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December 02, 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! 

Posted by john at December 2, 2005 11:28 AM

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Comments

David Moles | December 2, 2005 11:53 AM

"Typewriter Spasm" is a wicked name for a god.

John Scalzi | December 2, 2005 11:55 AM

Well, he's a wicked god. He causes spasms!

Don McArthur | December 2, 2005 11:58 AM

Hmmm...in some sci-fi, nanotechnology substitutes for magic (eg. I want to know what's going on two continents away - release the nanotech floaters and have them report back what they see, my crystal ball is fubarred!).

Sebastian | December 2, 2005 12:01 PM

Where does the Pern series fit into this model?

John Scalzi | December 2, 2005 12:07 PM

Don McArthur:

"in some sci-fi, nanotechnology substitutes for magic"

Yes, but are the nanobots powered by microscopic nuclear fuel cells, or by Typewriter Spasm's Mini Soul Chunks (tm)?

Sebastian:

"Where does the Pern series fit into this model?"

That's a definite "fuel cell made by dwarves" moment.

Joe Rybicki | December 2, 2005 12:52 PM

And those Saberhagen swords books!

Honestly, it took me three reads to realize the big dude was talking about a flashlight. In my defense, I was 10.

-j.

Chris Gerrib | December 2, 2005 12:53 PM

Pern is SF. They are on an alien planet, delivered there by spaceships, and riding alien beasts.

Jimmy | December 2, 2005 02:06 PM

It's been a while since I read any of the Pern Books, but if I remember right, the Dragons were even genetically engineered by the colonists shortly after they landed.

Maybe the other part of what makes the series hard to classify is that it is definitely of the Soft SF variety. Teleporting, time travel is all explained more or less by willing it to happen in the right way, which is more or less indistinguishable from magic. It's been even longer since I read the first book, but it seems to me that as of then there was no indication of the SF elements?

RooK | December 2, 2005 02:41 PM

Who else remembers those delightful stories about magic that Larry Niven wrote, with thermodynamics and physics specifically introduced as part of the description? It was a genius turn-around on the trend of science fantasy, and all the ridiculous arm-waving of magic-like science infesting many stories.

Brian Greenberg | December 2, 2005 02:48 PM

Well, he's a wicked god. He causes spasms!

As long as he doesn't cause typewriters...

marlodianne | December 2, 2005 03:25 PM

Odds above, I glazed over instantly and yet still recoiled when somebody mentioned 'marxist'.

What a load of Typewriter Spasms.

It's simple:

Science fiction is a type of fantasy--all spec-fic, especially, is type of fantasy--based on a 'What If' projected from trends in science and technology. It usually wants to explain itself; it may, sadly, want to moralise.

Fantasy is 'What If' that breaks the rules of reality as we know or accept them. It usually doesn't care to explain itself; it may, sadly, want to moralise.

Horror, btw, is fantasy that wants, very badly, to make you Typewriter Spasm in your pants.

Other than that, the themes, the setting, the characters, the time period--they can be anything. It's supposed to be unlimited. That's the dang point.

I prefer to be more accurate and just say I write 'weird stuff'.

Christopher Billett | December 2, 2005 03:41 PM

I'm with you on the a. simplicity of the matter and b. relative importance of the matter. So much so I've quoted you, here's where I put it, hope that's cool.

John Scalzi | December 2, 2005 04:02 PM

No problem, Chris. Next time, linking back to the particular entry would be groovy, too.

Al | December 2, 2005 04:10 PM

Where does that leave Michael Swanwick's "Iron Dragon's Daughter" then? Fantasy or Science Fiction?

John Scalzi | December 2, 2005 04:25 PM

Couldn't say. Haven't read it.

Scott | December 2, 2005 04:28 PM

*headscratch*

So... what about when the answer is mixed? When some heroes use batteries (or more commonly springs and steam) and others use magic?

The Warcraft series of PC games springs to mind. Does it really boil down to what the protagonist uses?

