Thursday, December 01, 2005

FANTASY / SCIENCE FICTION / MAGIC / SCIENCE

Evil Monkey:
So, did you see this post by Ted Chiang about science fiction versus fantasy?

Jeff:
I did.

Evil Monkey:
What did you think about it?

Jeff:
It bothered me. I don't know why.

Evil Monkey:
You don't know why?!

Jeff:
Itjust seemed too simplistic somehow.

Evil Monkey:
That's the best you could come up with?

Jeff:
Yeah. What've you got?

Evil Monkey:
Well, let's pull up the post and talk about it.

Jeff:
Do we have to?

Evil Monkey:
What else are we going to do? You locked us out of the house and I don't have the car keys. All we've got is this lame-ass wireless laptop.

Jeff:
Ann'll be here soon to rescue us. But fine--fire away.

Evil Monkey:
Chiang says it's useful to examine the difference between science and magic to understand the difference between science fiction and fantasy. But there is no such thing as magic!

Jeff:
If you read more carefully, you'll see he says that "This isn't a question of conforming to current scientific understanding; we can imagine an alternative set of physical laws without calling them magic."

Evil Monkey:
So then what the hell is magic? Some random happening with no logic behind it?

Jeff:
Magic doesn't exist, remember?

Evil Monkey:
Right. But surely we can imagine an alternative set of physical laws and call it magic?

Jeff:
I'd rather not. What I find more peculiar is this bit: "Magic has a subjective component—the intention, desire, or willpower of the practitioner—that is explicitly excluded from scientific experimentation."

Evil Monkey:
Magic doesn't exist, dude.

Jeff:
I know. That's the subjective component.

Evil Monkey:
Is he saying that magic is willfully subjective while science is only incidentally subjective?

Jeff:
I don't know. You'd have to ask him. But what do you mean "incidentally subjective."

Evil Monkey:
Well, science is subjective even if scientific process is not. I do a lot of reading when I'm not eating bananas and it seems to me that scientists are just as human as the rest of us. Scientific process gets bent to the will of the individual a lot more than you might think. And we wind up with theories that we use as truth that later wind up to be false. That's damn subjective--and interesting from a fictive perspective. Hell, look at the grief Wegener went through trying to get people to believe in continental drift theory.

Jeff:
You've got a point. So you're saying science isn't nearly as logical as Chiang is making out.

Evil Monkey:
Yes. And that magic doesn't exist, so to compare magic and science is kind of silly. Unless you're talking about religion. Religion exists. That's empirical, in a way.

Jeff:
Except—Chiang says that "scientific result can be replicated by a mechanism and that mechanism can be mass-produced; thus, we all own products containing electric motors, lasers, etc., even though such things were once objects of wonder found only in laboratories. This is generally not true of magic; no one expects that a great magician's ability to turn a pumpkin into a carriage will, decades later, result in cheap shape-shifting gadgets."

Evil Monkey:
I'm still having a problem with this. He's comparing what is done in the real world with science to what is done in the fictional world with magic. Because, as I keep saying, magic doesn't exist in the real world. So why doesn't he compare what's done with science in the fictional world to what's done with magic in the fictional world?

Jeff:
Maybe he thinks that's exactly what he's doing. Or that what's done with science in the fictional world is identical to what's done with science in the real world. Except it's not.

Evil Monkey:
Pass that bottle of vodka, will ya?

Jeff:
Which one?

Evil Monkey:
The goose one. Thanks.

Jeff:
This would go better with a cigar, but they're inside the house. Sorry again.

Evil Monkey:
No worries. Let's just hope the wireless connection doesn't go out…So—look at this next bit. Chiang says, "…magic is esoteric while technology is egalitarian, because only select individuals are able to call down lightning, but electricity works for everyone."

Jeff:
Hmmm. By that logic lightning itself is esoteric because only some people get hit by it.

Evil Monkey:
Don't try to be clever. Again, though: MDNE.

