Join 3,377 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


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?

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?
posted by straight to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Following that definition, Star Wars is fantasy, which may or may not be a counter-example depending on your opinion. For example Wikipedia classifies Star Wars as "space opera", which is itself "a subgenre of science fiction", but others would argue it's just a fantasy story with spaceships and robots in the background.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:36 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Chiang's distinction between the 'impersonal' scientific view of the world, vs. the fantasy view of the world, shares some commonalities with the idea of animism.

Derail: I wonder what he'd have to say about Clarke's third law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
posted by googly at 8:37 AM on September 14, 2011


I can't address #1, but it seems like most of Lovecraft's works deal with an impersonal universe in which certain characters are singled out for special powers (i.e. in The Thing on the Doorstep). In a sense, there's no characteristic of individuality or negotiation with the forces he describes. I think many would still characterize Lovecraft as fantasy, albeit dark fantasy.

Michel Houellebecq wrote about this characteristic of Lovecraft's work in H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:39 AM on September 14, 2011


The Book of the New Sun provides an interesting borderline case. There is a sense in which Severian is a special person in the sense Chiang is talking about. Depending on your view of the book though, that may be a kind of trick played by the even more powerful entities who are running the show and who are really just manipulating purely scientific forces to make the story come out the way they want it to.
posted by crocomancer at 8:40 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


The line gets really blurry in Full Metal Alchemist.

Sometimes the plots rely on almost magical scientific and industrial artifacts (eg automail) and sometimes they rely on almost scientific or industrial magic (eg sets of reproducible spells, the creation of chimera at state run labs, repeated attempts by many alchemists to raise the dead always resulting in the universe responding in the same way - ie with the generation of homunculi).

The whole premise is that it's a universe where alchemy developed instead of science, but in some senses the creators have it developing along distinctly scientific lines. So trying to apply Chiang's distinctions across the whole set of stories told in the manga/films/anime would get you a lot of argument at best, and just not work at worst.
posted by Ahab at 8:41 AM on September 14, 2011


I think that oversimplifies it. Some fantasy is about the Special People Who Can Do Magic and the dull normals who cannot, and it's impossible to switch from one to the other. (Harry Potter is a good example of this.)

But a lot of other fantasy discusses magic as a talent, like music or drawing, which most people have a little, which some people have a lot, and which needs a lot of work and practice. (The first group also involves people practicing, but only the special people can do it.) Offhand, this seems common in the sort of Austen-themed stories like Shades of Milk & Honey or The Twelfth Enchantment, and arguably becomes the case at the end of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I don't think this is particularly anti-scientific.

I do not think fantasy is necessarily about gods or has gods or other forces which need to be appeased, though if those entities exist -- and aren't aliens -- then it's usually fantasy.

Jasper Fforde is an interesting case, because he generally has rules which everyone follows (jumping into books is a very rare talent, but a talent; I don't remember what the rules are for the Time Squad people), but I think most people classify his books as fantasy rather than science fiction.
posted by jeather at 8:56 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's a pretty good lens to look through, but it tends to be a bit blurry, like most.

I know in Discworld, research has shown that the traditional components of Askh Ente can be replaced by three matchsticks and 2 ccs of mouse blood (or even just a fresh egg). But Discworld magic relies mainly on belief. Though there are rules for that that can be manipulated (see Hogsfather for the most obvious example).

In The Matrix, the universe treats Neo as unique and special, but it has robots so it's largely considered Sci-Fi.

And of course Star Wars has it's Jedi.

He might call all of those fantasy for the reason's listed. A kind of One-Drop rule for fantasy. But then again, he's written some short stories/novellas that would normally be considered fantasy (72 Letters, Alchemist's Gate). 72 Letters has magic that anyone with sufficient education can do, but there are certainly other traditional fantasy worlds where anyone who puts their mind to it can do magic. Hell is Other People has fantastic elements in an uncaring universe, but it treats people as individuals.

Any work with alchemy, where the materials are special and scarce (scarce enough not to be mass produced) but the practitioner is nothing more than a learned practitioner could be considered sci-fi under those rules.

