Fellow GSFWC member, Gary Gibson, recently made a post
on his blog on the distinction he sees between science fiction and fantasy and why the former is not, as some would maintain, a branch of the latter. Where SF, he argues, does
similarly deal with the apparently impossible, it is distinct from fantasy in that it does so on the basis of a history of scientific discoveries and radical paradigm shifts, a recognition of the limitations of our present knowledge. What he's saying, it seems to me, is that in science fiction the conceit (the impossibility accepted as possible for the sake of the story) is not simply a spurious fabrication but is rather a rational speculation.
"One might speculate as to the (im)possibility of faster-than-light travel, time travel or alternate realities; no one to my knowledge has ever speculated on the possibility of finding elves, orcs or magic swords any time soon."
There are a couple of problems here:
On what basis do we distinguish the paradigm shift required to redefine FTL, time travel or alternative realities as possibilities rather than impossibilities from a similar paradigm shift that would redefine, for example, ESP, jaunting or intersecting realities as possibilities rather than impossibilities? Canonical works such as THE DEMOLISHED MAN, THE STARS MY DESTINATION and ROADMARKS require exactly such paradigm shifts to be defined as SF rather than Fantasy, and nobody, largely speaking, has a problem with making the required leap. We do indeed call these books SF.
But on what basis do we distinguish those paradigm shift -- which are radical enough, make no mistake, to breach the most fundamental principles of current science -- from potential paradigm shifts which could redefine even the spurious fabrications of fantasy as rational speculations? As SF writers and readers we are ready, it seems, to abandon the limitation of light speed that comes with Einsteinian Relativity so we can play with FTL, or to ignore the physical foundations of mind in the neurochemistry of the brain so that we can use ESP. We are willing to ditch the Conservation of Energy that is a basic aspect of Newtonian thermodynamics in order to portray teleportation as an act of mere will, to swallow jaunting as an ability to transport oneself instantaneously through space-time. We are more than able to throw away the very coherence of the space-time continuum we exist in so we can imagine a road that links all possible times and all possible histories.
If we're ready, willing and able to play this fast and loose with science why should we draw the line at equivalent paradigm shifts that, for us, render a work fantasy rather than SF? Aren't the secondary worlds of fantasy simply alternative realities where the archaeological distinction of gracile and robust hominids translates to elves and dwarves as distinct races? Aren't the magical powers of fantasy just the telekinetic talent to manipulate a reality tractable to the human will? Aren't all the spurious fabrications of fantasy in fact equally as recastable as rational speculations if only we accept paradigm shifts no more radical in truth than those required with the seminal SF of Bester and Zelazny?
In VELLUM and INK there are two big-ass conceits that, for many people I'm sure, render them fantasy rather than SF. I've certainly been asked enough times what category I'd place them in to know that it's a matter of doubt for some.
First, there's the idea of the Vellum itself, a 3D time-space with future and past as "forward and back", causally alternative realities (i.e. sharing the same basic physics but with different histories) treated as "parallel" worlds off to this "side" or that, and metaphysically alternative realities (i.e. worlds working with different physics entirely) treated as "higher" or "deeper" strata. This is a fairly systematic approach to the multiverse idea, I'd argue, and the fact that characters are able to move between realities doesn't make it, for me, any less SF than Zelazny's ROADMARKS. But I do present one of the "folds" of the Vellum -- shock, horror -- as a realm of what, to all intents and purposes, are dwarves and elves and orcs, fairies and all that fantasy malarky. In Ian Macdonald's KING OF MORNING, QUEEN OF DAY, if I recall correctly, a similar SFnal approach is applied to the idea of Faerie, positing it as a distinct reality that can and does sometimes intersect our own.
Second, there's the idea of the Cant, a language which can be used to reprogram this multiverse and which therefore endows whoever uses it with the ability to perform manipulations of reality that are, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from the magic of fantasy. Fundamentally, this is riffing off the idea that the most basic principle in the universe is information, that maybe all we're made of, when it comes down to it, is data. It's a wild speculation in so far as it makes the whole kit and caboodle as malleable as a Phildickian consensus reality... but that's why I dig the idea. If it was SF for Dick to warp reality itself with drugs in THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, then it's SF for me to do it with words. Hell, if you read INK you'll even find that the Cant works within the strictures of thermodynamics; it requires energy and that energy has to come from somewhere.