Jeff:
Huh?

Evil Monkey:
I'm sick of saying Magic Does Not Exist.

Jeff:
Oh. So then there's this part—a disagreement he got into with Nisi Shawl, who pointed out that there are "traditions of folk magic and communal magic that are available to anyone."

Evil Monkey:
Back up. That's not the point. The point is that the comparison is flawed. Let's say for a second that MDE, at least in fiction and as part of some cultures' belief systems—and that science and a belief in magic are incompatible, which I don't think is true—that magic exists.

Jeff:
I'm with you so far.

Evil Monkey:
Well, people use magic. They use it by going to the magician or wizard or shaman, right? So they still have access to it. People have more immediate access to electricity, but that doesn't make them shamen—or, in this case, scientists. They don't have the understanding of it. So the comparison is flawed. Irrational, in fact. A point made to prop up a failing thesis.

Jeff:
I think that's harsh. The comparison may be off, but it's not off by that much. It is true he says "I do think that magic is commonly depicted as being unavailable to people lacking certain innate gifts." Which is close to a comparable situation in science, where you have to have a certain innate gift for logic and logical processes.

Evil Monkey:
But "commonly depicted" is so vague anyway. I don't think I buy it at all. Commonly depicted where? In fiction? Which fiction? In folklore? Whose folklore? What about all of those sorcerer's apprentices? They still have to learn something. They have to learn a system. Which is why this bit "In fantasy, successfully interacting with the universe requires acknowledging that you're dealing with a person and not a rule-bound system." also doesn't ring true.

Jeff:
I think at this point what we need to acknowledge to successfully interact with Chiang's post is that he's mostly talking about certain forms of heroic fantasy.

Evil Monkey:
Which leaves out surrealism, magic realism, urban fantasy, and all kinds of other things that don't dominate the best-seller lists but that do constitute the core of the really cool cross-genre stuff being done. God, this is good vodka.

Jeff:
You need to lay off that hootch. The post is very long. We have a ways to go before we're done.

Evil Monkey:
Yeah—I'm drinking because the next part deals with this whole idea of "mass production" and how that affects how we view our fiction or how you weirdoes write your fiction or whatever.

Jeff:
Seriously, give me the bottle. Now.

Evil Monkey:
You're no fun.

Jeff:
Thanks. Now, about the mass production. He says that being a person doesn't mean being arbitrary or inconsistent, so that means a fantasy universe isn't necessarily ruled by a capricious god or gods—

Evil Monkey:
Wait. I don't get it. He's dealing with magic as if it's real, but now he's saying that people aren't arbitrary so the gods people make up aren't necessarily inconsistent? Or?

Jeff:
I don't think that's what he's saying. I'm not really sure what he's saying. The actual sentence is: "This doesn't mean that a fantasy universe is necessarily ruled by a capricious god or gods; being a person doesn't mean being arbitrary or inconsistent."

Evil Monkey:
Yeah—that's what you said before.

Jeff:
Note the semi-colon. Hmm. Actually, that doesn't help. So I think he is saying the god or gods we make up aren't necessarily arbitrary or inconsistent. But perhaps he means "god or gods" in terms of the systems we set up for ourselves.

Evil Monkey:
But he's just said there's no system to magic. That it's people based. People power!

Jeff:
That may be a willful miscomprehension, Evil.

Evil Monkey:
My head hurts.

Jeff:
That's the vodka.

Evil Monkey:
No it's not. Then he says "But one consequence is that, in a fantasy universe, certain things are not susceptible to mass production." Consequence of what? Of living in a capricious god-filled universe? Of being arbitrary or inconsistent?

Jeff:
No, dummy. A consequence of not buying into scientific process as your belief system.

