Back to: Brief interruption | Forward to: How Do We Get There?

A Far Green Country

It is a strange thing to post at such a well-known techy econo-futurist blog. That's not my usual hat, see. I'm a fantasy writer, and more particularly, a folklorist and historian. It is literally my job to find value in old things, to show people versions of themselves in ancient stories. Nobody asks me what I think about the future.

It's not that I don't have a dog in this race. I am, I know you'll be surprised to hear, a human living in the early 21st century with a vested interest in continuing at least one of those states (human or living in the 21st century--I'm not super picky which). And having just written a time-sprawling posthuman AI novella, it's fairly clear I have thoughts on the subject. It's just that, to belabor a metaphor, your dog is a SuperLabrador with paw-rockets, a tail that can hack wirelessly into the holorabbit whipping around the track, and an honest, loving, loyal cyborg heart. Mine is an old herd-dog, shaggy, dark, beautiful and uncanny, primeval and enormous--and every once in awhile, even though her heart is blood and muscle, she wins as if by magic.

A friend of mine said the other day that he'd surprised himself by starting to write a fantasy novel rather than his beloved SF. He felt it was a story he needed to tell, but also confined by what he saw as the limitations of fantasy: that it is essentially about the past and therefore not concerned with possibility in the same way--in fact, by definition a genre of the impossible. A genre of might-have-been instead of could-someday-be.

Now I've written before about what I see as the hierarchy of realism, where in terms of literary respect SF must come out on top of fantasy but below mimetic fiction, because SF presents a future which might come to pass, and could therefore be merely prescient, not fanciful. We know there are no dragons in the world, but there may be artificial intelligence, thus the latter is more worthy of serious thought than the former, which is merely escapism.

I don't think very much of that hierarchy, but you don't get to choose your paradigms. (Much.)

When I told my friend it was silly to think that fantasy must be a medieval RISK-analogue, he asked what, then, was the difference between fantasy and science fiction. I didn't have a satisfying answer, and maybe I still don't. But I have an answer.

There's only a difference where you want one to be.

The famous defense of science fiction is that while taking place in the future or one imaginable future, it is profoundly concerned with the present, taking current trends and understandings of the world and extrapolating forward to a greater or lesser degree. SF always speaks to the time in which it is written.

I have never understood why fantasy is exempt from this. Why is the opposite not taken as equally and unavoidably true? While taking place in the past* or one imaginable past, it is profoundly concerned with the present, taking currents trends and understandings of the world and exaggerating to a greater or lesser degree. Why do I never hear this applied to fantasy? It's not even interesting at this point to say The Lord of the Rings has a great deal to say about WWI. I don't think it's an accident that A Song of Ice and Fire was first published in the aftermath of the Cold War, during a particularly ugly internecine period of struggle in the Balkans, but achieved its greatest popularity in the political climate of post 9/11 America, when fighting a whole bunch of wars all over the world became a reality for many people. Likewise, I suspect the popularity of Lev Grossman's The Magicians series has something to do with the generation of college students graduating into a dark world they believed was good and bright, saddled with debt and joblessness. And you know, it's noticeable that steampunk came into its own during a period when life is starting to look damned Dickensian again, when the split between rich and poor has widened drastically, when the aristocrats with the pretty clothes have moved the child-devouring factories to other continents so that no one has to see them at all. Magical realism tends to spring up in totalitarian regimes--when actual life has become a trickster play, when the government is run by magical thinking and words no longer mean what they say** books start appearing in which the otherworld is encroaching on reality rather than taking place in another reality entirely.

Fantasy is almost always strongly addressing the present and the future.

And while I'm rarely asked about my thoughts on transhumanism, when I write about immortal pre-scarcity beings who structure their whole world around the avoidance of boredom and the cultivation of psychologies which will stand the test of longevity, I'm not just thinking about the world of 1164--or honestly thinking about it much at all. When I write about a sexually-transmitted city, it's not just because it's a cool elevator pitch, but because I live in such a fully networked world, one in which we all go to this third place where we can be ourselves when the work day is over. When I break the fourth wall to address the reader, it's to tell them what I think I know about real life here on Earth. It has never once occurred to me that in writing fantasy I am not writing directly and profoundly about actual life in the present day--and where that present day might lead us. That I am not translating fairy tales about then into fairy tales about now. Folklore is how humans explain the world to themselves. Fairy tales are a vital part how a culture promulgates itself and instructs the young (and old). They have always been about how to behave and survive right here and now. Magic, like technology, merely foregrounds the stranger processes at work.

And if you think we're beyond believing in magic, you've got another thing coming. I can't count the number of times during the 08 crash I heard someone give my unemployed husband and friends the following advice: "Write down the job you want ten /seven/three times on a piece of paper, fold it up and carry it with you/against your skin/with a dollar bill in your left pocket/right pocket all the time." That is a magic spell by any measure. Apple uses the word "magical" to sell the iPad because they know it works, it appeals to us on that folkloric level.

It goes both ways, too. When I read SF, I am always delighted by the old, old magic in it. And the Singularity is such a glittering, magical thing. When I listen to discussions about the Singularity, when I read stories about it, I hear: one day we will all wake up and turn into fairies. One day we'll all go to Fairyland together. White shores and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise. I hear visions of a world whose technology accomplishes the exact actions that magic strove to: transmutation, transmigration, immortality, altering the body, the granting of wishes, the reading of minds. Something out of nothing, lead into gold. A world whose folk dwell in so much plenty and ease that they might as well be fairies, their countries Fairyland. I hear the same longing for these things that I hear when fantasy authors write about dragons and potions and magic from before the dawn of time.

That, and I hear the ghost of Cotton Mather.

Cotton Mather, for those of you who don't know, was a deeply unhappy man who lived in Boston in the late 17th century. I've heard him referred to as New England's first horror writer, and I think that's about right. He was a pastor and an author obsessed with the Rapture to a level that would surprise even Tim LaHaye and his ilk. Both he and his father predicted it would come just about every five years until he died--and in dying he was still waiting for it, bitterly, bitterly disappointed that it had not come in his lifetime. He sparked a Millennialist fever in New England and, rather more famously, was deeply involved in the Salem Witch Trials.

A year or two ago I came across a dialogue between Cotton and his father Increase in which they discussed what parts of the body they would be able to shed after the Rapture, and which they would keep. The genitals could go no problem, of course, and the digestive tract, since eating would be unnecessary. Possibly the liver as well, since what toxins could survive in Paradise? The heart and the brain posed a problem, however--would we need those organs to think and feel or would we become pure persons, identities intact without bodies?

I said aloud: What you mean is when you upload, Cotton, buddy. Will you need to maintain a connection to your physical body or will you be able to upload completely?

The tone of the conversation was exactly the same as the one I hear now--it's not really a joke at all when we call it the Rapture of the Nerds. The same hatred of the body echoed in Cotton and Increase's urgent debate, the same longing to leave all the troublesome processes of physical existence behind, to enter a world where they and their particular abilities would make them saints and kings, and those who mocked them would be useless devils or worse. (Don't think this isn't the very urge behind planning for the zombie apocalypse.) The same assumption that in Paradise, they would be able to affect reality as one would in a VR world, that their highest and purest desires would become manifest. The same desire to witness the end of the world by whatever definition, the same desperation not to miss it, to be the generation that achieved ascension.

Not only New England's first horror writer, but her first science fiction writer.

And to me, it's all one. Not in a flippant way, but deep, primal, unifying. The herd-dog is an uplifted mind. The SuperLab has old, old bones. I do genuinely believe that stories save us. Over and over, narrative tells us how to get through and get beyond, how to be human and how to be inhuman, too, when it comes time to grow. We are, at our cores, narrative beings. And most especially, science fiction and fantasy save us. They tell us who we are, who we can be, who we want to be and who we don't, what we could be and what we can reject if we are strong enough. It says all these things more boldly and yet more secretly than mimetic fiction, which does not often try to speak to the dreams and terrors of a species on the verge.

Ask me about the future and I'll tell you a fairy tale. Ask me about the past and I'll tell you about uploading. We are always writing about ourselves--we can't help it. The difference between a post-human and a fairy, between a dragon and a lobster, is only in the name.

*Obviously, I don't buy the canard that SF is about the future and fantasy is about the past. I think both are about the Other, how we engage with it, refuse to engage, are assimilated or rejected by it. These things don't play for a particular temporal team.

**For more on totalitarian regimes and how language and fiction changes within them I highly recommend Maguerite Feitlowitz's A Lexicon of Terror. For further reading on the desire to shed the body and transform into spirit/energy as a cultural meme throughout more or less the entirety of Western culture from Athens onward, see Peter Brown's superb and eye-opening The Body and Society. For Cotton Mather and his contemporaries' obsession with the end of the world, including the mentioned dialogue, Jame West Davidson's The Logic of Millennial Thought in 18th Century New England is an amazing, wry, and thoughtful read.



Magnificent, and I agree with every word; I've been trying to figure out a way to express these very thoughts for some time now.

I've never really seen a meaningful difference between scifi and fantasy, and I've always thought that good scifi/fantasy can do things- important things, if you're the sort of person who eats and breathes narrative and is fully comfortable with the fact- that no other form of storytelling can, at least not with any degree whatsoever of facility.

I see the same blurring of genre boundaries in anime and manga, whereas Western literature seems resistant to even acknowledge the existence or relevance of scifi or fantasy, although the ideological zeitgeist seems to be shifting these days, albeit as slowly and begrudgingly as a sleepy cat ensconced in a pile of blankets. Why do you suppose that is?


Heh, and then you answer my question, or at least discuss it, in the (also magnificent) essay you linked to. Don't I look silly now?

Rather particularly interesting to me as an RP campaign I ran partially centred itself around the conflict between imperfect realism and apotheosis - the heroes eventually choosing humanity, the world-of-clay, pain and death. (And to be quite honest, my sympathies were with the antagonist, trying to spin a world of light where nothing terrible had to happen, summoned into the world because such was the /secret/ desire of humanity. Her methods were a bit flawed, but I digress.)

By way of reparations for silliness, another question: Are there any authors out there that wrote scifi/fantasy that wasn't recognised as scifi/fantasy? I know I've identified a few potential candidates in personal correspondence here - Shakespeare comes to mind, for one, but he might be cheating as he wrote during a time where the fences of realism hadn't quite gone up yet.


Hear hear!

Everything the physicists have been telling us the past few centuries points to a monistic universe. We should dissect the false mind/body duality that has been around since Decartes (or Plato?). We should eat its heart and take its virtues for our own (there must be some cause of its unnaturally prolonged life - I suspect it has something to do with abstraction barriers, which are very useful).

Even if we upload, the software body - the patterns of charge - is just as physical as we ever were (see for example Ted Chiang's Exhalation). Figuring out the right metaphors to understand such a transfiguration with is important.


Needed: A term for fiction which includes magic -- of a kind the author and the reader believe in.

And a term for materialist magic: Follow these procedures exactly, and you will achieve the desired results. No spiritual crap involved!


Actually, Cotton Mather wasn't a judge in the Salem witch trials, though he was closely connected to them.


Ms. Valente,

Do you think that the Singularity is, at least in part, a way for those committed to empiricism (as a creed as much as a tool) to allow a little of the magical and the transcendent back into their worlds?

I'm an empiricist, a monist, and a fan of science myself, but although I was once a big Singularity zealot I think it's become a sort of bolthole for all the things we want to dream of but can't normally let ourselves -- a transfigured bit of hope and superstition packed into a seam in our mechanistic, rationalist worldview.