So, it's one good way to look at The Line, definitely and interesting one leading to sometimes counter-intuitive results. But I don't think it's the Final Word. I'm not sure there needs to be a line at all. I'm fine with a continuum.
posted by Garm at 8:57 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


What does this distinction say about the trope of the mad scientist or any other kind of scientific genius? A lot of stories are built on the idea of only a single character being able to accomplish X because of unique abilities or powers — think of those ubiquitous "super-hackers," mutants, cyborgs and supersoldiers.

I think this is a useful distinction, but the two things it separates are not science fiction and fantasy. It separates heroic fiction from social fiction. Some stories are about individuals acting in a vacuum. Other stories are about individuals that are part of society. This heuristic separates them fairly well.
posted by Nomyte at 8:59 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think that idea's novel to Chiang at all. The science fiction community has long debated the differences and merits of "hard" science fiction vs. space opera and straight up science fantasy.

As a fairly recent example, Battlestar Galactica (the new one) really swings heavily between fairly hard scifi and classic fantasy tropes of destiny, "chosen ones", etc.

J.J. Abrams likes to dance around this idea as well. Fringe, for instance, is generally regarded as "scifi", but tosses in his trademark mystical destiny mumbo jumbo for good measure.
posted by mkultra at 9:13 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Following that definition, Star Wars is fantasy

If you use any sort of functional definition, Star Wars is fantasy. There's no way to extend what we know about physical law to make it "possible". A useful definition of science fiction is "what if this were different", then working from that. That's explicitly what al lot of sf writers do: What if robots were sentient (Azimov)? What if we could travel faster than light (eg Niven's Known Space)? What if we couldn't, but could transmit conciousness by radio (eg Morgan's Taki Kovaks Novels)?

If you use a "set dressing" definition: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.", aka ""talking squids in outer space," then, by that definition, SW is sf. Even Atwood has laterly dropped away from that extremist position.

These two views of the genre are at the heart of your question. The "set dressing" defintion rankles may people's noses beacuse it makes sf into a cargo cult. If it has space squids or ray guns, it's sf, if it doesn't, it's not. This trivially ignores the SFnal tradition of speculation about ideas which is not captured by the "dessings" definition, starting back with Shelly, Verne and Wells. Escapist fare, like SW, has always been part of SF (eg John Carter, Flash Gordon, Perry Rhodan), or at least lumped in with it, but it's not the entirety of the genre.
posted by bonehead at 9:15 AM on September 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


For me, this is mostly blurry when applied to certain aspects of the world or setting. I think that definitions like Chiang's and others are more helpful when applied to the central premise.

So, if the central premise of the Matrix is that we're all in a virtual reality controlled by robots, I think that's scifi, because it's a what-if based on hypothetical scientific / technological ideas. But if you looked at individual elements of how this story gets told, like how Neo is a special / messiah figure, it definitely falls into Chiang's version of fantasy, and it has less to do with the scifi premise.

If the central premise of the original Star Wars trilogy is that an idealistic, orphaned farmboy has to learn the magic of an ancient order called the Jedi in order to avenge / redeem his father and save the world as he knows it, I think that's fantasy. But of course the setting is the fun spaceships and robots.

In China Mieville's Bas-Lag cycle, magic is described much more like a science, and definitely falls into the category that jeather mentions of magic as a talent that anyone can learn, and is more like an academic / scientific pursuit. I'm at a loss however to come up with what the premise of those books are in just a couple sentences... which I suppose is why they're categorized as "New Weird"!

I find Moh's Scale of Science Fiction Hardness, and the distinctions mkultra mentioned, to be more useful in describing scifi. I don't mind thinking of Star Wars as a fantasy, but I think it's more precise to describe it as soft SF or science fantasy.

On preview, what bonehead said.
posted by fireflies at 9:17 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think this is particularly anti-scientific.