Evil Monkey:
I guess that's what this part means: "For example, you could say that, in order for your magical radio to function, you need to appease a certain deity, and so you say a prayer each time you make a radio, and your radios always work. But if you've got a machine that is stamping out functional radios by the thousands, it's no longer reasonable to say that it's appeasing a deity every time. Instead, it makes more sense to say you're dealing with impersonal laws of nature; your radio is an example of applied science, not applied magic." Hey—go easy on that vodka yourself, my friend!

Jeff:
Sorry. Just needed a couple of swigs…Where to start? Okay. So we're making radios individually, apparently in the same way you make a normal radio, except we're saying a prayer over it to imbue it with magicality. But, if you're doing that, then—

Evil Monkey:
Hypothetically, magic is available to everyone through prayer!

Jeff:
Exactly. Mixing magic and religion here, I think. So he's assuming religion is available to everyone but magic is not available to everyone? And yet the magic radio is made magical by way of prayer. To a god. But is he talking about fiction or in the real world—like maybe in certain cultures they do say a prayer over the radio as they make it.

Evil Monkey:
So how would the mass production aspect of it be any different for a "magic" radio than for a "non-magic" radio?! Give me that vodka!

Jeff:
Take it! I don't want anymore! Drink it all!

Evil Monkey:
I will! I will, damn you and your terrible way of losing keys.

Jeff:
It's not that cold!

Evil Monkey:
It's getting colder! It's easy for you—you've got a jacket. I've got no fur to put over my fur. I am a creature of the tropics!

Jeff:
Focus, Evil! Focus. We've a post to finish discussing. Ann will be here soon.

Evil Monkey:
You keep saying that but she's not here. Not even a little bit!

Jeff:
You've got to get a grip. We're in the driveway of the house, not Antarctica, you big ole wimp.

Evil Monkey:
I'm gonna bust a window wide open. And hop inside.

Jeff:
No, you're not. Read the rest of the post.

Evil Monkey:
Ow! Stop it! You don't need to shove my head into the computer screen, moron!

Jeff:
Read!

Evil Monkey:
Okay. Okay. I'm fine now. Okay. So—where were we?

Jeff:
Impersonal laws of nature. Applied science. Not applied magic.

Evil Monkey:
Arggh! But the impersonal laws of nature still apply in fantasy novels. There's gravity, generally. There's….ack! Why doth it bother me so?

Jeff:
Too much vodka. Let's move on.

Evil Monkey:
Next paragraph. Next paragraph. Sarah Monette quote. Oversimplification to say science fiction deals with the Industrial Revolution while fantasy denies that ever took place. Wow. I'll say. And then Chiang agrees, says grain of truth, shift from god-centered to scientific viewpoint sparked by it because you could see the mass-produced products of applied science.

Jeff:
I guess we could give him that, but what about the Enlightenment? 18th century England wasn't exactly a hotbed of anti-science, was it?

Evil Monkey:
I dunno. I'm just a monkey.

Jeff:
Right—I'm just going to quote the next two paragraphs in their entirety. We're almost done! Ann's almost here!

Before mass production, technology usually involved the personal touch. Every artifact was the product of an individual's care and attention; every tool was born of a conscious act. If a device worked well, it was usually because someone had been concentrating really hard when they made it. After mass production, that was no longer the case. The personal touch vanished from many aspects of daily life.

This perspective helps illustrate why, even though fantasy doesn't have to be pre-industrial, fantasy works so well with a pre-industrial setting. Before industrialization, it was easier to believe that we lived in a universe that recognized persons. And even though fantasy doesn't have to be nostalgic, it's easy to romanticize the days when an individual's labor mattered, and you couldn't be replaced by a machine.


Evil Monkey:
I like that first paragraph. That's definitely true. And it's an interesting point. That second paragraph…I just don't know. How much science fiction do we actually see in which the characters are cogs in a system that they can't get out of? Dystopian or even utopian science fiction, sure. But that's a small sampling of what's out there. Most science fiction functions the same way as most fantasy: hero/heroine or anti-hero/anti-heroine. In other words, the characters not cogs. They are self-determining, even if affected by events beyond their control.

