Back to: Revision, Competition, and Dracula | Forward to: Beer in Manhattan

"I dream of one day slapping handcuffs on a belligerent junkie."

In comments on previous posts I've mentioned that I have never considered myself a part of fandom. I haven't been avoiding fans, and I don't have any aversion to them (as far as I can tell so far). It's just that every time I would see a flyer advertising a convention, there would be that admission fee. I don't doubt the event is worth sixty dollars or whatever, but that doesn't mean I was prepared to part with so much cash. I imagine a BMW is worth the price, but the cost puts it out of reach.

Anyway, this meant that, as I ventured onto the internet, I stumbled upon a whole bunch of writers and readers who already knew each other, and they seemed to be having these ongoing conversations.

But there was one conversation I kept seeing that I'd been exposed to before: "Science fiction readers are smarter than fantasy readers, because, you know, science."

Here's how I came across it: Seattle used to have a big annual event called NW Bookfest. It's been defunct for a few years now, but it used to place over a chilly weekend, numerous authors of every type were invited to be interviewed or to appear on panels, and the place was filled with publishers and booksellers from all over the region.

I loved it, even if they typically only had one genre panel each day (if I was lucky). One year I dropped over a thousand dollars on books and I always went home with a T-shirt.

Anyway, there was a single sf/f panel taking place one day and it was pretty crowded. I managed to find a spot in the middle row. I'm not going to mention any authors by name (in consideration of point 5 of the moderation policy, just in case) but one of the authors began talking about how much he loved science fiction, and how much he hated fantasy.

He was kinda nasty about it, too. He thought wizards and the like were lame because they were trapped on one planet. He'd tried to write fantasy but was so annoyed with it he wanted to throw the wizard into a sun. And so on.

While he complained, I heard a woman behind me say quite clearly "I don't even know why they're shelved together." Immediately I thought Oh my god, I'm trapped in the middle of them! Don't turn around or draw their attention! I wasn't even completely sure who they were but I knew they weren't friendly to me or my kind.

Eventually the author really got down to it. He told the audience that he read science fiction because he wanted to live in those futuristic worlds, with the robots and space ships and so on. Not only did he not want to live in a pre-industrial agricultural setting, but he explained that he'd already tried it. He'd lived on a farm with no modern conveniences, and it was really, really hard work.

What fools these fantasy readers were for wanting to live in an environment like that!

Now, maybe it's a common fandom experience to be sitting in the audience at a panel thinking WTF is this dude going on about? I wouldn't know. But I know I was looking at him like he had decided to impress everyone by farting out soap bubbles.

Hey, if someone wants to create a Star Trek future where I get a holodeck and replicator corned beef hash for breakfast every day, I'm there. See a Martian sunrise? Love to. Robots that will keep house? I'll take two. But when I pick up a novel to read, it's usually a mystery or a fantasy.

We all know it's common for readers of adventure fiction to imagine yourself in the story. (At least I think it's common; if I'm a one-of-a-kind freak don't tell me.) I would have been quite happy to accept a teaching position at Hogwarts. Hell, I'd go there as a Muggle to teach Muggle Studies as long as I was allowed to pack a pair of Desert Eagles under my robes (First lesson: nuclear weapons and why wizarding kind should stop kidding themselves about "their rightful place").

Sometimes, when I'm reading A Song of Ice and Fire, I burn with the desire to leap into the pages and have a Very Serious Talk with the characters about what they ought to be doing (then leap out again because... yikes.) A pleasant tour of post-Sauron Middle Earth would be cool and Silver Age DC universe would make for a fun jaunt.

And as much fun as it would be to fly like Superman or ride a giant eagle, would I, myself, move to those places? Live there? Hell no. I no more want to start a farm in the Shire than I want to dress like a bat and try to terrify the criminals of downtown Seattle.

And don't forget all those mysteries I read. Does Mr. Panelist think I read police procedurals because I hear a little voice inside whispering subject header above? Or that I read detective novels because I want to go out of my house to talk to three dozen people, some of whom think I'm an interfering sleaze ball? Please. I don't like to ask my waiter if the drinks come with free refills; you know I won't be prying into some senator's extra-marital affair.

My point here is that nearly everyone in the whole world would like to live in an advanced techno-utopia. Just because you like to read about them too doesn't mean you're a clear-eyed rationalist living amongst herds of sheeple. It means you're interested in science fiction, period. It doesn't make you stand out as a lonely supporter of human progress and it's not a marker of moral virtue. Which isn't to say that you're not a perfectly wonderful person; I'm sure you are! But it's not the books you read that make you wonderful.

And just because I'm reading a mystery novel doesn't mean I'm hoping to get into a gun fight in a grimy alley. It's a story I enjoy, not a life I wish I were living.

In my next post I'm going to talk about diagnosing my mental illnesses (over the internet) based on nothing but my positive response to a book.



Funny, I would've claimed fantasy readers to be smarter for exactly the same reason (disclaimer: scifi-fans 'round here are a rather uppity bunch...)


Did this unnamed SF writer think 1984 is "lame" because Winston Smith was trapped on one planet and not living in a shiny happy techno-utopia?

That said, too many fantasy writers seem to think medieval life looked like rural England circa 1910, instead of the impoverished, hungry and plague-ridden existence it actually was.


He told the audience that he read science fiction because he wanted to live in those futuristic worlds, with the robots and space ships and so on. Not only did he not want to live in a pre-industrial agricultural setting, but he explained that he'd already tried it. He'd lived on a farm with no modern conveniences, and it was really, really hard work.

What fools these fantasy readers were for wanting to live in an environment like that!

I think it's pretty clear that this guy was just a moron. Two points:

1) "Sci-Fi's smarter because it does as wish fulfilment" is not a good argument. Point-scoring between genres, is childish, but if you want to engage in it, it's at least worth getting the basics right. And pretty much the first rule of literary snobbery is that the people who read books exclusively on the basis that they depict a marvellous world that the reader would like to live in are not, as a rule, very high up the pecking order.

2) The argument isn't even true, because there's an awful lot of dystopian science-fiction literature out there. If you're sitting there reading Charlie's Glasshouse, thinking how much you'd like to live there, then you've pretty comprehensively missed the point of the book.


I'd say that anyone who says "SF fans are smarter than fantasy fans" or "Fantasy fans are smarter than SF fans" has just demonstrated that, in actual fact "$Dumberfangroup* are smarter than them".

Case-study based evidence - ST:TNG et seq. This is apparently a utopian society for most people, but the stories are all about the the few with the right sort of brains and personalities to go and explore; in effect to go in search of the conflicts that make interesting stories. The Culture - Pretty much as ST above; Banksy writes mostly about Contact, and not $Lotuseater. $Fantasyseries - Yet again the interest is not in "A year in the life of $pre-industrialoccupation" (even if that occupation is "lord of the manor") but in "$smallgroupofprotagonists go off to fight $great_evil".

Basically, the things that matter in both forms are $wellwrittenstory and $conflictthatdrives_plot; if they're "by the numbers rubbish" I'll lose interest, so a good fantasy is better than bad SF and good SF is better than bad fantasy, but whether I'll enjoy good fantasy more than good SF is dependant on what I feel more like reading when I'm picking up the next book.

*For values of $Dumberfangroup that reflect who the speaker was calling dumb.


You could even ask the same question of "Brave New World", which is a much more utopian but equally controlling society.


I think you're underestimating the degree of influence science fiction has had on society, and just how often people who wrote at least the early science fiction tried to deal with serious, real world matters in a serious way.


Hang on, Star Trek is science fiction? It's a thankless task to argue that it's fantasy if it's got magic in it, and Star Trek's spaceships are powered by mystical handwavium, but I can't resist that.

Maybe you should have pointed that out, and instead of soap bubbles floating out of his behind, watched the plumes of steam come out of his ears. I'd like my (hypothetical) children to live in a techno-utopia - I'm not so sure it is so suitable for myself.


Yes, at least for values of "science fiction" that accept "space opera" to be a sub-genre of "science fiction".