I don't mean to suggest that being A Science turns you into some kind of cold clockwork drone moving through an empty world -- I'd be doing myself a disservice! But I feel like fantasy and science fiction both serve that itch for a little something more in the world, and if you're in a place where you've convinced yourself the fantastic is silly, a scummy ring of superstition and magical thought around the waist of your technological not-quite-topia, you've got to find another place to scratch that itch.

As if to say: there's no magic any more, maybe, but if we just science hard enough, one day the science will turn into magic and it'll all come back.


The only difference between fantasy and science fiction is a matter of degrees, I agree the line is arbitrary.

The whole question though is pretty boring to me, holy wars usually are boring, just a matter of zealots arguing semantics.


As a professional scientist, I'm a fantasy fan. It comes down to Douglas Adams's observation that the impossible can have an integrity that the improbable lacks.


To be honest I never saw much of a difference between science fiction that invented new laws of physics to allow FTL communication, gravity manipulation, teleportation etc and fantasy that invented new laws of physics to allow telepathy, flight, teleportation etc.


I do think fantasy (and new fairy tales) is eminently equipped to teach and to inform about the future. And to tell new stories about the truly weird and strange (and kind of magical) world of the now, the near future and even the far future.

My frustration is when it (fantasy) consistently fails to step up to that challenge. I'm talking about the endless stories where magic exists, ostensibly, but instead of being truly disruptive and game-changing (as technology usually is in this world, see gunpowder, telecommunications, social media, etc, etc), it somehow manages to only result in the same boring (and usually simplified) stories and social organisations that existed in our imagined past. The books you mentioned, Habitation of the Blessed and Palimpsest, do serve as excellent counter-examples, and do tell new stories and wrestle with interesting themes. But those are.. not the norm, in fantasy :)



Aw crap, you caught me, meant to fact check that when I got home before I posted and forgot to. Fixed now.



Well, it all depends on how you think of it--I think much of Homer and the tragedians work is fantastic--but does it count if they really thought magic, curses, witches, and monsters were literally real?

I think that Chaucer can be said to have written fantasy--he certainly would not have believed (at least openly) in the Greek deities he writes about. Frankly, I think almost everyone in the Western canon who is not a 20th century writer wrote "fantastic" literature. Making up things that aren't real is kind of par for the course.

And these days, lots of folks write it and don't get the label--it's the old: if it's good it's not SF rag.



Yes, I absolutely do think that's the case. I also think it's the case for the actual Rapture enthusiasts--they want to be part of a big story, and a world without magic is one they quite literally cannot bear. Science, as it stands, is not enough. There must be Huge Personified Forces at work--and hell, maybe there are. But yes, I think the instinct comes from precisely the same place: both Singularities express a desire to see the world profoundly and extraordinarily altered by the magic of choice, be that religion or science. To enter Paradise--and be the one who gets to define what that means for everyone else.


Perhaps part of the issue here is newer writers challenging the traditional (well, few decades old perhaps) definitions. A lot of people notice that you can have a lot of fun in the grey areas between definitions, and run straight into the gaps and start writing.

That said, I think you have completely missed the general SF definition, which is that it is to do with science and technology and people's reactions and use of them. Ideally in hard SF your plot should revolve around the consequences of an explosive new technology or newly discovered laws of nature. Mind you this even holds true in space opera and much of the early pulp stuff.

By constrast fantasy was originally about a more conservative looking back to a different era before all this impersonal technology and modern society stuff changed people's lives. That fantasy as a genre has now evolved so that you have technological magic where the mechanisms of the magic are important, whereas the older fantasy type was not really concerned with the technology of magic, rather with the upholding of good and destruction of evil.

(Without actually meaning to I seem to have written 36,000 words of linked short stories set in a world in which magic of the medieval European sort does actually work and it is currently in the late stages of the industrial evolution. Thus magic as technology but with added theological and scientific implications about how the universe works, and something more like fantasy is yet a type of SF)

You see I think your Cotton Mather as first SF author example is incorrect, because ultimately it does not rely upon human technology (raising yourself to godhood) but upon god itself, the ineffable not of this universe entity which is most certainly not scientific or technological or even human. Although the human motivations are similar, the means and the implications that arise from them are different.



And I've always been puzzled by dicta against those things as "not hard SF" or "science fantasy" in a tone that implies it doesn't live up to some sort of standard of rigor that X type of SF does. (I know our host has a lot to say on that score, it still puzzles me when he says it!) Those things might also come to pass--we can't know for certain that our current model is completely correct, or what cheats and workarounds might become commonplace.


The other deep issue behind the different approaches and genres is that actually magic is a form of technology. Ok, alchemy isn't quite magic, but ad probably the resident history of alchemy expert, I've read a fair bit about that and related topics. Thus the magical stuff that people did 2,000 years ago was intended to influence reality, e.g. persuade someone that they are a good person, make a love potion etc. Or kill someone.
It all went wrong in the religious backlash against magic in the late medieval and post medieval period, then religion itself was deconstructed or whatever the term was. So magic got a bad reputation as being used by the weak and uneducated and such, and laughed at for not corresponding to reality. But if it did, then it would be utilised in the same way as technology of whatever sort is used now, the same way as people used flint and steel to get a spark to light a fire. And being called magical wouldn't be an insult. Therefore we are already led into confusion by the labels and cultural preconceptions of our time.



Groundbreaking is never the norm in any genre. (Not saying my stuff is.) Most of science fiction doesn't live up to its own challenges either--fantasy is not special in that. Mimetic fiction doesn't live up to its own standards pretty damned often. Sturgeon's Law lands with a thud. But so much fantasy does do this, and I take it as part of my mission statement should I have such a thing, to do so in my own work. I referenced three extremely mainstream and popular series precisely because I believe we can't help how the present works on itself in our fantasy.



Actually, having recently re-read Barsoom, I would argue that pulp SF has very little do do with new technology. And if you mean LOTR as what fantasy "originally" set out to accomplish I have to argue there, too. It is one book, and though it has many imitators, even among JRRT's contemporaries you can find books like Lud-In-The-Mist (which I almost referenced in the post but couldn't really discuss the end, which I believe is heartbreakingly relevant to this and to transhumanism in general, without spoiling it) that go a wholly different way.

Have you ever heard the phrase "There has always been a feminist movement?" It's the title of a Joanna Russ essay, I believe, discussing how each generation is lead to believe they must do all the work from scratch, that before the 20th century there was never a women's movement anywhere.

Likewise, there has always been radical fantasy.

My point was that though the simplest explanation is that SF is about technology and fantasy about magic, I don't find either of those true. SF is often about ancient narratives and instincts toward magical thinking playing out, and fantasy is often about how humans change in the face of a new set of rules or tools.


But a fair bit of pulp is about or involves technology, e.g. the Lensman series. The issue is surely that stuff like the radium rifles on Mars breaks the technology paradigm so although they were thrown in for whatever reason, he had to quickly forget about them.
Moreover, I disaagree with you about SF often being 'about' ancient instincts towards magical thinking etc. Any similarity will occur because of the fact you're writing a story and certain types of story sell well, including those which involve ancient instints or Campbell like ideas.

On fantasy, I was thinking not just of Tolkein, but of James Branch Cabell, and back into stories from the Mabinogion and Scottish western isles.
In terms of fantasy and tools and rules, again I feel there is still a difference from SF, because of the difference between science- the understanding of how the universe works, and tools, which is more engineering and so on. But then this comes back to my earlier comment that people have been messing the boundaries up more recently.

Perhaps there always has been radical fantasy, but science fiction requires the existence of science as an organised pursuit, which, fully realised is more an invention of the last two or three centuries. There's even a term 'science fantasy', invented to describe stuff that involves spaceships and improbable laws of physics that permit you to mould the plot and such as you like.


Cat, Hard science fiction is a subset of speculative fiction where the author assumes no change or major addition to the physical laws of the universe as we understand them today. It is a useful and interesting self imposed limitation on the sphere of "what could happen"

There is nothing inferior to speculative fiction that does not follow the rule of hard science fiction, it just isn't hard science fiction and it is incorrect to categorize it as such.

The confusion and conflict often comes when an author thinks he is writing hard science fiction but then introduces mcguffins that do not fit the "no change or major addition to the physical laws of the universe as we understand them today" clause.

It's not correct to say that science fiction or even hard science fiction has to be primarily about technology. The nomenclature "science" in the science fiction usually means that science and technology should play some element int he story (else again, you are miscategorizing or sending a confusing signal to a reader) but I don't think it has to be a dominant one.


Also, this is at least the 100th time i have had this discussion in my life, the first time I had it I was 10 years old and Reagan was in the white house. This is why the term "speculative fiction" was invented, to kill off once and forever this argument and save millions of geeks from bludgeoning eachother to death in the halls of science fiction conventions across the world. Unfortunately that term never caught on.


The difference between F&SF? None, if you are a technological.scientific illiterate. For most people, the ones who do not even know how something as simple as a radio works, technology is magic.


The reason I personally prefer hard SF is because I find that most hard SF will explore the social ramifications of better science/technology whereas soft SF will tend to slap on as many plot devices as possible to tell a generic story.

This isn't an absolute rule, just an observation.



The point of this post was far more than rehashing the old what's the difference between F & SF argument, which I agree is not the most interesting. Though discussing something in the 80s hardly means it is settled once and for all--people are still discussing this and still getting in Team Fantasy and Team Science Fiction debates. If we only had to have an online conversation once and that put a lid on it for all time, well, it'd be a far smaller internet.

Also, I am well aware of the definition of hard SF. But you can't have failed to notice how the hardness of the SF gets conflated with the goodness of it in many circles--that's all I meant to point out in my comment.

I could have spilled far fewer words if all I meant to say was LOLZ FANTASY AND SF ARE TEH SAMEZ. There's a lot more there, there, or at least I like to think so.


I probably ought not weigh in on this. Anyway. Here goes. I've tended to prefer the terms used by Moorcock and Le Guin in their literary essays, 'realist' and 'imaginative' fiction if a dividing line must be drawn. Realist fiction tends to favor close simulation of 'realistic' human experience, and is most highly characterised (I think) in modern fiction by stream of consciousness narratives about ordinary things. Imaginative fiction tends to lean towards an exploration of the possibilities of human experience, and both fantasy and science fiction tend to be more imaginative than realist in bent.

As for defining SF and fantasy as terms, I'm going to agree with Karl Popper that there are really only two useful ways (I am avoiding the word 'valid') to define things.

The first is a common usage definition. This is a dictionary definition, by which we ask 'what do people generally mean by this?' This is easier if the term is 'puppy', harder to pin down if the term is debatable among people (and very hard if the term is a cultural artifact, because by definition it does not -physically- exist: what is meant by the colour 'blue' varies among people. Some cultures don't distinguish between green and blue, and some people in cultures that do will define aquamarine as blue, whilst others will call it green: it is intrinsically hopeless to attempt 'definitive' or 'all-encompassing' definitions of cultural artifacts in this way).

By attempting a common usage definition we may arrive at a set of multiple and even contradictory definitions, and they are all of them correct, because we accepted at the beginning we are merely trying to define what is -meant by people- who use the term, and the populace consists of more than one person. Perspectives and experiences are not identical.

The other way to define a thing, is what Popper would have said is more scientific, or more relevant to evidence-based approaches to knowledge about the physical world, and this is to define things from right-to-left, not left-to-right. So, In this view, it is inexact or not useful to ask 'what is the essential nature of being a puppy? What is puppyhood?' Rather, we have identified that there is such as thing as a young dog. This thing seems to have different behaviour and some differences in physiology and morphology to adult dogs. It would be useful to have a term for this thing. Let us call it a 'puppy'.

