This site also has forums--why not take a look and even post to them? Life is short: have some fun!
science-fiction & fantasy literature:
& Fantasy Works
a critical list with discussions
Great Science Fiction & Fantasy: an Apologia
"The whole narrative is permeated with the odour of joss-sticks and honourable
Part 1 (of 2)
--The Wallet of Kai Lung,
The purpose of this site is to set forth a list of excellent works in the related fields of science fiction and fantasy so that readers with an interest in or taste for such literature
may be guided to good books of which they might otherwise not be aware.
(I hereafter mainly use "science fiction and fantasy" as a collective term for speculative fiction as a whole, segregating its parts only where the context clearly
requires separate consideration of those parts.)
Since there is already a host of web sites with nominally the same purpose--I examined many in the course of deciding whether to create this one--you are entitled to ask "Why another?"
An answer beyond what you have already read will have to be lengthy, and I can but beg you to muster the patience for it.
Many--truth to say, most--science-fiction and fantasy sites select and evaluate works with, to put it genteelly, undemanding critical standards; those standards reflect, but also
perpetuate, the literary demands of the readership of the sites and in turn the books. A generally undemanding readership has inescapable consequences: if the readers will buy anything,
anything is what will be published. Certainly, as the book rack in any supermarket will demonstrate, large numbers of mainstream "anythings" are also published and read. But mainstream
critics and discerning readers not only distinguish with no difficulty a Jacqueline Susann from a Gore Vidal, they understand that the two are writing to very different readerships and
apply to those authors and their works appropriately differing standards; science-fiction and fantasy authors are, rightly or wrongly, widely perceived as all writing to a common
readership, a readership that by and large does not, many would say cannot, distinguish excellent from mediocre or worse writing.
Science-fiction and fantasy readership has long now had much the quality of a cult and, as with all cults, the more abuse the outside world heaps on its members' follies, the more
fanatical the cultists become, despising the criticism and the critics. As the Welcome page noted, those who would champion the field to the world at large know the terrible truth of the
saying "I can save myself from my enemies, but only God can save me from my friends."
None of that is news. For quite a long time, science fiction and fantasy (which was mostly science fiction then) was horrible stuff--as respected science-fiction author and critic Brian
Aldiss has put it, "pathetic tales, in which the namby-pamby has intercourse with the sensational"--presented in pulp-paper magazines with lurid covers capable of embarrassing anyone save
the male juveniles who constituted virtually the entire readership. Naturally, no self-respecting established author would turn to such drivel; equally naturally, the reading public--other
than those gadget-crazed juveniles--saw this stuff, then rightly, as trash.
That was then; this is now. The waters have receded and islands, even whole continents, have appeared in the oceans of science fiction and fantasy. But they remain largely unvisited by
the inhabitants of the other hemisphere of literature because the evil name of those oceans lingers and few will willingly embark on them to see for themselves. And however richly and
wonderfully populated those islands and continents may now be, the traveler from afar, when he sights through his critical telescope, still sees an awful lot of murky water in that
This web site cannot, and is not intended to, ameliorate those conditions; no site or number of sites can. Rather, my hope is to be of some service to two classes of persons: readers
new to these fields who have sensibilities and capabilities sufficient to appreciation of good books and a desire to be pointed at some in this field, and readers who have already wandered
these fields indiscriminately and would now like to begin tightening their critical focus.
I cannot, despite well over half a century of voracious reading in science fiction and fantasy, lay claim to an intimate knowledge of all of even the better authors and works. Since I
have adopted a policy of simply not dealing with mediocre or bad works, I run the risk of appearing on occasion to be implicitly castigating one or another author or book when I have simply
overlooked him or her or it. That I regret, but prefer to the drudgery of discussing inferiority. Critics in all fields seem to deeply enjoy slice-and-dice dissections of the things they
dislike; but such tirades, besides being cruel, are not to any purpose unless the critical writing is meant as an enjoyment in itself or a celebration of the critic's wit, purposes which
seem to me to miss the point of criticism. (Moreover, as Nero Wolfe has observed, sarcasm is not the rapier of wit its wielders seem to believe it to be, but merely a club: it may, by
dint of brute force, occasionally raise bruises, but it never cuts or pierces.) I here simply speak of what I know and like and hope you find that speaking of interest and value.