Jeff:
Remarkably cogent considering the amount of alcohol you and I have just consumed. But what I dislike about the second paragraph is its absolutism: things are this way or that way, but no mix of things. It's not nostalgic to value individual labor—we just do individual labor in different fields than in the past. And if you're an autoworker in a factory, I'd imagine you still take pride in what you're mass producing. Whether you say a magical prayer over it or not.

Evil Monkey:
So does fantasy work really well in a pre-industrial setting?

Jeff:
If it does, it's because lazy writers are using old tropes and old backdrops and just dusting them off before they use them. Yeah, there's a lot of heroic fantasy with pre-industrial settings. I don't know, though, that the setting is as important as the mind-set behind it. The minds creating these books are still from a post-industrial world. That has to affect how the writer writes the book. Some more than others, obviously.

Evil Monkey:
Then there's this:

Similarly, this perspective illustrates why, even though science fiction doesn't have to be about technological advancement, it is so often concerned with the notion of progress. Once conscious intention was removed from the creation of devices, inventions could spread so rapidly that you could see society change within a single lifetime. And even though SF doesn't have to be cautionary, it's easy to worry about the dehumanization that can result when conscious intention is removed from too many aspects of life.


Jeff:
Before I forget, I meant to ask—you don't think he's attacking fantasy, do you?

Evil Monkey:
No, I don't. I think he's genuinely interested in defining the differences between fantasy and science fiction.

Jeff:
Me, too. But I'm not sure about this statement about science fiction concerned with the notion of progress. What is "progress" first of all? Technological progress? Because as we've seen over the last hundred years technological progress means little in terms of personal and collective wisdom or ability to use technology properly. But let's say "progress" means in terms of "technology" or all the gadgets technophiliacs have wet dreams over. Does science fiction really concern itself with progress? I think it assumes progress many times. It assumes it, but it doesn't engage in the implications of it. Which may be one reason I think of science fiction and fantasy as being more or less interchangeable.

Evil Monkey:
I'm sorry. I missed that. My core body temperature is falling rapidly.

Jeff:
Very funny.

Evil Monkey:
So you're saying that SF takes progress for granted.

Jeff:
Yes. Just as most fantasies take the physical laws of the universe for granted even in those books in which "magic" is paramount, with big old systems of make-believe created for that magic. And because most science fiction takes progress for granted we have a dearth of novels that actually deal with the "applied science" of our current problems with global warming, finite resources, pollution, etc.

Evil Monkey:
Now you're just lecturing. And buying time.

Jeff:
Ann'll be here in a second!

Evil Monkey:
Uh oh. Here comes the disclaimer.

I don't claim that this distinction between magic and science is the ultimate explanation of the difference between SF and fantasy. There are countless examples of SF/F for which this doesn't apply at all, and anyone looking for gray areas can find plenty in any discussion that mentions consciousness. But I do find it a fruitful way to think about these two subgenres, so I figured I'd write a post about it.


Jeff:
Nothing wrong with that.

Evil Monkey:
Yeah, I guess not. I just hate the way he mixed magic and religion, the real world and the fictional world. There's some kind of mixing of metaphors going on there.

Jeff:
I don't care for the simplification of it. I guess it just goes back to the idea that when you try to label something you simplify it to such a extent that it can only be one thing or another thing. When most good fiction is more complex than that—fantasy included—and contains a cross-pollination of the rational and the irrational, the magical and the scientific.

Evil Monkey:
So you find Chiang's comments more or less irrelevant.

Jeff:
I guess I do.

Evil Monkey:
Yet we've spent all this time talking about them!


Jeff:
We're locked out. We're waiting for rescue. What else was there to do?

Evil Monkey:
Have you read Chiang's fiction?

Jeff:
Love it. Great stuff. Horrible cover on that last book, though.

Evil Monkey:
I kind of liked the cover.