"That said, too many fantasy writers seem to think medieval life looked like rural England circa 1910, instead of the impoverished, hungry and plague-ridden existence it actually was."

I've seen similar comments before - but they're equally as mistaken as someone treating the whole period as a utopia. Depending on where and when you were living it was quite possible to be rich, well fed and relatively healthy - for that matter the population of medieval England ate better than the English of 1910.


One thing I've noticed quite a lot in comments on Amazon reviews - across many genres, including 'literary fiction' - is the expectation that the protagonist and milieu of a book has to be someone who you morally approve of, identify with, etc.

It must be a psychological thing.


Depending upon the writing era being discussed then I think the author had a fair point. While a lot of early sci-fi was filled with vast operatic plots, most published sci-fi over the last 50 years has tended to posit the big questions and frame them using technology or the advances of a higher civilisation.

And while there is fantasy that uses its genre to expose and ask the hard questions, it seems like the hordes that would once have filled the space opera genre, now fill the fantasy genre. Wth tales of derring do, they wield swords and wands intsead of blasters.

Let's face it .. SF opera of all genres is just mush. The McDonalds of the literary world.

More power to the fantasy and sci-fi authors that can get their readers to think.


Britain stopped having the occasional famine in the mid 19th century but before that they were not uncommon locally, with no way to ship large amounts of food around the country easily until the coming of the canals and later the railways. In 1910 most townfolks however poor had clean cholera-free drinking water at the turn of a tap, something no amount of medieval riches could have purchased for a 16th century lord of the manor. At the other end of the process mains sewer systems were in place in all urban areas by that time too.


Just from my own point of view, I really hate this kind of arguement. The whole "My geekdom has so much more worth than yours...." really is complete claptrap. For one thing, the whole literary world looks down its nose at SF and Fantasy alike. Though with the possible exception of ole JRR.

The point should really be that we ARE reading. Full stop. How many people do you know for whome their entire written word consumption consists entirely of the sports pages in the newspaper? More than a handfull I am willing to bet. And that in itself is a pretty shocking thought, that these people will never pick up a book just for the simple pleasure of reading a story created in someones imagination.

I prefer to read SF. I do on indulge in a little fantasy now and again, I have no belligerant ill will towards it, I simply prefer science fiction. Both are genres that allow a great deal of scope to the writer and indeed to the reader, after all its in his/her mind that the words become a world or universe. Both have great writers whose names we know and love, but also they both have terrible hacks. Should they have separate shelf space in book shops? Perhaps, but they should be side by side. Fans of one tend to also enjoy the other.

The funny thing is my wife is a die hard fantasy fan. he loves it dearly. She is always telling me about her latest purchase and my eyes tend to glaze over when it comes to wizards and sword battles etc. Like wise her eyes glaze over when I tell her about my books. But we share some common ground. I think that is what the SF and Fantasy fans need to do, find the common among us and realise that we are not that different.


Nothing to do with science - and everything to do with tribalism. It's nice to be part of the pack, after all we're a tribal animal, and to differentiate ourselves from "that other lot". Even better to feel that "we" are somehow better than "them".

Now, the tribe has moved from "bunch of apes trying to survive on the plains" to a society where we're probably part of multiple tribes; family, workplace, social.

How often do you see "our" (whatever that is) political viewpoint is better than "theirs". Substitute football team for similar effect.

How often do you see politician A say "actually, the other mob have some good people with slightly different weightings on their opinions, we're going to take some of their ideas on board because they might work"?

How often do you hear supporter X say "well, our traditional rivals in the game played fairly and beat us because they're a better team"?

Any time I hear someone say "we're better / brighter / more insightful than that other mob", a little part of me wonders. Unless they're talking about Glaswegians, obviously. That goes without saying :) :) :)


Honestly, I've never understood that kind of attitude. But that comes because, um, I like reading SF as much as I like reading fantasy. Am I the only one?


Science fiction seems to deal more in examined dystopias, while fantasy tends to merrily troop along implicitly defending hereditary dictatorships as part of the background assumptions.


What you walked into is a religious war. Just like "Macs vs Windows (vs Linux)" and "Emacs vs vi", we have "SF vs F".

Religious wars aren't logical. Nor accurate.

There's a subset of fantasy books where travel between worlds is possible. Typically this is a "parallel world" type of engagement. A classic example would be Zelazny's Amber series. A common theme may involve a person from a technological world switching to a magic world. My favourite fun book series of all time is Rick Cook's "Wizard" books (especially #2: The Wizardry Compiled). And I'm sure I've read fantasy books where interplanetary travel is possible - for "wizards" only, of course.

It can, of course, also be hard to distinguish between the SciFi genre and the Fantasy genre (a blurring not helped by Charlie's own "Merchant Princes" series). Clarke's aphorism on magic and technology applies.

The speaker you mentioned appears to have been limiting his view of "the other side" to a specific sub-genre ("swords and sandals") and failing to recognise the genre is larger than that.

So, yeah, religious arguments.


In which context, ISTR that the "average household" owns 6 books.* I've not counted the number of individual titles recently, but I own about 18 bookcases full of books.

*I know about "83% of statistics are made up on the spot"; this wasn't one of them, at least by me.


That's certainly an aspect of a story I wrote a few years back. More accurately, it was in an "open" shared-world fan-fic sort of setting, and I'd overdosed on military SF with politically hard-right protagonists. So I came up with an equally tough protagonist who happened to be an anarcho-syndicalist.

And a team player. Bare is brotherless back, and all that. And does he get the girl? About as much as she gets him, I reckon.


Nope -- that goes for me, too.

(NB: Am only scantily connected this week, having screwed up by leaving my laptop in my office when I caught a taxi to the airport at 4am last Thursday. Gaah.)


If we were to separate hard SF from fantasy, then maybe there is a "C. P. Snow - Two Cultures" issue at play here too. That will get us into religious wars over which of the two tribes is "smarter".

While I do agree that much SF is really fantasy, I think that there is a difference, in that the constraints are more severe. Even in ST, warp 10 was a fast as the original enterprise could go (without extra magical help), and the transporter had relatively limited range. These sorts of constraints appear less obvious to me in fantasy, although clearly they exist. Hard SF puts even more constraints on the hypothetical technology, enforcing physical rules where known. For me, this is a very attractive feature of hard SF, entertaining stories within the constraints of a "what if" technology.


I agree with the point that the speaker made about reading SF because I wouldn't mind living in that world (that's not always why I read but its a big part) but to suggest that that makes SF better than any other is childish. To make that assumption you have to conclude that genres are better if people want to live in them!

That said I think the main reason that there are few fantasy worlds I'd like to live in is down to illogical use of magic. Some authors (Trudi Canavan springs to mind)write about worlds with magic that makes sense. Wizards can utilise magic to basically send energy from one place to another in all the classical ways energy can be moved (heat, light, kinetic etc). This allows them to make magic shields and throw spells of heat and light etc but what they can't do (and this is my problem with most fantasy) is magic up monsters or matter out of thin air. When I read a fantasy and I see someone speaking magic words which conjures up monsters I'm always wondering the mechanism by which it works, the idea that the universe listens to specific words and alters itself in a very anthropomorphic way upon hearing them is a bit to far out for me.


and yet skeletal analysis shows the medieval English had a healthier and more varied diet than the general population during the industrial revolution. While there may have been less general famine the actual diet was generally much worse for most of the population up until the mid 20th century. Not to mention availability of food want' preventing the poor from starving through the late Victorian and early Edwardian period.


One amusing trick here is to hand a dyed-in-the-wool fantasy reader a copy of "Grunts!" by Mary Gentle. Now to start with Gentle is a very, very good author and in that book she deliberately decided to had a good go at all the conventions of the fantasy genre, starting with the archetypal Dragon's Curse of "You shall become what you steal", placed on a hoard of military weapons collected by a dragon that was absolutely fascinated with militaristic cultures from several universes.

