Is it fantasy or is it SciFi? Why should I care, anyway?

2012-Feb-9 -> from the 29-days-of-fantasy department Tags:

I'll keep the intro to todays post short, as my guest, Tim C. Taylor, has brought us a very good, very long post. Tim takes on the age old question: Is it fantasy? Or is it Sci Fi?

Tim C. Taylor is a writer and publisher of science fiction. The Reality War Book 1: The Slough of Despond is his debut novel and will be published on his birthday, February 9th 2012 (Today!), initially as an eBook. The second and concluding book will be published in the spring.

And here's what Tim has to say about this often controversial subject...

In these 29 Days of Fantasy articles, how much are you reading about science fiction?

I imagine some of you at this point will be questioning whether I read the title of Thomas A. Knight's blogathon correctly... it's fantasy, right? Not science fiction.

Arguing over the distinction between science fiction and fantasy is a favorite convention topic over a few beers. Some assert it's only an artificial distinction dreamt up by the book industry, or self-imposed genre-ghettos made real by fans; still others argue that the distinction is wafer-thin, while others say science fiction and fantasy are as different as chalk and cheese.

So what is the true answer? Well, I'm not going to tell you what to think on this one; it's more fun for you to decide for yourself and share what you think with a comment. What I will do is put some ideas out there that might challenge your current thinking. Perhaps at the end of this, you'll try out books and TV shows you wouldn't normally; I would judge that a great success.

Right, let's get started with...

STAR WARS: fantasy or science fiction?

I watched the first Star Wars film when it came out in 1977. I was seven at the time and utterly blown away. All those space battles -- that was the thing for me; it was just so amazing. By the time I was ten, I was a big fan of 2000AD comic, Blakes 7 and Doctor Who on the telly, and avidly reading books I only half-understood about astrophysics and quantum mechanics. I don't suppose I would have done that if the battles in Star Wars had been fought riding dragons rather than spaceships, dwarven servants rather than droids.

But is Star Wars science fiction?

With its spaceflight and robots, interstellar travel and alien species, Star Wars certainly wears science fictional clothing, and does so with pride. But what if Han Solo and Chewbacca had ridden a dragon rather than a spaceship? If the planets were instead other worlds or dimensions reached through magical portals? The Jedi and their use of the Force are already little different from cowled wizards using magic and wielding magical staves. Alien species and droids could be replaced by the many non-human and magical creatures of fantasy.

But if you stripped Star Wars of its science fictional clothing and wrapped it instead in dragons, wizards, and dwarves, would it fundamentally remain the same story? Does the story of Luke and Leia and Anakin actually need to be set in space in order to work? Certainly without the obvious science fiction trappings, Star Wars would feel very different, and the details of character, plot and events would change. Stylistically it would look and sound very different. All of this is vital because it is often the look and feel of a film, rather than the story, that gives it its lasting appeal. I don't think, though, that there is anything about the Star Wars story that actually needs to be set in a galaxy far, far away. If George Lucas had chosen to set the story in a world of dragons and goblins, it would never occur to us now to set it in space.

I imagine, though, he would have changed the name.

Cast adrift: Battlestar Galactica

Galactica tells the story of survivors from a dying world, cast adrift on the Great Ocean, trying to find a new land to settle while constantly under attack from faerie reavers -- the same faerie folk who took on human form to infiltrate the great Empire of Man in order to poison the land. Every human who was not onboard a boat at the time perished when the faeries unleashed their foul magic. Even now, faerie folk walk in human form amongst the floating community of survivors, biding their time before eliminating the last of the humans.

No, wait. It wasn't faeries, it was the Cylons. And they aren't adrift on boats lashed together into a floating community, they are on spaceships.

Would Battlestar Galactica have worked (under a different name) in a fantasy setting?

How do others define fantasy and science fiction?

Let's cheat a little and see what some other people think is the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

Science fiction periodicals ask authors to submit science fiction stories. In their submission guidelines, the magazines say what kind of stories they are looking for. There is plenty of variation here, but a typical request is for stories...

  • Where the science is plausible. In other words, whether you're describing an alien world, or blasting your characters around the galaxy in spaceships, you can extrapolate and invent all you like, but you can't break the laws of physics, or what is considered to be demonstrable fact.