Jeff:
I hated it.

Evil Monkey:
I loved it.

Jeff:
Pass the vodka.

Evil Monkey:
We're going to die out here, aren't we?

28 Comments:

At 9:24 AM, Anonymous Gwenda said...

"Scientific process gets bent to the will of the individual a lot more than you might think."

I think this is true, but I also think that the scientific community is very good at policing itself to counteract this. No one individual's research or conclusions are going to become widely accepted without a ton of peer review, debate and independent confirmation.

At WorldCon this year on one of the State of Politics panels, Stan Robinson basically endorsed the scientific method (in this larger sense) as the most sensible "religion" we could adopt as a culture -- to apply something close to the scientific method in other types of thinking and follow the facts to better policies. (Of course, he says it far more eloquently than I could ever reproduce.)

 
At 9:50 AM, Anonymous Ann V. said...

Hey, this is Ann. I'm in the house and have been here the whole time. The door is unlocked and it's only 65 degrees outside so quit your bitchin' and come on inside. Or maybe...on second thought.... Where's that vodka again?

 
At 10:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gwenda:
Regardless, that's not the interesting part, at least for me, in how you use science in fiction. The *people* behind scientific discovery--their foibles, irrationalities, etc.--are what I take away from science for fiction. But I'm not endorsing irrationality as a process.

I also don't think the scientific community is that good at policing itself. I've seen the kind of in-fighting and misinterpretation of data that occurs in the scientific community and how personalities can influence theory and policy. It's certainly not terrible at policing itself, though. Again, I'm not endorsing "magic" or "religion". Mostly, I would like Chiang to express himself more clearly.

JeffV

 
At 10:27 AM, Blogger Brian said...

Great post Jeff and I think Ted's was interesting to. I think part of the problem is that science and magic aren't actually opposed. Well, science is usually opposed to magic because science rejects an illogical universe. On the other hand, magic can take in science and keep right on going. (Of course, this is all theoretical since MDNE.) For an example, "Perdido Street Station" presents a world in which magic is studied through the scientific process. In fact, in a world in which magic exists, magic would just fall under science, wouldn't it?
Anyway, it's a fascinating discussion even if it's all just playing around in dreamspace.

 
At 10:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet again bastardizing forms, eh Vandermeer? To defile the Socratic Method with that vile evil monkey of yours. You'll get yours, VanderMeer, and that little monkey TOO!



(minz)

 
At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Chiang's is very interesting, Brian. And I agree with you about how things work in a piece of fiction, especially.

JeffV

 
At 11:02 AM, Anonymous PaulJessup said...

This argument makes me laugh.

HAHA.

See? Look. I laughed.

And last I checked Urban Fantasy sells pretty nicely, and ranks up on the best seller as much as/more than pre-industrial fantasy.

Charles De Lint, Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, S. King's The Dark Tower (or Insomnia, or any of his other less horror-y novels) , blah blah blah

All best sellers.

Magic doesn't exist? Damn. I should stop practicing it then.

 
At 1:01 PM, Blogger Keith said...

A fantasy universe is necessarily ruled by a capricious god-- the author. They decide what form of magic the story will allow, whether it's modern surrealistic sublimation or tribal incantation mumbo jumbo.

One has a religious/mythic origin and is thus, sociological, while the other is rooted in psychology. In this way, magic in the fantasy novel has a metric, but it is quite subjective at the same time.

 
At 1:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And SF isn't the same way?
JeffV

 
At 1:50 PM, Blogger Emma Bull said...

Evil Monkey, come over to my place, and you can have single malt scotch indoors by the fire. You can bring Jeff. This analysis rocked.

Because Ted Chiang's essay does what too many people do when trying to differentiate science fiction from fantasy: They define the categories by characteristics that they, themselves, have just assigned to them. Too much straw-man creation, not enough reference to works of fantasy and science fiction as they're represented in the real world. Chiang, however, is trying to do a fair job of it; most people who make definitions out of straw do it to slam one category or the other.