Of course, this hoard is soon stolen by a couple of delightfully venal halflings, in the employ of a band of orcs, for use by the Dark forces in an upcoming battle between light and dark. Unfortunately for quite a few people, the weapons formerly belonged to the US Marine Corps, which culture the curse then overlays onto the orcs, blending seamlessly with Orc culture as it goes.

Cue high fantasy with all the usual wizards, magic, epic battles and whatnot, along with AK-47 assault rifles and more ancient military jokes than anyone can read and stay sane with.

Should you decide to read this, read the dedication at the front first; it contains part of the immortal line (spoken by one orc): "pass me another elf, sergeant...". If they can complete the quote, then they'll never read Tolkein again without giggling.


There are only two types of books: fiction and non. I read both. One commenter above stated that academia disapproves of sci-fi/fantasy save JRR, and he is oh so correct. BUT, in the 60s, I had to get special dispensation from the Dean of English for a JRR paper in a lower level lit class; so, even the master was not well liked. And beneath their uppity sneer is the fact that our favorite genres make authors at least some money whereas teaching on any level usually comes with very little lucre.

For the first time in my 64 years, I have enough room for my books; so, I decided to just shelve by author's last name. Now all of my books are alphabetical, save for JRR, who has a shelf all his own, with flowers, candles, etc. If Charlie keeps up with his amazing bib, he might get a shelf of his own, too, but I doubt he'd like the flowers and candles; so maybe a statue of Bast I purchased for an exorbitant amount at the Pyramids.


Ryan, this sounds like you don't know enough physics? If you apply the correct physics, energy can be converted into inanimate matter, and I see no reason why, if your magic allows you to teleport yourself, or create an illusion of a wall, you shouldn't be able to teleport a lion, or create an illusion of a dragon...


Seconded, with the note that if you enjoy Grunts, you should probably also seek out a copy of Villains, which I think Mary Gentle had an editing rather than writing role in.


Harry, I have to admit a little bit of amusement that you were unwilling to part with sixty dollars or whatever to get into a convention when you dropped over a thousand dollars on books. I understand the two are not equivalent but the ability to do the latter suggests the former wasn't really all that far out of reach.


Sorry I didn't explain myself very well (I'm slightly hungover), let me try again. It wasn't the use of energy that I had a problem with, its the anthropomorphic manner in which magic can create really complex things.

Scenario one: A fantasy novel where magic allows the users to use magic to project energy in different ways --- This doesnt ruin my suspension of belief. Scenario two: "abra kedabra" and a large dragon appears --- ruins my SOB because I'm always thinking what the mechanism is behind this, why is it in this universe that making certain sounds causes fully formed animals to appear etc.

The first scenario is different to how our world works but I can understand it and believe it, in the second scenario it seems like the universe is like a virtual world where saying the right commands will edit what's in it. I hope I've explained that a bit better


Indeed, energy can be converted into matter.

However, bearing in mind that the amount of energy required (in our universe) to produce a small dog is in the nuclear device range, it's going be easier for the mage to destroy a small country than it is to create a lion de nuovo.

Conceded, illusions should be much easier, but a bit counter-productive unless you can guarantee the recipients will believe in them. And as for teleporting the lion, you do presumably need to to know where the lion is to start with - perhaps cue evil castle with cages full of appropriate monsters in the basement.


** I meant to say suspension of disbelief


@bellinghman To create a small dog, one merely needs to destroy an equivalent amount of matter, then convert the energy. Plus maybe a little bit more to handle the loss due to inefficiencies :-)

Who will notice a small dog's worth of missing ground?

33: 29 - Ok Ryan, it's obvious your mind works differently to mine. I don't worry about "where did the dragon come from?": Illusion, teleportation, $God-level creation, Zelazny-esque World-walking. That's 4 different forms of hand-wavium and counting. 30 - Or have a very good "search algorithm" to examine a place where lions are relatively commonplace, isolate an unique lion (you don't care if you get the same one every time), and teleport it.

Each to his own, another example of difference is that for me teleportation in any fiction always seems a really odd thing. What happens to the air you are teleporting into? is it quickly flung out to make a vacuum that you appear in? does it swap places? But weirder than that I always wonder how the teleporter distinguishes what to transport and what not to. How does it know where I end and the floor begins? And lastly how can it set me down on the floor of my arrival place so perfectly?

I don't think I can stop thinking that way for long enough to enjoy a lot of fantasy, if I lived in a world of magic I think I'd spend most of my day trying to figure out how it worked!


Most 'sci-fi' is fantasy in tin-foil clothing. I have a visceral hate for techno-utopian lit (for more or less the same reasons Gibson gives in The Gernsback Continuum, but that's another post) and even more of a visceral hate for your average space opera. The wish-fulfillment bits of science fiction (especially those works that keep afloat entirely on genre conventions) are extremely distasteful to me.

To be fair, I think that a lot of straight-up fantasy falls into the same trap. Sturgeon's Law applies very strongly to speculative fiction, which has a fairly long-lived reputation for subsisting almost entirely on genre trappings. The fantasy of living in outer space and the fantasy of living in an idealized medieval world (or, for that matter, a stylized victorian world) have little inherent pull on me. The fantasy of living in a cyberpunk world or a noir world has a stronger pull, but I've read enough terrible genre-cyberpunk and genre-noir dreck to begin to be immunized to this.

When you've got a genre based around a compelling setting, you need to pair it with interesting characters, plots, and ideas quickly, because as soon as the setting starts appearing elsewhere it will lose its novelty and fail to prop up interest.


@Ryan: Let's see: I go to Amazon, order up a large dragon, type in my password and credit card, and it arrives the next day in FedEx. In other words, a few mystical gestures and gibberish words with a magical device, and I've got my wish. Granted, a wish-fulfilling wand works a bit faster, but Amazon is magic. Or rather, it's designers trying to make consumerism a wish-fulfilling experience so they'll, like, own us.

Not that I'm knocking your particular tastes, I'm just pointing out that saying you like one read and dislike another is a matter of personal taste, and my personal taste is that making judgment calls about whole fields is subjective. Totally relevant for you (or me), but less relevant for others.

That said, I do have a personal bone to pick with science fiction. Here's the question: imagine the world in 50 years, and how we're going to live there. It looks like....Wow. Silence. No clue, eh?

Actually, yes, writers do tackle this subject on occasion (including Charlie), but most so-called SF does not. Often readers get all whiny when they find one of these books anyway. In most SF, problems are solved with black boxes, hand-waving, and statements that the characters aren't scientists and wouldn't have a clue anyway. In other words, it's shiny robot fantasy.

Many (most?) science fiction writers seem to be scared of science, whether it's shiny or squishy. They love the props, but their imaginations don't particularly want to engage with the future.

So if I had a wish-fulfilling wand, I'd aim it at the SF community in general and wish for them to fall in love with the sciences, and one science in particular (their choice). It would be fun to watch them struggle to bring this love to a wider audience, and it would certainly be more interesting than watching yet another shiny robot (or techno-zombie, or nano-pixie dust powered wand substitute) come out of the props locker. But yes, that's my personal opinion, and I certainly wouldn't ask any real fans to share my personal preferences.


That sounds like a fairly interesting twist. Did anything come of it? Is it floating around somewhere?


re Grunts: weird. I am usually a bit critical of the tropes in Fantasy and thus Grunts! was recommended to me. Didn't like it at all. Granted, parts of the first few pages were funny, but then it seemed like repetitions of those first few pages ad nauseam. Plus I found the (perceived by me, maybe I was wrong) worshipping of all things Marine-related quite sickening.


It doesn't always happen, but some writers do make a point of mentioning the air displacement caused by a teleportation in or out of a location. I just can't remember names off-hand.

As for "how does it 'know' where you start and the floor stops?" this argument might be applied to any teleportation not using $high-techtrappings for site to site teleportation. The only even partial answer I've seen for site to field teleports would be in Blake's 7, where they didn't always arrive on flat ground (not arriving underground is like Star Trek FTL comms working at "the speed of plot"; it always works in a dramatically convenient manner, and setting off a matter-matter explosion is almost always dramatically inconvenient) and used wearable tags to identify $objecttobeteleported.