About The Discussions & Reviews
"Then there are those who, like the author, ensconce themselves on a thunderous crag of omniscience,
and with protestations of humility which are either unconvincing or totally absent,
assume the obligation of appraisal, commendation, derogation or denunciation of their contemporaries.
Still, by and large it is an easier job than digging a ditch."
--Preface to Men of the Oikumene,
Jan Holbert Vaenz LXII
The Utility Of Criticism
Evaluation of art is inherently subjective, but reviews are not thereby rendered arbitrary and useless. The value of a subjective evaluation turns on three hinges: first, the
consistency of the values and standards the reviewer is using, for like works must receive like valuations; second, the reader's ability to understand what those critical values and
standards are and to perceive at what angle they may lie with respect to the reader's own; and third, the sensibilities and capabilities of the evaluator--but only because a fool or a clod
cannot render consistent opinions. We do not and should not require some hypothetical absolute "correctness" from reviews--only that they should stand as reasonably reliable
guides for us.
You, for example, scarcely need agree with my opinions to find them useful: you need only understand the manner and degree by which my and your opinion-forming processes differ. At an
extreme, you might avoid any book whatever I recommend and take up every book I do not; but even so, my opinions will have been a guide to you, which is my purpose in setting them forth. A
particular reviewer's opinions are only useless to you if you can find no consistent pattern relating them to your own, regardless of what that pattern is.
That being so, it is incumbent on me to set forth as best I can express them my critical criteria, which I do below. My qualifications I do not discuss: those you must judge from the
work itself, as you would with any writing. I will begin by touching very lightly on what I see as the general character of literary quality--"very lightly" because the subject is
stupendous--and then, with those criteria elucidated, turn to the special nature of science-fiction and fantasy literature.
Literary Quality In Fiction
To find whether or not we like a book, we need do but one thing: read it. But to rationally discuss why we do or do not like a book--whether it is a "good" book--we need
settled criteria for "goodness." If we want to try to derive such criteria from uttermost basics, we must begin by asking ourselves why we read books.
Nero Wolfe, addressing an assembly of authors, famously begins: "First, I remark that with your books two of you have given me pleasure, three of you have informed me, and one of you
has stimulated my mental processes." Those, to me, are as good and complete a set of reasons for reading books as we need to be going along with.
But our purposes here are limited: we are discussing tales--books of fiction--and what is true of books in general is not necessarily equally true of books of fiction. Book is
the great family that contains the genus fiction (within which science fiction and fantasy are species). When we leave the family for the genus, we must largely discard
"informing" as a criterion. To be sure, a tale may inform us of interesting things we did not already know and thereby augment our satisfaction with that tale. But honest authors whose
chief purpose is the imparting of information will choose a format that honestly accords with that purpose; a tale in which much of the author's purpose is to
inform us is scarcely a tale at all: it is a didactic homily done up in the trappings of a fiction to attract the unsuspecting reader. So, for fictions, the giving of pleasure and the
stimulating of one's mental processes are the hallmarks of excellence.
Moreover, in fiction those two qualities are not, as they more generally are in the entire family book, independent entities of which a given work may possess one or the other.
For a fiction, pleasing the reader is a prerequisite for excellence. A tale that pleases us but does little to stimulate our mental processes has nevertheless achieved something that--if
we want to believe our sensibilities and capabilities not mean--is neither trivial nor common. A tale from which we derive little or no pleasure but which stimulates our mental processes
is, to begin with, a creature hard to believe in: first, we may well not even finish the thing if it pleases not; second, we rarely (except under duress) pay much mind to that from which
we derive no pleasure. But even granting that we drudge our way through some relentlessly dull fiction and come away with new thoughts in consequence, that tale is nonetheless a failure
because the first duty of a fiction--as opposed to a tract--is to please the reader.