I can't accept the disclaimer without a protest, though:

I don't claim that this distinction between magic and science is the ultimate explanation of the difference between SF and fantasy. There are countless examples of SF/F for which this doesn't apply at all...

If so, it seems as if, far from being the ultimate explanation, the distinction is at best a limited analytical tool for studying a very few specific works. Which would make a very cool scholarly study indeed, but not much of a defining statement about fantasy and science fiction.

But yes, bottom line: a comparison between real-world science and fictional magic boils down to MDNE. Monkey, I got your booze right here.

 
At 3:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Single malt scotch? I don't think Jeff needs to come along...

Evil Monkey

 
At 3:38 PM, Blogger Ted said...

So many points to respond to; forgive me if I miss some:

But there is no such thing as magic!

I was discussing magic as commonly depicted in fiction. I think it's reasonable to discuss, say, Madame Bovary's personality, even though we're pretty sure that she never existed, and it's more convenient to say "Madame Bovary" rather than "the fictional character named Madame Bovary," but I can try to adopt the latter convention.

So, is there a difference between saying that a character is a powerful wizard and saying that she's using powerful technology? I claim that there is. If she were using powerful technology, there's an implication that, conceivably, such technology could someday become available to others. If she's a wizard, there is no such implication. The reason for this is that, if she's depicted as a wizard, there's an implication that her powers are dependent on her conscious will, which is not reproducible.

science isn't nearly as logical as Chiang is making out.

Well, I actually never said that scientific research is logical. What I said was that scientific results are replicable. No matter how Faraday arrived at his conclusions, electricity works consistently for everyone, or even if nobody's around. This is not the case with magic (as it is commonly depicted in fiction).

Well, people use magic. They use it by going to the magician or wizard or shaman, right? So they still have access to it. People have more immediate access to electricity, but that doesn't make them shamen—or, in this case, scientists.

Are you saying that there's no difference between being able to flip a light switch and going to visit a wizard? How frequently can I make this request and expect to get it filled? How many people can even the most obliging wizard help in this manner?

Back when a light bulb was something that only existed in a laboratory, the comparison with visiting a wizard was an apt one. But over time, light bulbs become more and more widely available, because scientific results are replicable and subject to mass production.

Which leaves out surrealism, magic realism, urban fantasy, and all kinds of other things

True, which I tried to acknowledge at the bottom of the post. Perhaps I should have put that at the top.

So I think he is saying the god or gods we make up aren't necessarily arbitrary or inconsistent.

I was trying to qualify the previous sentence, "interacting with the universe requires acknowledging that you're dealing with a person and not a rule-bound system." Some might interpret that as making a fairly strong claim, e.g. treating electricity like it's a person means you have to wait until the electricity god is in a good mood before you turn on your light bulb. This is not what I'm claiming.

but what about the Enlightenment? 18th century England wasn't exactly a hotbed of anti-science, was it?

I specifically said, "The shift away from a god-centered worldview and toward a scientific worldview had been underway for some time already."

But what I dislike about the second paragraph is its absolutism: things are this way or that way, but no mix of things.

Absolutism? I put in as many qualifiers in that paragraph as I thought I could get away with.

Mostly, I would like Chiang to express himself more clearly.

Me too.

 
At 3:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That does provide some clarity, Ted. And you have to keep in mind, Evil Monkey dialogues are not exactly the most serious discussions in the world.

I want to get back to what you posted later, when I've thought about it so I don't just respond off-the-cuff.

But I guess my main question is, and forgive me if you think you already answered this: What is the importance of making this division between fantasy and SF? How does it help writers? How does it help readers?

JeffV

 
At 4:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, maybe that's the wrong question.

Why is it important to you to make the distinction?


JeffV

 
At 8:20 PM, Blogger Safe Light said...

You know, this is incidentally the Chiang Proof of Somatic Magic.