So, for example, the common usage definition of 'chemical' would be something like 'a highly refined and often artificial substance'. When a company claims their food product has 'No added chemicals' they mean this. Chemists of course, will be irritated because they established the word 'chemical' in a right-to-left fashion, and this meaning is quite different.

Right-to-left chemical: It appears that all matter is made up of elements. These elements can exist as pure elements and as compounds with other elements in a pure forms. It would be useful to have a term for these pure substances. Let us call them 'chemicals'. By this definition all matter is a chemical, including water. So that, by this definition the 'No added chemicals' label is nonsense, but getting wrought up about it is not very practical either. It would involve a confusion about the underlying modes of definition.

Anyway, on with fantasy and science fiction. There is clearly a difference in common usage between these terms, but (as is obvious every time this is debated at any con anywhere), the common usage definitions differ enough among readers and writers that the argument in unresolvable (i.e. what do you mean that object is blue? It's clearly green!).

The personal definition I give people when pressed is that I tend to think that fantasy is imaginative fiction that deals with imaginative elements that are primarily not plausible given the current scientific understanding, and that science fiction is imaginative fiction that deals with elements that are primarily plausible given the current scientific understanding. Using this definition, Star Wars is (mostly) fantasy, whereas the Pern novels are (mostly) science fiction (although both are a blend of the two).

I suppose you -could- take this further and argue that hard fantasy is knowingly and self-consciously unconcerned about explaining the imaginative element(s) in any scientific way (Kafka comes to mind), whereas hard science fiction is self-consciously and knowingly concerned about explaining the imaginative elements in a scientific way (Jules Verne and his descendants) (I'm unconvinced either term is very useful though).

In the end, as Vonnegut said, 'all great fiction is about what a bummer it is to be human', though I might be less cynical and commit the unpardonable crime of modifying Vonnegut to 'all great fiction is about what it is to be human'.

Both F and SF do this in ways that are identifiably the same (i.e. either might address mythic journeys and magico-religious experiences), but so too do other genres, horror, nurse fiction, westerns, pulp romance and lit-fic. To use a couple obvious SFF examples, the Ravaging of the Shire is an examination of a theme more usually found in SF (dehumanization / modernization / industrialization), whereas 2001 has at least one theme element more usually associated with fantasy (the magico-religious experience of enlightenment).

Hopefully that makes some sense.

Hm. That was all typed very quickly. It's probably riddled with spelling and haste errors etc. I think I might cross-post it to my own (rather hardly ever used) blog for my own ease-of-finding purposes later.



Magic has long been a bit of a joke, as an idea. Someone waves a twig, says a suitably daft set of words and the world changes in a supranatural fashion.

However, I kind of like the idea of magic presented by Greer; not as real, but as a set of techniques, lies and misdirection designed to 'hack the mind' of the individual addressed. To make them believe.

As such you still have to obey physical laws, but you get to have people think you aren't. Magic and Marketing as common bedfellows; lying with purpose.

In that form you don't get the usual fantasy problem ("yes, but what about conservation of mass?") and it's much more about the human, society and what people think is real. That then forms a 'twin' with good SF, where the concentration is much more on the changed real world, and its implications. The two can work together in the story telling.


to Ryan: In my opinion it's almost impossible to do hard science fiction. There are too many places to go wrong.

to Guthrie: As a chemist, I'm of the strong opinion that alchemy is one part primitive chemistry, one part primitive medicine, one part metallurgy, and seven parts balderdash.


I think the rational/dramatic axis is deeper than the fantasy/scifi one. Rational fiction errs on the side of consistency with its premises; dramatic errs on the side of a good story. Homer and Lucas are dramatic, Dante and Niven are rational (all those lovely expositions of the geography of Hell and the mechanics of purgatory and eternal punishment!)


Kat, I think some people like to consider hard scifi to be "better" because in some ways it is "harder to do" i.e. it kind of helps to have PhD in physics to write it, and in the case of Greg Egan, to read it as well. People who can do tensor calculus tend to think themselves superior to people that can't. Ahh well let people have their eccentricities I suppose.

I read that post of yours three times now, and I'm still not sure what you are trying to say. Could you dumb it down a bit for us non-lit majors? (-:


Cat - I've been enjoying your posts very much. Your concept of the singularity as a portal to fairyland corresponds with some of my thinking lately. I'm looking forward to reading some of your fiction when I'm done with the teetering pile beside my bed. Cheers.


The Barsoomian stories were a part of the Planetary Romance sub-genre and were by no means the only types of science fiction stories appearing in the pulps. Planet Stories and Startling stories sort of specialized in those sword-filled epics, yes, but other big pulp magazines like Astounding and Wonder had a clear technological bent:

And they were all published on cheap pulp paper.


I would class Randall Garrett's Lord D'Arcy stories as science fiction because the magic in them follows scientific principles. There is a talent needed to do magic in that world, but the rules are solid enough that you can understand and predict magic without that talent. They have theoretical magicians, just as we have theoretical physicists.

I remember the first time I read Skylark of Space, and they find themselves so far from Earth that they cannot recognise any constellations. Relativity says they cannot travel faster than light. They have been unconscious (acceleration effects) for no more than a day or so (there are some big handwaves there). And so observation contradicts relativity, which means relativity isn't a completely correct explanation. Onward!

At the moment we have possible FTL neutrinos. What Would Richard Seaton Do?


I suspect part of the problem is that we insist of trying to categorise things, even things that really need to be very fuzzily categorised into tight, Aristotelean categories. You can't have "it's fantasy with a strong romantic element set in a closely parallel world with science-fiction and conspiracy theorist elements" you have to develop "Urban Fantasy" as a label instead. Different authors that fall into that category mix different strengths of those things together by the way, if you don't read it, and can be so different I wonder why they're labelled as the same...

But once you've got a nice category, it's very easy to say A is good, B is bad. We do it all the time. I, for example, don't really like books written in the form of a diary. (Dracula being an exception to the rule.) It's much easier (and far, far more common) to say "Diary-styled literature is bad" than it is to say "I don't like diary-styled literature." We're encouraged in formal writing classes, in almost all subjects, to avoid I. We're encouraged (or forced) to write about art and literature as if there is an objective standard if we study it formally.

Well that may be of value in some aspects - the plot is rarely a matter of personal debate, it's there for everyone to read; similarly character names aren't negotiable - the impact of it is much more personal though. We've had Shakespeare mentioned, lets throw in the Brontes, Austen, Dickens and Conan Doyle. They're all safely dead, so we won't hurt their feelings. They're not necessarily great literature (although most are on that list too) but they're certainly names that anyone with pretensions of being well read would be expected to recognise and probably be able to talk about. But I bet most of us haven't read the majority of the works by all of these authors (I've read the majority of the works by 1 Bronte, Austen and Shakespeare) and I wonder just how many of us would count the reading we have done as pleasurable? I've never found a Dickens book I like for example, although I've read several.

My opinion is perfectly valid as to whether I like a book or not. Even if it's not necessarily popular. But we're so often forced to write in a style that makes our opinion seem like the judgement of Solomon. Thus we get "All Fantasy is bad" and "Hard SF is the only form of speculative fiction worth reading" rather than "I find I don't like reading fantasy" and the like.


Perils of posting before coffee. Forgot the last sentence.

"At least, that's how it appears to me."


Planets whose appearence seemed to the visitors on the approaching ships to resemble nothing so much as the round green hills wherin dwelt the King of Elfland

That sort of thing you mean?

Hasn anyone else here come across two SF works by Donald Moffitt? "Genesis Quest" & "Second Genesis" ?? Hard SF - maybe, fantasy - maybe. Come to that, my first SF book, reading my father's pre-war copy of "Last & First Men", when I was 9, and a little confused .....


How could I forget? Silly me.

The Game of Rat & Dragon


Cat @ 15:

[W]e can't know for certain that our current model is completely correct

This is true, but slightly misleading. It is better to say that there are length scales at which we know that the current models are inaccurate. For example, the shift from Newtonian to Relativistic equations of motion. For pretty much all interactions of your daily life, (excluding the inner workings of parts of your computer), both of these formulations will give the same answer. It is just that the predictions of relativistic physics are accurate in more length scales than Newtonian physics. A model must be able to accurately recreate the tested predictions of the previous model, as well as extend those predictions. To try and drag this back to the discussion at hand, to me the definition of "hard" sf must be that the physics involved is consistent with current models, over the length scales that the current models consider.


I read somewhere that the difference between fantasy and sf is that in sf everything has a rational explanation.

In fantasy you might have an all-powerful being, whereas in sf you might have an all-powerful being that's a strongly godlike AI - the only difference is the explanation.


The difference I see as most relevant is stasis. LotR and most other classic fantasy that I have read is posited on a world where the society, weapons, food, implements, and indeed culture are static on scales of thousands of years. Nobody invents guns - everyone still fights with swords. There are no fads for different foods, or even changes in clothing.

SF on the other hand is typically about change, either "hey Bob, look what I just invented" or more recently constant change and futureshock.

This is why I call Star Wars "science fantasy" - not because I place it on some value scale such as you describe, but because the Star Wars universe is pretty static. Nobody comes up with a better turbolaser or lightsaber. Even the Death Star is only built at a different scale, not out of radically different technology.

As for both being about folklore and neither having much value as prediction, I agree there. Both have immaginary settings, but both fail if the setting is all there is and the actual story is weak or the characters are not believable.


Ashley Cope's Unsounded is fantasy, but the world is not static, the magic system, Pymary is still being researched and improved upon and in fact the protagonist, Duane is likely the product of an illegal experiment, as he is a sentient zombie in a world where zombies only exist as mechanical labour.


There's something to this, but I am not sure I completely agree. Fantasy is often about someone upsetting the stasis. LOTR is an interesting world because there is no reason for elves to invent new things because they already have a relatively perfect existence, confirmed by the model of the Great Angels in the West. In fact when they do invent something, like Silmarils or Rings of Power, they just seem to make things worse. And when you have Dragons and Nazgul, you don't really need rifles and aircraft carriers to be a Dark Lord either. However, all that stuff is going away, so now there is a race to bring new stuff into the world like Saruman's explosives and Uruk-Hai. He also sees the possibilities of exploiting the hobbits nascent industrial base. It is strongly implied that the "good guys" are going to develop tech as well and so they are not on Treebeard's side in the long run (and the long game is the present for Treebeard so you can see his dilemma.)

On the Star Wars front: If you have children who watch cartoons, then you will know that the Old Republic was not static. The Empire is a conservative throw back and even the Imperial Generals seem miffed by their theocratic overlords in the original movie.


And of course, Dune is a universe where society is deliberately kept static because that is the only way for "normal" humans to not go extinct, either from the Grand Lassitude of the pre-Crusade days or the threat of mechanical extinction from Ix and its proto-terminators or from "evolved" no-longer-humans such as the ones that pop up in the later, barely readable books. Dune often reads as fantasy despite its SF backbone.

Strangely, the fantastical planetary romance of the Book of the New Sun is a lot "harder" when you squint at the details. Wolfe gets that human perception does not track reality well, particularly when reality gets really complex. So does "SF" have to become "fantasy" for any sufficiently long scale of time or deep scale of technological development?

A side question for our learned company, when Harlan Ellison was complaining about Terminator, did the names Cordwainer Smith or even Fred Saberhagen come up? Manshon-jaeger? It seems like Smith even predicted Arnold as the prototype.


Where does alternate history fit into this, if at all?


