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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works • View topic - Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

discussions not about particular authors or books

Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby DavidTate on Sunday, 14 June 2009, 9:07 pm

Several years ago, I posted some musings about the perennial fantasy-vs-science-fiction blather on the Usenet group rec.arts.sf.written. They got some discussion there, but I thought I'd reproduce them here in a forum with a higher signal-to-noise ratio.

A poster on rec.arts.sf.written had said, as an argument that certain works were not science fiction:

> The stories would work just as well with magic
> carpets and djinn (mostly, lest a superlative undo my argument).

...and I replied:

And this differs from (say) Dune exactly how? I'll come back to that
way down below.

Having seen this sort of thing pop up in a dozen threads recently, I've
been thinking about where (IMHO) people are going wrong in
characterizing what is 'fantasy' and what is "science fiction", and how
they differ. I was particularly prompted by Luna's notion that somehow
fantasy is "anything goes" in a way that makes it fundamentally
different from science fiction.

What I've concluded is that there is an entirely orthogonal distinction
or scale that is mostly independent of whether something is "science
fiction" or 'fantasy', apart from a certain historical correlation and
a few clear extremes. Some people have been flirting with discussing
it, when they talk about "character driven" versus "plot driven", but I
think that still mistakes correlation for causation. The distinction
I'm thinking of doesn't necessarily split along character/plot lines.

My problem has been coming up with names. In my head, I think of the
two categories (or the two ends of the scale) as "extrapolative" and
"evocative". I welcome suggestions for better, more accurate names.

Extrapolative fiction says "Suppose thus-and-so were true -- what might
follow? What kind of stories could happen in such a world?".
Evocative stories say "Here's a universal story, that could be told of
many times and places and worlds. For embellishment, or effect, or
allegory, or mere amusement, I am going to set it in an unreal setting
-- but what I mostly care about is the story and its universality".

I am becoming convinced that many of the recurring plaints in this
group are really a preference for evocative over extrapolative fiction
(or vice versa), expressed in a confused way. People tend to associate
fantasy with evocative, and science fiction with extrapolative, and
(incorrectly, IMHO) assume that the extrapolative or evocative nature
is an inseparable part of 'proper' science fiction or fantasy.

At the extrapolative extreme, there are certainly areas where the
correlation is nearly 100%. Hal Clement valued the extrapolation for
itself -- there would be no point to a book like _Iceworld_ or _Mission
of Gravity_ in an evocative fantasy setting, because the reality of the
setting *IS* the story, to a first approximation. Which is not to say
that there cannot be extremely extrapolative fantasy. I think it's
telling that many Psi stories are historically considered science
fiction, despite having magic mental powers as the only non-mainstream
element. I think people (include famously John W. Campbell) felt that
the extrapolative nature of the stories being told gave them a "science
fiction" feel.

It seems to me that most books wear the trappings of SF or fantasy (or
both[2]) that they feel comfortable with, but they could equally well
have worn something else and been essentially the same story. Some of
those stories are more extrapolative, some are more evocative. But
science fiction and fantasy co-exist in all quadrants of the map.

[Examples deleted, and replaced in follow-up posting.]

In hindsight, a lot of comments in recent threads now sound to me like
"I like science fiction because it's extrapolative" (and the corollary
"If it isn't extrapolative, it isn't science fiction"), or "I prefer
fantasy because it's evocative". I don't think any of those statements
are true.

So, yes, most of Bradbury's rockets-and-aliens stories would work just
as well with flying carpets and djinni. Which is to say, they're way
down at the evocative end of the spectrum. But that doesn't mean they
aren't science fiction; it just means they aren't extrapolative. Not
at all the same thing.

Similarly, Randall Garrett's fantasy worlds are as relentlessly
extrapolative as anything by Hal Clement -- but extrapolating from
fantasy premises, not from extreme physics. That doesn't mean they
aren't fantasy, or that they're "really science fiction" -- it just
means they aren't evocative.