Conisder this:

I can *will* my hand to move, and it does despite being as subject to the laws of physics as the piano across the room which I cannot directly move.

Neither Ted nor Jeff (or anyone else) can will my and to move.

It follows, then, that the conscious function of my own body is magic, right?


daniel

 
At 8:27 PM, Blogger Safe Light said...

(Which is a bass-ackwards way of saying that if magic is the function of consciousness upon matter, then clearly magic *does* exist.)

 
At 12:51 AM, Blogger Ted said...

Jeff asked:

Why is it important to you to make the distinction?

At the risk of getting overly philosophical, it's because I think that even though there aren't clear and distinct boundaries between types, there is some utility in having separate words for them.

For example, you (or your Evil Monkey) mentioned surrealism, magic realism, and urban fantasy. Can you identify a sharp border between these three types of fiction? Probably not. But it's still worthwhile to have these different terms.

Language is a slippery thing. It's impossible to come up with a hard-and-fast definition of the word "table." But when we use that word, other people usually understand what we mean. Similarly, I think that I'm referring to something different when I say "science fiction" as compared with when I say "fantasy," and other people seem to be, too. Even if the various criteria proposed for distinguishing these two subgenres don't perfectly capture the difference that I perceive, that doesn't persuade me that the difference is illusory.

I don't expect that someday we'll discover the One True Difference between SF and fantasy, and I certainly don't want to reinforce an "Us vs Them" mentality. I do think that examining the difference that some of us perceive has the potential to be instructive.

 
At 1:46 AM, Blogger Ted said...

And Sarah Monette answers the same question here.

 
At 5:36 AM, Anonymous Paul Jessup said...

Ted-
I agree that maybe a classification system for genres is beneficial (mostly in scholarly ways, for "after the fact" interpratation of a work), but I don't think your attacking this in a truly logistic manner.

You're going by what you feel. You're not providing literal examples. If you want to create a good classification of the two genres you need to provide logical and scientific backing.

I think a good way to approach this would be through an aristotilian class hierarchy. This would require years of study. We should hire fourteen librarians to pour over several hundred different genre books. After each librarian finishes, he should provide a conceptual DNA for each book.

Three of the librarians should be blind to create a control for our study. The rest should be deaf in order not to be disturbed. One of them should be manic depressive, in case there needs to be a tie breaker when it comes to the results.

After the data is collected and inputted into a large hydralic computer stored in the sub basement of the Vatican, then we can go over the minute detail of each genre and discover the true meaning of "Fantasy", "Science Fiction" and "Novels" and "Short Stories" by setting them up into a classical heirarchy showing the relationship to each and the varying degrees of conceptual uniformity.

Anything else would be a substandard study.

 
At 6:31 AM, Blogger David Moles said...

The Library is testimony to truth and to error.

 
At 10:39 AM, Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Maybe I missed someone else saying this, but just in case I didn't or in case there are other bad readers like me:

Magic Does Not Exist is important to remember when talking about fantasy. And Science-fiction-science Does Not Exist is important to remember when talking about science fiction. Pretending one kind of made-up thing is realer than another kind of made-up thing is only important if you believe that one of the made-up things is more true. Some people say fantasy exemplifies the religious attitude, but so does science fiction. One may be Catholicism and one may be Zen, but they're just ways to try to see what's important about being alive.

It's all just stories, damn it. Give me more good ones and fewer bad ones, and I'm happy.

 
At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will:
That's a great point--and one Evil Monkey kind of missed. Really great point.

JeffV

 
At 12:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One other clarification: Keith said, "A fantasy universe is necessarily ruled by a capricious god-- the author."

This isn't just true for SF (as JV pointed out), that's the most basic foundation of all fiction. Period. Granted, that's somewhat outside the perview of the discussion (or is it?). SF, indeed, all fiction, would seem to share the same capricious flaw as fantasy, nicht wahr?