Well if the many worlds theory is correct it's not even fiction, call it interdimensional scholarship? :)


At the core it appears to me that fantasy fiction and science fiction are completely interchangeable -- the label is derived from the setting and trappings of the world, not from the content of the storay, characters and plot. We the readers may argue over whether a story is really one or the other, but for all practical intents and purposes it is possible to write the same story in either an FF or SF setting (depending on which audience the author wants to appeal to, or the author's own preference). Some stories are "easier" or perhaps more believable to write in one setting or the other, but not much else.

In the end the label "Fantasy" or "Science Fiction" is determined more in the publisher's marketing department than anywhere else. I imagine there's a checklist somewhere, that gets compared to each book's setting (elves = fantasy / spaceships = science fiction, etc), and that's the label that gets slapped on it.

I would also suspect that most authors don't really sit down and think something like "this story simply must be a fantasy story" -- a story idea lumbers over the horizon, springs from the earth, or falls thunder-bolt like from the sky, and you just gotta write it and follow it where it takes you. I think Cat's brief anecdote about her fellow author supports that completely.


The name Moffit strikes a bell. I think I read one of his short stories long ago and far away.

It turns out that there are large swatches of his "Genesis Quest" in Google books. It's rather weird. It reads as a parody of itself, like one of the sub-stories inside the first part of "The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy". I Immediately thought of the Vlahurg leader and his opponent.

Another way of saying this is that it looks like a classic "Planetary Romance" of the 1930s, with the required lip service to current scientific and engineering paradigms, (but in this case updated to the cold war era) and tons of romance around his little core of rationality.

This is from page 46:

The little five-legged transport beast skidded to a stop at the biocenter entrance ramp and lowered its central cup to dismounting height, its stiltlike legs bent into a picket of stiff arches. Bram emerged from one-man howdah and slide to the ground. The pentagular creature waited for its payment, quivering with expectation. Bram dug into his shoulder pouch and tossed it the three polysugar bars that the distance had called for.


Whatever our differences over F vs SF I think we can all stand united in our ruthless condemnation of sparkly-bloody-vampires! ;-)


It's not just physics that can screw up. Aliens should seem like plausibly-evolved members of an ecosystem, with all that that implies. For example, predatory species with two eyes generally have those eyes forward-facing, like humans or cats. This gives important distance information when hunting. Prey species generally have their eyes on either side, so that they are hard to sneak up on. So if I see an alien species with dozens of eyes pointing in every direction, I expect it to be skittish.

Biology is particularly hard for hard SF, because (1) it is immensely helpful to have characters behave like relatable humans, and (2) human evolution took a strange path, from rodents to brachiators to rock-throwing plains hunter-gatherers, which left us with a combination of characteristics that are just strange.

Heck, look at your feet. No other animal has feet like us. Your foot is a brachiator's grasping appendage that's been clumsily re-purposed for upright walking. Our brains are an even bigger kluge.


More seriously what makes for good SF for me is the thorough and consistent thinking through of an idea and its consequences. I don't mind an unrealistic premise provided that I believe the world of the story would exist if the premise were true. Perhaps I've been reading the wrong fantasy but I always felt that in any world with magic the wizards would simply out compete everyone else so all you would be left with is wizard world. What course would evolution take on a magic filled world? Any ability to alter reality to increase your chance of survival would be selected for, nothing in the world that wasn't magical could survive. If some one has written that book please let me know :-)


komnipom @ 49 Unless "magic" is a non-renewable resource as in the Niven sub-set? Or can "use itself up" in other ways, as appeared to happen in the "Theives World" set-up? Or has restrictions and difficulties, as postulated by Eddings in his "Belgarath" set?


Actually, having written some hard-biology SF, I can say things are a bit different.

There are two huge problems I with doing good biology and ecology in fantasy or science fiction.

One is that most SFF writers don't know enough biology, and the other is that most SFF readers don't know enough biology.

This leads to the third problem, which is that you've got to explain and/or show a heck of a lot more when doing biology (and especially ecology) than you do with your standard Star Trekky SF setting. For example: I'd have to explain a trophic cascade to most people, but a holodeck stands on its own. Worse, the trophic cascade belongs in the setting (like the holodeck), but all the explanation it requires to even put it into the story brings it into the plot. Sigh.

Similarly, an alien critter that works is going to be boring, and that's going to annoy readers. Because it's obviously functional, it won't be sufficiently weird, especially to someone who has watched a lot of nature shows. It's easier to cobble something alien together out of a random-roll parts table (like the old AD&D demon generator) than it is to make an alien that works. A five-legged pack beast? Yeah, that's alien. A four-legged herbivore as a pack animal? Just another horse knock-off. The writer obviously isn't trying hard enough to give a proper alien flavor to the planet.

Where are you putting the anus on that five-legged beasty again? Oops, that's another aspect of biology you can't mention. Sorry. Machines and gleaming space ships don't have squick factor, especially if the people killed by the gleaming machines are vaporized to plasma, rather than spilling blood and guts everywhere.

And I won't even get started about sticking evolution into stories. Most writers think evolution is something that happens as a plot point. In truth, it's a big constraint on the scenery. That five-legged pack beast really should have a five-legged tamed omnivorous carnivore accompanying it (perhaps wagging its fifth leg as it barks?), but how often do writers not even count legs when they're writing?

As one example: remember the movie Avatar? Most of the Pandoran critters had multiple openings for their lungs, except for the humanoid Na'vi. Why weren't the Na'vi breathing through their nipples too? Evolutionarily, that would have made much more sense than having them look oh-so human, when everything else on that world had extra limbs and extra tracheas? Moreover, having the female Na'vi gain two cup sizes every time they inhaled would have appealed to the movie's target demographic of young men. Unfortunately, it would have been seen as tasteless, rather than as necessary to make enhance the realism of the film.

Finally, about reader ignorance...Jay, can I pick on you for a sec? Thanks. Most predators on Earth have two eyes, and most don't have binocular vision. This includes things like fish, squid, insects, whales, many reptiles, moles, and so on. Binocular vision is only necessary when the animal is using vision to target prey directly. This isn't a problem, except that a reader with a bit of knowledge would expect that predatory alien to stare the human directly in the eyes as it opened its slavering beak, and said reader might get annoyed if the alien isn't even properly binocular, as expected.


Resisting ... urge ... to derail ... thread ... by ... bashing ... the greatest ... sci fi ... movie ... ever.

Sarcasm ... rising ... to ... critical ... levels ... aargh!

Smurfs in space! Smurfs in space! Smurfs in space!


Sorry Dave, didn't know that was a trigger for you. I should have picked on Jurassic Park instead. Would that have been a more neutral target?


I'll also add that the abuses of SF writers aren't limited to biology. For every Na'vi or Star Wars asteroid worm, there's x-wings howling through the vacuum, red matter (which sounds like something from an Oingo Boingo song), or hyper-technical blasters that shoot out bolts at the speed of a tennis ball, so that they can be parried by the heroes' light sabers. I really should stop picking on that franchise, shouldn't I?

The basic point is that movies (and novels) are there to make money, and when the science gets in the way of marketing the product to its target audience, the science gets set aside.

I'm a huge fan of craft within constraints. Things like kayaks (e.g. how to make an enormously useful boat out of driftwood and a few seal carcasses) and Micronesian proa outriggers (among the fastest sailboats in the world, despite the fact that they were carved from coconut trees with clamshell adzes)...those are the things that really impress me. It's doing something amazing within harsh constraints, through sheer skill and knowledge. To me, hard science SF writing does this, by using the constraints of science and humanity to make the story more interesting, not less. Done properly, it's truly impressive. It's also hard to do.

As I see it, the problem is that rather more people are impressed by something like a Bugatti Veyron (e.g. how to blow a million bucks making a loud, fast car) than are impressed by a traditional kayak or proa, despite the fact that the latter two are equally amazing uses of materials and skill. Thing is, the Veyron is loud, fast, and makes boys with money go squee. If we as artists are interested in making a living, squee-factor is a bit more important than geek coolness.


My own operational definitions:

Science Fiction is about the exterior world: culture, technology, society and what it means to be human and what those boundaries are and how they change us.

Fantasy is about the interior world: how individuals define themselves within the context of their culture and experiences and what it means to be human, the things we believe (true, false or otherwise) that shape how we define that state of being.

Both are valid for looking at the concerns of humanity across time and space (however you wish to define those two terms). I'm less concerned with defining the genres by the outer trappings, the tropes that have built up over the last century and a half. Those are incidental and interchangeable.

The purpose of literature -- of art in general -- is to explore what it means to be human. As such, and given my operational definitions, it's possible for a novel, movie, short story or Video game (i.e. a narrative work) to be both science fiction and fantasy. It's also possible to write a space opera that is a fantasy and a medieval sword and sorcery novel that is science fiction, as it is the method by which we seek to ask and answer these questions about our place in the universe that defines the work, not the stage decorations, the symbols and ephemera.


Sorry about that. I've been locked in a small room for the last hour with a copy of the Helliconia triology until I stopped shouting about smurfs.

I do tend to give Star Wars a bit of a pass because it looks a bit like SF, but really it's fantasy (and a lot of child hood nostalgia, I'm honest enough to admit). Avatar and Star Trek are kinda hot buttons with me, because so many people seem to get suckered into thinking of them as hard science fiction, and worse still, they seem to think of themselves as hard science fiction. Although, I will also admit to switching off my critical faculties and enjoying the odd Star Trek as big dumb fun -- Avatar tries so hard to be worthy, that just doesn't work.

But enough of this. I honestly don't want to derail the thread in this direction.


Unholyguy: Saying "In the future, our understanding of the universe will not have changed in any fundamental way" sounds to me like the height of fantasy, given the yet-substantial holes in our understanding...


Just a general observation: magic is alive and well, particularly in 2012 campaign politics.

On a biological level, human sight is "magical." What I mean by that is that when we see things (and probably when we process input from any sense), a large majority of our brain function isn't located in the optical processing area, it's located in other parts of the brain, which bring meaning to our sensory input. Not only are our eyes not cameras, at some level, we can't "see" things without "believing" them first.

Since magic is in part a function of interpretation and belief, vision is magical. Change what someone believes, and you'll change how they see the world. Effectively, you're changing the world they live in.

Similarly, I'm cheered by how researchers are experimenting with traditional hallucinogenics, such as scopalomine and psylocibin as treatments for depression. In a more traditional context, depression is about being "dis-spirited." Now we're starting to figure out the biochemistry of hallucinogens, and it's fascinating that drugs originally taken under strict ritual protocol to open people to spirits, are now being studied as potential cures for people who have become dispirited and (perhaps) need that contact with the "spirit world" again.

The word magic relates to things like magistrate, mastery, and so forth, and traditionally in magic, someone can say, sing, or write something, and it becomes true. These days, people alternately resent and worship things like science, law, and religion, where practitioners make their living by changing how people see reality through their communications skills.

If you want to see an example of this, look especially at election-year politics. The candidates and their people are saying whatever sounds "truthy" enough to "become the dominant narrative" which will win them an election. They call this "power." Stop me when this all starts sounding very much like magic. These people can spell, they can (en)chant ("Four More Years! Four More Years!"), they can charm and they can create glamour. Or the can try to, anyway.

Scary, isn't it? Magic is alive and well. We just call it politics, marketing, spin, outreach, and education, rather than magical speech.

Who says there isn't a place for fantasy in modern life?


These days I pretty much only enjoy the original series of Star Trek and the second through fourth movies (though six is OK too) mainly because they don't take themselves seriously, especially on TOS where they would do weird things like remove Spock's brain or get eaten by a giant space amoeba. It's clearly meant to be Strange Tales style SF/fantasy, but still has a great humanistic message. The Next generation and all the subsequent spin offs forgot that (except on rare occasions).