"It doesn't always happen, but some writers do make a point of mentioning the air displacement caused by a teleportation in or out of a location. I just can't remember names off-hand."

There's certainly at least one Diana Wynne Jones fantasy in which it's mentioned (Wizard Derk, I think). And I do remember noticing it elsewhere but, like paws4thot, can't identify specific authors.


", I do have a personal bone to pick with science fiction. Here's the question: imagine the world in 50 years, and how we're going to live there. It looks like....Wow. Silence. No clue, eh?

Actually, yes, writers do tackle this subject on occasion (including Charlie), but most so-called SF does not. "....."Many (most?) science fiction writers seem to be scared of science, whether it's shiny or squishy. They love the props, but their imaginations don't particularly want to engage with the future. ".

Are you asking for SF authors to be better futurists and scenario builders than the professional charlatans...and also write well?

As for picking out an SF author that did like the science, it is pretty clear that Greg Bear had a decent shot at biology, and Isaac Asimov and David Brin (to name just 2 amongst many others), were scientists, and many others were engineers.

If I have a bone to pick with SF, it is that visual media SF has become costume drama, with all the "science" ripped out and replaced with techno-babble. My understanding that this is due to the production process and the belief that this is what audiences want. When the script is written by monkeys as well, they really might just as well have not bothered. Apart from a few screen gems, good, hard-ish SF still mostly resides in books.


The reason I dislike "fantasy" (of a certain sort) is that a - its been done to death and b - the ideas it uses are not of my liking, like that whole "Divine Right To Rule" thing that I think was commented here by Charlie itself.

But in Science Fiction we have... the same. Not only some things have been done to death and are just repeated because, you know, you need them to fit the book into the category, you look at the political philosophies that some of the most popular works seem to use as their underpinnings (when not being just propaganda for them) and one wants very much to run out of this planet. Chrome Fascism, no thanks.

Give me something strange, askew, new and different. And please, without any more praise for Real Men (sometimes Women) who are Right and Will Take Us to the Future/Govern Us Fairly.

Right now if your fantasy is different or your science fiction is different, you get me at least to give it a ride for a while and see. For genres that pride themselves on wonder, we are getting too used to repeat the same old hits again and again and again


too many fantasy writers seem to think medieval life looked like rural England circa 1910, instead of the impoverished, hungry and plague-ridden existence it actually was.

Rural England in 1910 was impoverished, hungry and - well, maybe not plague-ridden but disease-ridden anyway. Men of my grandfather's generation (albeit urban, not rural) used to recognise the 'fever van' on sight. Imagine what that means: not only are there enough cases of dangerous infectious disease (dip, scarlet fever, etc) among children that it makes sense to have special dedicated ambulances for them, but there are enough cases that the other children treat the fever ambulance's arrival as a familiar sight.


Hmm. Wouldn't be David Brin would it?

Anyway, I think I've been there - as one of the snobs. Before I realized other folks having fun didn't hurt my fun at all. Though I am irked at having to browse online for favorite authors, etc., due to the crowding of media tie ins and paranormal romances.

So, what changed? Realizing that other folks having fun didn't hurt my fun at all. Plus, getting more cautious and choosy about the fantasy I choose. Generic pap churned out in job lots is horrid. Well written and crafted works are worth the time to read and they can be found in the fantasy genre. And even favorite authors can have some clinkers (PC Hodgell, I'm looking at you and Bound in Blood).

Now to the original post and the panelist - probably somebody even grumpier than I am about the incurisons into SF by fantasy. Now a days, I just try to find something that will stretch the mind a bit. Be it in SF or fantasy.


To be fair, there are quite a lot of people out there who not only don't want to live in a techno-utopia, they'd rather like us to give up what we do have. Cue the electrosensitives, vaccine sceptics and bioluddites.

But that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with liking wizards.



I've seen many variations around "teleportation" or "transporter" effects. One is that a field is formed at the target which causes air to displace prior to the object arriving (sometimes with caveats around how dense a material that field can displace; thus arriving inside rock is bad, m'kay?). Another is swapping of molecules (which has its own issue; contamination). I've seen it handled more at the origin site; eg a thunder-clap as the air rushes into the recently formed vacuum.

As for "what to transfer"; easily hand-waved. Technology uses scanners to determine the boundaries of the transport field (and the odd molecule here or there doesn't matter). On Blakes 7 there was one episode where semi-sentient sand was transported up at the same time. Star Trek has filters in the process which can perform lots of hand-waving (deactivate weapons, remove harmful organisms etc). In 'magic' it's the will of the operator that determines what is teleported.

Flat floors? Blakes 7 also handled that :-)

A more interesting question would be conservation of momentum; if you're travelling half way around the world then you'll be moving very fast relative to your target point. Larry Niven discussed this with his short story "Flash Crowd" where his 'transfer booths' (IIRC a standard size and shape; molecules swapped locations) were connected to a large momentum damper (eg a very heavy mass in a large lake; the momentum is transfered to the massive object).


l ron hubbard .. yeah i know, had a good line on that.. the teleporter swapped a region of space.


You could say "most fantasy is just disguised science fiction" as easily. I'd say that's because the similarities between the marketing categories are a lot bigger than the differences.

The magic in most fantasy books doesn't work like magic: it follows consistent rules - like alternate laws of physics. Bujold commented on this once: she wanted the magic in "The Spirit Ring" to work like real medieval magic, but she had to put in some consistent rules because modern readers expect them.

She's also pointed out that both are "fantasies of political agency" - they're suffused by politics, settings of designed to make political points. The characters are able to change or save the world or worlds. In reality, a lifetime of activism may make a limited difference.

There are more obvious similarities: both are set in imaginary worlds, etc. There's a reason fantasy & sf are shelved together - a lot of people do read both.

See, that was a lot easier than defining the differences between fantasy and science many people have unsuccessfully tried to do.


Should be "settings often designed".


You know, Harry, you're a lot more entertaining than Charlie ever was. Have you thought about doing a blog of your own?


@36 heteromeles

The difference with Amazon would be that Amazon was made by people to be used by people. It's a bit different to have a universe that understands english and edits itself when special passwords are spoke. Whatever you like is up to you, personally I'm not too concerned with SF authors getting it right as making it consistent. Our host is one of the best examples I can think of for writing SF and examining how society would change, most other SF (especially on TV) takes a current world group and straps on rockets.

@39 paws4thot "speed of plot" Love it! That's a pretty good way of describing most FTL on TV. I appreciate using FTL in the fiction but I think its quite lazy not to describe its speed. In Star Trek they have warp 1-10 but any speed is as fast as necessary, they can cover hundreds of ly in a few hours or even more but next episode they cant catch someone that is just a few light minutes away.

@46 sweh

Yeah it would have to be a scanner so sophisticated that it could determine the boundary of a body, get the clothes as well but not take a little bit of the floor. Things like a filter have always annoyed me because that implies a technology that they rarely use any where else in the plot, namely the ability to scan all the atoms of a substance non-non-invasively and at a distance. If they could do that then the crew could scan some cool tech and automatically get a blue print. I seem to remember Niven covering how the Puppetters could only teleport within a certain difference of momentum, the excuse being that the teleporting disk could only bleed off (or input) a certain amount of kinetic energy. Though theres a recipe for a great energy system, when theres going to be an earthquake teleport sections of the ground to adjacent disks and siphon the energy


Mondays are a very difficult day for me to be online, but let me see what I can steal time to respond to:

Tim #6: I don't think I'm underestimating the influence of sf on the real world at all. It's certainly had one and you can identify it when you look backwards. Looking forward, not so much. I just balk at the idea that people who read fantasy are somehow anti-progress.

jamesconradstjohnforeman #7: Yeah, Star Trek is science fiction. You might think it's bad science fiction based on this criteria or that one, but it's sf.

