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March 2018



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Science Fiction and Fantasy

[A long time ago I promissed I would post about this subject. this is not really the essay I wanted to post but it is something.]

Most people think of science fiction as guys in spaceships shooting laser guns at aliens. Most people think of fantasy as guys on horses getting into sword fights with dragons.

They are right that science fiction and fantasy have a lot in common but they are wrong about what it is. Although not all science fiction is deeper than a good action adventure and it was a science fiction author (Theodore Sturgeon) who said "Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That's because 90% of everything is crud." Science Fiction and Fantasy are unique among genres in allowing their authors to explore the full range of the human condition. The extreme flexibility of these forms allow for thought experiments and satirical critique that other forms do not.

What is Science Fiction?

Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Science fiction includes fantasy for the purpose of this essay. There was an attempt at one time to combine the two categories into one category called speculative fiction. But spec-fic did not catch on as well as sci-fi, and the effort was abandoned.

Many authors write in both genres. Orson Scott Card, Samuel Delany, Ursula K. LeGuin, Larry Niven, Stanislaw Lem, Sheri S. Tepper, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and Emma Bull are all authors who can say what they need to say in either style. Many stories start out in one and end in another. Sherry Tepper's "True Games" begin as magical fantasy but end as alien world Sci Fi. Ann McCaffrey's Pern books, dragons are fantasy characters but her dragons are genetically engineered aliens. Christopher Stasheff's wizard series a ren-faire setting caused by eccentric colonists, magic is really psychic powers except when they journey into an alternative reality. Isaac Asamov "Azazel", a series of short stories he wrote where he kept changing his mind as to whether the title character was an alien or a demon. Marge Piercy "He, She and It" parallels the Jewish Folk tale of the Golom with the story of a cyborg. Joan D. Vinge in "The Snow Queen" tells the folk tale of the Snow Queen as a science fiction story.

How do they differ?

Science Fiction uses science as a basis Fantasy uses magic. Travel by space ship or transport gate is science. Travel by magical transportation is fantasy. Psychic powers are science, magic is fantasy. Lasers are science, swords are fantasy. Aliens are science, mythical creatures are fantasy. Planets are science, magical realities are fantasy.

How are they the same?

Travel means change or journey whether it is by spaceship or sorcery. Other worlds mean different conditions. Aliens mean foreign ways of thinking. Magic and science are both means to an end.

And that end is to explore the human condition. Good Science Fiction and Fantasy are thought experiments. And in the words of Ursula K. Le Guin from the introduction to "The Left Hand of Darkness" " The purpose of a thought experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physists, is not to predict the future... but to describe reality, the present world."


You know I love you, BUT:

This essay has flaws in it.

"Isaac Asimov once said "any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic"" I'm almost positive that Clarke said this.

Misspellings: Sherry Tepper goes by Sheri S. Tepper (one of my favorite writers, BTW), Vonegut is Vonnegut, it's McCaffrey, not McCaffry, Stasheff has two Fs, Asimov wrote about Azazel, not "Ashrtes", and it's LeGuin, not Leguin. Thus ends the nitpicker's portion of my comments.
The quote in question is definitely one of Clarke's laws.
Thanks. I should have known better. I really do know better.

I thought...

...it was from something by Saberhagen, unless of course he was quoting from Clarke.

Re: You know I love you, BUT:

Thanks, it is better to hear these things from friends. :-)

Most of those errors were shear laziness on my part, I should have looked the authors up. I was just getting so frustrated with the essay I just threw it out there.

And now for the comments on the meat of the essay...

Personally, I grind my teeth when I hear or see the word "SciFi" used. I have to acknowledge that since we've got the SciFi channel now, the word will never fade away, and even those of us who read the genre will probably use it. However, I go by the old definition...which is that SciFi is something like "The Giant AntMen of Planet X", that is, something sloppily written by someone who cannot write proper SF/fantasy. That's just one of my personal quirks, and it seems that I'm in a shrinking minority here.

I think that the best SF/fantasy will tell a story that CAN'T be told, or can't easily be told, in mundane literature. Or it will try to make us think about things in a new way. For instance, Pratchett's "Maurice and his Educated Rodents" might seem to be a story about rats, but it's also a story about people who read too much and live too little, and the way stories get bigger in each retelling, and about human society. "The Left Hand of Darkness" tries to get us to see the person behind the apparent gender, among other things. It's been far too long since I read that book.

Oh, and I don't think that McCaffrey actually writes SF OR fantasy...I think that she just writes romance novels, dressed up as SF or fantasy. ;)

Re: And now for the comments on the meat of the essay...

I understand where you are coming from with that. :-)

Meaning is dependant on context. Your criteria have to do with quality. I'm not trying to distinguish between good and bad SF&F I'm trying to distinguish between SF&F and Non-SF&F

Re: And now for the comments on the meat of the essay...

Some people argue that if a story can be told in a non-SF/fantasy way, then it's really not SF/fantasy. I wouldn't go THAT far, but I do admit that I don't really like "Because It's There" stories dressed up in SF terms, for instance. I see no reason why we can't have elements of other genres in SF&F, but if the story follows a formula that is characteristic of a genre other than SF&F, I don't believe that it should be shelved under SciFi.

Re: And now for the comments on the meat of the essay...

I have given the issue of genre some thought.

What are the genres?
Since I work at a library I looked up our catigories: Romance, Mystery, Western, Horror, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Historical Fiction.

The problem is that these all have not just different characteristics but different basis for the characteristics.

Romance is based on the relationship between the charaters.
Western is based on the setting.
Mystery is based on the plot.
Horror is based on the mood.
Science Fiction & Fantasy is based on the props.
and Historical is based on the time period.

You may not want a Romance story in your Science Fiction but the Romance fans may not want alien spore in their Romance story.

"You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!"
"You got your chocolate on my peanut butter!"

I feel like I'm have the same argument in two different subjects