A case could be made for DS9 being fantasy, since it's clearly a sociological look at The Federation and the politics and life of these characters, their rise and fall with just the technology as a backdrop. I mean, they even have the whole weird wormhole alien/prophets thing so it's clearly not trying to be to hard in the Science department.


"For example, predatory species with two eyes generally have those eyes forward-facing, like humans or cats."

What about predatory cetaceans from dolphin to sperm whale, cephalopods, sharks and almost any predatory fish? How about crocodiles? All have two eyes, all are active predators, none have binocular vision. Whereas fruit bats and many primarily-vegetarian apes do.

Binocular vision's good for certain niches, if you can evolve it -- that is, there aren't countervailing evolutionary forces that offset the benefit of stereopsis. More than one incentive for it, and lots of possible inhibiting factors. If Opabinans had evolved into land-dwelling organisms instead of chordates, there'd be a whole different space of problems and solutions for land-dwellers to deal with, starting from the point of five eyes on stalks. Basically binocular vision seems to be a solution employed by land-dwelling chordates and not much else.

"So if I see an alien species with dozens of eyes pointing in every direction, I expect it to be skittish."

Like sea urchins?


Judging from the design space of earthly phyla? In the mouth. ;p Or the gut loops around in a U-shape and the anus is located not far from the mouth on the same rough plane. Or perforating that little apical bump at the point where the limbs join together on the dorsal surface. One can design a weird-looking body plan that takes stuff like that into account, and it may not even be without Earthly precedent.


Gee, and here I was thinking, "Hi-ho Starfish! Away!" And the hero gallops off into the sunset to the tune of "Take Five."

Oh well, I suppose I should be more serious about playing the "what-if? Dude!" game ("What if all the animals on the planet had, like, five legs? Dude!"). Trying to be sensible about all this stuff just gets people annoyed. I mean, science rampages on, but that doesn't mean very many people want to read about what scientific discoveries are doing to our future possibilities.


@57 I agree that is not especially likely. It is more likely then arbitrary selecting a particular possible change. It's also interesting as a constraint (as Heteromeles says in 54) and kind of fun to push the known boundaries.


I do physical chemistry, so there's a lot I don't know about biology. I do know that some of the species that you mentioned lack binocular vision but use something else (hearing for cetaceans, something electrical (I think) for sharks) as the primary hunting sense. It just goes to show how hard it is to get this sort of thing right.

I don't know much about computer science either, but I know enough not to put unsecured access ports in my nervous system, which puts me one up on the designers in Avatar.

Why weren't the Na'vi breathing through their nipples too?

Because they were copies of humans.

Yes, the obvious mundane explanation is "human actors". But the obvious in-world explanation – at least I think so – is that they're the first-contact team of that extraterrestrial Gaia. A (likely highly intelligent) self-aware biosphere – of course it will direct the evolution of the creatures that inhabit it. And that's why they have four limbs instead of six, two eyes, and all the rest.

They're its ahem avatars, if you will. (Their nervous systems even comes with cables that plug directly in to the gaia-mind!)

That's my theory anyway, and I'm glad I finally had an excuse to post it somewhere (so sorry for continuing the derail). I realize I'll most likely be going on a rampage through town when the new movies come out, because They Did It Wrong, but at least someone will know what was supposed to really happen.


Works for me.

My pet theory was that the movie cost somewhere north of $280 million, so anything as outre as nipple-breathing aliens just wasn't in the cards. If I had $280 million riding on a project, I don't think I'd take a chance on annoying people with it either.

Fortunately, we get our Quadrumanous aliens in the upcoming John Carter movie (how does a thark hold a two-handed sword, anyway? Fanboys want to know). Perhaps, JCM works out, the Na'vi will all sprout an extra pair in Avatar 2: The Next Instar.


On fantasy/SF, it seems that there's a whole bunch of things that has come up so far that is "the one thing" that separates them. And presumably none of those things is always "correct", in the sense that nobody will immediately mention a counterexample after reading it.

The whole binary either/or is an oversimplification – but, if one were to try and plot books in the genres according to where they fall on some of those things that always gets mentioned (past/future, static/changing, self-consistent/inconsistent, etc) I bet we'd see two big clusters, roughly consistent with "fantasy" and "science fiction". (Ok, not a very amazing conclusion, I admit.)

That multidimensional plot might be a useful way of looking at things though. Star Wars? Clearly in the SF cluster, but "wrong" in some respects; is that why many True SF Geeks can't stand it? What are the fantasy equivalents? And does this mean that people will hate a certain combination of "settings" until it has been established as a (sub)genre of its own? (Have people already thought of this and I should just get some sleep instead?)


Star Wars to me feels like a fantasy story dressed up like space opera. Even though the plot is about external politics, the story is about the characters and their inner conflicts within the society they live, and how they define themselves and their roles. This becomes apparent when you look at the politics of the Empire vs the Rebellion. They're amorphous to the point of being non-existent.

What is the Rebellion's list of grievances against the Empire? Who knows? Something about free trade and wookie labor disputes? Never mentioned. The Empire is just totalitarian and the Rebellion pro-representative democracy (Sort of. their champions are a Princess, her long lost brother and the adversary is their Dad. Ostensibly the Emperor is in charge but he's a figurehead since he doesn't show up until the 3rd movie).

No one in Star Wars is really questioning the Galactic culture's relationship with technology (except Yoda, the Hippie). They have two slave races, droids and clone troopers, both manufactured lifeforms whose autonomy is subverted and never questioned. As far as we can tell, the Rebellion isn't promising Storm Troopers or droids liberation, so the politics, though dressed up as a rebellion is really just an internecine conflict between the ruling parties over who gets to push the big red button on the Death Star. And frankly, no one cares because that's not really the focus of the story. It isn't Spartacus in space. if it were, then it would be SF.


There are so many works out there that show F and SF can achieve the same results, and use the same sensibilities.

Both can illuminate who we are, play with our interactions with the greater world, with powers we can perhaps control or perhaps only give the illusion of control. Both can give us tools to slightly change the way the world works to examine how that would change us. Both can be used to make changes so large that stories can be told in a pure form that could never be plausible when placed in our real world. Both can and will be used extensively just to entertain.

The whole discussion of what is what is useless in the end. Is "Ash" by Mary Gentle SF or F or does it depend in what frame you are? Does K.J. Parker write F? Pre-industrial revolution SF? Something else? How to classify Jeff Noon?


Most, if not all, fantasy can be converted to SF by bolting on some explanations. My favorite is LOTR - set some 4000 years in the future. After all, all the tech is there albeit that it's treated as magic by the locals. We also have the obviously genetically engineered posthuman species. Then there is Sam wanting some potatoes - clearly not set in the medieval Americas or even Europe between now and 1492. Finally, the control and communication devices which can link into the posthuman's nervous systems to give them access to the powerful ancient machine relics - the rings themselves. Anyone thing we won't be building computers into jewellery?


(how does a thark hold a two-handed sword, anyway? Fanboys want to know)

They don't, at least not in the books. Tharks wield 12 foot long four handed swords in the books.

I suspect they will take liberties but Rule of Cool comes into play then and so all bets are off. I'm hoping to see at least one Thark with 4 gladius-style swords, just because it would fun.


Isn't that what the Shannara books are? LOTR set 4000 years into the future?

I always figured that Middle Earth was a fantasy, because the world starts off good and gets uglier and weaker as time goes by. For example, the first sword is the best, the first dragon the nastiest, etc.

Any engineer knows that having the prototype be the best ever produced is a fantasy that only a Humanities scholar could have dreamed up.

Speaking of engineering fantasies, my parents loved E.E. Smith's stories. They thought the things were engineering fantasies. You know, a breakthrough from the planning stage, through R&D, testing, and proofing, in approximately the time it took the hero to cross the room? They thought it was all a joke. After all, E. E. Smith was a chemical engineer, and he did know better.

Alas, later space opera writers followed Smith's goofy approach to technology, often with leaden seriousness (see Star Wars, for example). Most of them didn't have the background to realize when Smith was having a bit of fun. It's one of those ironic little twists. One person's clever in-joke to the cool people becomes the disliked tagline for a whole genre, simply because other authors didn't get it.


Minor nitpick: Glaurung, the first dragon, was not considered the most powerful. Ancalagon the Black was, and he came later, to be slain by Earendil in the War of Wrath.

The "best sword" argument is even murkier. There are a lot of contenders for that spot, not strictly in order of forging.

I probably have read The Silmarillion a few too many times.

Anyway, these are only nitpicks, the overall point of "The Elves did everything first, and did it BETTER too, you puny humans!" comes through loud and clear in LOTR.


One person's clever in-joke to the cool people becomes the disliked tagline for a whole genre, simply because other authors didn't get it.

"1984" becomes "Reality TV" via "The Truman Show".

No, no, narcissistic people - a panopticon society is bad.



"I always figured that Middle Earth was a fantasy, because the world starts off good and gets uglier and weaker as time goes by."

That's a sign of reactionary thinking, nothing more.

Welllllll, maybe you could also intepret it as an interesting play on quite a few medieval philosopies (all of them with a religious bent) that considered the world to be slowly decaying, until the end of time. The golden age was in the past and we can never go back to it, our only hope being to die in a state of grace and go to heaven.

Or you could consider it as an interesting short-term take on the principle of entropy.

Anyway, most readers in North America want a classic "Happy End" so they re-intepret LOTR in quite another way, without that entropy / religious eschatology / uglification and weakening stuff. It's only a few intellectuals like you and a friend of mine which see that kind of thing.


Another fuzzy area on the borderline: There are stories in which magic turns out to really be science. And ones in which science turns out to really be magic.

I haven't seen anything in which BOTH of these are used. Though if I recall correctly, in at least one of Saberhagen's Swords novels it's hinted that magic is based on science which is based on magic, which, etc.


Actually, as John Flanagan pointed out, that viewpoint came from reading the Silmarillion, which does lay out Middle Earth's history as a long decline.

I agree that it comes from a fairly Medieval outlook on life, but at the same time, I came from an engineering family, and after a certain point, I stopped accepting the gloomy grandeur of it all and started getting sarcastic. I guess I shouldn't be left alone with Great Art too long, or something.

Of course, given the current predictions of sea level rise from global climate change, some fantasy writer could set a future fantasy with a "America/China/Europe/Japan as Atlantis theme." Drowned continents might make a comeback among fantasy writers.

Conan 3000, anyone?


I'm currently trying to read "Flood" by Stephen Baxter,(2008). While I don't think I will force myself to read it through (too bleak, too long compared to a snappy thing like "The Road") even though I paid hard cash for a paper copy, I do think that this kind of global disaster is best served by a science fictional treatment.

What can I say, when I was a child I was bitten by "hard" SF like "L'énigme de l'Atlantide" (The Atlantis Enigma)

and movies like Pal's "When Worlds Collide" where you see giant waves bowling over skyscrapers, as the heroes flee from Earth in a spaceship / ark.

These last decades I have seen an awful lot of Franco-Belgian BDs trying to make up magical worlds in a post-nuclear or post-ecodisaster Earth (the most long lasting one is the Aria series by Michael Weyland with 31 hardbound volumes made between 1982 and 2009) and I pick them up and leaf through them, and I go "Meh, another mumbo-jumbo pseudo - fantasy adventure for French mystics" and then I put them down.

Making a good, intresting mix of Science and Fantasy in a single story is not easy, even for a great author, so when juniors try it they usually fail, even when they concentrate on the graphic aspects, as in a BD or comic.