I mean... in WH40K the Emperor of man is on a life-support system which is ostensibly technological, but it just "happens" to be fuelled by the souls of a thousand psykers a day. Dreadnoughts, the 1000 sons Chaos Marines, and a whole slew of other things are technology controlled by the bound souls of slain soldiers. Psykers call up electrical storms to destroy laser-cannon teams...
Science Fantasy I say.

John Scalzi | December 2, 2005 05:01 PM

Whoa... what's this crazy talk of video games? Everyone knows they ain't worthy of discussion! Away with your crazy talk!

jason | December 2, 2005 05:15 PM

What about something like lightsabers? A definite belt-worn deus ex machina doodad that uses batteries, and yet there's nothing remotely scientific about them. So are they SF or F?

John Scalzi | December 2, 2005 05:25 PM

Come on. Lightsabers are totally SF. And haven't you ever read those "Science of Star Wars" books?

jason | December 2, 2005 05:30 PM

I'm afraid I missed those...

Jesse C | December 2, 2005 05:38 PM

It seems to me that Pern started out feeling very much like fantasy and gradually, retro-actively morphed into science fiction as McCaffery revealed/created more of the world. It would be interesting to know how much the end product was initially intended: was it always meant to be a science fiction series or was it conceived as good dragony fun and then later turn into something more.

I think intent has as much to do with the distinction as anything and I think was one of the larger points that was being made over on the lj, even if was drowned in the marxist talk. There is a different approach when sitting down to write a science fiction story as opposed to a fantasy story.

But in the end, there is never going to be a clear dividing line between the two. Just like there isn't always a clear dividing line between 'regular' fiction and science fiction (Cloud Atlas, for example), or between fantasy and horror (Laurell K). For every 'rule' there are going to be exceptions.

Kevin | December 2, 2005 05:41 PM

It's easy, the lasers are terminated by typewriter spasm links in the typewriter spasm chamber. The use of small biological typewriter spasms allows the beam of light to deflect another beam of light. Much simpler than warp core Tom Foolery.

Al | December 2, 2005 05:42 PM

In Iron Dragon's Daughter, a human changeling is taken to elfland. There she works in an industrialized factory creating iron dragons for the war effort of the elves. Eventually, with the help of one of these dragons, she is freed, creates a new identity, and moves to one of the fairy cities, which are completely industrialized. There she studies alchemy and some sort of tantric magic in the university science department, eventually, as I recall, figuring out how to use much of this to gain revenge on certain parties and return to the human realm.

It's gritty, industrial fantasy with both the fantastic elements that you mention as well as simple things like batteries but it is elfland after all and they do make dragons in factories out of metal.

You should read it. It's a classic at this point.

Matt Arnold | December 2, 2005 05:59 PM

My point is that although there is a fuzzy border, there is an abundance of samples that clearly fall on one side or the other of the line. So I reject the idea that plausible science fiction is no different from the wildest fantasy.

Matt Arnold | December 2, 2005 05:59 PM

Sorry, I made a typo. I meant to say:

Although there is a fuzzy border, there is an abundance of samples that clearly fall on one side or the other of the line. So I reject the idea that plausible science fiction is no different from the wildest fantasy.

Jesse C | December 2, 2005 06:07 PM

I can't see the difference between the two posts. Have I been staring at my screen for too long?

I agree there are things that clearly fall on either side of the line. But where that line actually is, is much harder to say.

I don't think we're disagreeing. Greg Bear is clearly science fiction (well, except for Songs of Earth and Power). George Martin is clearly fantasy. And you can make a list of elements that seperate one from the other. But is that a definative list that applies to all cases? Or is it even possible to formulate such a list? I'd say no.

sGreer | December 2, 2005 06:09 PM

When I asked someone a while back about this "science fantasy" label for the Pern books, I got a version of what someone said above: Science fiction, at some point, explains itself and its rules, and is usually an extrapolation of known, existing science. Fantasy doesn't see fit to explain its "how", though it may have rules (explained or not), and is not an extrapolation of any existing technology (or is, but uses a non-extrapolative power source). Fantasy science is, apparently, where it's written like it's fantasy, but *underneath* it, that sneaky writer actually has a perfectly good scientific reasoning behind all of the magic.