Dan Holdsworth #24: You're not the first person to recommend Grunts to me. I really should grab it.

Eric Meyer #28: You made me laugh out loud in the coffee shop. I'm guilty as charged, I guess, but at least with the books I knew I what I was getting for my money. I've never been to a convention and I'm still not sure whether I'd like it. Charlie may be the quintessential early adopter but I have a +20 with my saving throw vs. The Shiny. I typically want to know everything I can about something before I invest and I'm usually at the tail end of every movement (with one notable exception).

That said, I'm sorta planning to attend one or more conventions this year. ::sigh::

Ryan #34: I'm sorry to say, but this sort of examination is part of what turns me off about so much science fiction and the online discussion thereof. If it's essential to the narrative, I'm good with it. If it's just a matter of demonstrating "hardness" then I start to skim.

I don't offer that as a value judgement, just as a statement of my personal reading protocols. Also, you probably wouldn't like my Twenty Palaces books, because nobody explains anything in those books (well, just a little).

Latro #42: I should say, in the last two years I don't think I've read a single book with an actual king in it. Not onstage, anyway. And I don't think I've read anything with a divine right of kinds is a long, long time.

And now I'm out of time. Sorry to be so brief.


Your post reminds me of the Seinfeld episode The Switch What man hasn't fantasized about an orgy, and yet when it comes right down to it:

JERRY: I can't. I'm not an orgy guy. GEORGE: Are you crazy? This is like discovering Plutonium ... by accident. JERRY: Don't you know what it means to become an orgy guy? It changes everything. I'd have to dress different. I'd have to act different. I'd have to grow a mustache and get all kinds of robes and lotions and I'd need a new bedspread and new curtains I'd have to get thick carpeting and weirdo lighting. I'd have to get new friends. I'd have to get orgy friends.... Naw, I'm not ready for it.

And neither am I. I have the same fantasies as most guys, but I don't want to live in that world. In the real world, I'm very happy going to work every day, taking the kids to school and occasionally rejoice in the fact that I'm lucky enough to have a wife who loves me and turns me on.


I've never really distinguished between Fantasy and Sci-fi when it comes to reading them. I can't say I much wander out of the sci-fi and fantasy section of a bookstore (my loss perhaps) but when I was introduced to the genre(s) I hopped from book to book without really much consideration for which genre they belonged to, and in the beginning I simply didn't recognise SF or Fantasy as distinct. Given most of my friends bookshelves, I'd always thought this was the common approach, so it's unusual to read about someone being nastily divisive about it.


HARRY . . .

Just dropped by to thank you for cheering up my weekend. Life's a bit crap at the moment so I took our gracious hosts recommendation to heart and got the Djinni in the Amazon to wish me up Child of Fire and Game of Cages. They turned up Friday night and kept me out of trouble and smiling this weekend. Thanks man.


You really are a smug little troll, aren't you?


What I look for in my recreational reading are stories that are both based in scientific reality and have a strong poetic/artistic/cosmic sensibility. This is a very rare combination! I can enjoy the beauty and creativity of epic fantasies like Lord of the Rings, but what I'm really after is the rare story that captures the awe and grandeur of the Cosmos as it actually is. Arthur C. Clarke and Olaf Stapledon come to mind here, but most hard science fiction writers are just too dull, banal or lacking in literary talent to interest me. I haven't read a lot of SF compared to most people here, so if anyone can recommend some writers who fit the description "literary hard science fiction" please let me know!


I completely understand I have quite a low tolerance for suspension of disbelief but each to his own! Thanks for suggesting Twenty Palaces, ill give it a check :)


(a) By the standards of most of history, I already live in an advanced techno-utopia. I'm past sixty; I would likely be dead already in a pre-twentieth-century society. I don't worry about dying of hunger, or having government thugs break down my door and murder me, or being arrested because I said the wrong thing. Nearly every week I read about some amazing new invention or scientific discovery.

(b) Your comment about Hogwarts makes me think about "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality," an impressive piece of fanfic . . . I actually like it better than I do Rowling's treatment, for a variety of reasons, including the depth of characterization.


I'll agree that most of the "us vs. them" genre chest beating is pure tribalism. Everyone likes to think that they are more "normal" or "acceptable" than some other weird fringe. (Go look up the Geek Hierarchy Chart if you want a funny view on that.)

I'm another person who just enjoys good stories, regardless of if they're SF or Fantasy. I will have to admit that I'm not a big fan of "hard" science fiction in general. Too often the technical details seem to get in the way of the story instead of enhancing it. I'm fine with stuff "moving at the speed of plot" when required. As a fellow game developer wrote, scientific knowledge of the future won't necessarily be the same we have now. Imagine trying to describe the technology of today in terms of what was around 50 years ago. Hell, computers I could hold in my hand and not take up a whole room would seem like magic. Now, try to imagine what tech will be like in 50 years from now in terms of current scientific understanding and you'll likely have even a harder time doing so!

I'm sure our gracious host will agree that most science fiction stories say more about the current times than they do about the future. That's the nature of meaningful stories, though.


I strongly prefer SF, but I don't care if other people strongly prefer fantasy. (We do remind unknown people who show up at the SF bookgroup and ask for us to read fantasy that we're an SF bookgroup.)

Harry, I've heard a lot of authors say they don't know if they'll like cons. In general, if they come, they change their minds. There are some cons that specialize and this list from Asimov's will tell you (and keep the con list updated). Plus, in cons, if you're hearing someone on a panel being nasty, you can just get up and leave quietly and nobody will be upset.


Note that a fair amount of sf is set in monarchial and feudal space-going societies.

And some is set in societies much like the TV version of 1950s US society. RECENT sf, not stuff written in the 1950s.


Trey #44: Nope, it wasn't David Brin, but I'm not going to respond to any more guesses.

LabRat001 #55: Thank you!

Ryan #58: I think you missed a contraction in there. I'm suggesting you wouldn't like the 20 Palaces books.

William H. Stoddard #59: I have to admit that I tried "... Methods of Rationality" and I just couldn't bear it. Aside from having Petunia marry a much better guy because she's thinner(!) I was deeply annoyed by the way HP overmatched McGonigall in a few moments. Hmph. But I agree that we're living in a wonderful time.

Marilee J. Layman #61: Thanks.

Dan Goodman #62: For fun, I made up a space prince superhero for an rpg I'm running for my son. I don't think anyone in the family but me thinks it's funny.


Oh you can't get too upset at what they say at cons. I once watched Ben Bova substitute for his wife, Barbara, who was also his literary agent, on a panel about literary agents at a World Con, where he proceeded to trash his wife's profession and declare agents unnecessary on grounds that seemed to indicate he thought the category field was frozen in 1975.

SF writers don't like fantasy's popularity and are worried that their SFF publishers will abandon SF. They feel that SF -- real SF by their lights -- uses science, talks about what could really happen in the future and takes deep thought, whereas fantasy is always cast as only alternate world pre-industrial stories (you don't exist you see,) and the fantasy authors just get to make everything up like little kids, yadda, yadda, yadda. Some of the fantasy folk say equally silly things about SF. And good luck getting them to understand how suspense works in both the fields and horror too.

But that doesn't mean that you can't have interesting conversations at conventions either. Just don't go to any SF versus fantasy panels, if they have them.

57: "I haven't read a lot of SF compared to most people here, so if anyone can recommend some writers who fit the description "literary hard science fiction" please let me know!"

It depends on what you mean by "hard" and "literary," but try Ursula LeGuin, Dan Simmons, Patricia Anthony, Maureen McHugh, Mary Gentle, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Nancy Kress. Not particularly hard, but possibly worth your time: Octavia Butler, Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe, Walter Miller Jr., Neal Stephenson, Connie Willis, William Gibson, Sherri Tepper, Jonathan Lethem, Harlan Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon. Not super literary by some lights, but possibly worth your time: Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Swanwick, Greg Bear, C.J. Cherryh, Richard K. Morgan, Peter Watts. This is kind of a random sample, but they're good. Oh and then there's this guy, Charlie Stross.


