe in the future we'll be better people, a unified multinational Earth, and go out and explore the stars and meet aliens" was indeed something that might, in some way, happen. And so they did things like consult with folks who said "well, atomic power probably won't get us there - maybe antimatter!" or "of course men and women and all colors and creeds will serve together in a more progressive future" and so on. This is the vibe that they chose to present in interviews and "Making of" books in the late 60s/early 70s.

The ability to convey to a *contemporary* audience of science fiction readers (not necessarily the general public!) that the fantastic element of your story (be it social or scientific or whatever) is somewhat possible is, I think, one element that often characterizes memorable science fiction within the mainstream of the genre. But it's certainly possible to still have a good or bad story, as a story, with or without it.

Anonymous said...

"I wonder how these two ideas tie together, restoration and perpetuating the franchise?"

The connection is tenuous, I admit. The resolution of a restoration narrative characteristic of a conservative fantasy would theoretically break the franchise as easily as the speculative (discovery of new) narrative characteristic of SF. And that does happen! However in the fantasy-leaning franchise the solution is to repeat the loop: the Empire Falls, the death star is defeated, the Old Republic is restored, and then voila, a new resurgent empire appears, it builds a new death star, the republic begins to totter again, it falls to evil, it must again be restored... In theory at least, the science fiction approach is "you keep finding entirely new stuff which changes the world." Oh, there may be echoes or rhymes of history, but it's less likely to be same damn thing over and over again.

Bringing us back to Tolkien, the elves and men quarrel and the Dark Lord Morgoth rises and is at least defeated by two brave souls, then there is peace, and then men and quarrel and the Dark Lord Sauron arises, and is at last defeated by two brave souls, and then... well, Tolkien realized he didn't really want to write yet this yet again, but he wasn't that keen on writing science fiction either....

"Speculatively, is classic SF so inured in science that it has a tendency to make everything into an opposition between Good Science and Bad Science? Deadly weapons are Bad Science, faster than light travel is Good Science, and so on."

I don't think I agree with that, though it may be true sometimes. There's a lot of classic SF that has no opposition between good and bad science; classic SF authors of the Campbell magazine era like Heinlein or Asimov generally imply all science, in the sense of knowledge or discovery or invention, is good, but the story lies in how the changes it enables may generate interesting stories about people or society.

On the other hand, there's plenty of classic science fiction contemporary with this that also follows the faustian tradition where the search for knowledge of any meddling with life or whatever leads to doom. I am not sure that this is any less or more SF; it is merely not the kind of SF popularized by the major 1940-50s American sf magazine editors.

Anonymous said...

DP again:

"Star Wars, of course, advertises the fact that it is constructed from out of date tropes in the first caption."

I'm not sure if they're "out of date" but the appeal to both antiquity and physical distance is a traditional trope to lend legitimacy and authority to fantasy. If Star Wars opened with "1,000 years from now, in a distant corner of our galaxy" what would change?

"Does the First Men in the Moon still have a science fiction "vibe" even though anti-grav and lunar life forms are obviously not real?"

Sure. These things fade gradually.

"Was John Carter of Mars always identifiably fantasy even when Martian canals and dead civilisations were sort-of-kind-of plausible?"

I think John Carter (and Verne) existed before there was a shared understanding among both the creators and the audience what modern science fiction was and what fantasy was, so the answer for any early works is "no one why quite sure, but they liked it anyway." The concept of Science Fantasy at the intersection of these genres is perfectly valid.

Most science fiction seems to have a half-life; depending on the exact elements it is made up of it will slowly or quickly decay into science fantasy from the perspective of readers with the passage of time. (On the other hand, some works of science fiction may appear to be fantasy, perhaps even to the author, but slowly transform into science fiction.)

"Mary Shelly tells us that Frankenstien is not scientifically impossible before she tells us that it's the result of a ghost story competition and a nightmare."

Arguably, Frankenstein is one of the rare works that transform from fantasy to science fiction over time.