When I realized my urban fantasy treats electrical impulses as the form of magic, I was momentarily distraught. Crap! I'm writing science fantasy! What if I'm found out? Insert wailing here.

Other than that, I really dunno. But I do know that if I tried to market a book with trolls to the science fiction community, they'd probably laugh at me. Just like I'd've expected the sf community to laugh hysterically if Pern had originally been marketed as anything other than fantasy. Dragons? Please! Get those overgrown crocodiles out of here..;

Christopher Billett | December 2, 2005 06:31 PM

Oops, re: the link that's my bad. Have edited the link to this page in, not sure if I should have used trackback? Have to admit I'm not savvy on what it is exactly... c'est la vie!

Jon Hansen | December 2, 2005 06:42 PM

It seems to me that Pern started out feeling very much like fantasy and gradually, retro-actively morphed into science fiction as McCaffery revealed/created more of the world. It would be interesting to know how much the end product was initially intended: was it always meant to be a science fiction series or was it conceived as good dragony fun and then later turn into something more.

For what it's worth, the first Pern story, a novella called "Weyr Search" (which is the opening part of Dragonrider) was originally published in Analog, Oct67, when Campbell was still editing it. That kind of supports the science fiction series intent, I'd say.

Now then: would curing cancer also let us engage in idle net-chitchat, the kind that helps us avoid writing? Or do we have to actually do research? You know, work.

Erin Hartshorn | December 2, 2005 07:36 PM

Now then: would curing cancer also let us engage in idle net-chitchat, the kind that helps us avoid writing? Or do we have to actually do research? You know, work.

There speaks someone who has never worked in a scientific laboratory. Set up your PCR reactions, let the machine run a couple hours. Load samples onto a gel, let that run about an hour. If doing sequencing, probably more than an hour. And those are the quick parts! Cancer doesn't happen instantaneously, you know.

Back to John's original post: if the question of batteries vs. dwarf-created mystical object is never answered (or the MC doesn't know), how do you distinguish the two? Or is it important?

I submit it's only important is to those who "don't read that kind of stuff" (meaning they read SF but not F or vice versa). Sure, there are some people who feel it's important to have all the definitions so you can point out when something doesn't fit them. But I'm definitely in the "I know it when I see it" camp. And I'm not afraid to label the borderlands science fantasy.

. . . And the wicked god Typewriter Spasm has been trying to convince me all day that I need to write a short story featuring him.

Jay Lake | December 2, 2005 08:04 PM

Nicely stated, sir.

Scott | December 2, 2005 08:34 PM

I doubt it really supports my question/concern... but *cough*

WH40K began it's life as a board game (Space Hulk).

And both worlds (40K and Warcraft) have hosted novels (repeatedly). Of course, even I haven't bothered to read those books (okay, so maybe I did read a short-story collection set on Necromunda (a 40K planet) but you can't make me testify to that fact in a court of law *nervously eyes the 5th ammendment*), so I doubt their genre are terribly important to anybody.

Jim Winter | December 2, 2005 08:45 PM

To elaborate, Typewriter Spasm is the forgotten Olympian. He was Zeus's little brother, the first born after Rhea hid Zeus away. He, too, avoided being swallowed by Chronos because Chronos nearly choked on him and said, "Screw it, Rhea. You change his f***ing diapers*!"