  • Where the science is fundamental to the story. Take it away and the story no longer makes sense. Without time travel, The Time Machine by HG Wells doesn't make sense, for example, because the time machine is not merely a gimmick to have an adventure in another world, it is gimmick to speculate about the future evolution of humanity and the Earth.

Others have argued that the distinction between science fiction and fantasy, is that science fiction tells tales that could happen; fantasy could never happen. A few people take that further and say that in fantasy you can make up whatever you like -- more would disagree and say that fantasy worlds need to be driven by an internal logic and consistency; otherwise the world does not feel real to the characters, and why then should we care what happens to them? (For example, the worlds of Tolkien's Middle Earth are more detailed, self-consistent, and believable than the worlds of Doctor Who, despite the latter being science fiction).

And there's more

I'll give a few more brief examples to get your brain juices working. Are these science fiction or fantasy? And if the answer's clear to you, does the distinction run any deeper than surface style?

The Terminator (1984) Arnie at his best. There's a beautiful sense of a closed time loop. Everything in the plot happens now because of the things that happen in the future. What happens in the future happens because of what happens now. And we have cyborgs, too. But, hold on! Hermione used time travel in Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban. And what if Arnie had played a giant, golem, or a goblin rather than a cyborg? Science fictional clothing, but could this have been a fantasy film?

HG Wells: The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds. Wells called these stories Scientific Romances. His idea was to change the world through one big idea while keeping everything else the same as in the contemporary world, and then extrapolate to see what would happen. In The time Machine, the change is time travel. When written there was no scientific plausibility for the possibility of time travel (though over the next century that became less clear... loopholes in science that I've exploited in my own science fiction writing). Nor, when he wrote War of the Worlds, did science of the day consider it plausible that there was life on Mars. In these books, his big change fails our check of being scientifically plausible. But his extrapolations are scientifically plausible. In the future, Wells imagines humanity splits into different species as the long-term consequence of the class divide in the wake of the industrial revolution. Invading Martians quickly show up the extreme fragility of supposedly stable human society, but are defeated by microbiology, a cutting-edge science when Wells wrote The War of the Worlds. Scientific Romances: SF or fantasy?

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. Demons from a hell dimension, criminals remade into crude steampunk cyborgs powered by an unspecified and possible magical source, non-human species, and a garbage monster are some of the features of this tale set in a human-run city in the unexplained world of Bas Lag. It's a deliberate jumble of stylistic references, magic openly rubs shoulders with technology. Some people decided books like Perdido were so different, they gave it a new genre name: The New Weird. So what is it? Fantasy fiction featuring cyborgs?

Stephen Baxter is an author who likes to play with his plausible science. In one of his earlier novels, Flux, he speculates how humans could be adapted to live inside a neutron star, piloting it as a missile in a galaxy-wide war. But in his Stone Spring he tells the tale of stone age people at the end of the last Ice Age swept away by rising water levels. But what, he speculates, if they fought back with sea defenses that really did prove successful in other pre-industrial societies. Stone Spring is about family feuds, tribal wars, lovers, and priests. Not a droid or laser in sight. Baxter is trying here to write fiction that could have happened; it's plausible and based on archaeological and historical records. Does that make it science fiction? You might argue it is something that we haven't had space to explore here: alternate history. I'm glad Baxter set this book in real locations, but with a few deft waves of the authorial pen, he could easily have set the story on another planet, or in our future.

Your turn

Science fiction or fantasy? Is it a fuzzy definition that often breaks down and is shallow at the best of times? Does it matter? Or is it the crucial distinction that decides whether or not you will read a book? Perhaps it's both. Tell us what you think or give us awkward examples that straddle genres and see what others think.

I'll leave the commenting on this subject for you lovely readers. I know where I stand. ;)

If you'd like to find out more about Tim or his books, visit his website, his blog, or follow him on twitter at @TimCTaylor.

Thanks for reading!

I'm always interested in hearing what you have to say. Contact Me, I'd love to hear from you.

Don't forget to join in on the conversation in the comments section below.

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