I think you're missing Chiang's point a bit. The distinction he's drawing is not between magic as a Force which everyone in the universe can draw upon to a greater or lesser extent and magic as a Gift which only the chosen can wield. It's between Universe as Personal or Impersonal. In Strange & Norrell, which you cite, it's very much a Personverse --- the Raven King/Stephen Black is greeted by the trees and forms compacts with them. Implicitly, the trees have wills and desires and can make promises. Pratchett, too, I'd say, is very much fantasy by this measure --- Death is a central character; for and object to be imbued with magic is for it to take on some of the qualities associated with personhood (which book is it where the spellbooks in the university rattle on their chains in fear when something breaks into the library?). What's unusual about Pratchett is that over time he has slowly evolved his magical universe into one in which magic is nearly superfluous --- in the guards and city books it rarely crops up, with most of the plots being driven by technological advancements which would fall under science (the clacks, the printing press). But it's still a Personverse--- when pratchett satirizes technology he most often dies so by personifing it and making it willful and responsive to emotion --- Vimes' imp-powered PDA or giving the supercomputer Hex a Teddy bear.
posted by Diablevert at 9:26 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Following that definition, Star Wars is fantasy

George Lucas has always described Star Wars as "space fantasy".

I'm not uncomfortable with this definition, and it's obviously sparked an interesting and useful discussion. At the same time it does have its limitations. A lot of line-blurring seems to take place in current -- to use a fitting phrase -- sci-fi films. There really are very few hard sf movies anymore, with Star Trek arguably one of the standard-bearers in terms of de-mystifying political power or megalomaniac motivations -- although the films are a different animal from any of the series, where individual episodes didn't have the narrative requirement of an outsized supervillain. Gattaca, yes; Moon, very close; Solaris, possibly. Between Blade Runner and Children of Men there's a lot of narrative territory, much of it unexplored.

But really, a lot of current sci-fi actually comes out of the horror genre, as does that other venerable TV series, Doctor Who. (It was a revelation to me, many years since becoming a fan, to have a major sf author explain this to me -- though I've forgotten which essay it was.) The Doctor himself may seem to be a mystical person-recognized-by-the-universe -- a trait unfortunately in some ways reinforced by the reboot's tropes -- but fundamentally the show is about "explaining away" the underpinnings of whatever it encounters. Yet many of the storylines draw directly from the world of nightmares, and the whole gist seems to be scaring kids (and the occasional adults) behind the sofa. I'm not sure how this definition addresses that, and since horror is the basis of much modern sci-fi, it's naturally going to be a problem fitting into this.

I don't think horror is nearly as important a genre in published sf, though. The movies are more about the mall/airport market, if you will.
posted by dhartung at 9:27 AM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are there works that most people agree are either SF or Fantasy but that can't be distinguished this way?

I would say Philip K. Dick's work is pretty much universally regarded as SF but hardly wrote any material (out of over a hundred short stories and dozens of novels) that would fit that definition. The usual world of one of PKD's stories would be similar to most other SF, in that they would be set in the future with interesting changes to technology or political situations or social life. But unlike a lot of other SF, the point was pretty much never to examine that world as a static, impersonal force in the way that Chiang is talking about. Chiang's own Hell is the Absence of God, for example, has a few characters in it, but the individual experiences of the characters are merely a window into that world and the consequences of living in it.

In a PKD story, characters tend to function much differently. The plot usually revolves around an individual character who lives in some sort of futuristic setting where things like flying cars or androids exist. Those setting elements are usually just a backdrop though, because the main plot almost always involves some sort of crazy completely unexplained and unexpected set of events that affect the protagonist. For example, in Now Wait for Last Year, the plot involves an addictive time traveling drug that ends up sending the protagonist and other characters through time. In most cases the interactions between the characters and their environment are chaotic and bewildering, and the focus of the plot is on how the individuals struggle to achieve their goals in such a situation, in much the same way that a fish out of water character might function in a usual fantasy story. PKD's work sometimes had the same sorts of themes as most other SF, but it was almost always filtered through the lens of an individual in extraordinary circumstances.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:07 AM on September 14, 2011


To my mind, science fiction consists of stories which "could" happen in a natural universe and fantasy consists of stories which could happen only in a supernatural universe. Perhaps that's just shuffling the problem back to the distinction between natural and supernatural, but I think that distinction is a little more clear to people.
posted by callmejay at 10:16 AM on September 14, 2011


Star Wars is science fiction if the midichlorians imply the Force is a natural phenomenon, fantasy if the Force is magic.
posted by callmejay at 10:20 AM on September 14, 2011


I like Chiang's distinction. I think it could be more clearly stated, however. Fantasy posits a world that is directly responsive to human intention, whereas science fiction posits a world much like the one we actually inhabit, where intention does nothing to affect the external world without the mediation of technology.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:32 AM on September 14, 2011


Brin's "The Practice Effect" says that in this universe, one of the laws of Thermodynamics works differently, which allows for a "magic" effect.
posted by The otter lady at 11:13 AM on September 14, 2011


He's discounting the existence of proprietary knowledge. There may be something that anyone could do, but only a few people do it because only they know how it's done, and they are protecting the secret.