It looks like a useful distinction to me, especially since it allows us
to preserve the historical senses of "fantasy" and "science fiction".
Thoughts? Comments? Proposed corrections?

David Tate

[1] I'm thinking specifically of _Small Gods_ and _Hogfather_; there
may be others. _Night Watch_, on the other hand, if taken as a
standalone, could have worked equally well as a science-fictional _From
the Case Files of the Time Police_. Indeed, the plot is already
familiar to most science fiction fans.

[2] Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are famous (or notorious) for not
caring how they mix their spaceships with their wizards. I think they
get away with this so well because they write far toward the evocative
end of the spectrum.
David Tate
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Re: Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby DavidTate on Saturday, 20 June 2009, 11:18 pm

Here are some more carefully-considered examples of books that I feel fall in the various quadrants of the space I've defined. With any luck, this will help to make clear the distinction(s) I am trying to make. Just to be clear: I assert that "science fiction" and "fantasy" are not mutually exclusive, any more than "science fiction" and "mystery" are.

1. Science Fiction
a) Primarily extrapolative

Hal Clement, Mission of Gravity
Isaac Asimov, "Nightfall"
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God's Eye
Greg Egan, "Axiomatic" (and most other stories)

b) Primarily evocative

Ray Bradbury, "Kaleidoscope" (and most everything else he ever wrote)
Robert A. Heinlein, "The Long Watch"
M. John Harrison, Viriconium
Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slapstick
Algis Budrys, Rogue Moon
Much of Clifford Simak's work

c) Both extrapolative and evocative

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man
Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17
Jack Vance, "The Moon Moth"

2. Fantasy
a) Primarily extrapolative

Lyndon Hardy, Master of the Five Magics
Randall Garrett, Lord Darcy stories
Roger Zelazny, Chronicles of Amber
R.A. Lafferty, "Narrow Valley"
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
Ted Chiang, "72 Letters" and "Hell is the Absence of God"

b) Primarily evocative

John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost
G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist
H.P. Lovecraft, pretty much everything

c) Both extrapolative and evocative

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Avram Davidson, The Phoenix and the Mirror (and other Vergil stories)
Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds
Lois M. Bujold, Five Gods novels
Richard Adams, Watership Down

3. Both Science Fiction and Fantasy
a) Primarily extrapolative

Frank Herbert, Dune
Theodore Sturgeon, "Microcosmic God"

b) Primarily evocative

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Liaden Universe novels and stories
Zenna Henderson, stories of The People
Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

c) Both extrapolative and evocative

Matt Ruff, Sewer, Gas, and Electric
Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven
Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates
David Tate
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Re: Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby owlcroft on Saturday, 27 June 2009, 6:36 am

This deserves, and in time will receive (from me, anyway), a lengthy response, because it is an important subject and is tackled in an interesting way. But, being perpetually short of time these days (theorem: the longer one is "retired", the less spare time one has), I offer only this drive-by comment.

To me, the distinction is rule. That which takes place in a setting wherein the difference from our own world is that the rules are different yet systematic is "science fiction", in that the rules, however bizarre by everyday standards, are in fact the laws--emphasis on that word, laws--by which that world works. If, on the other hand, the difference is a system wherein will has force, wherein beings, from "gods" down (possibly) to humans or even animals, have some effect on reality by, in essence, sheer will, then that is fantasy.

One has to be careful, of course, not to simply define away fantasy altogether, by saying that "arbitrary will power governs" is the "rule". The sort of rules I mean are just that sort that the scientific method can discover. That the god Kvetch can turn a sewing machine into an orange by merely willing it so is not a "law" that can be discovered by the scientific method. Correspondingly, a tale with a postulated (or just invented) set of physical laws that seem wildly discordant with our present understandings of science is still science fiction (provided that those laws are presented in an internally consistent manner). Hence, FTL, for example, which not a few scorn as "fantasy", is true science fiction provided whatever explanation is offered (and there really need not be any--fiction is not, except in clumsy hands, a speculative physics textbook) is not later contradicted by something else in the tale.

