Whatever X, Day XXI

In 2005, I settled one of the great genre questions of all time. It was easy, really.

DECEMBER 2, 2005: How to Tell SF From F

Uh-oh. Just when we least expected it, a seminar on genre theory broke out online! It’s about what the difference between science fiction and fantasy really is.

Call me unbearably shallow, but here’s how you know the difference. You walk up to the main character of the story in question and say: “Hey! Main character! That deus ex machina doodad you have on your belt, does it have, like, a battery?”

If he says “Why, yes, there’s a tiny nuclear fuel cell in there that will power this baby for 10,000 planetary revolutions,” well, then, you’ve got some science fiction there. If he says, “Of course not, it was forged in the eternal flames of Mount [insert typewriter spasm here] by the dwarves who serve the elder and/or fallen god [insert second typewriter spasm here], and holds captive his immortal soul” or some such, well, that’s fantasy. Everything else is pretty much elaboration and variation on the point.

If the story features a nuclear fuel cell made by the dwarf servants of the dread god Typewriter Spasm, what you’ve got is an editor asleep at the switch. Never fear, he or she will be beaten presently.

There. Settled. Now, let’s cure cancer!

46 thoughts on “Whatever X, Day XXI

  1. Just what I need, A place to try out my “You know you’re reading Fantasy if…” shtick.

    YKYRFI . . . Dragons settle things

    YKYRFI . . . the Plot revolves around Twins (esp. if one is an albino)

    YKYRFI . . . Naked Barbarian girls are on the cover

  2. Bensdad00: “You know you’re reading Fantasy if…”

    Oh, I love this game!

    a) Pern novels

    b) The Rolling Stones (Okay, I’m stumped on albino)

    c) A Princess of Mars

  3. All right then. So, suppose your protagonist says, “Why, yes, it’s powered by an enslaved fairy/demon/the souls of the damned”. Then what?

  4. Ah no wonder my wondrous Wand of Zifnab stopped functioning! While I thought it was powered by my unwavering faith in Fizban it was really powered by an EveryReady micro LHC. Alas…I have cossed into the realm of SF and electric blue sandmen- – – if only I had been reading the Scalzi blog three years ago!

  5. A few years ago, I came across another useful test to tell SF from fantasy. It’s the brainchild of Denis Guiot, a French publisher of young young adult novels:
    http://pagesperso-orange.fr/helene.leroy/textes/InterventionGuiot.htm

    Here’s a quick translation:

    The Cat Story

    a) The cat miaows. She’s seen her human companion and she’s hungry.

    => Mainstream (or mimetic, or realistic) literature.

    b) The cat, upon the arrival of her human companion, tells them that she’s hungry. The human opens wide eyes and wonder if they are crazy or seeing a demon or what.

    => Fantastique tale (no definitive explanation is given, just the possibility of the supernatural).

    c) The cat, upon the arrival of her human companion, tells them that she’s hungry, and they answer, taking it in their stride. We may learn later that talking animals are a regular part of the universe or that this human is a wizard or got the cat from a wizard or other magic user.

    => Fantasy story (the supernatural is an integral part of the story’s settings).

    d) The cat, upon the arrival of her human companion, tells them that she’s hungry. The human may or may not be surprised, but we get a rational explanation somewhere in the story: the cat is a robot, a mutant or some kind of extraterrestrial.

    => Science-fiction story (no supernatural, scientific laws explain all).

  6. What about if the deus ex machina doodad has a battery, but the main character (a) doesn’t know this and (b) doesn’t even know what a battery is?