If you step back far enough, much of this argument is just so much sophistry. Don't get me wrong, as part of the process of creating fiction, it can be useful, perhaps even essential. And for me, as part of my day job, it's a an essential part of trying to help a book reach the most appropriate and hopefully broadest audience as possible. (I'll spare you the long explanation of the roundabout process of how I decided to classify VELLUM for the US audience.) But on a more pure philosophical level, there won't be a truly satisfactory answer in all of this, and attempts to define/contrast sf & f are almost self-defeating. Of course, that just might be what makes it so darn interesting to chat about. Wish I had time to say more (and re-read the posts for a more full digestion).

--minz

 
At 4:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They're all just arrangements of words. Give me more arrangements of words that I like and fewer that I don't, and I'll be happy.

Genres like "fiction" and "non-fiction" and "cookbooks" and "dictionaries" are nothing more than marketing categories. Sure, they tell bookstore clerks where to shelve a given arrangement of words on paper. But anyone who claims there's a real difference between them is just setting up strawmen and knocking them down again.

Just arrange words in an order that I like. The rest is sophistry.

-- Evil Aardvark

 
At 6:19 PM, Blogger Kameron Hurley said...

If she's a wizard, there is no such implication. The reason for this is that, if she's depicted as a wizard, there's an implication that her powers are dependent on her conscious will, which is not reproducible.

Unless she's using her will to direct nanomachines that perform said "magic."

And what about fantasy technology? Things that could absolutely never exist within the *current set of physical laws that we believe to be true.* What if it turns out someday that some of these laws aren't true at all, and then, look FTL (which is, as we currently understand it, fantasy. So if you have FTL are you writing a fantasy novel?).

And I still don't see, aside from marketing, why it would matter if it was SF or F. Except that fantasy's got a big girly audience and is written by people with "soft" degrees and SF is, as Nick said, Boy's Own Adventure written by people with "hard" degrees. I suppose if we were all writing girly fantasy, then everybody would be girly.

And wouldn't that be scary!

Heh heh

I couldn't resist.

And dude, Jeff, it doesn't get cold in Florida. You totally ruined my sense of disbelief. C'mon, you fantasy writer, you should know better!

 
At 5:17 AM, Anonymous Paul Jessup said...


They're all just arrangements of words. Give me more arrangements of words that I like and fewer that I don't, and I'll be happy.


Oh come on now! I smell bullshit. I like the words:
apple mice wizards edan evensnow a the me catdangle and unicorn

That doesn't mean a book consisting just of those words, re-arranged into some semblance of sentances would be appealing to me. Nor does it mean that a cookbook is like a novel.

Although, I think it would be fun to write a cookbook that told a story like a novel. But that would be a different beast altogether.

Genres go beyond marketing, and exist to fill the human need for classification and order. We better understand our world by reinterpiting it into things that makes sense to us as humans.

This usually involves creating classifications of things. Creating an object that we can empiracally view and then look at in a scientific manner.

 
At 5:17 AM, Anonymous Paul Jessup said...


They're all just arrangements of words. Give me more arrangements of words that I like and fewer that I don't, and I'll be happy.


Oh come on now! I smell bullshit. I like the words:
apple mice wizards edan evensnow a the me catdangle and unicorn

That doesn't mean a book consisting just of those words, re-arranged into some semblance of sentances would be appealing to me. Nor does it mean that a cookbook is like a novel.

Although, I think it would be fun to write a cookbook that told a story like a novel. But that would be a different beast altogether.

Genres go beyond marketing, and exist to fill the human need for classification and order. We better understand our world by reinterpiting it into things that makes sense to us as humans.

This usually involves creating classifications of things. Creating an object that we can empiracally view and then look at in a scientific manner.

 
At 9:31 PM, Blogger JP said...

The UK edition of Stories Of Your Life And Others has a much better cover.

I hope that wasn't raspberry vodka you were sipping. It is vile stuff.

 

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