"The word magic relates to things like magistrate, mastery, and so forth"

No, sorry. Magika is Greek for "stuff relating to the magoi" or (exotic) Persian priests of Zoroastrianism. Magistratus, the Latin word for one who has some sort of official power in a political system, is not cognate with magika. Nor is master, which derives from Latin "magister" meaning (initially) "teacher", although it comes to form part of various Late Roman titles, most notably "magister militum" = "master of soldiers".


don't bother with flood after a while i wanted to start asking where all this water was coming from like arguing with a god-botherer about the flood


The Silmarillion was written by a Catholic who depicts a fall from Grace, a corruption of the world by Evil, and a hope of Redemption for some.

Of course there is a decline. And the world is waiting for Christ, not that anybody in that world realises.


Yeah, to most people technology looks like magic, so to them there's no difference between SF and F, but I don't think these people are the target audience of SF. However they are probably the target audience of F, which is why distinguishing between SF and F becomes difficult.

Sure you can transform F to SF by adding some technical explanations, just like you can transmutate uranium to plutonium using a nuclear reactor, but this does not mean the two are the same thing.

What's the difference? I don't know, since I don't read fantasy, but I'm guessing the assumption that scientific method works is important here. Sure not many SF actually described scientific method, i.e. how the research is done, how the scientists work, but that's because most SF has a technology based society as background, and we pretty much assume that's where the magical tech comes from (i.e. StarTrek doesn't need to tell us how warp drive is invented, we assumed some scientists did their homework and came up with the design). This hidden assumption probably won't work with most fantasy's background, which is why SF can get away with no explanation but still be considered SF, while without some technical explanation F won't be considered SF.


It seems pretty unrealistic to think that hard SF must be written by and for those intimately versed in the hard sciences. That's a fairly serious reduction in one's audience, even before that audience decides whether it likes your style or characters or plot. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that telling a good story about credible characters is more important than offering up a pangalactic gargleblaster that is constructed in so technically perfect a way that one's novel turns into a free user manual. Imagination is what wins the day, not labored technical reports from the future. If I want user manuals, I can always find the latest best-sellers from Microsoft in all their wit and wisdom.


Dirk @ 69 Technology in LotR Please don't! Many years ago, I gave an hour's presentation to the Tolkien Soc at Oxonmoot on this very subject.

Suggesting either that it was an "alternate past" or a future. The technology of the Numenoreans, in particular was as good as, or better than that of the 1950's. They had extra-strong STEEL bows, for instance (And I have one - they were made for target archery in the period 1960-70) they had "missiles"(?) that passed across the country "for many miles, with a great roaring sound and never missing their mark" Neither Morgoth nor Sauron wanted to destroy Arda/Earth, thew wanted to control it, then there's the bio-engineering, isn't there? The conflict at the end of the First Age, when Morgoth was overthrown resembles a cis-lunar space battle, if read in the right light (ahem) ... And are the Alfven (Elves) actually from Earth at all, originally? The "people of the long journey, the people of the stars" - IIRC a quote from LotR.

Alain @ 74 & others on this same meme ... The real trouble with LotR is that it (very sadly) fits perfectly into a traditional Romam Catholic christian view of the "fallen" world - as has been pointed out by others, AFTER my thesis referred to above, unfortunately. Ah, Dave Bell @ 80 has remarked on that also.

As for technology/magic, there are two others who deserve mentioning: H. Beam Piper's "Gunpowder God/Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen" and L. Sprague de Camp: "Lest Darkness Fall"


I'm sure you are right that the harder than hard SF fans are a small subset of the population but there its also little competition in catering to them if you are up to it. Selling good characters and plot puts you up against every decent author out there. That part of the population probably has a fair disposable income too.


Ok, it's somewhere in my collection of Golden/Silver/Pulp age Space Opera, but I do remember the quote "We don't (actually) understand gravity, but we generate it to order": In other words, we don't always have to understand the physics in order to make something work.


What sort of "alternate history"?

"Assiti Shards" where $event happens, say dropping a small town into the middle of a war from 360 years or so earlier? Eric Flint's "Trails of Glory" series where the World changer is that Sam Houston is much less seriously injured at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (War of 1812)? Harry Turtledove's WW2 analogue where he uses fantary creatures in place of powered machinery? Something else I've not thought of?


Go watch FernGully - it's pretty much the same story, with all the pretensions to SF and all but one of the Big Important Messages stripped away (it's as subtle as a hammer about environmentalism).

How do Tharks use two-handed swords? Enthusiastically, I would presume. ",)


Have to say I disagree with your "SF has a hidden assumption that the scientific method works, F doesn't" idea.

The biggest problem with it lies in the fact that the authors generally have that assumption. There are lots (real world as well as fantasy novels) of explanations of how magic works in ways that (in fantasy novels anyway) exhibit a pretty clear understanding of what we call the scientific method in their descriptions of how the universe works, how magic works etc. (Many of the real world explanations of magic are actually good hypotheses in the sense of being testable, even if the tests require you to reject the hypothesis and so demonstrate being crafted under the imperative of the scientific method.)

Wizards experimenting to develop new spells, the impact of new spells (equivalent to new technology) and the like are pretty much staples of large parts of the fantasy genre. In fact you could argue that some fantasy stories explore the scientific method much more explicitly than any SF I've come across perhaps because it's rare and unusual in their settings, as opposed to commonplace in an SF story.

Although good meldings are tricky to find, and he doesn't write hard SF, Lawrence Watt-Evans certainly wrote both fantasy and SF as well as some nicely mixed stories.


Others here have said the similar things, but after some more thought I believe that we could create a scale, with pure Fantasy at one end and hard Science Fiction at the other, the scale itself measuring "explanation", or perhaps more accurately "quality of explanation with regard to known scientific theory".

Stories trend towards the Fantasy end of the scale where there exist technologies (and I'm simply using that word as a very very broad label here) based on physical properties, mechanics or behaviours that have, or are given, little or no explanation, or no possible explanation with regard to known scientific theories. Stories trend toward the Science Fiction end of the scale as the explanations for the technologies become more and more complete within known theories (and possibly rigorous theoretical extrapolations from known theories) -- handwavium and unobtanium do not a SF story make, no matter how well thought out the explanation is, but do tend (in my opinion) to nudge a story further away from pure Fantasy.

So we can drop some examples onto the scale like this (imaging pure Fantasy at the left end of the scale, hard SF on the right): LOTR is pretty far to the left -- stuff just works, and there's no explanations offered at all (Greg @84 does point out that we can add SF-ish explanation -- but we're grafting that on according to our own tastes, not the atuthor's); our host's works "Halting State" and "Rule 34" are pretty far to the right -- stuff is explained fairly rigorously within the bounds of known science, or with a bit of thoughtful extrapolation.

We can make it more interesting by considering things like China Mieville's Bas-Lag trilogy: I think this still shades to the left of centre on the scale -- there's lots of detailed explanation of how stuff works, but it relies on a lot of handwavium and so on. Charlie's Laundry novels: I would drop them a bit to right of the centre -- fantastical elements, but explained in a fairly scientific way, with roots in known theories (little bit of magical "just because it does", though).

Most movies classified as SF probably sit somewhere close to the middle. With the odd exception, even though a movie has SF trappings, there's precious little actual hard-fact explanation -- stuff just works because the plot requires it to, or the studio execs feel the need for more cool CGI toys on screen.

Anyway, after a bit of rambling, I guess what I'm saying is that classifying something as Fantasy or Science Fiction is a function of explanation: Are the technologies in the story explained through known scientific principle, then you got Science Fiction; do your technologies just work or do they rely on explanations beyond known science, then you got Fantasy.

I still stand by the conclusion that the elements of the plot, the characters, and the themes do not make a story one or the other.

(Although as I type this another thought comes to mind, possibly someone else has mentioned this: Technology (or magic) in Fantasy is often shaped by the requiremments of the story, in Science Fiction the story is shaped by the requirments of the technology.)


I have seen that comparison elsewhere, and I agree whole heartedly.

In fact, if I had to choose (say at gun point) I would watch Ferngully again before I'd watch Avatar again -- at least the former had a sense of humour (not a great one, I admit), one of the looooong list of issues I had with Avatar was the sheer po-facedness and worthiness of it all.


Charlie is on record as saying that the Laundryverse is an alternative reality. It would stop being a work of fiction and become an instrument of torture if you made him actually explain the higher maths that drive their sumoning spells!


Greg, have you written that up? I'd love to read it. It's not canon, but your summary is quite convincing, and I prefer your version of events.

However, (the following is cut & pasted from a thread on yahoo Answers) - it seems that Tolkien started writing without fully considering the question, and then later decided that LOTR takes place in the past.

In “Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien”, letter 211, Tolkien writes:

“All I can say is that, if it were ‘history’, it would be difficult to fit the lands and events (or ‘cultures’) into such evidence as we possess, archaeological or geological, concerning the nearer or remoter part of what is now called Europe; though the Shire, for instance, is expressly stated to have been in this region (I p. 12). I could have fitted things in with greater versimilitude, if the story had not become too far developed, before the question ever occurred to me. I doubt if there would have been much gain; and I hope the, evidently long but undefined, gap¹ in time between the Fall of Barad-dûr and our Days is sufficient for ‘literary credibility’, even for readers acquainted with what is known or surmised of ‘pre-history’.”

Tolkien’s footnote attached to the word “gap” reads:

“¹ I imagine the gap to be about 6000 years: that is we are now at the end of the Fifth Age, if the Ages were of about the same length as S.A. and T.A. But they have, I think, quickened; and I imagine we are actually at the end of the Sixth Age, or in the Seventh.”


I MIGHT have an old audio-cassette tape somehwere, and a few notes (I think) in the back of a cupbard also somewhere .... erm.


My personal criterion to "decide" if something is Fantasy or Science Fiction is to look at what happens to the general level of science/knowledge in the world. If it is increasing, it is SF. If it is decreasing (or has decreased a lot in the past), it is F. This fits perfectly with all those F quests which lament about all the knowledge of the past has been lost. The Dying Earth stories are set far in the future, but they are definitely F, since after science, even the knowledge of magic has mostly been lost.


I couldn't help but notice:

"Call me old-fashioned, but I think that telling a good story about credible characters is more important than offering up a pangalactic gargleblaster that is constructed in so technically perfect a way that one's novel turns into a free user manual."

To which my reply is: 1) Open mouth 2) pour pangalactic gargleblaster in 3) close mouth 4) swallow 5) feel very drunk etc.


I don't have the requesite gold brick, or I'd be prepared to assist with that ! ;-)


No generalisation is true...

If it were, "A Canticle for Leibowitz" would be fantasy since the general tech level of the World decreases over the timeline.


Actually, there is such a thing as computational magic in the contemporary occult world.


I think the point is that expertise in a particular field enriches the story. Contrast, say, John Grisham writing a legal thriller and me writing the same thing. I'm not a lawyer, and my attempt at a legal thriller would be pretty bad.

This is a variation on the old rule "write what you know." While no one knows the future, there's a difference between how a science-trained author (such as Clarke or Asimov) writes science fiction and how, say, Star Trek dealt with it. It's not just the knowledge they bring to it, it's things like passion, respect, and knowledge of the culture. Star Trek didn't get it.

I'm picking on Star Trek because I saw their script writing advice for STTNG. Reportedly, the writers were to write "the techity-tech tech tech tech..." whenever a character was supposed to say something technical, and the props department would fill in the blanks with some gibberish.

Any surprise about the state of science in Star Trek? Me neither. When I saw that article, I was temping, friends with a number of physics grads who were also temping. Any one of them would have hired on at $20/hour (as a temp!) to fill in that "techity tech tech tech," with something plausible, but there was never a call for it.