    (Yes, I do have such a novel sitting waiting to be edited…)

  7. Jules, you have just described Gene Wolfe. Took until novel 4 of 5 for me to grok that the ‘Books of the New Sun’ was Sci-Fi and not Fantasy. An the entire narrative point of ‘Peace’ is simply discovering what genre it is. (You’re not really Gene Wolfe in disguise are you!?) ;)

  8. No matter how fine a line you draw between SF and fantasy, some damned SF writer will write a tale situated exactly on this line (writers are known as being boneheaded jerks who do that on purpose, to confuse SF critics and scholars).

    as for your magical batteries, and sleepy editors, go tell that to Pratchett, Walter Jon Williams, Stephen Donaldson and China Mieville, who all wrote works in which magic works along known scientific-like rules, albeit ones that don’t exist in our universe. you hypothetical editor would have deprived us of many great novels had she refused to publish novels such as Metropolitan, the Discworld novels, Perdido Street Station or The Mirror of Her Dreams.

  9. At a lecture at a convention about 19 years ago, Orson Scot Card’s definition was:

    Science Fiction is about what happens to society when something changes

    Fantasy is about the price of power.

    I don’t necessarily agree 100%, but it’s another color of litmus paper to use.

  10. The nice thing about posting this twice is that I get to see the same arguments pop up in the comment thread again.

  11. I subscribe to Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s view that talking about the boundary between the genres keeps us focused on the edge cases, rather than the core ones. Since it’s the core we love, this is not desirable.

    This may be less true when we’re talking about genres both of which we love, but I still think that discussion is less than useful. Genre-bending is common; even I have written stories where magic and technology interact.

    Some cases ARE clear. Lois McMaster Bujold has clearly gone from writing science fiction (mostly subtype: space opera) to writing fantasy, and both types of her writing are pretty core of their kind. Yet new technology (magical or spiritual) changes her fantasy societies, and her SF characters continually encounter the price of power and existential threats to their worlds.

  12. Bensdad00@1: The first decent science fiction book I read, over 50 years ago, was Time for the Stars by Heinlein. The plot largely revolves around a pair of telepathic twins.

    HydrogenGuy@5: Then it’s dark fantasy.

  13. Jules @ 15: See Christopher Stasheff for deft handling of such things. Although his protag knows it’s tech, to everyone else it’s magic.

    John @ 19: It makes me glad to be a Whatever late-comer then, since this entry only gets to make coffee shoot out of my nostrils once.

  14. JJS #21: Telepathy (and indeed all the then-called “psi powers”) used to be science fiction. I’m not sure when they became “magic.”

    Generally: Many stories that were written as science fiction become fantasy as Real Life Science progresses — i.e. any of a quarter-bazillion stories positing an advanced civilization on Venus, or the moon. Therefore, the Ultimate Definition of the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction is pretty much a moving target. *Much* easier to agree that all fiction is a sub-genre of Fantasy, in that all fiction is made up, and get on with life.

  15. O great Scalzi, do you want that cancer cure to work by a medication, a device, a spell, or a prayer? What/who are you willing to spend/sacrifice/dedicate to the temple, to make this cure work? You need to specify these things, especially after a discussion of the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

  16. 19. # John Scalzi

    “The nice thing about posting this twice is that I get to see the same arguments pop up in the comment thread again.”

    So go ahead and ignore history, It just repeats itself.

  17. The nice thing about posting this twice is that I get to see the same arguments pop up in the comment thread again.

    But with more people!

    It’s actually a bit amusing to read the later Pratchett books, which actually seem to fall under medieval science fiction, just with trolls and dwarves as, essentially, alien races that live alongside the humans. Their cultures are real and don’t come from magic stuff apart from what appears in science fiction (i.e., trolls as creatures made from rocks. SF has silicon critters. Whatever).

    There is magic, but nowadays it’s treated more or less as different physics, in a scientific way. And there are things like dimension bending and time travel, and usually they just happen—but there’s SF where such things just happen too. I don’t really see where waving hands about tachyons makes much of a difference versus a world where the same phenomenon is understood as magic.

    In other words, Discworld is science fiction.

    *waits for other people to tell her she’s crazy*

  18. I have a friend who likes to insist that any book that has FTL travel is fantasy.

    My book club had this argument in a big way when we were reading David Weber’s Path of the Fury.

    The “it’s SF” side offered up space battles, military hardware, AIs and bio-implants and the “it’s fantasy” side countered with the heroine being possessed by an ancient greek god. We never did settle the issue.

  19. In some cases the difference depends on where your threshold of belief lies. Too many science fiction writers use “magic black boxes” to explain how something is done.
    Just my opinion.

  20. Boy, am I glad I’m not drinking – the monitor would be thoroughly splattered.

    Yeah, I agree Pratchett’s books are SF…the Bromeliad Trilogy is a great example. (Check the YA section.)

    Now I have a question for YOU: At what point does SF become Literature? I mean, folks look for The Time Traveler’s Wife, and anything by Michael Chabon, Bram Stoker, HG Wells, or Jules Verne in Fiction! Not SFF!

    And don’t even get me started on the vampire or superhero stories. I even found a western/vampire novel. Yeesh. It did NOT go into the Western section.

    Come to think of it – your definitions make superheroes Fantasy not SF. Hmn!

  21. I was compelled by Star Wars On Trial to change my view of Star Wars being SF. In my mind, it is clearly Fantasy, despite the laserswords and starships.

    And Old Man’s War is clearly a historical romance rawr!

  22. I’m going to throw Margaret Weis’ Star of the Guardians series into the mix. The original set of books is very much right on the line, but then the follow up series (spin-off series?) about the Mag Force 7 is firmly in sci-fi land. It’s all set in the same universe, but different parts or aspects of that universe.

  23. John Scalzi@ 19

    So is this post a case of self-inflicted Deja Vu?

    I love that phrase “typewriter spasm.” Possibly the best description of fantasy novel names ever–and a great name for a rock band!

  24. Sci-fi is the “future”.
    Fantasy is the “past”.
    It doesn’t really matter what the actual time frame is and first impressions are usually the correct ones.

    Thats why Star Wars is such a bitch to classify, since the very first thing that you see is “long ago and far away” but the rest of the context is futuristic.

  25. …I’d read a book about dwarves forging fuel cells. I hope at least some editor greenlights something like that while fully sober and conscious.

  26. Why do we have to classify everything into neat little categories? Let me leave you with a paraphrased Dark Tower quote. Roland: “Do people in your world always prefer just one story-flavor at a time? “Can there be no mixing?” “Does no one eat stew?”

  27. Well, what about Warhammer 40k? It’s the far future, humans against the galaxy full of weird aliens, and they’ve got guns, and spaceships, and crazy tech gadgets! But some of those guns are powered by evil Sex Demons, and the orks paint spaceships red to make them go faster (and they DO!) And some of the tech is so ancient they’ve forgotten how to fabricate it, they just keep jury-rigging it and saying prayers (which work).

    Fantasy or Sci-Fi?

  28. I think you can have fantasy where technology is involved, I just don’t think it can work the other way ’round. (And dwarves working to repair a broken troop transport is just Cool!)

  29. #38 @blocksmash – “Fantasy is the past, SF is the future”: Too easy – what about time travel stories like “A Gun For Dinosaur”.

    Better way: Fantasy is rooted in scholasticism, SF is rooted in the scientific method. It’s all in the way the characters interact with each other, gain knowledge and use it. Fantasy: appeals to authority, reading old grimoires, divine intervention. SF: Experimentation, developing theories.

    John’s original post illustrates this with a clear-cut example, but the generalization here shows that a nuclear fuel cell made by the dwarf servants of the dread god of spastic typewriters is fantasy. Incidentally, it doesn’t necessarily mean an editor asleep at the switch: see Mary Gentle’s GRUNTS!. While the editor may have been asleep at the switch in regards to the humor and flow of the novel, the overall premise of modern technology being gathered in a dragon’s hoard via magical means is plausible within the setting. Still definitely fantasy, though.

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