In other words, yeah, anyone could convert lead into gold. But if everyone did it, then gold would cease to have any value. So those of us who know how to do it are careful not to let that knowledge become widespread.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:16 PM on September 14, 2011


jeather makes a good point that runs counter to Chiang's premise. I recently read Grossman's The Magicians (which I would highly not recommend) and he treats magic as a talent that need training, much like a musician. Talent is of the highest importance, but talent without proper training equals little skill. He doesn't explore the opposite, training without talent, but I assume that the results would be the same -- as they would be if I took voice lessons, or more on point, if I now decided to study to become a great mathematician. This is where Chiang premise is problemmatic -- science my view the universe as impersonal, but it admits that an individual's ability to function in the universe is not.
posted by rtimmel at 12:51 PM on September 14, 2011


bit. The distinction he's drawing is not between magic as a Force which everyone in the universe can draw upon to a greater or lesser extent and magic as a Gift which only the chosen can wield. It's between Universe as Personal or Impersonal.

I don't think the Universe is particularly Personal in Harry Potter, unless I am entirely misunderstanding your definition. Yes, there are magic objects, but they are generally quite clearly bespelled (which is just more magic) or naturally magic, which is just expanding the gift from people only to people + some other species. A few spells are responsive to emotion, but mostly they aren't. (But this world is not so consistently worked out that it's well arguable.)

In "Shades of Milk & Honey", magic is a force that people can grab and stretch and thin, like salt water taffy, but there is no personality to magic, it's not any sort of personal that I can imagine. I don't think that there is much intention in doing magic, or no more than there is intention in anything you do. The universe is much like ours, with magic -- no gods, no mischevous bewitched stairs, and so on. But it is certainly fantasy and not science fiction. Equally I do not think that Fforde's work is much about intention, but it's generally more fantasy than SF.

Grossman's sequel is more interesting than The Magicians, though part of what interests me is how he could have ignored so much criticism of Narnia when he was writing his fictional critique.
posted by jeather at 1:16 PM on September 14, 2011


Transition by Iain (M) Banks skirts this line as well. It feels like a multiverse novel, which tend to be scifi (with the exception of the Crestomanci series). However, the ability to move from one universe to another is a personal talent, one that is inborn, although needing to be developed. In the UK, it was published without an M in his name, in the US, with the M. What that means for its supposed level of scifiness is up to you.

He also wrote a scifi novel cleverly (from my point of view) disguised as a fantasy novel. The focus is on the individual, the universe described would not work without the individuals, but all the magic is a variant on Clarke's law. (This is not revealed in the book itself, but summarized from the rest of his novels.)
posted by Hactar at 2:01 PM on September 14, 2011


I don't think that there is much intention in doing magic, or no more than there is intention in anything you do.

I said directly responsive to intention, as in, from a person's thoughts to action in the world. Sometimes there is a "mechanism" proposed, like a spell, but it is all mummery at the core (my perspective, not in-world), and the magic responds very clearly to the person's intentions.
posted by adamdschneider at 2:08 PM on September 14, 2011


I don't think the Universe is particularly Personal in Harry Potter, unless I am entirely misunderstanding your definition. Yes, there are magic objects, but they are generally quite clearly bespelled (which is just more magic) or naturally magic, which is just expanding the gift from people only to people + some other species.

Yeah, that's my fault, and I explained it pretty shittily. But what I meant (and I think what Chiang meant) is that magical universes are universes in which the universe is aware of and responsive to human intention. How do I cast the spell? I will it, and because I am magic, it happens. (sometimes there's an intermediate step where you must invoke the aid of the gods/weild the object in accordance with the ritual, in order to communicate you will to them/it and have them perform the magic.) But in either case, there's someone out there listening who can understand and respond to the magician's desire.