That's what's missing, when someone who isn't an expert writes about a field, whether it's law, medicine, or hard science fiction. Some of us miss it.


Well, considering that it's quite possible we'll be facing a decreasing tech level in the near-ish future, I'd say that increasing or decreasing tech level isn't necessarily a good yardstick.


Actually, it makes me wonder if fantasy and science fiction aren't one axis, but two orthogonal axes? One is how fantastic the story is (the fantasy axis) while the other is how rule bound and orderly the story is (the science axis)

At the (0,0) point, there's mainstream fiction. No science, no fantasy, just human interactions in an ordinary world. Techno-thrillers take off out onto the science axis varying distances. While I can't think of a good example of a purely fantastic story (possibly Little, Big?), some stories take off into realms of fantasy without much in the way of rules. There's no "what if," no logical patterns, and little or no connection to reality.

Most stories score on both the fantasy and science axes. In these stories there are rules, and the setting is fantastic to some degree. LOTR didn't have much science, but Tolkien rigorously followed his history, maps, and languages in a way that provided a strong order to Middle Earth. Every SF story set on an alien world, using FTL drive, aliens, etc., has some fantasy content. Probably some of Baxter's books score high on both axes (high science, high fantasy), and Star Wars falls dead in the middle: lots of fantasy (some quite derivative), a bit of science, and not too much attention to the rules.

I'll let others figure out whether there the science and fantasy axes can have negative values.


I hate the thought that hits after I submit.

A good example of pure fantasy would be the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.


I'm AMAZED no-one has brought up the Mohs scale yet...


to Morzer: Calling a work of science fiction "hard" is a descriptive, not a normative, statement. It's not somehow wrong of Hitchhiker's Guide or Star Wars to be "soft", and a "hard" story may be completely unsatisfying on an artistic level. "Hard" means "consistent with known early 21-st century science, within the contexts for which early 21-st century science is known to be valid".

In other words, writing "hard" science fiction is like writing a novel in iambic pentameter. It's an artistic choice, and not necessarily the correct one for any given work. If done well, it might add something, but if done poorly it's a waste of effort.


I think part of what's so interesting about the transhumanist Singularity's overtones of Rapture is that that doesn't actually mean it's not technically achievable in the real world. That's new. All the religious thinking in the world was never going to make Jesus appear and take everyone off to live in Heaven with no genitals, but it is at least possible (if not necessarily likely) that the nerds might be able to make their Rapture a real thing that actually happens to people.

Of course it is an actualization of human desires much older than technology - because that's true of most technological development. That doesn't necessarily mean it's impossible, though.

(Of course, sometimes by the time we determine how to really achieve an old magical desire, we also determine that it's not really worth the effort. We can totally transmute lead to gold now, but it turns out it's easier to just dig it out of the ground after all.)


Yes. The TechnoRapture is one of those things that is only true if we make it true. And on a completely different note - a proposal for an H+ anthem:


...We can totally transmute lead to gold now, but it turns out it's easier to just dig it out of the ground after all.

Not only that, it turns out lead is actually more useful than gold, as it can be used to construct machines or perform processes that generate a thousand percent of their weight in real world wealth.

Gold was only desirable back then because it was currency, and the ability to generate more by waving a wand over a brick of lead was the equivalent of running off a sheet of flawless counterfeit hundred dollar bills on your laser printer.


Actually, nowadays we make gold from mercury or platinum. I can't find the source for the 1980 or 1982 gold making in the USA using a particle accelerator, but I'm pretty sure that didn't use lead.

How exactly everyone got obsessed with using lead I don't know. It was one of the ingredients from the early days, but you find a lot of later alchemists using copper, since its properties (lustre, extension under the hammer, high melting point) are much closer to gold and silver. But you can usually find some lead in a recipe somewhere, even if called sericon and is lead oxide.


By contemporary thiniking, the ability to turn lead into gold was the ability to turn base into pure.

A) Turn lead into gold B) C) Immortality (and profit)


Transhumanism is the modern version of the Great Work of alchemy


Well yes, most of the time, Calvin lives out pure fantasy stories.

But when Calvin imagines he's Spaceman Spiff he's imagining pure science fiction stories.

In fact I find that a lot of those short Spaceman Spiff adventures have more science fiction themes, more classic explorations of the unknown in them than most of the so-called science fiction TV shows that have been made over the last ten years.


Oooh! I like the second axis idea -- that does allow a much deeper categorisation of fiction.

And having said "deeper" I wonder if there should be a third axis? Something that measures the amount of exposition, possibly with a positive and negative value to indicate how integrated into the story the explanation is.

I'm sensing a lost evening looming here...


I think that what gives science fiction its distinction is that at the time of writing it can contains the seed of a possible future or "this might happen."

SF gains power by creating a believable future. It loses power when it .

I think the popularity of retro-SF like steam punk results from the progress of scientific consensus and the information explosion that makes it much harder work to convince the modern audience that certain traditional SF tropes are believable.

If the (educated SF) readership ceases to believe that interstellar travel, or a universe full of aliens, or force fields, or telepathy could actually happen, the story loses.

Doesn't have to be an explicit future history, just a sense that "hey, maybe..." During the 1960s, even a popular space opera like Star Trek had the sense among SF fans that, hey, maybe this COULD be the future. Cyberpunk had that vibe going in the 80s. Transhumanism in the 90s.

These days I think more and SF is written to just play with comfortable genre tropes. Especially the case for TV sf, milfic, and media-inspired universes. (Maybe Star Trek creators or fans believed in the 70s they were still a seed of a possible future; today, they just like Star Trek.)

This is not to say that SF has or should be hard SF or predictive. Power in part comes from what is in fashion among the audience, writers, and editors, whether it is portable atomic power, psi and hyperspace in the 1940s-1950s, mini black holes in the 70s, brain machine interfaces in the 80s, or molecular nanotechnology in the 90s. Ideally, authors catch the wave or go beyond it and create new fashions.

But I think if write SF that you don't believe has the seed of a real future in, then to some extent you've basically given up w key element of the genre's potential power. That's what differentiates it from fantasy, and I think is as the basis for both the "new space opera" movement and the mundane SF movement, while, as stated, Steam Punk is really the genre for those who realize it's just too damn hard to keep trying...

our host's works "Halting State" and "Rule 34" are pretty far to the right
Charlie's Laundry novels: I would drop them a bit to right of the centre

Oh my Charlie goes off for a week and people start saying his books are far right.

When the cat's away... :P


I was rather hoping no one spot that unintentional labelling!


Well, the obvious third and Fourth genre axes are Romance and Horror. While I don't know of a work that scores high on all four axes (fantasy, science, romance, and horror), I think a bunch score high on three, especially if vampires are involved...

As for Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes, the point about it being pure fantasy wasn't that he had occasional bursts of SF (with Spaceman Spiff), it was that there were no rules. It was ultimately about fantasy.

Still, it's not a great example. I'm still looking for a well-known story that scores very low on the rules-driven science axis and very high on the fantastic index.



Oooh! I like the second axis idea -- that does allow a much deeper categorisation of fiction.

Thats sort of what I was trying to get at up in #66 (and not doing a very good job of) – any one-dimensional scale isn't going to do a very good job of making sense of things, but if you take a whole bunch of them, things should still cluster together (in the whatever-dimensional "idea space" you end up with).

"And this 23-dimensional blob right here, that's alternative history."

"What's this pancake stuck to the ceiling?"

"Oh, that's just Greg Egan."

(That's unfair to Egan, but I couldn't pass on such an obvious silly joke.)


I consider the Laundry books fantasy. But with some tweaking, they could be transmuted into: Christian fiction Pagan fiction Technothrillers Science fiction

And the same background assumptions could be used for paranormal romances.


I came across an idea a while ago to explain the difference between fantasy and science-fiction. In fantasy, the 'technology' of the day interacts strongly with emotion, often via morality or archetypical social roles. The version of truth of science fiction was flat, and something is true whether the person saying it understands or not.


Okay, here are three more axes:

Third axis: Romance Fourth axis: Horror Fifth axis: Mystery

I should point out that so far as the science and fantasy axes go, the point about science is that it's really about staying within the rules. On the hard end, it's a style of fiction about writing within constraints, and that is what's so cool about it when it's done well. It's not necessarily about ray guns and space ships and shiny stuff. Those are props.

Fantasy is about making things fantastic. Think about high fantasy vs. low fantasy. High fantasy is Big Theme, rock your worldview kind of stuff. Low fantasy is the gritty, everyday world thing. It's not necessarily swords, sorcery, and dragons. Those are props.

Romance is about how much romance is driving the story. There's a big difference between a romance novel and the Faceless Girlfriend that the editor insisted was necessary. Bustiers are props here.

Horror and mystery? You're getting the idea. Most stories score on multiple axes, but because each author takes a mix that she thinks will work.

Since scoring is so subjective, I don't think we can necessarily define genres and sub-genres by creating some sort of qualitative scores and doing a cluster analysis. To me, this is more a thought tool, to get us away from either-or thinking on whether a story is romance OR mystery OR fantasy OR science fiction.

You can also get stories like the Dream Park series, where they deliberately set up science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and often espionage stories running concurrently as separate subplots or framing stories. Dream Park is easier to categorize on multiple axes than it is to place on a single axis.

The challenge for Cat and Charlie is to write stories that score high on ALL axes: fantasy, science, horror, romance, and mystery.


Actually it was more sensible than that, people nowadays seem to think that alchemy was a really stupid thing 800 or 2,000 years ago. It wasn't, it was a perfectly rational activity based on hundreds of years of philosophical and religious thought.
To put them into the above format:

Graeco-Egyptian hermetic alchemy A) make elixir B) use to make base metals appear as gold or silver C) use the process as a meditative exemplar for purifying your soul of its base emotions etc in order to rejoin the nous. Thus achieving a specific sort of immortality but not in body.

Later medieval English alchemy A) make correct sort of elixir B) cure illness by the elixir balancing the humours or cure base metals of being base by getting the correct proportion of 4 elements. Mayhap your elixir will enable a human to live much longer than normal, but the whole eternal life thing was not the most important or talked about thing. Ok, Bacon had some interesting ideas, but really the focus was on medicine rather than eternal life, because as a Christian you didn't want to live forever and obviously wouldn't because of the end of the world coming at some point.
C) if false alchemist, sell fake elixir to dupe and run away as in Chaucer. If true alchemist, refuse to tell the king how to do it, the king says ok, you are obviously a wise and holy man I won't bother you anymore. Then on the way home you get kidnapped, tortured and nearly hung before your kidnapper frees you. Then you die later probably from your injuries, although your kidnapper dies at the battle of Tewkesbury a couple of years later.

Medieval period middle East, I forget which Sultan: A) Claim to be able to make elixir to make lots of gold. B) Sultan gives you lots of gold and a lab to do so. C) Fail miserably D) get executed for your trouble.


By the way, here's one of the shortest possible stories that scores high on most axes:

"My god," said the mad scientist's daughter. "I'm pregnant, and I think the father's a werewolf. How did this happen?"


Tim Whitworth @ 119 - I agree that adding a moral charge to the 'technology' itself is a large factor in the difference between SF and fantasy. To take Star Wars as an example, I'd say the biggest fantasy element is the Force, which has the moral flavors of Light and Dark. If you were to strip that out and just said Luke and Vader were just powerful psychics with no further qualification it would be equally implausible but but feel less fantastical (I think this is the source of the negative reaction to the introduction of midichlorians). The converse can also be true, if a story were to have "magic" that operates in a completely mechanistic fashion it would start to feel like SF. That's probably why The Book of the New Sun manages to solidly straddle both genres; it seems that the technology has intrinsic morality, but the narrator is unreliable enough it's hard to tell.


to Sam: The really interesting thing is that we may never agree whether the Singularity happens or not.