How Fictions May Please
A tale is a whole thing and all aspects of it interact. Nonetheless, we may without much intellectual savagery pick out four chief means by which tales please. A tale need not possess
great strength in each of those four elements to be good or even excellent; it is simply that a weakness in any one places a proportionate demand for extra strength on the others.
A fiction is a telling. The language--the diction, the syntax, the style--used in that telling can be as clean and pellucid as that of Herbert Read or as artfully languid as
that of Ernest Bramah, but a pedestrian tale well told will always please more than a sound tale ill told. That is not to say that tricks and mannerisms are wanted: they are not, and
evoke more pain than mere flat writing. (Notably excruciating are the horrors produced by writers attempting the speech of a time or place with which they are not, after all, well
familiar; fools who think that they will make their Sherlock Holmes pastiches read like authentic Conan Doyle by simply having their Dr. Watson simulacrum refer to every meal as a "repast"
earn tortures regrettably forbidden under contemporary law.) There are a few writers who are especially famed for their unique language use--a Lord Dunsany, a Jack Vance--but not every
great work of music need be a symphony: there is always room for chamber pieces. In sum, while a tale can have some quality even with insipid telling it can never have greatness without
craftsmanlike language use.
Plot is such an obvious element of tales that it might seem the paramount element. It is certainly important: few indeed are the books that can be considered successes if what is
happening to whom and why are not important to the reader. Yet few is not none. It is possible to have a fine tale virtually without plot--the
Oz books clearly demonstrate that. It is just that absent real plot a great demand is made on the other elements of pleasure and, I repeat, only a few books can bear such a
There are many things that can be said about plots and plotting--to be told such things is a big reason people take writing classes--but most of them are obvious. I abstract here only
the point that by tale's end the sound plot must be both comprehensible and acceptable. By "acceptable" I mean that the famous "willing suspension of disbelief" is never fractured--which
means almost the same thing as "plausible" but not quite, inasmuch as a most implausible plot can be acceptable so long as the author constrains it to the bounds of the setting within which
it is placed.
Trite but nonetheless true: Every book is a doorway through which we enter a unique realm. In that realm, as in the mundane world, we meet and come to know various persons, some well,
some scarcely at all. And, again as in the mundane world, the degree of pleasure we take in being in that realm is largely conditioned on the quality and qualities of the folk we meet
But before an author can interest us in the quality and qualities of a tale's characters, those characters must exist: the author must thus have expended the efforts needed to give each
that existence--a face, a figure, a style of dress, a history, plausible idiosyncrasies. Now even journeyman authors usually--though by no means always!--manage to clothe their chief
figures in sufficient shreds and tatters of personality to make them look plausibly human; but for master tale-tellers there are no "minor characters" or human plot devices. Every being
who steps on the stage of such a master writer's story has a past and a personality; she or he exists in the author's mind and can thus exist in ours. Even if we only "see" that
person for a sentence or two, she or he is an actor walking across that stage, not a cardboard cutout being pulled along on a string. The great harm of cardboard characters is not that we
have no interest in them, though that is an ill thing, but that by their existence (or, properly, lack of existence) they fracture the willing suspension of disbelief, for we must
disbelieve in a world in which we see cardboard cutouts where we expected to see living, breathing people.
(Obviously, we cannot demand that an author expend the same time and effort on a character we see for but a line or two in the tale as on a major figure; but we can demand that
some time and effort have been spent, lest we get a stereotype instead of a character.)
For the major actors in a tale to please, however, plausibility is a necessary but not a sufficient condition: they must also engage us. To engage us, they must have qualities which
mirror, however distortedly or disproportionately, things we can find within ourselves. In fiction as in the mundane world we can have no understandings with folk whose mental processes,
intellectual or moral, are simply alien to us. Even a morally challenged imbecile like Othello engages us, if feebly, but no one really gives a bleep what happens to Iago (save as it may
impinge on Othello's fate) because he is just insane, and we can have no least comprehension of what goes on within his version of whatever such folk have where most people have minds. We
may puzzle over a Iago, but he does not interest us (except perhaps as a puzzle), does not engage us, and thus cannot please us.