Mother fantasy has ungrateful children.


Nobody's quoted Niven but his rule about 'if you predict the automobile you'd better predict the traffic jam' is what really draws me to scifi. Wrapping a really good yarn around revealing said prediction is what makes SF that I particularly appreciate - hence my appreciation of Charlie's work. Charlie's 'why I hate star trek', expanding on the same principle equally applies.

Fantasy has a different appeal - I find George Martin's heavily political work is just as gripping as Accelerando. It reveals nothing to me about what the future might be like, but it doesn't have to.


"She's also pointed out that both are "fantasies of political agency" - they're suffused by politics, settings of designed to make political points. The characters are able to change or save the world or worlds. In reality, a lifetime of activism may make a limited difference. "

That's an odd argument to me - most bookstores have a whole section of biographies about people who changed the world. So no we don't often get the story about the farmboy who didn't defeat the evil overlord but there arn't a whole lot of biographies about the people who didn't achieve anything either...


I recommend 'The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land' from Diana Wynne Jones as an affectionate debunking of fantasy from someone who is good at the real thing. She is spot on every one of her targets and the result is one of the funniest books we have in this household. Trouble is, every time I read fantasy these days, I feel her looking over my shoulder, but it doesn't stop me doing it. Now, someone could well do a similar job on 'hard' sci-fi, but if they did, it wouldn't spoil my enjoyment of that either. This thread is a fun argument, but I don't see that it need reach any conclusion other than that there are lots of good books out there and it would be a pity to miss them because you 'don't like the genre'.


To me, this highlights the real division in SF&F. People like me read for FUN.

I don't need to be "made to think" because as an adult (worker, father, husband, martial arts instructor, tax payer), I think all the time.

What I want is an exotic story replete with explosions, fights, chases, and romance, with enough peril and darkness to lend them urgency, without so much nasty as to spoil my sleep. Serious themes are nice in that they lend edge and depth to the story, but optional.

I really don't care whether your hyperdrive obeys obscure laws of physics, as long as it sounds as if it does, or whether there's some cunning mechanism behind the magic, as long as it resonates. And, of course, speculative elements need to be internally consistent so that I don't fall out of the rip-roaring story.

So, I'll read books with exploding spaceships on the cover, or magical-wielding warrior wenches in chainmail bikinis, or demonic killer robots - or all of the above, if possible (please?).


Fair enough. I enjoyed Grunts, but then I have a rep for being "into military SF" from people who know me under my real name.

71: 51 ref #39 - Thanks, but "it works at the speed of plot" was shamelessly nicked from Gene Roddenbury!

Incidentally, whilst it's been changed at least once (I think twice), Warp $natural always represents the same velocity within a given Star Trek show; the speed of sub-space comms is never defined.


He made me laugh, mostly at the thought of irate SF authors belabouring him with "the complete works of Elron" (picked as being:- 1) Heavy. 2) About the best use anyone could put them too, other than making the mass damper for the teleportation system out of them).


Yes, I realise rural England c. 1910 had very real social problems, disease, poverty, etc. but considerably less so than in 1310. I should probably have said “Tolkien’s idealised version of rural England, c. 1910.” (Tolkien had the excuse that he had really lived there before going into the trenches of the First World War, and his stories were exploring linguistic and mythological ideas, not social and political ones.)

I don’t insist that fantasy be grim and gritty along the lines of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy or Mieville’s Bas-Lag books (although I enjoy both), but I find it more enjoyable when it feels like a real, functioning society. Terry Pratchett has said that much of the detail in the later Discworld books comes from an attempt to depict a fantasy world that works. A lot of lesser fantasy looks about as functional as Disneyland – fine if you like that sort of thing but I personally don’t.


Sir Terry has also said that DiscWorld is a Victorian society but with "magical creatures" (eg imps and trolls) instead of chemistry and steam engines.


Sorry Harry. It was a rhetorical question. David Brin's had similar rants in the past.

My bad.


...teach Muggle Studies as long as I was allowed to pack a pair of Desert Eagles under my robes...

Amusing. (Even a Colt Peacemaker would be a pretty powerful tool in that environment.) Before getting to the atomic fireworks, you could also introduce them to lesser products of modern the modern RPG, or the shaped-charge explosive.

I don't read enough fantasy. How many wizards have that kind of directed, long-range boom-and-bang in their wand?


The kind of magic that "just works" by strange hand-gestures, voice commands, set and setting, peculiar combinations of ingredients etc might be the most plausible, if you subscribe to the simulation hypothesis. Teleportation, instant anything - just a console command, easter egg, exploit or bug away in a simulated universe. Provoke a buffer over-run by patting your head rubbing your stomach whistle and hum all at once..

I often think something novel's occurred to me only to find it's a well-known concept (*), so I expect this isn't an original thought.

(* e.g. "my" idea of flooding the Qattara Depression, that I later discovered to be the plot of a Jules Verne novel)


When people believe and have believed that magic really works, they usually have (sometimes implicit) rules for it, too, so I don't know that that's a big difference between 'fantasy magic' and magic as generally understood, really.


@ 9 "for that matter the population of medieval England ate better than the English of 1910." NOT after (I think) 1314 - sharp weather change, end of Medieval warm period. Never mind after 1348 ....

@ 12 "Britain stopped having the occasional famine in the mid 19th century" Earlier than that! One reason Britain didn't have a revolution in 1847-8 was that although prices rose, the harvest DID NOT fail - as it did almost everywhere else in Europe. NOTE: Irish potoato famine - was NOT confined to Ireland....

Various "Rules" for magic in Fantasy. Some of the earlier Eddings were quite good about that, actually. Belgarath is quite strict on laying out the rules - because if you break them - not good.

heteromeles @ 36 Can we now have a two minutes silence for the premature loss of Charles Sheffield?

Micheal Kirkland @ 45 "there are quite a lot of people out there who not only don't want to live in a techno-utopia, they'd rather like us to give up what we do have." - They are called RELIGIOUS BELIEVERS.

W. H. Stoddard @ 59 "....or having government thugs break down my door and murder me, or being arrested because I said the wrong thing." So, you obviously don't live in the USA, then?


Interesting. And not only for what might be described in whatever results from the final paragraph written ATL!

Still, that said I mostly like allegedly "hard" science fiction as opposed to fantasy. On the other hand when marginally pissed I'll probably defend Pratchett as the most moral writer alive, mostly on the basis of "Small Gods". But if you want "proper" fantasy[1] you've got to look at Moorcock and the Eternal Champion series, not least for the sorcery as science and science as sorcery motif.

[1]/. Like art, I know it when I see it.


Yeah, what Greg Tingey (@79) said. "Medieval" covers a lot of territory (both geographical and temporal), so broad claims are immediately suspect.

"It may be taken as axiomatic that any statement of fact about the Middle Ages may (and probably will) be met with a statement of the opposite or a different version...French peasants were filthy and foul-smelling and lived on bread and onions; French peasants ate pork, fowl, and game and enjoyed frequent baths...Starving peasants in hovels live alongside prosperous peasants in featherbeds...Amid depopulation and disaster, extravagance and splendor were never more extreme. No age is tidy or made of whole cloth, and none is a more checkered fabric than the Middle Ages." Barbara Tuchman in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century


The kernel of truth of unnamed-scif-author is that many fantasy books follow the lead of Tolkien and are essentially 'conservative' in their outlook. I use conservative as mostly an analogy to the political meaning. The Tolkien and the Tolkienesque universe is generally a rotting world. True, things could get worse or they could get better (Sauron could win or not), but on the whole things used to be a lot better (no matter what, the Elves are leaving). Recovering lost relics, exploring ancient ruins of a great (and always lost) civilization is a pillar of the entire genre. It worships the old and traditional.

On the otherhand, I'd say much of dystopic scifi isn't so much about thinking about how great things used to be, its more about pointing contemporary problems. So eg 1984 urges us (and the 1940s public) to stand against totalitarian regimes.