That's the fundamental shift from the way our real world works, in which forces exist independently of human will. If a tree falls in a forrest, it makes a sound, because the kinetic energy vibrates the sir molecules. Kisses don't bring loved ones back from the dead. If a sword is jammed in a substance with friction point X it will move for whoever manages to apply greater than X force, and not only for little blond boys named Arthur. Chiang's saying that in a sci fi universe there can be tech that doesn't exist in ours. But that tech can be used by anyone trained in its use, because its functioning is dependent on immutable, universal laws of that universe, and not on the magician's strength of will/proper invocation of magical forces.

There's a fuzzy borderland between these two ideas, of course. Tons of books about magic show the adepts being trained in its use. Starting up a jet fighter involves a precise and complicated ritual. (thus Asimov's dictum.) but I still think it's an illuminating distinction to draw.
posted by Diablevert at 2:24 PM on September 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I said directly responsive to intention, as in, from a person's thoughts to action in the world. Sometimes there is a "mechanism" proposed, like a spell, but it is all mummery at the core (my perspective, not in-world), and the magic responds very clearly to the person's intentions.

Well, I was actually speaking to very specific books (Shades of Milk & Honey, 12th Enchantment), where I do not believe the magic was responsive to intention (unlike Harry Potter, where it sort of is). Not all books deal with magic the same way.

But even books where magic is responsive to intention, it's also perverse, in that you can *intend* to do something, but when you pronounce the word wrong or wave the wand wrong or mix the frog blood wrong or whatever, something else entirely (usually bad) happens. This is more of ther personal/impersonal universe thing.

Yeah, that's my fault, and I explained it pretty shittily. But what I meant (and I think what Chiang meant) is that magical universes are universes in which the universe is aware of and responsive to human intention. How do I cast the spell? I will it, and because I am magic, it happens. (sometimes there's an intermediate step where you must invoke the aid of the gods/weild the object in accordance with the ritual, in order to communicate you will to them/it and have them perform the magic.) But in either case, there's someone out there listening who can understand and respond to the magician's desire.
But there are a lot of magical universes where this isn't how magic is set up -- magic is a force that can be twisted or used, like electromagnetism, and anyone can do it with enough practice. But these are still fantastic worlds, not science fictional.

It's absolutely an interesting distinction, but I see a lot of counterexamples to make it a much more effective distinction than any other. But then I think that there's such a fuzzy intermediate place between science fiction and fantasy in general that all distinctions will fail.
posted by jeather at 4:59 PM on September 14, 2011


Following that definition, Star Wars is fantasy, which may or may not be a counter-example depending on your opinion. For example Wikipedia classifies Star Wars as "space opera", which is itself "a subgenre of science fiction", but others would argue it's just a fantasy story with spaceships and robots in the background.

I've considered Star Wars fantasy for awhile.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:01 PM on September 14, 2011


jeather, you mistake me. Your counterexamples only serve to reinforce my premise. When I say "responsive to human intention," I mean to say that forces in the world of the story are reactive to the presence of a conscious mind. The mind intends something, some change upon the world unmediated by an object or objects obeying the physical laws as we know them (technology). Whether it achieves this end is immaterial. The mere fact that the end is achievable by these means is all my definition requires. The magic in Shades of Milk and Honey seems quite clearly to me to fall into this definition. Since the ability to manipulate "glamour" stems, by the authors own words, from faerie ancestry, it is not an ability which could be imparted, I expect, to a machine. It could not, even theoretically, happen in the absence of the mind and its intentions.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:48 PM on September 14, 2011


"Well, I was actually speaking to very specific books (Shades of Milk & Honey, 12th Enchantment), where I do not believe the magic was responsive to intention"

Yeah, I was curious what sort of magic would work like so I googled up an excerpt, and after having done so I'd second Adam. Granted I haven't read the whole book, but so far as I can tell the magic in Shades is still will-powered, as it were. It's an invisible force which exists outside of the characters which they manipulate using hand-waving. How does the ether know she wants to make a palm tree flutter vs. play a sound? It's her technique, but mostly it's which she desires. How does the sword know it's Arthur who's pulling on it?