A final thought on character: we must have for a protagonist at least one of two things--liking or respect. We can have both, but if we have neither the book means trees killed for
naught. (Note that the lack of a quality does not necessarily imply the presence of its opposite: we may lack liking for persons without thereby needing to dislike them.)
(Based on some conversations since the paragraph above was written I think I had best point out that "respect" is a morally neutral term--it does not necessarily convey positive qualities,
as we may well have respect for a rattlesnake owing to the danger it embodies; "respect" as I use it above signifies an appreciation of magnitude in a character, whatever that
character's nature. Many great protagonists--in several senses of the word "great"--have been folk we would not by choice invite to our next dinner party.)
Of setting much can be said, but the paramount consideration is that we must have neither too little nor too much. The master knows how to convey a sense of place with the occasional
sharp detail of sound or smell or color; the prentice hand betrays itself by either a complete absence of such detail or a laborious and inevitably tedious recitation of minutiae. A
skilled painter tells us that his portrait is of a farmer by allowing us to see fields through the open door in the cottage room he paints: he does not attach to that portrait endless
numbers of survey plats of a typical regional farm, complete with irrigation-ditch gallonage calculations.
How Fictions Can Stimulate Our Mental Processes
The matter of stimulation of mental processes often being, as we will see later, crucial in science fiction and fantasy, I beg your indulgence here for a little detour.
John of Salisbury attributed to Bernard of Chartres the saying (which Newton, Coleridge, and others all fancied enough to crib):
We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and
things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any
physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.
(I have seen at least three different wordings of that exact saying, each in quotation marks with the source document cited; the version above is exactly that in The
Oxford Dictionary of Quotations--the web site I first saw it on, which attributed it to that very Dictionary, had nonetheless omitted a word, inside quotation marks, mind.)
A humankind no different from that which walks the world today has been pondering what Douglas Adams has charmingly summed up as "Life, The Universe, and Everything"--all of what we may
loosely call The Big Questions--for at least a hundred centuries now, and the ponderers have been recording their ponderings and the fruits thereof for posterity in reasonably durable forms
for well over fifty centuries now.
Nonetheless, once upon a time not so long ago even minds of power wasted a lot of time reinventing the intellectual wheel for, as Hippocrates famously observed, Ars longa, vita
(Truth to tell, Hippocrates wrote in Greek, not Latin; moreover, the full line--worth knowing--runs, in translation, "Life is short, the art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment
treacherous, judgment difficult"; it was Horace, who did write in Latin, who shortened it to Ars longa, vita brevis.)
But that was then; this is now. While once passing giants with accommodating shoulders were rare in the earth, today the printing press can place regiments of their simulacra on even
the most modest bookshelf. Anyone situated as you are--at the screen of an online computer--has not merely giants about; you have, to be whimsical, the whole of humanity's intellectual
giantry in a circus-acrobat human pyramid waiting to bear you up.
Adopting Humpty Dumpty's prerogative, I will define an adult as one who has become aware of most or all of The Big Questions and of at least the commoner classes of answers for each;
likewise, I will define a child as one too immature to be able to properly grasp the import of such questions, much less any of their answers. Every adult was once a child. Each of The
Big Questions was, at some instant in the life of every adult, grasped for the very first time as a matter of real importance, as in turn were the available answers to each such question.
The time of life when such realizations are being borne in we may well call adolescence.
Adolescence so defined is not a matter of innate wit or a lack thereof: it is defined by experience or a lack thereof. Addressing didactic tales to adolescents, when the tales are
aimed at adolescents of innate wit, is not reprehensible but laudable. But laudable books for adolescents do not usually make laudable books for adults (though they can--in fact, several
books listed on this site are nominally "juvenile" or "young adult" or even, as with the Oz or Alice tales, "children's books").