Of course there are plenty example of forward-looking 'progressive' fantasy: Rowling and Pratchett are both examples of this. Discworld in particular is about a society in transition.


Try Connie Willis in:

Well worth a read if you don't kill yourself before the end.

So depressing it's magnificient on the basis sometimes despite the suffering you see there is nothihg you can do except be there as a witness.

After I read it I came to the conclusion that suicide was too positive an option.

But then I cheered up!


ian.monroe @82: I don't see how your point that 1984 "urges us (and the 1940s public) to stand against totalitarian regimes" makes it different (other than in the date) from The Lord of the Rings. Mordor is clearly a totalitarian state; the One Ring is a danger above all because it has the potential to make even a good and wise person addicted to power; there is even a lucid portrayal of Ukrainian-style collectivized agriculture in the Shire, and the reference to the "great slave-worked fields" around the Sea of Nurnen implies a similar setup.

When the Libertarian Futurist Society gave LotR its Hall of Fame Award a couple of years ago, I saw some perplexed comments from people who couldn't see what Tolkien had to do with libertarianism. I've never quite understood that. Admittedly Tolkien himself was not an ideological libertarian (which we've never insisted on in our award winners—after all, we gave an award to our host, who isn't an ideological libertarian either), but in his own phrasing, his story certainly has applicability.


I've a question: Can anyone on the blog name some works of fantasy where there is an honest to goodness republic? Or some form of democratic government?


@Trey: Terry Pratchett's Small Gods has a neighbouring country with a republic vaguely based on ancient Greece.

I believe the city of Darujhistan is a republic in Steven Erikson's Malazan books.

I'm pretty sure that there's at least one republic in Kage Baker's Anvil of the World series, but

Mary Gentle's Grunts!, of course, culminates in a great election.


"That's an odd argument to me - most bookstores have a whole section of biographies about people who changed the world. So no we don't often get the story about the farmboy who didn't defeat the evil overlord but there arn't a whole lot of biographies about the people who didn't achieve anything either..."

You're comparing fiction to nonfiction biographies, apples and oranges. Try comparing fiction to fiction: Other genres have a lot of stories that are not about politics at all, or very marginally. How much political impact do Jane Austen's heroines have? But in science fiction and fantasy....look for the one about the farmboy who never even considers trying to overthrow the evil overlord.

There's paranormal romance, where the romance is front and center and politics secondary or absent. Note that paranormal romance probably has less readership overlap with F&SF than with other romance.....

Scott @78 "When people believe and have believed that magic really works, they usually have (sometimes implicit) rules for it, too, so I don't know that that's a big difference between 'fantasy magic' and magic as generally understood, really. "

Only a grain of truth to that, I'd argue. Magical beliefs are usually based on a personification of the nonhuman parts of the universe. Magicians try to cajole, bribe, or manipulate various spirits and gods.

Contrast to say Harry Potter, where the magic is a replacement for technology. The wands, portkeys and other artifacts work consistently as tools for specific purposes. See the discussion in this thread on "why don't they just use guns instead of wands, since the guns do the same thing more effectively."

Republics in fantasy: Perdido Street Station, but it's a corrupt republic with a property qualification for voting....

Actually there are a lot. Even medieval-style fantasies sometimes have city-state republics.


Trey @85: The Shire seems to be a republic, at least to the extent that Australia is. It has an elected chief executive who supervises the two active branches of government; in the background it has the Shiremoot and Shiremuster; it acknowledges the King, but "may God bless and keep the king far away from us"—he plays no active role, and under the Reunited Kingdom the Shire seems to be an autonomous oblast or something. (I wrote about this for a Mythopoeic Conference back in the dark times, and it's been reprinted at if you're curious.)

I seem to recall some kind of serious parliamentary institutions in Melanie Rawn's Exiles novels. There was kind of a Hayekian undercurrent to the whole thing.

Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Knife books portray two peoples who both seem to be free of kings and lords, though they have kind of an American frontier feel without a lot of government.

Ankh-Morpork is famously run by "one man, one vote."


NickP @ 81 Thank you. Especially since I've had a copy of "A Distant Mirror" for a long time. All Tuchman's work is amazingly well put together and readable.

@ 82 JRRT was a ROMAN CATHOLIC. The LoTR universe is, unfortunately co-current with (then) catholic theology. OF COURSE the world is rotting - it is "fallen". Doesn't stop the whole cycle being a marvellous read, or flashes of hope twards the end, when he was writing in the mid-50's and it looked as though the horrors of 19th/early 20th C industiralisation were fading, and we might not exterminate ourselves with nukes. Mind you, if look carefully, you will find that the Numenoreans had a tech-level very close to that of 1970, or thereabouts, maybe better.

@ 85-87 There is OF COURSE this garuantee that a "Republic" is the perfect, uncorrupt system of guvmint (just like the good 'ole USSA/R - as the Beatles said!) Well. The serene republic of Venice. The Republic of Siena. The Republic of Florence - try reading that great SF work by D, Aligheiri ..... erm, err .....

& @ 88 Yes, but (again) Havelock Vetinari very carefully tries NOT to interfere, unless someone is determined to upset the applecart. He is much happier letting A-M run itself, if only busybodies don't insist on dibbing where they are neither wanted nor needed..


Trey @ 85: Hope Mirrlees's Lud-in-the-Mist is a republican city-state, and it does not like aristocrats very much at all. This Is Important.

Going back yet further, William Morris has kings and ruling abbots and barons and warlords and proto-fascist republics and councils of burgesses and customary anarchies and pretty much everything.

Stephen Donaldson's Land has no monarchies anywhere, unless you count Lord Foul who is not much of an advertisement; and its human Lordship has been meritocratic ever since the last dynast's little 'Whoops!' moment.

As an edge case, in Le Guin's Earthsea, the Isles of the Archipelago have no monarchies and in many cases no aristocracies of any kind. When there is finally a Good King at the centre, he has possibly not the power and certainly not the inclination to meddle with most local living arrangements, being pressingly concerned with the reascendance of civil society over piracy, slavery, and war.

There are then suggestions both of imperial wu wei, and of inventing the beginnings of popular representation more or less out of practical necessity: kinginess wants to expand in every direction, however ugly or stupid, and the Good King needs to devote at least half his wit and energy to stuffing it back in its box. The execution doesn't entirely work for me, and I suspect it's intended to be more poetically than politically coherent; but it's an interesting and very individually done take on the matter.


Errrr.... If "Doomsday Book" depressed you, you might not want to read "Passage"...

("Bellwether" is one of my favourite books - not least because it gave me a useless connection between the discovery of penicillin and my particular sport)


Arguably, the Peacemaker would be a better choice, since it's louder, and fires unjacketed rounds, which expend all their energy on the primary target, rather than making a small, neat hole in the primary, and expending most of their Ke on a well in Hogsmeade!


Anhk-Morpork, at least for values of "republic" where the "king" is either missing or voluntarily remains one of the proles rather than being head of state.

I presume this is not what you meant, but a theocracy can be a republic, since the primary requirement for a republic is that the head of state be selected by election or nomination, rather than by accident of birth to the previous head of state, their spouse, or their immediate family. Arguably, that would have made Scotland a republican Kingdom up until James 1 ascended, since the king was selected by nomination and voting amongst all eligable nobles.


I see what you mean, but Jane Austin wrote "comedies of manners" rather than books about people who place themselves, or were placed, in postions where they affect political or religious change.

Also, they'll take a bit of searching out, but you can find biographies of people like pub landlords, railway engine drivers, truck drivers... Also look at the popularity of shows like "Ice Road Truckers", "Eddie Stobbart"...


@84 yea I'm not denying that there aren't political implications to the Lord of the Rings. But they are different ones. How can you deny that Middle Earth is a realm in decay? There are constant allusions to past greatness in Middle Earth and in much of the fantasy genre.

There is some interesting stuff to plumb here: for hundreds of years the tallest building in the world was the pyramids of Giza. That would've changed how you see the world. But whats missing from Middle Earth is any hint of greater things to come.