One has to be aware, in considering that formulation, of its most objectionable (in many eyes) corollary: regular (consider the etymology of that word) magic makes science fiction. If anyone can chant a certain set of words and reliably achieve a given effect thereby, then that fact is a physical law of that world, susceptible of scientific discovery and analysis. It becomes fantasy only when the magic is not regular but is a function of individual will--which is to say, has a moral dimension. As has become a tediously familiar observation in the everyday world, science is amoral: it is a tool, and is no more moral or immoral than a screwdrive or a hammer.

The entire point of speculative fiction--at least as practiced by sound writers--is to use the differences between the fictive world and our own to in some way make the tale richer or better or more something than would readily be possible were it set in the mundane world. Whether that difference is "science fiction" or "fantasy" is really not (as a rule) terribly important. "Speculative fiction" in which the author does not use the world-differences as anything other than window dressing--in which the tale, with only obvious minimal changes could be set in the old west or ancient Rome or, really, anywhere--are not truly speculative fiction: they are entertainments, and can even rise to the level of great literature--but not speculative-fiction literature, except by clumsy labelling.

(All this is presented at great--possibly tedious--length in one of the Musings pages on this site.; some of the others of those pages are also relevant.)
Cordially,
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Re: Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby DavidTate on Monday, 29 June 2009, 1:01 am

I will be happy to discuss these ideas at length, but I too am embroiled in other demands on my time at the moment.

For the moment, let me note that your proposed distinction between fantasy and science fiction is both logical and reasonably practical (in the sense that the appropriate term could be determined for any given work), but has the side effect that we have to throw out how the terms have been used historically. I think that's a disqualification for the proposed rule -- it can't have as a side effect that the common way the terms are used is wrong, and that the canonical works of each subgenre aren't in fact even members of that subgenre.
"I should like balls infinitely better," [she said], "if they were carried on in a different manner... It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day."

"Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say; but it would not be near so much like a ball."

Concrete examples: by your definition, _Triplanetary_ is fantasy and _Too Many Magicians_ is science fiction. I see the logic of it, but it won't do -- you can't simply ignore the historical use of the terms at this late juncture. Part of my goal was to preserve the historical (illogical?) use of the terms -- the "look and feel" of fantasy and science fiction -- but still be able to have sensible discussions about these sorts of differences.
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Re: Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby oscillon on Monday, 13 July 2009, 2:46 pm

Easy, science fiction does not use magic. Deep bow.
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Re: Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby owlcroft on Tuesday, 14 July 2009, 5:30 am

In this site's Apologia you will find:

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.

Following which appears in summary the arguments I presented above, to which David has taken thoughtful exception.

On Usenet's rec.arts.sf.written, the periodic tediously long threads on this topic often end up concluding (though far from universally) that "science fiction" and "fantasy" are best thought of as publishing categories--an aid for inexperienced bookstore clerks trying to decide where to shelve the books.
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Re: Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby owlcroft on Saturday, 08 August 2009, 10:39 pm

So here I am, playing on this forum instead of doing work with encroaching deadlines: I guess I am just one of those odd folk who prefer to play rather than work.[1] Anyway:
Extrapolative fiction says "Suppose thus-and-so were true -- what might follow? What kind of stories could happen in such a world?". Evocative stories say "Here's a universal story, that could be told of many times and places and worlds. For embellishment, or effect, or allegory, or mere amusement, I am going to set it in an unreal setting -- but what I mostly care about is the story and its universality".

The distinction is, I think, a useful one, but associated with each polarity are certain problems. What I am dealing with now is not the proposed distinction David makes: I think it sufficiently valid and useful that I will simply adapt it here. Rather, I will go on to comment on each of those antipodes.