My Humpty-Dumpty definitions of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood often correspond tolerably with the usual chronological ones, but not always. There is, always has been, and
doubtless always will be a class of chronological adults who died two years ago come Christmas and have simply forgotten to fall over, to whom The Big Questions would come as a pop quiz for
which they have done no homework. To adults immodest enough to feel themselves outside that class--a grouping which includes me and, I wager, you--The Big Questions themselves are pretty
well known, and at least a fair part of the many categories of answer to each are not unfamiliar. We have, that is, climbed up onto that human pyramid of giant thinkers and looked about a
We (I presume here to speak for you as well as myself) do not know it all. We may not know each of the possible answers to The Big Questions that fifty centuries of pondering have
elicited, nor the most cogent arguments for the answers we are aware of; we may not even know all of The Big Questions themselves. We certainly have no universally compelling knowledge as
to which, if any, of the answers are correct. But we are out of kindergarten and intellectual kinderspiel is no longer amusing or interesting: tales just meant to serve as
Cliff's Notes for a Big-Questions pop quiz are boring. Tales that will "stimulate our mental processes" need to be tales that will stimulate an adult's mental
processes. Please keep that thought firmly in mind: we will soon be needing it.
That ends the detour. We thank you for your patience and interest, please watch your step alighting from the bus, and tipping is allowed.
Defining Our Terms
What Nero Wolfe (or rather Rex Stout speaking through his creation) meant by stimulating the mental processes of a reader is, as I take it, causing that reader to consider some
question, presumably of large import, either for the first time--which would mean that the very existence of the question is a new thought--or from a new perspective. A tale stimulates a
reader's mental processes by being a microcosm so composed that a reader possessed of adequate sensibilities and capabilities will induce the macrocosmic issue or issues.
(The word "deduction" is used with tedious regularity where the word "induction" is
wanted. One deduces various particularities from general propositions; one induces
general propositions from various particularities. Science, like Sherlock Holmes,
largely induces and rarely deduces.)
Achieving such stimulation is a delicate business. If you attend a play and find yourself remarking how skillfully the lighting has been contrived to enhance this or that mood, that
contrivance has in fact failed; if you read a book and find yourself remarking how skillfully the plot and characters have been contrived to embody this or that Grand Truth, so also there
is failure. The author who sets forth consciously and deliberately to enlighten is a tiresome creature better occupied composing tracts for door-to-door distribution.
I have found that one simple but remarkably reliable test is the degree to which the characters in a fiction discuss large issues: the more they do so, the more nearly the work
is a book-length pamphlet. Characters in a well-told tale do not issue pronouncements about "Life, The Universe, and Everything"--they simply live and do. Beware the book whose
"characters" are walking, talking ideas. In a well-told tale, it is the reader's sensibilities and not the author's manipulations that induce generalities from specifics.
Indeed, it is far from unusual for a fine tale to be stimulating far past the author's design or even recognition; that may indeed be the norm. It requires extraordinarily immense
strength of character to forbear in a tale from coaching or prompting or hinting or pointing at some idea one wishes the reader to induce from the telling; few writers have such strength,
though the degree to which they surrender to such urges is the degree to which they weaken the work as a whole. Most of the tales that succeed in duly stimulating us were written by
authors who were "merely" telling a story. Without any explicit intent to model this or that truth, such masterly tale tellers model many truths by simply displaying life as they
The Special Character Of Science Fiction & Fantasy
Some Essential Critical Reading
Before setting forth my own few observations, I feel an incumbency to report a few critical works, each by an acknowledged master author of science fiction or fantasy, that are in my
opinion vital components of even a modest science-fiction and fantasy library. They are--
The first is a collection of essays and like material; of especial import, I think, are the essays "From Elfland To Poughkeepsie," which focuses on the distinctions between
science-fiction and fantasy writing and the writing of mainstream fiction, and "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown," on the importance of fully realized human characters in science fiction and
The second--an updating of Aldiss' earlier book Billion Year Spree--is a comprehensive, informed, and opinionated history and analysis of science fiction. (I don't always agree
with Aldiss--truly, I often disagree--but the book is seminal.)
