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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works

Science-fiction & fantasy literature: a critical list with discussions.

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Musings, #4: “Was That Fantastic Or What?”

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(This Musing is not yet fully prepared, but in the interim, as a sort of “placeholder”, I reproduce below the text of a post I made on the topic to the usenet group rec.arts.sf.written; there will be more to follow later.)

Is there such a thing as a boundary between science fiction and fantasy?

There is. And though thundering hordes will point to this or that grey case—and such grey cases exist—the reality is that the grey cases are a small, one is tempted to say tiny, fraction of all cases.

Let us begin with basics: what is fiction and why do we do it? Fiction is a way of augmenting experience. Reading fiction allows one to vicariously encounter vastly more settings, situations, and persons than life without fiction allows to even the most energetic sampler of experience.

The subset of fiction that is usually called “speculative fiction” is set apart from other fiction by the circumstances of the tale involving some, duh, speculative alternate version of reality, by taking place in a cosmos in which at least one of the major ground rules of human existence is different from what has ever been experienced, different—whether a physical law, a magical law, or simply human behaviors—in a way that allows the author to show people reacting to circumstances that especially emphasize some aspect of what Douglas Adams so charmingly and pithily referred to as “Life, the Universe, and Everything”.

Having separated out speculative fiction, when we go to the next level and seek to differentiate between science fiction and fantasy, simple logic suggests that we take a clue from the terms we use: “science” and “fantasy”. “Science” being somewhat easier to pin down, one might venture that science fiction is that branch of speculative fiction in which the speculative element is nominally and plausibly some difference in the tale’s world that can be attributed to science—to a better or greater knowledge of science, including “science” that presumes physical laws at variance with what is now believed possible or probable.

“Fantasy” might be likewise defined, but it is probably simpler to say that fantasy is speculative fiction that is not science fiction: that is, it is tales wherein the major difference or differences in the way the world works are not based on science but on something “fantastic”, which would be magic.

Two points arise. The first, often raised in discussions of this topic, is whether any so-called “magic” that has laws that can be learned and used is not in fact just science. Well, in my opinion anyway, it is. “Science”, by definition, is any knowledge that can be discovered by application of “the scientific method”, which in turn means any aspect of the behavior of the world that has regularity (which, the etymologically conversant will notice, is to say that it is “regular”, that is, follows rules).

True magic must, of course, have some principles, else it could not exist. But true magic must, simply in order not to be science dressed up in a sheet, rely on something beyond or other than universal laws that anyone can apply. It must rely on sentience, on will power or morality or deities granting it or some such thing. If you can buy it in bottles at the market, it is not magic.

The other point is a class of tales that are sometimes called “alternate history”. Rightly, that class ought to include future histories as well when those do not depend on any science not known and accepted at present, such as post-disaster tales and the like, though those are almost always classed “science fiction” in open despite of the name of the class.

Whether alternate-history tales, whether their histories diverge from the world we know in the past or from right now on, are—my opinion—best classed as a completely third type (provided that they do not also include either alternate science or magic).

So, with the two caveats I just outlined (and which each want and need far more discussion), the bound is simply that point at which the major world difference that the tale requires for its essence is scientific or not.

That a drawn line in not truly infinitely thin, that it has some small real-world thickness, is not to say that there is no such line, or that any such finite line is useless.

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