I further agree with David that much science fiction is what he calls extrapolative, and therein lies the reason for what the observant will surely have already noted, that this site's lists have a decided tilt toward fantasy. I did a sort of duck-and-cover about that in the Apologia by saying that it is the shorter period of time that serious science fiction has been around that accounts for the discrepancy, and that is not an actual falsehood--sheer duration does play a significant role--but it is not the whole of the affair. To save linking to a page one would have to search, I will quote the salient remarks here:
Science fiction and fantasy are too commonly portrayed, even by their friends, as supplying answers to the question "What if . . . ?" What if a flying saucer landed on the White House lawn tomorrow? What if some people could cast spells? What if we were all androgynous? What if the gods revealed themselves? What if we were each made twice as smart overnight? And so on. In honesty, a great deal of science fiction and fantasy is written from just such considerations. That does not make it good science fiction or fantasy, nor does it define the field as the answering of such questions.

There is in baseball an expression that describes a class of poorly handled infield grounder: "He let the ball play him." Writers who generate science-fiction and fantasy tales simply because they have asked themselves "What if . . . ?" and thought of a clever answer are letting the ball play them. The task of an science-fiction or fantasy writer is to create a tale wherein the special liberties available allow a more focussed or wider or deeper or more something presentation of the ideas than would a "mainstream" treatment. Such a tale can be an answer to a "What if . . . ?" question, but if so the answer provided, and the question, should flow from the necessities of the tale, not the tale from the necessities of the answer--otherwise the boors who incessantly drone on about science fiction and fantasy not being "real" literature have another bullet in their gun.

Elsewhere I have been harsher about extrapolative fiction, referring to it as "Gus's Garage in Outer Space", and remarking of such tales:
We read fiction to discover (or be reminded of) what people think and feel and do in various circumstances--to gain better appreciations of what it means to be human and of ways to deal with Life, the Universe, and Everything. Fiction enriches us, expands us, augments our lives: it allows us to vicariously live many lives, to feel and experience the thoughts and emotions of hundreds, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of persons we are not and never will be, to experience feeling and thinking in ways not our own, often very much not our own. We do not read fiction to discover how a severe shortage of energy--or a sudden influx of cheap energy--might affect economic and social structures: to explore such matters is exactly why God created Scientific American magazine and its kin.

David continues:
I am becoming convinced that many of the recurring plaints in this group are really a preference for evocative over extrapolative fiction (or vice versa), expressed in a confused way. . . .

I concur. But, still addressing just the extrapolative, the critical factor that I think makes such fiction inferior is that it forgets that it is telling a story--that is, telling us "what people think and feel and do in various circumstances"; instead, such tales typically (I am much tempted to say invariably, or even necessarily) focus on things instead of people. They are, as Jack Vance refers to some of his crude early work, "Gadget Stories" (hence the reference to Gus's Garage). There is a chap on the rasfw usenet group with whom I am, even as I write, engaged in the latest flareup of a years-long, on-and-off conflict over quality in speculative fiction (he is at present terribly pissed off that I suggested that M. John Harrison--whom he had never even heard of, much less read--is a significantly better writer than his beloved idol, Isaac Asimov; and when told that China Mieville and Iain Banks laud Harrison, also revealed that he had never read anything by them, either); he is enamored of the sort of science fiction typified by, well, Isaac Asimov. Now most literate readers would be hard put to it to argue that Asimov ever created a character who wasn't--as so many others have put it--a walking, talking idea. There is, in literary terms, scarcely a human being to be found in his tales (most of which boil down to a running argument that if the human race would only turn over its governance to wise scientists--folk much like, say, like Dr. Asimov and those who avidly read his tales--the millennium would arrive). And those tales, which well demonstrate the apothegm that The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12, are more or less exemplars of extrapolative fiction.

Turning to evocative fiction--
Evocative stories say "Here's a universal story, that could be told of many times and places and worlds. For embellishment, or effect, or allegory, or mere amusement, I am going to set it in an unreal setting -- but what I mostly care about is the story and its universality".

--I fear that I have to disagree. Not with the idea that there are such stories, for surely there are, but with the idea that they have much to do with speculative fiction. If you will recall, my rules for recognizing speculative fiction are two:
1. The tale is set where or when some rule that materially affects the way people meet or experience life operates in a way significantly different from any ever experienced in ordinary, everyday consensus reality.

2. The consequent difference in the way characters within the tale meet or experience life owing to that difference in rules is necessary to the author's purposes in telling the tale.

It is on that second that evocative tales as defined above stumble (for me).

I suppose that, by the argument of conservation of traditional understandings, such tales, in which only the wallpaper is changed, still have to be called "fantasy" (when that is the skin assigned to them), and they can be as good (or as bad) as any other fiction, but I am always bothered by them. And I find that they only rarely carry much weight, because if the special world in which they are set was not in some way necessary to the writer and the tale, the tale is usually much more icing than cake. It is, in that way, possessed of the same defect as the extrapolative sort of tale: it is more concerned with the world it is set in than with the (supposed) human beings who live and do and feel in that world. Tales focussed on creating a world, tales that are in effect a travelogue through that world rather than a human history, can be pleasant enough if well done, but infrequently at best achieve heights.

Mind, tales in which a remarkable world is the setting are not, by some weird counter-logic, inherently defective: that would be silly. Jack Vance, for example, creates literally wonderful worlds with such stupifying ease that he can use up any number as throwaways, chapter headings or footnotes; but the worlds of his tales are always necessary to those tales, because the sorts of things that happen in his tales could only have happened in a certain fairly narrow period of real history, that era in which Europeans were discovering the rest of the world, when protagonists could find themselves in the bizarre and alien (yet fully human) societies in which their mettle would be tested as that of a Vance character is. Removing the setting from that limited era, in which it is hard to set large-scale events (because they would be counter-factual), to a seriously other equivalent allows Vance the necessary scope for his protagonists to work and play in.
People tend to associate fantasy with evocative, and science fiction with extrapolative, and (incorrectly, IMHO) assume that the extrapolative or evocative nature is an inseparable part of 'proper' science fiction or fantasy.

Just so. And I generally concur that though the speculative-fiction map is thus divided into quadrants, it is the extrapolative-science-fiction and evocative-fantasy quadrants that are far and away the most heavily populated. I think another phenomenon explained by David's classes is so-called "science fantasy": I suspect that it is really nothing but evocative science fiction.

(Mind, there might be some objection to that from the so-called "hard sf" crowd, who feel that a tale isn't sf unless it is based wholly on science as we currently understand it, which seems a pathetic view but there it is.)

In hindsight, a lot of comments . . . sound to me like "I like science fiction because it's extrapolative" (and the corollary "If it isn't extrapolative, it isn't science fiction"), or "I prefer fantasy because it's evocative". I don't think any of those statements are true. . . . [Y]es, most of Bradbury's rockets-and-aliens stories would work just as well with flying carpets and djinni. Which is to say, they're way down at the evocative end of the spectrum. But that doesn't mean they aren't science fiction; it just means they aren't extrapolative. Not at all the same thing. Similarly, Randall Garrett's fantasy worlds are as relentlessly extrapolative as anything by Hal Clement -- but extrapolating from fantasy premises, not from extreme physics. That doesn't mean they aren't fantasy, or that they're "really science fiction" -- it just means they aren't evocative. It looks like a useful distinction to me, especially since it allows us to preserve the historical senses of "fantasy" and "science fiction".

I think it is a quite useful tool. I myself have never been too taken with the apparently compulsive fever for sorting out science fiction from fantasy, and I think this view, as David suggests, helps us better understand why certain folk prefer certain books.

I reckon, off the top of my head, that if I were to propose an analogous sort of dichotomy for sorting out "speculative-fiction" works, my problem would be terminology. David managed rather catchy terms for his, but I will just try to set mine out. The general class "speculative fiction" can, I think, without much controversy, be defined as in my Rule #1 above: tales "set where or when some rule that materially affects the way people meet or experience life operates in a way significantly different from any ever experienced in ordinary, everyday consensus reality." My division, then, would be between tales (all meeting that criterion) that do or do not meet my Rule #2: "The consequent difference in the way characters within the tale meet or experience life owing to that difference in rules is necessary to the author's purposes in telling the tale." That is, the division is between tales where the difference is essential and tales for which it is a skin ("wallpaper"). I suppose--I am not very good at titles--one could call them necessary versus optional.

Or another potential segregator: tales (still assuming first that they are "speculative fiction") that focus on ideas versus tales that focus on people. Here, at least the terminology is obvious: things tales versus human tales. In things tales, the author is exploring the differing rules themselves (including what one might call the mechanical aspects of a world in which those rules govern), whereas in human tales, the author is exploring the human condition using the differing rules as a sort of spotlight to more easily highlight the path his or her exploration is taking. This, for me, is the most critically significant division that can be made of speculative-fiction tales.

(If we compare the necessary/optional and things/human distinctions, we see that there is some connection; notably, a human-type speculative-fiction tale is tautologically a necessary-type tale.)

Whether folk other than me would find either of those distinctions illuminating or useful--which I feel David's are--I cannot guess.


[1] Over on the alt.english.usage forum, I am trying to pound into some heads that " I am just one of those odd folk who prefer to play rather than work" is a casting manifestly superior to the form nowadays creeping into quasi-respectability, " I am just one of those odd folk who prefer to play rather than working." As Will Strunk used to mark papers, Match parts!
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Re: Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby DavidTate on Thursday, 13 August 2009, 10:30 pm

Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Eric. I don't have time at the moment to consider all you've said, but I did want to quibble with one particular comment. You said
owlcroft wrote:But, still addressing just the extrapolative, the critical factor that I think makes such fiction inferior is that it forgets that it is telling a story

I think that's an unfair generalization. Being extrapolative is orthogonal to being good fiction -- there is no necessary link to "make such fiction inferior" (though there may be a historical correlation). To pick one example, Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven is clearly extrapolative: there is no story without George Orr's peculiar malady, and the entire plot springs from the consequences of that malady. And yet, the story is wholly about people, not things, and is about ideas only as they affect the lives of people. The "what if" thought experiment enables a moving and provocative (to my eye, at least) exploration of what it means to be human that is only enabled by the odd angle of view. It is certainly not focused on things, and so I don't concede your 'invariably', much less your 'necessarily'.

Even Professor Tolkien's magnum opus is clearly extrapolative, engendered by the twin hypotheticals of a pagan mythology of England and a language of the Elves. It wandered far from those origins in the end, but never so far that the extrapolative character wasn't still occasionally in the foreground.

For me, the best speculative fiction is both evocative and extrapolative. But if it is merely evocative, and (as you say) it is mainstream fiction with fancy wallpaper, that doesn't mean it's bad fiction. To say that this is a failing implies that fiction has a duty to be speculative, or to not put on the trappings of the speculative without taking them seriously enough. That seems an odd requirement.

At any rate, I suspect I need to hone my definitions of what I mean by 'evocative' and 'extrapolative', so that they seem more value-neutral to discerning readers. That was my intent, but I see I did not succeed.
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Re: Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby Cyril on Friday, 13 January 2012, 12:54 am

Just because the Na'vi have a some similarities to creatures from fantasy stories does not immediately mean that the Na'vi are a representation of fantasy. Fantasy usually focuses on magic and other supernatural phenomenon that cannot be explained by science. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the two. If someone has special powers and magic is even hinted at the story can immediately become fantasy. If ESP is used as an explanation then the story remains science fiction.
Avatar is most definitely closer to science fiction. Look at the way the Interstellar Vehicle Venture Star was made. James Cameron used research on actual technology being researched by NASA when thinking about how to developer the ship. The use of centrifugal force so the people who had to take shifts watching the ships systems were able to work without experiencing the negative effects of zero gravity. The heat dissipation system built around the engine. The Whipple Shields built on the outside hull to protect the ship from impact with small particles. It is true that the antimatter propulsion systems on the ship were much closer to the realm of science fiction but it was still very impressive. The use of VTOL aircraft. The techniques used by the scientists to collect and observe samples. The use of signal transduction as an explanation of of how the flora communicate. I could go on and on but I think you get the point. Nowhere in this plot is magic or supernatural phenomenon used as an explanation. James Cameron is a genius not only did he create a beautiful world that I fell in love with but an extremely realistic one too. Go to wikipedia and type in "Fictional universe in Avatar". Its amazing how much detail James Cameron went into to create this immersive and beautiful universe.
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Re: Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby DavidTate on Wednesday, 18 January 2012, 1:24 pm