The third is a long essay that ought to be required reading for all adults daring to call themselves civilized. Not listed above but also relevant and insightful are two short stories by Tolkien, Smith of Wootton Major and Leaf By Niggle, which each deal with the relationship between a fantasy author and his material, and another of his essays, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." (All but the Beowulf essay, plus other things, can be had in the book Poems and Stories, a Tolkien collection.)
As to the fourth and fifth, they also are essays: The MacDonald, when I read it, replaced in my mind Professor Tolkien's essay as the best (by a hair) short summation of the essence of the art. It first appeared in 1893, in the second edition (it was not in the first) of a collection of MacDonald's essays entitled A Dish of Orts (which essay was reprinted in the 1984 Avon/Discus paperback anthology Fantasists on Fantasy, itself a book I can scarcely over-praise). The Wilde is characteristic Wilde: dry, penetrating wit, its the point being that Art is not Nature, but rather elegant lies about Nature, and that "realistic" work is not Art.
The sixth item is, in effect, a book-length expansion on Wilde's premise by a writer who practiced what he preached: that good fiction does not seek to portray men as they are, but men "as they ought to be". (Which does not mean quite what you might think.)
Another book, not included in the list above but of inestimable value, is the now-famed Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell; that book, hard to sum up concisely, deals with myth, the human psyche, and more. Every literate adult ought to read it, but especially anyone with an interest in the fields visited
Defining Science Fiction and Fantasy
Science-fiction and fantasy literature may be characterized, at least in a broad-brush manner, as tales set in worlds where major rules work differently than they do in our familiar
mundane realm. Such a characterization is, however, one of degree, not truly of kind. Clearly a tale set in a far-future civilization or in a medieval culture where some sort of magic
works is a tale from the species "science fiction and fantasy"; but what of a tale set in the early 1900s in which there are no breaches whatever of natural law but which is set on an
imaginary mini-continental island in the South Pacific?
That tale, Islandia, is generally classed a fantasy novel. Yet, as has been many times pointed out, all fiction is "fantasy" to the extent that it tells of
things that did not "really" happen. Why is Islandia a fantasy and Gone With The Wind not? Tara has no more "reality" than the Karain island continent. Surely it cannot be
a matter of mere physical size--an imaginary plantation is realistic but an imaginary large island has to be fantastic? At just what number of square miles of area does a fictitious region
pass from pseudo-reality to fantasy?
For those familiar with the works there is a valuable clue. Islandia is not simply a fancied setting for an ordinary tale of adventure or romance or the like: it is a place
where the imagined population has evolved a set of customs, behaviors, and patterns of thought significantly different from any ever observed in the mundane world. Not impossible or even
implausible (though unlikely)--just different. We readily understand why Miz Scarlett of Tara thinks what she thinks and does what she does, whether or not it is what we would
think or do in the same circumstances; what Dorna of Islandia thinks and does are, until explicated for us, matters incomprehensible. Islandia joins its forebear Utopia--another island--in
the realms of fantasy not owing to its merely (as James Branch Cabell delightfully put it) having been spared the wear and tear of ever actually existing, but owing to its
difference from the fields we know.
(For a long time, this page had erroneously attributed that wonderful "wear and tear" line to Lord Dunsany--mea culpa, mea maxima
But we cannot define science fiction and fantasy merely as a set of tales in which "the rules are different." Such a difference is, to repeat the
mathematician's term of art, a necessary but not a sufficient condition. The essence of the definition, I submit, is how, and why, the author makes use of the differing
rules. A tale replete with wizards and warriors is not a fantasy if they are, in effect, simply scientists and soldiers who spell their names peculiarly and wear bizarre
clothing (a marvelous true example is available in Le Guin's essays).
I cannot overemphasize that point: if a book--no matter how alien its setting, its characters, its plot, even its language--could, with no violence to its basic structure, be
rewritten in a mainstream world, it is not really science fiction or fantasy: it is trumpery. I will not by so saying convince the world at large to remove this or that
author or book from the rolls of science fiction and fantasy, but here--my site, my rules.