Andrew Rilstone said...

If Star Wars opened with "1,000 years from now, in a distant corner of our galaxy" what would change?

In one sense, nothing. I don't think Lucas ever intended it to turn out that the Jedi colonised earth or built the pyramids or anything like that. But it is significant that he starts the movie by saying "This is an exercise in nostalgia" -- both with the opening caption, and with the Flash Gordon story-so-far crawl, and indeed with the visual quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I think "A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far, Far Away..." is fun in itself. "Like sci-fi but fairy tale" is a fun idea: it makes you smile and puts you in the right mood for the story. Don't take this too seriously. He allegedly wanted to embed it in a Princess Bride type frame (with a mother Wookie/Ewok reading to a baby) which would have been a shade too whimsical.

Achille Talon said...

Late to this, but I do think it changes our understanding of “Star Wars” somewhat if we imagine that its humans are distant descendants of us Earthlings, rather than simply existing by fiat in an Earth-less galaxy. You'd start to wonder whereas that makes all the humans in the Galaxy colonialists, and whether X or Y element of worldbuilding is a distant echo of 20th century culture (e.g. did the Jedi Knights start out evoking old-school knight errants on purpose?). Saying resolutely "there are humans with spaceships in this story, but this is *not* a story about a possible future of humanity beyond the 20th century" is an important thing to do regardless of the mythical tone.

Achille Talon said...

* (dammit, that "whereas" should be a "whether". curse this spellcheck!)

Colin said...

My thoughts.

I've thought quite a bit about what fantasy and SF is because I have written an enormously long historical fantasy and I've written a much shorter dystopian SF novel.

Initially, I would say that a science-fiction novel portrays a world in which our familiar world (i.e., Planet Earth, our history and our society and our laws of physics, etc) could exist or could have existed sometime in the past. In contrast, a fantasy novel, regardless of its sub-genre, portrays a world in which our familiar world (i.e., Planet Earth, our history and our society and our laws of physics, etc) could not exist and could not have existed at any point in the past.

That's because things like magic and the supernatural, and, in particular, human power over both, alters the nature of reality to such an extent that our familiar Earth becomes changed out of all recognition. And it’s quite hard to think of any fantasy novel that doesn’t have some degree of magic and the supernatural.

However, what I quickly came to realise, and ended up exploiting in my historical fantasy, is that the nature of our familiar world is not fixed so much as a matter of individual perception. Individual perception, in fact, so defines our reality that objectivity is pretty much unattainable.

This realisation also, in part, led to my moving to Glastonbury some years ago in search of rich-pickings for my fiction.

I know a Buddhist, several pagans, two practising witches, a Christian (or two), at least one Druid, and countless people who believe in ley-lines, past-life experiences, astrology, the fay, out-of-body-experiences, and ghosts, along with the Illuminati, Covid conspiracies, that 5G gives you cancer, and the NWO. I volunteer in a private members library which gives equal weight to Carl Jung and Aleister Crowley. On Glastonbury’s high street it’s easier to buy a crystal ball or a Tarot deck than a pair of shoes.

My point is that with so many beliefs shaping individual perception it’s a bit difficult to agree on what reality is and a fantasy novel, with its focus on magic and the supernatural, is just as compatible with some people’s perception of the present as a hard SF novel is with the perceptions of a NASA scientist.

Once I recognised that reality, or the reader’s reality, was not fixed and probably wasn’t as atheistic and materialistic as my own reality, I realised that New-Age beliefs in particular provided, what Alan Garner termed in a slightly different context, “distilled metaphor and truth.” In simple terms, even in fantasy fiction you can make the reader’s suspension of disbelief so much easier by writing about things they are already familiar with and perhaps even believe in.

So where does that lead us? Simply this: there is no significant material difference between science fiction and fantasy fiction but there is a profound difference between the perceptions of those who prefer one and those who prefer the other and I suspect much the same applies to all the other forms of fiction, if not to all prose.