Help me consider Ted Chiang's distinction between SF and Fantasy
September 14, 2011 8:19 AM Subscribe
Ask whether the universe of the story recognizes the existence of persons.
Is this distinction
between SF and Fantasy original with Ted Chiang? Can you think of any counter-examples that don't fit?
posted by straight to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
It is notoriously difficult to draw a line between Science Fiction and Fantasy. In the Boing Boing interview linked above, Ted Chiang offers this:
One way to look at it is in terms of whether a given phenomenon can be mass-produced. If you posit some impossibility in a story, like turning lead into gold, I think it makes sense to ask how many people in the world of the story are able to do this. Is it just a few people or is it something available to everybody? ... In a story where only a handful of characters are able to turn lead into gold, there's the implication that there's something special about those individuals. The laws of the universe take into account some special property that only certain individuals have ... Another way to think about these two depictions is to ask whether the universe of the story recognizes the existence of persons. I think magic is an indication that the universe recognizes certain people as individuals, as having special properties as an individual, whereas a story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process is describing a completely impersonal universe. That type of impersonal universe is how science views the universe; it's how we currently understand our universe to work. The difference between magic and science is at some level a difference between the universe responding to you in a personal way, and the universe being entirely impersonal.
He says a bit more on the subject in this interview
And that again is characteristic of fantasy, that there are forces which you treat as conscious entities, which you have to appease or make sacrifices to. You have to interact with them as though they were a person, and they respond to you as a person. Which is not how science in our world works at all.
So my questions are 1) Is this particular distinction original with Chiang or have you seen it elsewhere? 2) Are there works that most people agree are either SF or Fantasy but that can't be distinguished this way?
(1b) Has Chiang elaborated on this idea anywhere else?