(About appropriate uses of differing rules I will have more to say in a bit.)
As to the distinction between science fiction and fantasy: well, although readers can get pretty hot arguing the differences, even modest readings in the critical literature written by
authors practicing in the field clearly show such distinctions to be not much felt or spoken of by those authors themselves, who pretty much lump the lot up--most, in their own work, moving
freely from one arena to the other. As C.S. Lewis has said, "I took a hero once to Mars in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus." Or, as M. John Harrison has perhaps more pithily put it, "there’s no difference between imaginary things; they share the over-riding quality of not being real."
For any who insist on a rule, you may use as a crude litmus test the presence or absence of magic in the world of the tale: present, it makes fantasy; absent, it makes science fiction.
The prime difficulty with that rough rule is the number of books that are nominally "science fiction"--in that the author sets forth "scientific" explanations for the phenomena not known in
our mundane world--but in which (as my use of quotation marks suggests) that "science" is but a slipcover over fantasy, in that it is not, and is pretty clearly not even meant to be,
plausible science but merely a way of justifying the novel events in the tale's world. The question of why some authors choose that strange approach--rather like scratching your right ear
with your left hand--I cannot say, unless perhaps they believe that their readers will accept "science," however goofy, sooner than "magic." (Such books are sometimes called "science
fantasy," an apt description.)
A mirror difficulty--and one that gravels me considerably--is books denominated "fantasy" that are really science fiction in a purple bathrobe. The difficulty derives from ill-considered
ideas of what "magic" is, a difficulty well illustrated by Arthur C. Clarke's whacking great clunker "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", which misses
the essence of both magic and technology. Consider: technology is the manipulation of things through a knowledge of the laws of nature. The crucial word there is
laws--law is only regularity (a tautology): if A then B, not ever F or L or Z. When certain actions have certain results, that's technology. That the action
might be the enunciating of particular words and the effect the melting to lava of a large boulder is immaterial; if anyone can work a spell, as anyone can fire a gun, what's being used is
technology. The implied underlying science--meaning elucidation of the true laws of nature--may differ drastically from what we conceive plausible, but it's science nonetheless, literally
by definition. (An interesting illustration, meant as humor, is Pratt and De Camp's "Harold Shea" tales, in which we read of such things as "magico-static charges".) To differ from
technology, magic must thus necessarily be a force that is at least to a degree lawless, irregular. Or, getting to the pith, magic is the ability of a
conscious will--as lawless a thing as there is--to directly affect reality. Now mind, one can define away anything: one can say that "lawlessness is the law", and at least as to formal
grammar that is a sentence; but it is pedantry. The point to carry away is that a deal of what passes for "fantasy" because it has "magic" in it is no such thing, because the "magic" is
just John W. Campbell's good old "psi powers" wearing that purple bathrobe, perhaps "accessorized" with a pointy hat. If confusion is possible, it is advanced magic that is likely to be
mistaken for technology. But good writers never make either error.
There is a third species, horror fiction, which is a sort of step-sister to science fiction and fantasy. Horror fiction, to my mind, is qualitatively different from science fiction and
fantasy in that its first and dominating goal is--as the name suggests--to excite a feeling of horror in the reader. Too much of horror fiction uses as a major tool sheer disgust. There
are many things that universally excite revulsion in humans--gore, decay, slime, the usual suspects--and many "horror" stories rely at bottom on those things for such success as they
achieve, for extreme revulsion is a fair simulacrum of real horror. But even quality horror fiction--likely no more and no less common than quality science fiction and fantasy--still has
at most one foot over the fence and planted on our fields, again because its primary motivation is the excitation of a single emotion. The attentive visitor to this site will find that a
few specimens generally classed "horror" works have crept into the lists--a Shirley Jackson, some William Hope Hodgson, some Arthur Machen--but each is arguably something more or other than
"straight horror"; on the whole, I have excluded plain "horror" fiction, however successful as horror.
To keep page lengths down for faster loading, this discussion was divided into two parts.
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Apologia - Part 2 (of 2)
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