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Ambush: Hal Duncan on Why SF is Really Fantasy

Vellum       Ink 

For the second in the "ambush" series, in which I check in unexpectedly on SF and Fantasy writers to see what they're thinking about, and in some cases struggling with, I contacted Hal Duncan, whose highly praised Vellum and Ink are two of the most mind-blowing and ambitious SF-Fantasy novels of the past decade (well worth reading if you haven't already). Duncan has been working through the "difference" between genres and gave us this snippet in advance of posting his complete thoughts on his blog.

Duncan writes: "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?"

I'll be interested to see what Amazon's hard core science fiction readers think of this argument. When does a work of fiction become fantasy in your eyes? What is it about science fiction that makes you appreciate it more than fantasy? --JeffV

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The line that is drawn is not so much about the difference between SF and Fantasy - it is more about the cross over to kitsch. If you think elves and fantasy are kitsch, and kitsch does not agree with you, then you just don't go there.

There are a lot of levels of kitsch intolerance. I have a pretty low tolerance for kitsch. This means that all fantasy (including lord of the rings) is kitsch and I really don't want to go there.

That said any SF that is space based and includes some kind of "great battle", "robot wars", or other infantile preoccupation is also kitsch and I don't go there either. Trite plot lines seem like a waste of my time. I could be reading better.

I think William Gibson understood the kitsch problem and we can see that as a writer he evolved from barely believable far future to a very believable near future. Neil Stephenson also seemed to get this kitsch problem and addressed it with over the top humor. (Too bad he never figured out how to get the final chapter to work.)

Gibson seems to get that the present (and sometimes the past) offers enough of a "believe it or not" factor to obviate the need to create technological fictions. Current technology is enough of a fiction in itself - certainly enough of a fantasy. Rooting a story on a science fiction, a technological fiction, or an elf based fantasy almost assures that the work will be limited and ultimately destined to become kitsch. Something like a kitchen design that looks dated because the owners who remodeled their house had bad taste and got what was "trendy".

We see this in film too, when special effects drive the film, at the expense of plot, writing, and acting, then the film is doomed to be a one off. Fantasy and science/technology fictions are special effects. If these are not handled in a subtle way, and if they are not used to advance good writing, then you have the effect and nothing else. That's when kitsch is at its apex.

So are elves more kitschy than robot space battles? That's a hard question answer. Personally I'll pass on both.

There is nothing wrong with fantasy. The primary purpose of fiction is to entertain, but I personally would like to reserve the words "science fiction" for those stories that seriously try to extrapolate about the future. It's a coincidence that you brought up this subject because I just wrote a blog entry about it called The Science Fiction Event Horizon at
http://jameswharris.wordpress.com/2008/01/01/the-science-fiction-event-horizon/

I was thinking about this the other day.

To me SF is always about the future, the author creates a "world" based on the present/past while in Fantasy it doesn't matter if it's the past, present or future; it's a different world altogether.

The difference between fantasy and science fiction has very little to do with scientific plausibility. Rather, it has to do with conventions of the genre. Science fiction is about futuristic settings, high technology, space flight, aliens, time machines, telepathy, etc. Fantasy is about magic, elves, witches, magic spells, settings pulled out of myth and folklore, etc. Each genre has its own logic and its own standards for the willing suspension of disbelief.

In response to Hal's specific questions:

"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?"

Larry Niven once wrote that if a work of SF has more than a certain amount of "balonium" (i.e., pseudoscientific nonsense) it becomes not SF, but fantasy. With due respect, I think he's wrong. Too much balonium makes it not fantasy, but perhaps SF with some of the genre elements handled badly. Nobody calls Star Trek fantasy; it's always science fiction, no matter how many liberties they take with science.

I will happily read science fiction with FTL drives, time travel, mind transfer, and other such stuff that doesn't make scientific sense. But start messing around with an alien biology that doesn't make sense, and I'll cry "foul!"

Some of the factors that go into my own willing suspension of disbelief: (a) use of common genre tropes; if it's part of the tradition, I'll nod my head and say OK; (b) necessity to the plot; see U. Leguin's The Lathe of Heaven; (c) a sense that things work according to some rules, even if they differ from the current scientific consensus.

If a work of SF doesn't pass the test, it doesn't make it fantasy; it makes it science fiction with elements that I just don't buy. If the story grabs me, I'll keep reading. If not, I won't.

"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?"

Somebody could write a science fiction story about such races but it would look a lot different from genre fantasy. First of all, you wouldn't call them elves and dwarves. You wouldn't have magic spells, wizards, rings of power, etc. The creatures would be derived from anthropological speculation instead of folklore.

"Aren't the magical powers of fantasy just the telekinetic talent to manipulate a reality tractable to the human will?"

Arthur Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In SF, the telekinetic talent is given either a scientific-sounding explanation or some techy hardward. If there's no scientific explanation for it, we'll at least show scientists trying to understand it and failing.

"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?"

Paraphrasing Paul Di Filippo, Is the universe basically understandable through science or through magic?

The border between Fantasy and SF is a polder, with the two realms intermixing with each other in an intimate fashion. There is no bright dividing line.

It's not really an answer, but stuff like Elizabeth Bear's Dust illustrates this point pretty well, which I suppose more or less boils down to "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, etc, etc"

I suppose the only thing that distinguishes the genres for me is their literary baggage, and what the author decides to bring along - I enjoy fantasy less, if only because I enjoy books that are dragging the dead corpses of Philip K Dick et al behind them better than those that are hauling Tolkien. Realistically, though, there's no reason that either should be the case.

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