Typewriter Spasm did not grow up to be big and strong like his older brothers, Zeus and Poseidon, nor was he a mystic like Hades. (And it pissed him off Hades got the red suit and pointy stick, but again, that's another myth, somewhat sullied by later religions.) When the sons of Chronos drew lots over who should rule what part of the universe, Zeus naturally became the Sky God, Poseidon took the sea, and Hades the underworld. That left Typewriter Spasm with Trenton, New Jersey, where he shacked up with a hooker named Chastity. In revenge, he cursed the human race with his children, the Three Gross-Outs: Flatulence, god of the tuba and organic aroma; Mucus, god of snot; and Ed, also known as The Belcher. Of these three, Ed is the best known, frat brother of Apollo and Hermes who could belch the entire Greek and Sumerian alphabets in four-part harmony. Also hung out with Dionysus a lot trying to scam free beer.

And thus is the tale of Typewriter Spasm, little brother of the gods.

*Being that these are gods, you can imagine the diaper changes were monumental events. I believe some early Greek tectonic theory are based on myths about Typewriter Spasm's infant movements.

Matt McIrvin | December 2, 2005 09:45 PM

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.

Hey, stop picking on China MiƩville's editor.

(No, no, I like his stuff. Don't hurt me.)

Anonymous | December 2, 2005 10:20 PM

You have concisely and humorously demonstrated my personal dividing line: where does the power come from? If it's an actual physical (scientific) source, it's SF. If it's not (and I throw CS Lewis into this catagory for the Perelandra series) it's fantasy.

Can we get back to talking about video games now?

John Scalzi | December 2, 2005 10:30 PM

Yes. What I want to know is: Why hasn't anyone sent me an XBox 360?

Kip W | December 2, 2005 10:47 PM

Your explanation fails to cover the major branch of fantasy that always starts out, "Dear Editor: I never thought this would happen to me, but I just have to tell you about it. It all started..."

JH | December 3, 2005 12:53 AM

What I want to know is: Why hasn't anyone sent me an XBox 360?

Anonymous said video games. You're back to fantasy. What gives?

I'd send you mine, but, you know. I'm not gonna. Just don't accept a core system, whatever you do.

John Scalzi | December 3, 2005 01:08 AM

Core systems are what clueless grandmas get their grandkids.

JH | December 3, 2005 03:53 AM

Pff. Core systems make baby Jesus cry, is what they do.

David Goldfarb | December 3, 2005 04:06 AM

Not only was "Weyr Search" published in Analog, among its very first words were: Rukbat was a small G-class star in the Saggitarius Sector. The characters may not have known from the start that they were lost colonists from Earth, but the author and the readers sure did.

shana | December 3, 2005 09:44 AM

how about a test if you're a real born-and-bred geek? if you read down to the bottom of the comments, and laughed aloud more than once..

Jim | December 3, 2005 12:21 PM

Robert Heinlein -- Waldo & Magic, Inc

WaywardSailorGirl | December 3, 2005 12:36 PM

What's a typewriter? ;-)

Qwerty Hjklzx | December 3, 2005 01:00 PM

I tend to think of SF as somehow relating to reality of us.

I think Fantasy is strictly based in the idea of us.

In both, somewhere in the timeline of the story, (either before, after or during) you would find a sidenote mentioning us as existing either as a result of, sideshow of, or source of the story in question. I have read very few stories that don't include humanity in some form. Of those few, the characters were humanized in some way.

It's left and right brain stuff. Alegory, suspension of disbelief and free-association of themes are the features of the imagination that Fantasy writers write for. Extrapolation, spatial constancy and problem solving are features of the imagination focused on by the work SF writers. That's my limited understanding of the subject anyways. Exercising both features of the imagination might be the way we build the mental dexterity required to find a cure for cancer.

Simon | December 3, 2005 02:46 PM

I read this post as saying that the only difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy is how you label the trappings.

That can't be right.

There's a difference in feel, in style, in approach to the world. I can best define that difference by saying that a science fiction writer may think that you can turn a story into fantasy by relabeling the trappings, but a real fantasy writer (one who isn't writing science fiction with relabelled trappings) would not, I think, say that.

John Scalzi | December 3, 2005 03:30 PM

Simon:

"That can't be right."

Indeed. And as you've correctly guessed that, I'll leave it to you to figure out why.