The big difference from a dystopian fiction I suppose is the POV of the reader: 1984 hints of things having been better, but it was better back in 1949. It empowers the reader.


If you want fantasy with magic that makes sense (or fails to, but fails systematically), you might enjoy "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality", to be found on


ianmonroe @95: I'm not seeing it. Middle-Earth has people living in it who remember living in the First Age; consider Elrond's words to Frodo, or Treebeard's recollections. And it has a living historical tradition that means a lot to educated people. If anything, the First Age is closer to Tolkien's characters than 1948 is to the characters in 1984.

And if you want to invoke the POV of the reader, it's worth remembering that the Shire that Tolkien paints with such affection is actually rural Edwardian England, which was a living memory for many of the first generation of readers of LotR.


I think you are making my point. Instead of being excited about the future, LotR longs for the past.


Well, in Ankh Morpork, the Patrician is elected, albeit not by the general populace.

While it's prety definitely not a republic, as the Patrician is the creator and ultimate arbiter of the laws, Vetinari, at least, is subject to those same laws.

Although that situation only exists because Vetinari wants it that way.


RE: the impulse to judge books based on whether one would want to live in the world depicted-- there's a lingering impulse, especially in American culture, that says fiction should be morally uplifting. The influence of this impulse is waning but it's still present. It's why lit fic snobs get cranky about ghosts or alternate realities or AI slipping into their books because they don't want to live in a world where, for ex., the communists won WWII and now everyone answers to StalinBot 3000. That world would be immoral and if you came to identify with any of the characters living there (especially StalinBot) you would be tainted forever. So they avoid these stories, despite it being fun to imagine living in a world that would not be pleasant (or even possible).

I'd never want to live in Gormenghast castle but damn if I don't like visiting there.

On the flip side, I'd love to live on Star Trek's Earth. Never have to work for a living and get to vacation on a pleasure planet? Yes please! Serving on a star ship though? Sounds tedious. Especially because, unless you're stationed on the Enterprise, you'll spend most of your tour bored out of your mind analyzing stellar gas emissions, only to be turned inside out by a quantum space wedgie.


"You're comparing fiction to nonfiction biographies, apples and oranges. Try comparing fiction to fiction: Other genres have a lot of stories that are not about politics at all, or very marginally. How much political impact do Jane Austen's heroines have? But in science fiction and fantasy....look for the one about the farmboy who never even considers trying to overthrow the evil overlord."

No argument there's not much in the way of fantasy farming fiction but the original quote to me suggested that the 'fantasy of agency' was more a criticism of the hero(s) being able to change the world when in real life an 'activist' doesn't. I was just pointing out we have biographies of activists in real life who did and I'd add the comparison with activists is an odd one anyway as we have better examples of individuals who changed the world (you don't see many fictional heroes staging sit-ins and protest marches).


If the Patrician is voted for, then AM is a representative democracy, albeit one with a limited franchise. This does not stop it technically being a kingdom (since there is actually an extant individual who is entitled to the crown), and effectively a republic, since the effective Head of State is elected or appointed, rather than born to the post.

In day to day operation, it is a benevolent autocracy at present, but that is one step one way from a despotism, and from a representative democratic republic the other way, depending on what the autocrat chooses to do.


ian.monroe @98: I'm still not seeing it. You write that "Instead of being excited about the future, LotR longs for the past." But the point I was questioning was your claim that Orwell was different from Tolkien. In fact, Orwell also views the future negatively, as a realm of authoritarian brutality, "a book stamping on a human face—forever." The dystopian genre is full of negative visions of the future, at least as far back as Zamyatin.


@William: the difference is Orwell was warning people to be careful of a possible future, whereas Tolkien was yearning for the past.


1984 also comes with an implication of a possible optomistic future. The Appendix of the novel is written from the perspective of a scholar explicating the finer historical details of the the Big Brother regime for his audience, implying that Big Brother has long since fallen and the readers need to know what it was like to live back then, as they no linger have first hand experience with the depredations of INGSOC and Newspeak.


One of the my more recent attempts with the character is here. [PDF, about 210 kilobytes] The list had gotten to talking about dumb mistakes in mundane fiction, and after checking for on "Where Eagle Dare"... So many of them could have been fixed just with a script-change, and then I thought, "These guys would do it properly." (and I already had put Alberto into a Clint Eastwood shootout scene, shifting "A Fistful of Dollars" into the Spanish Civil War) And I had time to kill after the surgery... It took about a week.


@ 104 / 105 Yes 1984 - perhaps.

More like the intro / ending of "The Handmaid's Tale". Made into one of the SCARIEST Operas I've ever seen, btw.


The Shire isn't intended to be a Republic-it's intended to be anarchistic.

Tolkien had some sympathy towards philosophical anarchism (don't tell Michael Moorcock, or he'll have a conniption fit) starting in at least November 1943, when he wrote a letter to Christopher Tolkien that began:

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control, not whiskered men with bombs)

One of the things that annoyed him about the film treatments for The Lord of the Rings was a scene where Frodo is asked to "register" when he goes to an inn-Tolkien wrote this to Forrest J. Ackerman in June of 1958:

The landlord does not ask Frodo to 'register'! Why should he? There are no police and no government.

Tolkien's letters make for very interesting reading period, but one of the things I found most interesting was that his ideas on the Shire were so radical-reminiscent of some things Pete Seeger said.


Stephen Baxter, Iain M. Banks, Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds: These are my go-to guys for blow-your-mind literary space-focussed sci-fi.

Charlie's got it too, in Iron Sunrise and Saturn's Children, and another one coming up which MIGHT have something to do with generation ships .



Well, I would prefer the world of "Glasshouse" to the current's just that it's far from perfect, but I'd say it's to ours as ours is to the mediæval serf's. But notice that we don't observe the Feast of St Monday, our priests are screwed-up by actually trying to obey their vows of celibacy, and I'm sure some here will point out some other ways they had it better...but all or almost who could would probably still prefer our time to that.

In fact, especially given the faux-Heinleinian ending (spoiler: people are back their 'proper' gender, and an arse is wiggled on the way up the stairs [or so I remember]), I would take the book to be in some respects a mock-Heinleinian tribute to The Human Spirit, in this case being that part of it that drives us to strive confidently forward and fschk-up any potentially great situation.

There are war crimes and (admittedly less efficient) brainwashing in this world, but we grow old/senescent, mut unpleasantly exercise for health and strength and flexibility, generally must provide arduous and/or alienating labour in order to survive, and the like..."Glasshouse"'s world can be right terrible, but I'd take it in a shot.



The key points about Glasshouse are that (a) the narrator is capital-U Unreliable, and (b) the whole thing is set in a brainwashing camp for war criminals.

It's not a Heinlein tribute, it's a John Varley nightmare scenario.


looks out over the debate of Science Fiction (TM) vs. Fantasy (TM)

takes a deep breath

Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Ray Bradbury, Jorge Borges, Mad'line L'Engle, Margaret Atwood, Terry Prat-chett. Lovecraft, Tao Yuanming, and Frank Herbert's everything, Philip K. Dick, time travel fits, bring me a hatchet.

We didn't start the flamewar...



In all seriousness, where do you people file Marquez adn Borges? Fantasy, where you have to share a room with pudgy, geeky SF as if you were in a dorm again, or literary, where you can look down on all those genre philistines?

How about Ray Bradbury, do you split Bradbury's corpus all over the bookstore, with Dandelion Wine over here and Fahrenheit 451 over there? What about Madeline L'Eng- oops! I forgot, she wrote for children, and people who do that can't apply for being taken seriously.

Seriously, though, your options are not limited to "has dragons" or "has transporters." The whole argument is inane, especially when we can enjoy the tender ministrations of sneering litfic critics who insist that anything genre is subliterary.



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Harry Connolly published on February 21, 2011 8:06 AM.

Revision, Competition, and Dracula was the previous entry in this blog.

Beer in Manhattan is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog