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March 2017

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bear by san

More on this week's SF vs. Fantasy kerfuffle:

David Moles

More David Moles

Still More David Moles



Hal Duncan

I think it's fair to say that there are two seemingly incompatible aesthetics in the field, both products of the Enlightenment and each associated with one side or the other in its most specialised form -- the Rationalism associated with Hard SF and the Romanticism associated with High Fantasy. Both of these fictional forms have been segregated out from the field in general. They are, I would argue, valid "genres" in a way that SF and Fantasy are not. And the aesthetics they align themselves with are old enough and strong enough that I think the field of SF/F can't help but be affected by that centuries-old rift. Their argument carries on into our work and it's effect is powerful enough that we often have to make a choice -- or have the choice made for us -- as to which side we're on....

...The Rationalism of Wells is counter-pointed by the Romanticism of Verne. In the Gernsback-Campbell era when the term Science Fiction was born, those two aesthetics were already in deep collaboration. Romantic adventures fleshed with Rationalist science. Rationalist science extrapolated into Romantic adventures. Hell, from Frankenstein onwards this has been a field where the dynamic power of the fiction resides in the interaction of those aesthetics. Is Frankenstein Science Fiction? Fantasy? Horror? Or is it, like Bradbury's "The Veldt", all of the above?


For the record, I'm with Hal. Except he said it much better than I did.

Comments

Did you see Will Shetterly's take on the definitional debates?
science fiction vs. bananas

1. The stuff in science fiction isn't real. The stuff in bananas is.

2. Science fiction rarely has yellow covers. Bananas often do.

3. All bananas go bad within a few weeks. Most science fiction goes bad as you read it.

Next in the "Definitions matter!" series: "Fantasy vs. plaid trousers."
Yes, I did. *g*
What about the old Daw books? They all had yellow spines too....
Didn't Donald A. Wollheim buy North American rights to reprint UK novels in the USA?
Heh. It's all fantasy--made up, never happened, couldn't happen in the here and now.

All the rest is an excuse to avoid actually, like, you know, writing it.
Wow. Gorgeous icon. Who is that?

And yeah, it is. I mean, I think there are some useful nuggets to be ferretted out in the discussion, but I can't bring any intensity to it. It just all seems so... irrelevant to me, in terms of what I do.

But having the structure of the definitions is really important to some people's creative process, I think, and more power to them.
The previous icon is Capria (front) and her kid (rear). She's a purebred Lipizzan. He's half Arabian (and all Evil). I.e. she's Fantasy and he's Science Fiction.

Current icon is Pandora, expressing my opinion.

I agree with you on irrelevance. I always write my fantasy as if it were sf--with magic as the technology. Grew up before the genres were split, never learned to accept the split.

You're much more charitable than I am about the hairsplitters. Also much younger and probably a lot less tired. I've seen it go around so many times, you see.

I remember when four of us medievalists (formally trained and self-trained) took on Greg Benford in print, then divided to conquer panels full of Hard Skiffy Masters. When I posited that science is to modern thought as theology was to medieval ditto, the popping and sputtering and changing of colors was ever so entertaining.
I actually kind of agree regarding theology. Or, to wit, the scientific method is a really useful tool. But it gets treated as a religious tenet by a lot of people who don't actually understand how to use it, or the logic behind it.

I think it is useful for people to arrive at definitions that they can use in their own work. Beyond that, I honestly don't see a difference; I don't think fantasy is inherently reactionary or anti-technological (though there is indeed a fair amount of monarchist, Romantic, regressive fantasy--but where does that put, oh, China Miéville's stuff? (Which is fantasy by the magic/inexplicability rubrick, even if it says "science fiction" on the spine) or SF as inherently progressive (I've sure read enough monarchist/Merchant Prince/capitalist apologist space opera)?

You have SF novels about the hypocrisy of the colonial mindset (H. Beam Piper, Ursula Le Guin) and you have SF novels glorifying same. You have fantasy novels about the impact of technology on society (Michael Swanwick, Jack Faust, The Iron Dragon's Daughter) and you have fantasy novels with no magic, per se, at all--which are essentially sociological science fiction set at a lower tech level.

And then you have books like Golden Witchbreed, which are a whodunnit packed into a quest fantasy packed into a Forerunner-style SF novel with a garnish of romance on the top. And where the hell do you put Voorloper?

Nick's comments in David's thread about Lovecraft and the essential coldness of his universe are very telling. And then there's the wonderful comment my editor gave me regarding something in one of my fantasy novels, when she queried something I did and I said "No, I meant to do that," and she answered "That's so unfair!"

Which of course was the point.

Life is unfair. The cold equations are unfair. And, historically speaking, Faerie and magic are bloody unfair, too. And all these fuzzy wish-fullfillment fantasies where the magic comes back and our heroes are somehow gifted and get their romantic reward, or they defend the magic and protect humanity? Well, look. Magic, like angels, is scary and dangerous and random and unpredictable.

If you ride the whirlwind, you're going to take the results in the teeth.

And that's something I'd like to see more fantasy tackle. (Tolkein didn't flinch from this; Frodo pays a terrible price for what he does.)
Well, you know. Fantasy is fluffy and girly and Nice. Skiffy is hard and upright and Masculine.

If you don't write according to a template (and New, Original, and/or Trendy is indeed a template), you either get slammed or you get ignored. And a particular template is exactly what this kerfuffle is perpetuating. It's arguing that because we dress girls in pink and suppress their instincts and put boys in blue and tell them to be Be Boys, the differences between them are natural and inborn and a factor of Divine (or Scientific) law.

Even scientists regard the scientific method with the same emotions that informed Thomas Aquinas contemplating the nature of God. No doubt someday we'll find out he was just as right as they think they are, or else we'll find a completely new model for interpreting the universe. And you know, as a spec-fic writer, that should be something I ponder--speculating and all that.

I should post a rant about the arrogance of ignorance. Scientists who know little history and understand even less of it feel perfectly qualified to issue pronunciamenti against Fluffy Fantasy--having read none of it. They are so sure of the superiority of their position, because they are Scientists.

Just as Theologians and Churchmen used to do to the bete noire of their hour. Exactly.

Just because the shoe is on the other foot doesn't mean it's a new or in any way more intrinsically valid shoe.
Hmm. Well, FWIW, I don't think there's, in particular, a lot of SF-is-superior-to-Fantasy posturing going on in this particular current discussion. I know for a fact that truepenny writes both, and so do I. Hal Duncan's book Vellum is sort of a war of angels treated as New Weird or SF, and David Moles, if you have to call him anything, is a fabulist. Ted Chiang writes JudeoChristian theological myth considered as SF (and other things) and nihilistic_kid hates everything equally, but if you had to stick his work in a speculative subgenre, it would probably be horror/fantasy. *g* And Jo Walton, of course, also writes both ends of the genre.

So, I think there's an honest attempt being made to develop some critical language with which to discuss the differences and dividing lines between the subgenres, and maybe find some rules of thumb by which to assign categories.

I tend to see everything as a continuum, personally, or something by which one can play mix and match tropes.
I was responding to your comment about fantasy not departing often enough from Nice (which I tend to agree with, don't get me wrong)--and that is part of the discussion of f versus sf. It shows up in the "sf is more alienated" trope, too. In lit-crit terms, alienation trumps non-alienation, and Nice is a four-letter word. My point is that we set up these templates and then act as if they're natural law.

I'm for the continuum myself.

I have to concede that this kind of discussion is an essential phase in the development of a writer. There is a time when you have to line up all the ducks, give them names and histories, before you can just let them march. If nothing else, it helps you decide not to follow the usual tracks, and allows you to think outside of all the little boxes. Then if you do decide to work within the box, you can mess with it in subtle ways.

But you have to realize the box exists, first.
That element of unfairness is one of the reasons I was cheering while reading Holly Black's first solo outing, Tithe, in which the fairies are ugly, capricious, out for their own, and sometimes they stab in the back even those who'd been on their side. Fantasy is often very much a wish-fulfillment where the magical elements are beneficial; SF seems more willing to make the technology an anti-wish-fulfillment (Gibson, Asimov, Clarke) and play up the cruel, harsh world bits. And since SF does seem to be more of a "anyone who studies can do this" while F leans more towards the elitest "only those with an inborn talent can do this".

(That's one thing I like about Rowling; she mixes it up with people not born into some kind of tradition who have natural talent, and people who are born into a tradition who have zilch. But that migth be a Brit thing, to poke classism in the nose.)

But then, I like it when things backfire.

He makes a deal of sense, and also manages to separate the utility of marketing categories from the confusion of trying to decide whether the heritage of a new addition to the family relies on their having the Campbell Chin or if the presence of the MacDonald Nose trumps that.

And my brain whirs and clicks and tells me that splitting the genre into SF and fantasy is like splitting humanity into male and female... at a superficial level -- like marketing categories -- it works pretty well. But the minute you try and predict behaviour, or tastes, or even describe a person entirely by the definition of male or female you run into problems with defining exactly what maleness entails, and individual prejudices/preferences about what the definition should include or exclude.
I've been thinking in terms of sex, too, and I agree with the metaphor.
These comments about the SF/F division being like the M/F division keep making me want to stand up and declare, "But I'm a fantasist! I believe in equal rights for all genres!"
Fabulism lives!

Aw, you didn't quote the best part!

I mean, where's the magic in Gormenghast, and isn't Dune chock full of it? Priests and prophecies. A drug that lets you warp reality, gives you visions of the future. Monsters and messiahs. And what's the most fantastical idea in Gormenghast? A really big house.

Re: Aw, you didn't quote the best part!

Actually, I think the best part was "Fuck that shit." *g*

Mervyn Peake did manage to ruin really big houses for all of us, though.

I like what Garth Nix is doing with the Big Houses trope

Although, granted, Things Happen in the series, and I stuck with Gormenghast for about 250 pages before realizing that 1) Nothing was going to happen, Ever, and b) on the off chance that I was wrong, I didn't care enough about anyone or anything there to trudge on and find out...

I mean, I'm a Dunsany junkie since age 8, I like Pure Aesthetic as much as the next gal, but - sorry, if it's supposed to be A Story, not a My Wanderings In Scenic Ruritania travelogue, then *something's* got to happen from time to time, and the people it's happening to or by ought to be at least *slightly* interesting as persons...
It's all speculative fiction, the effect of the construct on character and vice versa.

I didn't used to feel this way. I do now.
I liked Benjamin Rosenbaum's comment in the second link, I think. My problem with many of the things I've read in this discussion is that most of the various definitions of fantasy - admiring, dismissive, or neutral - make fantasy sound really stupid, and I am deeply invested in believing that fantasy is not stupid.

I can go with magic as a defining characteristic, but only in the most fluffy sense, in which snow and kittens are magic, or in the most nebulous sense, in which magic is equivalent to mystery, but that's just annoying.
Yeah. My crude in-head rubrick is "Is the handwaving explanation for the fantastic element numinous/arcane/mystical, or is it technological?"

Other than that, it's pretty much catch as catch can.
i'm with EB, no difference, or too many to define. HArry Potter is more realistic than Dan Brown, and more belivable, at least to me. And of course most people live fantasy, believing in Axis' of Evil, Saucer Anal Probes, True love, Anybody can be president, and so on.

i like to think of the fantasy/sf maguffin as a lens or mirrror that you can use to distort or enlarge or reverse some part of society or the human mind to make a political or human behavoiral point.

"What will you do when the lables come off and the plastic all melts and the chrome is too soft"

I had a novel rejected because the editor said that his house never did well with Humorous Fantasy, even though there was not a single "magic" element in the book. All the dragons and vampires were strictly natural, as natural as vampire bats and Komodo dragons. Of course i wrote it that way to mess with the system, and got my smart ass reward.
i like to think of the fantasy/sf maguffin as a lens or mirrror that you can use to distort or enlarge or reverse some part of society or the human mind to make a political or human behavoiral point.

Sure. That's as good a description as any.

Lewis did a good job busting out 7 or 8 different things

all generally called "science fiction" of which there were varying kinds of "hard" and "soft" only he didn't break them down that way at all, dividing them by the aims of the different kinds of story, or primary aims, and what they were trying to accomplish: sensawunda, imagining what it would be like to teleport or sail under the sea or be the first to walk on the moon, explorations of human psychology in the guise of aliens, imaginary machinery, alternate human societies - all of these being equally valid genres, not all of which you might like, and some of them having more or less integral to them the technology which would make you call it "science" fiction, more or less dependent on it. For a sensawunda qua sensawunda story, it doesn't matter if your hero gets to the Strange World by means of a magic talisman or a teleporter, what matters is the chance to make up a whole new cool world as an artist. Obviously this doesn't stay pure in longer fiction - while the source of the Blue Swirly Door doesn't matter abstractly, once you start writing adventures and expanding the world with a plot it does, if it's an Alien Device or a Magic Portal (altho' Herc/Stargate crossovers have been known to happen!)

But the way to classify the Barsoom books is not Fantasy Exclusive-Or SF? (a head-exploding dilemma to the absolute categorist) but to say Ahah, a Romance, equal parts Swashbuckler and Sensawunda, recognizing that the Cave of Teleportation is so much handwaving and might as well be a Genie transporting a modern Sinbad to a realm filled with demons and peris good and bad, even if it's *called* Mars and so exists within our modern frame of reference, back when it was written...
I need to get my hands on a copy....

Re: someone found me a burr under his saddle

*g* David, meet Moi. Moi, meet David. *gets the hell out of the way*