Cyril wrote:If someone has special powers and magic is even hinted at the story can immediately become fantasy. If ESP is used as an explanation then the story remains science fiction.
As far as I can tell, the axiom "ESP is not magic" originated with John W. Campbell, and is an accident of history rather than a sensible rule. The Golden Age of SciFi happened to occur at the same time that Rhine's experiments at Duke were still taken seriously.

Backing up a step, did someone claim that Avatar is fantasy and not science fiction? How odd.
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Re: Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby charleshudgen on Wednesday, 09 May 2012, 9:29 pm

As far as I know fiction deals with human relations as governed by the known laws of the universe. Science fiction usually deals with human relations when some of the known laws of the universe have been 'altered' or superseded by advances in science.


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Re: Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby Terry Tornado on Saturday, 19 January 2013, 12:46 pm

I think the magic vs science angle is basically a red herring. Most of the science in science fiction has as much to do with actual science as the magic in fantasy. I'm thinking of all the science fiction that takes for granted faster than light travel, and time travel, and teleportation and so forth. I think the difference is that fantasy looks to the past and science fiction looks to the future. I think there's very little good science fiction being written today and that is because it's very hard at the moment to be very optimistic about the future. The best sf that is being written today (such as Iain M Banks' Culture novels) is about the very distant future that bears as much relation to the actual poresent day as does the Middle-earth of Lord of the Rings. The so-called golden age of sf occurred at a point in time when there was a lot more optimism about the future.
The pointing to the past or future distinction has a lot to do with style. It's usually possible to distinguish what is sf and what is fantasy just from the style of writing, without even knowing anything about the setting or science vs magic kind of things. One might almost say that use of a word such as perchance signals the difference. Take these examples, both chosen very quickly:

The time passed slowly between hope and fear, and all the time was weary with a sick longing that would have been no less had he but gone out on a hunting expedition. She had pity too for those whio were sick with love and dread, and all those who looked on her loved her.


Everything about Norman Niblock House was measured: as measured as a foot-rule, as measured as time. Itemthe degree to which he allowed himself to lighten his skin and straighten the kinks in his hair and beard, so that he could exploit the guilt-reaction of his colleagues while still managing to get next to the shiggies who did most for his cod.


I think it's obvious which is fantasy and which is sf, without any more than the style of writing.

By the way, the first is from the William Morris story Gertha's Lovers, and the second is from John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar.
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Re: Not "fantasy vs science fiction"

Postby DavidTate on Thursday, 07 February 2013, 12:48 pm

Terry Tornado wrote:It's usually possible to distinguish what is sf and what is fantasy just from the style of writing, without even knowing anything about the setting or science vs magic kind of things.

This is often true, but it's not infallible. Some authors even go out of their way to subvert these conventions. I'm thinking here of Anne McCaffery's Pern novels, which start out looking like pure fantasy and turn into hard SF (more or less) by the end. There's at least one other series that does this even more subtly, that I won't name because it would be a spoiler.

On the flip side, I think excerpts from pretty much any Ray Bradbury story would make people guess "fantasy", even when it's a story about astronauts on Venus.

I guess what I'm saying is that it's easy to tell which team a player is on when he is wearing the uniform -- but he isn't always in uniform. I tend to enjoy it when authors deliberately avoid the style/diction historically associated with the genre they're writing. (And, conversely, I really really hate it when they follow those tropes when there's no reason for it. If I pick up a novel in which Dwarves speak with a Scottish accent, I will probably not finish it. If I pick up a novel in which the author does not know how to conjugate "to be" in the second person familiar, I will throw it across the room.)
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