Suppose you walk into a room. The corpse of Bob is in his chair, and on his computer is a file called bob.exe . This program claims to be, in all important respects, Bob. It it?

to heteromeles: Nice story, but the answer to the mystery is a bit obvious.


As this is a European blog, mayhap the stories of a small town in Colorado are wondrous strange to y'all, but within their play a small measure of Occidental cunning may be discerned illuminating the clockwork spring within man's endeavours.

Also, I was trying to give a succinct answer to the question: why gold?

J. K. Rowling obviously did not get your memo. But it sort of vindicates the American title change. I knew philosophers, Mr. Fremel. Philosphers were friends of mine. You, monsieur, are no philosopher.


For the New Sun, I think you hit on the key: the narrator. Does the technology possess an intrinsic morality or does Severian's perception twist until things make sense again to his preconceived notions? I only read the sequel (Urth) once; so my memory is hazy, but I think it is also possible that the future is retroactively recreating the past to conform to the future's origin myths and that Severian was chosen or manufactured to fit a particular psychological profile that would facilitate this.


I started to think along these lines (no pun intended) too, with a multi-dimensional space that would map different genres, but then after wondering for a bit if we were comiling same kind of model of L-Space I started top think that we're over complicating our model -- for the purposes of this discussion.

Again it comes back to my initial thought that Fantasy and SF are distinct from other genres in that they are classified by setting rather than plot. Mystery, Romance, Horror are all genres defined by elements of the plot irrespective of where the story is set: take a horror story set in a medieval village and move it to a far-future moon-base and it's still a horror story, but by changing the setting you've radically altered the respective fantasy/SF values. The same with romance and mystery, together with horror, they could be said to be the primary colours of any plot, as almost any story must contain some element of at least one of these as part of it's plot or themes; but the setting, or use of the setting in the story, defines whether it is fantasy, SF, or contemporary (should historical be in this list too, I see it more as a subset of contemporary in this model?).

So going back to our model, and starting again with two axis, one for fantasy and one for SF. On the fantasy axis (y-axis in my head for some reason) we would measure how the plot of the story drives the shape of the setting -- that is, is the world and the technology/magic constructed to suit the plot, and to what degree is it explained with handwavium and unobtanium. On the SF axis (now x-axis in my mental model) we would measure how the setting of the story drives the plot -- that is, how much of the setting and technology/magic is locked into known (or well extrapolated) science, and to what extent the plot is driven by the constraints of the setting.

In this simplified model, contemporary literary fiction sits firmly at (0,0), as you suggested, with somthing like LOTR being well up the fantasy y-axis and very little movement along the SF x-axis, Charlie's "Halting State" universe is well along the SF x-axis with very little movement on the y-axis.

So looking back, I guess the conclusion I'm stumbling towards is that a story is quantifiable as SF if the setting/technology constrains the plot (and is scientifically explicable), but fantasy if the plot dictates the setting/technology and is given little or no scientific explanation (it's that way because it has to be).

I think this is a sufficient model to determine relative fantasy/SF content of a story, but I still like the idea of adding in the mystery, romance and horror axis to model the story plot in more detail. The exposition axis could then perhaps be used to quantify the quality of the plot -- although it probably require two axis of it's own, one to determine quantity of expositon, one to determine how well it integrates into the plot.

Anyway, I get the feeling that I'm now over-analysing the whole thing (I'll not go into my thoughts on modelling story as a volume instead of a point), and I'm anxious to bounce off and read Cat's latest posting.


Frankly, the 'lead into gold' and eternal youth things are so embedded into society that I wouldn't expect an author to use any other concepts. I like to confuse or interest people by pointing out what things were really like.

The interesting thing of course is that the real Flamel wasn't an alchemist; the writings attributed to him are 16/17th century forgeries written so that France had a medieval alchemist of great repute. There was a book on this by a proper academic, published in France in the 90's, but nobody in the English world seems to have any idea about it. Or at least, nobody who isn't a reasonable student of alchemy, there's plenty of new age types involved.
My own impression, based on what I have skimmed through of alleged Flamel writings tends to read like post-medieval alchemy rather than 15th century. The fun thing about alchemy is how it changed over time due to the people practising it and social and technical changes.


Pure fantasy end of the axis? Pretty much the entire ouevre of Dr Seuss...


I very much enjoyed the guest essay that fantasy Author Cat Valente contributed to Charlie Stross's blog. I found many of the insights and metaphors fascinating and fun, such as why magic realism as a sub-genre seems to crop up especially in countries ruled by brutal despotsisms.

Nor is magical thinking solely the province of non-technological minds. I agree that the nerdy-techno "singularity" is - at root - just another manifestation of magical-transcendentalism. Indeed, our 21st Century America is awash in mystics! The technological illiterates among them either wallow in the Book of Revelations or lefty-Gaian nostalgism or else solipsistic AynRandianism, Those who are tech-empowered shift their transcendentalism to what's been called the "rapture of the nerds." Same stuff though, and thousands of years old.

I found the anecdote about Cotton Mather erudite, hilarious, persuasive and rather moving!

Still, in the end, I found Cat's missive troubling. We all know there IS a difference and distinction between Fantasy and SF. Simply pointing the finger at some sci fi and saying "that's magical thinking!" is not a truly helpful step toward understanding. Cat knows very well that there is a lot of science fiction that explores the processes of change in human civilization, thought and nature without pleading a transcendent dispensation or rapture.

No, the root element is right there in that word "change." Science fiction borrows many elements from the mother genre - fantasy -- elements of boldness and the fantastic -- but it then rebels against all literary foundations by embracing change. Even when it warns against BAD change it is relishing, exulting, expanding upon what Einstein called the "gedankenexperiment" or thought experiment.

When SciFi goes "whatif" it takes the sacred word seriously.

Fantasy is almost perfectly encapsulated by the presumption of changelessness. Oh, the rulers my topple and shift, but the abiding assumptions and social castes generally do not. This is why, despite her dragons and bards and medieval crafts, Anne McCaffrey proclaimed loudly that "I am a science fiction writer!" Because her characters know that change is coming. Some resist, many are eager to bring it on as fast as they can. And the future on Pern will have both dragons and flush toilets. Songs and tapestries and universities and hyperdrive ships.

Terry Pratchett writes science fiction because his diskworld (borne through space by a mythical turtle) has something called progress. People are waking, rising up. George Martin's depressing Thrones saga has very little magic in it, but it consigns the peasants to endless, endless, endless misery. It is part of the longer/older tradition stretching back to Homer. It is fantasy.

I go into this elsewhere at

But other than that...terrific article. Thanks Cat, I learned a lot. I must look up your books.


Considering how much trouble progressives of all political stripes are having right now, does it make sense to link science fiction to progressivism?

How about apocalyptic fiction? I take it that, no matter how scientifically accurate it is, even if it's a likely future, by your definition it can't be science fiction? That seems remarkably limiting.


Fantasy encounters the real world (with unfortunate results):


heteromeles 101: Actually, it makes me wonder if fantasy and science fiction aren't one axis, but two orthogonal axes? One is how fantastic the story is (the fantasy axis) while the other is how rule bound and orderly the story is (the science axis)

Yes! Looking at the problem as "two orthogonal axes" is the way to start. I would add that that horror would be the Z-axis. HA!

The thing to remember is that what the book is and how it is marketed are two different things. Elves and dragons do not make Fantasy. Warp drive and phasers do not make SF.

  • Fantasy is restoring the balance.

  • SF is constant, relentless, change.

  • Horror is seeing what lies beneath the false reality.

This is from Clute, Malzberg, etc...


  • Star Trek is Fantasy.

No matter what happens the balance is restored, and it's all ahead warp factor one.

  • LOTR is SF.

In each cycle the magic goes away and the world is never the same.

  • The Laundry novels, and most of the Stross Vector is Horror.

So the x/y/z axes would be F/SF/H, labeled: Balance, Change, Revel.

Or better yet, look at it as a Venn diagram with three overlapping circles: Balance, Change, Revel.

  • Mystery is the moment before the Revel. The story ends when the Revel occurs. Example: "The Murderer is..."

  • Romance is finding Balance. It starts with a lack, and only ends when Balance is achieved. Example: "...and they lived happily ever after."

BTW, The concept of "Hardness" or "Softness" applies to all of the forms, they are not exclusive to SF. HardSF, HardF, HardH, HardMystery, HardRomance, the "Hardness" is simply a property of that story. Example: A Samurai sword is both hard and soft, or it fails. Marshmallows must be soft, or they become inedible. HA!

Now look at the Venn diagram, and how each mix of forms is the complimentary aspect of the opposite pure form. Note first the center, where all the colors overlap:

  • In Subtractive color, the overlapping of all three makes black, thus no Balance/Change/Revel. This is Realism. It is just a bunch of things that happen, then the story stops. All of the fun stuff has been stripped away, leaving dull Reality.

  • In Additive color, the overlapping of all three makes white, thus Balance/Change/Revel occurs in equal amounts. LOTR is an example of this, with all three woven together. Over all:

  • The SF(Change) thread - the Magic goes away.

  • The Fantasy(Balance) thread - the King returns to restore the Land.

  • The Horror(Reveal) thread - Frodo, Bilbo, etc..., must leave because they have seen too much, and any contact with the Ring contaminates them.

Now look at the complimentary colors:

  • Fantasy(Balance) opposite SF/H(Change/Revel)

  • Science Fiction(Change) opposite F/H(Balance/Revel)

  • Horror(Revel) opposite F/SF(Balance/Change)

Notice, each complimentary color means the "opposite" color on the color wheel. They "complement" the other, so:

  • SF/H(Change/Revel) vs. Fantasy(Balance)

  • F/H(Balance/Revel) vs. Science Fiction(Change)

  • F/SF(Balance/Change) vs. Horror(Revel)

I suspect that each complimentary color is the flip side of the coin from the pure color, but I can't see what you would call each. I'm still playing with it. HA!


/\ - Do not use this company; they will replace the entire contents of your larder with Spam!


You're referring to Maid Services rather than Allynh, I trust.


Yes - If I can't do anything else with spammers, I will mock them!




Star Wars to me feels like a fantasy story dressed up like space opera.

I saw it on the big screen when it came out, with me being a teenage hotrodder gearhead as well as an SF fan. I didn't care that the characters were cardboard cutouts, that the plot didn't hold up if you examined it closely, or that there was no real backstory.

What made the entire movie for me was the Millennium Falcon. It was a hotrod, we were told, with engines from a bigger ship grafted into it. And when they first ran up to it we saw that there was a big ring of dirt around the ramp button, and oil is drooling down the landing legs, and the inside had panels open and wires hanging out, and there's litter on the floor.

This was a major, major thing. Before, all cinema starships were like the C57-D, the Jupiter 2, or the Enterprise - shining white and chrome, spotless altars of technology. The Falcon, on the other hand, was a flying garbage can. And it though it was very fast and heavily armed, it wasn't particularly reliable.

1977 was a long time ago, but I still remember how impressed I was with the Millennium Falcon. It was something new. The rest of the movie was just more drama, ho-hum, you could get that anywhere.


Before, all cinema starships were like the C57-D, the Jupiter 2, or the Enterprise - shining white and chrome, spotless altars of technology

I'll concede most. But not all: John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon's Dark Star is still one of my favourite SF movies of all time, and that ship almost makes the Falcon look good.



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Cat Valente published on January 31, 2012 8:11 PM.

Brief interruption was the previous entry in this blog.

How Do We Get There? 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