I will say, however, that any assumed differences in feel, style and approach are irrelevant in terms of fundamental teleological differences between fantasy and SF universes. A good enough writer could, if he or she so chose, write a rigorously fantastical universe that had the feel and style of an SF one, and vice versa, to the extent that we assume stylistic differences between the two.

Scott Elyard | December 4, 2005 10:09 AM

Seems easier to simply say that all sf is fantasy, like all alligators are crocs, all birds are dinosaurs, and all fish are vertebrates.

Dane | December 4, 2005 01:00 PM

It's like comparing Mountain Dew to Sierra Mist. Really, could two things be more different?


They're both Fiction. You subtract the need for constancy in physics, astronomy, mathematics and chemistry...and wha-la- you've got Fantasy.

Focus the attention of the setting on technological possiblities and likelyhoods if everything we know to be true actually is...and ala PeanutButter Sandwiches- you've got Science Fiction.

What's so hard to understand?

Casey | December 4, 2005 04:50 PM

jason sez: "What about something like lightsabers? A definite belt-worn deus ex machina doodad that uses batteries, and yet there's nothing remotely scientific about them. So are they SF or F?"

Oh, I dunno. I happen to think that building a sword that uses a crystal and a lens to focus light to the point that it can cut through the hull of a battle cruiser to be somewhat scientific.

Casey | December 4, 2005 04:52 PM

That should read "...is somewhat scientific." Yeah, I write for a living.

Luke | December 5, 2005 04:15 PM

... while the way the light just... terminates... after a fixed distance isn't a problem.

If you watched Legend, just because they specularly reflect collimated sunlight down into the cavern to burn the evil god-thing... doesn't make it science fiction.

DPWally | December 5, 2005 04:21 PM

Both sf and f tell a story by twisting part of the universe so we can experience the untwisted part in a different context. Sci-fi uses normal people in an altered universe. Fantasy brings strange creatures into a familiar universe. Allowing, of course, for wide variation in the meanings of "normal", "people", "strange", "creatures", and "familiar".

In sci-fi, the characters are somewhat similar to contemporary humans. They act the way humans would if we travelled hyperspace in semi-sentient mushrooms pursued by atomic squid. Many authors emphasize this by having a main character who's hard-headed, no-nonsense, clever but not brilliant, moderately contemptuous of technological assistance, and can be imagined having spent the time just before chapter 1 replacing the oil pan on a late 20th century automobile.

Fantasy takes place in a world not very different from ours, but with creatures or powers you won't meet on the subway. The main character is either such a creature or a child whose parents don't believe in such creatures.

When a story's characters and environment both depart from the familiar, it's harder to characterize. Also, it tends to fall apart, so why bother? Pern started off as a clever and intriguing, though poorly-written, fantasy. Then it prequelled and back-fudged sci-fi into the story and the writing got even worse and the characters became dull.

ajay | December 7, 2005 10:40 AM

Your explanation fails to cover the major branch of fantasy that always starts out, "Dear Editor: I never thought this would happen to me, but I just have to tell you about it. It all started..."

In many examples of this genre, too, the battery/no battery distinction could be profitably employed.

mds | December 7, 2005 10:59 PM

If you watched Legend, just because they specularly reflect collimated sunlight down into the cavern to burn the evil god-thing... doesn't make it science fiction.

No, but if nothing else, that incident demonstrated that the speed of light in the Legend universe was approximately twenty miles an hour. Too many physical consequences from that for it to be SF.

Jed | December 19, 2005 07:48 PM

Belated and tangential comment:

In Prince Caspian, iIrc, at one point Edmund pulls out a "pocket torch." When I first read that as a kid, I went WTF? (only I didn't put it quite like that) -- like, a little stick of wood, with fire on one end, that you can keep in your pocket? How does that work?

It wasn't until later that I found out that "torch" in British can mean a flashlight.

But I might've figured it out faster if the scene in question hadn't taken place in a fantasy world, where I wasn't expecting anything with batteries.

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