So in VELLUM and INK you basically have a whole underlying schema in which elves and magic are treated as rational speculations rather than spurious fabrications. If you want to argue that this schema isn't actually plausible I'll just shrug and say, yeah, so what? FTL isn't actually plausible. Jaunting isn't actually plausible. Time travel isn't actually plausible. And if the caveat of shifting paradigms works to excuse your inventions as speculations then it works to excuse mine, on the exact same basis that the history of science is one of apparent impossibilities being shown to be actually quite possible. Either we apply that caveat objectively or we ditch it entirely in favour of the hard-nosed rigour that says FTL, ESP, time travel, jaunting, anything
which plays so fast and loose with the laws of physics, is all just spurious fabrication. The only other alternative is an entirely subjective application of the paradigm shift caveat -- or rather a refusal
to accept the validity of its application -- on the basis of personal incredulity.
If that personal incredulity kicks in when you see a dragon on the cover, that's fair enough. But don't come crying to me when the Hard SF geeks or the Contemporary Realists write you off as a spinner of spurious fabrications because their
personal incredulity kicks in at your FTL spaceship.
Now if you want to argue that SF is still distinct because it makes the rationalisation explicit whereas fantasy does not
, that my speculative approach to the inventions in VELLUM and INK simply renders them works of SF rather than fantasy, I might well give you that. I like the wide definition of SF that encompasses the grand conceits of THE DEMOLISHED MAN, THE STARS MY DESTINATION and ROADMARKS; I'm quite happy to see myself as working within that tradition. But this brings us to the next issue.
If both SF and fantasy deal with conceits (the impossible accepted as impossible for the sake of the story) and SF is distinct from fantasy because it also
requires a level of rationality in approach, a degree of theorising that renders the conceit an act of speculation rather than mere fabrication, then unless fantasy also
requires a secondary aspect which is either incompatible with this or, at least, simply different, then SF is indeed a branch of fantasy. It is simply the subset of fantastic fiction (fiction using conceits) which add rationalisation to the mix.
U is the set of fiction that does X
SF is the subset of U that does A
Fantasy is the subset of U that does B
Fantasy is the set of fiction that does X
SF is the subset of fantasy that does A
Where X is "use conceits", A is "rationalise them" and B is... something else.
To my mind the perennial argument over whether or not SF is a branch of fantasy as often as not comes down to an unrecognised and unarticulated disagreement over which of these models applies to the field.
Those who would argue most strongly that SF is a branch of fantasy are generally, I suspect, working with the latter model in which there is no extra criteria, no B, required to further define fantasy. For them fantasy is simply the field of fantastic fiction, fiction which uses conceits, which means it includes everything from the most generic sub-Tolkien product to the most respected literary tome. When they speak of fantasy they are as likely to be thinking of it in the widest of senses, as a mode of fiction that includes the work of Franz Kafka, Mikhail Bulgakov and Angela Carter never mind Ray Bradbury, Mervyn Peake and Kelly Link. For them SF is just a subset of that field, one with an additional requirement of rationalisation.
Those who would argue most strongly that SF is not
a branch of fantasy are generally, I suspect, working with the former model in which there is an additional quality, a B, by which fantasy is defined. For them fantasy often seems to be the commercial genre of capital-F Fantasy
, fiction which uses specific
conceits in a specific
way, which means it is inherently limited by those specifics. When they speak of fantasy they are likely to be thinking of it in the narrowest of senses, as a mode of fiction which excludes the writers mentioned above or within which those writers are at best marginal. For them SF is largely incompatible with that genre because the specifics of B are irreconcilable with the rationalism required in SF's A.
Whether the writers above are considered marginal to fantasy or actually excluded from fantasy altogether (classed as mainstream, Magic Realism, slipstream or SF) may give some indication as to what precisely constitutes the B of fantasy for those who hold to the latter model. Where these writers are excluded we are left with the specifics of the commercial genre -- which is to say the elves, magic swords and dragons -- as the B that fantasy requires in order to be fantasy. Where they are simply seen as marginal this can be taken as a tacit admission that these features are not
the requisite B in question, that these writers' works can still be classed as fantasy regardless of the complete absence of elves, magic swords and dragons, because those features are not what defines it.