One could say, I can take a length of cotton thread and depending on how I manipulate it, make a butterfly net, a lace tablecloth, a pair of tights, each of which may be made better or worse by my innate talents and the amount that I've practiced. But the thread has an independent existence in the world beyond and without me: a kitten can get tangled it it, a kid could wind it round their finger. It doesn't start to fade into non-existence if I stop paying attention to it. I don't have to have blond hair or type-O blood to thread it through a needle.
posted by Diablevert at 9:45 PM on September 14, 2011


The Book of the New Sun provides an interesting borderline case. There is a sense in which Severian is a special person in the sense Chiang is talking about.

I think from Wolfe's perspective, TBoTNS is hard science fiction set in a universe where miracles happen because God exists, just like in the real world. C.S. Lewis's space trilogy is a similar case. So I don't know what to do with authors who think the real world is a universe that recognizes the existence of persons.

What does this distinction say about the trope of the mad scientist or any other kind of scientific genius?


I would just call that bad science fiction. It comes from people whose idea of how science works is based on 6th grade stories about Thomas Edison (which gloss over the fact that he had labs full of people helping him test his ideas).

Some people say any story where people travel faster than light is Fantasy, but I'd say mostly those are science fiction with bad science in them.

As a fairly recent example, Battlestar Galactica (the new one) really swings heavily between fairly hard scifi and classic fantasy tropes of destiny, "chosen ones", etc.


I was going to say that Galactica is a mess of different genres stuffed into a single TV show. But maybe it would be better to say that just like you can have Mystery or Romance stories set in a Fantasy universe, maybe you can have a Science Fiction story set in a Fantasy universe (that might cover some things like Discworld too). Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away feels like a Science Fiction story set in a Fantasy universe.

magic is a force that can be twisted or used, like electromagnetism

jeather, I'm somewhat convinced by what you're saying with regard to stories of impersonal magic. I was going to say that if it's a phenomenon that only manifests in response to a conscious mind, that would make it significantly different from electromagnetism, and that if the universe responds to minds, that seems similar to what Chiang is describing. But then you have all the SF stories about the effects of observers on quantum mechanical phenomena. I can't imagine anyone describing Greg Egan's Quarantine as Fantasy, but I think his treatment of QM is functionally equivalent to the kind of magic you're describing.
posted by straight at 6:56 AM on September 16, 2011


But there are a lot of magical universes where this isn't how magic is set up -- magic is a force that can be twisted or used, like electromagnetism, and anyone can do it with enough practice. But these are still fantastic worlds, not science fictional.

There's also a conceit that physics are the rules of the natural universe, while magic is the cheat codes of reality. The Lev Grossman books work this way, and it's not hard to see that in the Potter books either. Magic is reserved for special people who know those cheat codes and can interact with this hidden world, but for most people, only the physical rules of nature apply.

Which implies that magic is abnatural, something from outside the universe. If it were "natural", it could be accessed by animals and plants in the mundane world. Where is the magic of sunflowers? Where are the rituals of badgers? This is part of Chiang's point: if magic exisits, why isn't it ubiquitous? If people can do it, why not crows? Why couldn't it be mass produced?

One of the striking things to me about, say, the world of Harry Potter, or say DC superheros (effectively another kind of magic), is how limited in scope they are. How would a magic chair that can walk affect the life of a disabled person? Why didn't Rowling include a company of wizards cranking out inteligent milling machines for automobile manufacturers in her world? How would the Fantastic Four's flying car change our daily lives? See Marvelman/Miricleman for an example of what I mean.

There's certainly a blurring line there where magic bleeds into science fiction, where the magic becomes part of the what if (what if the Law of Contagion really did hold? How would that change reality?). Things like the Book of the New Sun and the Bas-Leng books fall into that zone: fully realized worlds where the physical laws aren't our own, but are "magic". Star Wars is in this category too, btw. Are they fantasy or SF? Tradition puts most of them on the Fantasy shelves, except if they have robots and rayguns, in which case they're SF; the set dressing classification scheme, in other words.

Authors like Roger Zelazny, China Meville and Gene Wolfe are one of the major reasons that I'm convinced that SF and Fantasy are really useful only as marketing labels to decide if a dragon goes on the cover or a spaceship.
posted by bonehead at 7:36 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


« Older Is there an office chair that ...   |  Cyclists, help a noob with som... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.