When Gary characterises fantasy "in its purest form" by those specifics -- the elves, magic swords and dragons -- it's not entirely clear to me which view of fantasy he's working with in respect to the writers named above and the abundance of others like them. Applying a term like "pure" in this context implies to me a definitional stance in which fantasy is
in fact limited by these specifics such that the more a writer does away with them the less their work becomes definable as fantasy, the less "pure" it becomes as a work of fantasy. This would imply that the B of fantasy is, for Gary, precisely those tired sub-Tolkien tropes. If so, I think that's a blinkered view of the form; but that may be reading too much into one word, so I don't want to ascribe that view on that basis. And to be honest I don't have much of a problem at all if Gary's focus on that particular form of fantasy is simply a recognition of its commercial dominance within the field, of the marginality of the literary fantasists in comparison with the Tolkien clones. I would argue that it's an overly commercial view focusing on the economics rather than the aesthetics, the market rather than the form itself, but that's a separate argument which has no bearing on the question; the dominance of those specifics is irrelevant if they are not to be seen as the B that defines fantasy.
So the question is: if we do admit of a fantasy distinct from SF which is not defined by the specifics of one (albeit commercially dominant) form, then what exactly is it that distinguishes it out? What is
In many respects, for a large contingent of SF writers and readers who would seek to make exactly that distinction, I suspect the simple answer is that B equates to not-A, that it is simply the absence
of rationalisation that, for them, distinguishes a work out as fantasy rather than SF.
And this is why the argument persists. If the B that defines fantasy is simply not-A, then SF and fantasy exist as concentric zones, the former nestled within the latter but excluding by definition that which exists outside its strictures, identifying it by negation. The exteriority of fantasy means that there will always be those who see it as encompassing SF, containing it. The exclusivity of SF with regards to works that fall outside its definitional zone means that there will always be those who see fantasy as an essentially distinct form.
So where do I fall on this question? I have to admit I'm somewhat torn. I'm largely more interested in using the conceits than in rationalising them, but I do hold to a view of SF in which the paradigm shift caveat applies to VELLUM and INK, to much of what I write however wildly implausible it may seem. I'm largely more interested in the experimentalism of those writers listed above, the ones that get classed as mainstream or Magic Realism, slipstream or even SF, than in the commercial work so deeply bound to elves, magic swords and dragons, but I have no problem using the tropes that for many render my work essentially fantasy. I can't help but think that the dichotomy set up between the concentric zones of SF and fantasy is facile and circular, a denial of SF's nature within a wider context of fiction based on conceits. But I also can't help but think that in the historical and economic context of the development of the genre, from the birth of Science Fiction as a marketing category through to the splintering off of Fantasy as a distinct section in the bookstores, the claim that SF is a branch of fantasy glosses over the realities of how those terms are actually in use in the wider world. As much as I'm likely to develop a complex rationalisation for my conceits I will deliberately breach reality with the entirely irrational, the entirely inexplicable, but for me this is a feature that was developed in SF during the New Wave. For me SF is allowed to do that, has been since Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books, but then if a work like that is published now it's most likely published in the independent presses as fantasy.
So at the end of the day I throw my hands up. If I know what this or that person means when they use the terms SF or fantasy I can usually name a half dozen people offhand who will disagree with them, and I can't say I blame them. The terminology has become so muddled I'm not sure it's really worth a shit anymore. SF? Fantasy? Whose definition are you working with?
Sod it. I know what strange fiction is. I know how that strange fiction breaks apart into this or that sub-type, and I reckon I know how those aesthetic fractures map to all the endless arguments within the field over the empty nomenclatures of SF and fantasy. Somebody give me a sodding non-fiction contract and I'll give you a goddamn book on it, I swear. I'm serious, man. I got it half-written on this blog already, and I would love
to go to town on this shit.
And then maybe we can put a bullet in the head of all the category errors and conflations of forms. And move on already.