Does It Need to Be Magic to Be Science Fantasy?

Gio Clairval is an Italian born speculative fiction writer who commutes between Paris and the Lake of Como.

Gio: Lately, I’ve been writing Science Fantasy.
Felicino: And what the heck is that?
Gio: No one knows exactly.
Felicino: Cool.
Gio: I mean that writers and critics haven’t come up with an universally accepted definition but, as I’ve been writing Science Fantasy, I could try to define it.
Felicino: I thought writers were the least reliable guys when it comes to define what they’re writing. And most of them don’t really care.
Gio: Well, as a reader and a writer, I care. Let’s see what they say out there. You know the famous definition: “Science Fiction makes the improbable possible while Fantasy makes the implausible probable.”
Felicino: You don’t even have it right, it’s “Science Fiction makes—
Gio: Whatever. What I wanted to say is that Science Fantasy makes the impossible probable and plausible. Hey, why are you making faces?
I mean that Science Fiction describes improbable things that may happen in certain circumstances, while Science Fantasy gives a sense of reality to things that could never happen in the world as we know it, not even if certain conditions should come true.
If this definition (minted by Rod Sterling) is correct, several Science Fiction authors, particularly the ancestors, are Science Fantasy authors in reality.
Felicino: You’re thinking of H.G. Wells’ THE WORLD SET FREE…
Gio: And Jules Verne’s FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. Problem is a few scientific ideas tackled in XIX and XX century novels are now reality (improbable things have become possible)—
Felicino: Which means that new technology (something that looks like magic to me when the book comes out) is not enough to class a novel among science fantasy?
Gio: Exactly.
Felicino: Then I’m afraid the definition you just suggested—
Gio: —doesn’t hold water, I know. But, do you remember Arthur C. Clark’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”? Well, Science Fantasy uses both, science and magic. So I can (triumphantly) say that when you write a combination of technology and magic, you write Science Fantasy.
Felicino: It still seems a contradiction in terms to me.
Gio: Ah, these Hard SF fans! No one ever told you that everything is in the execution? You need to be subtle, to pull it off. Now, if you stop twittering and start listening, I bet I can demonstrate that you love Science Fantasy authors, too.
Felicino: Names!
Gio: The Master, forex.
Felicino: (…)
Gio: The Great, Inimitable Roger Zelazny! Besides the cycle of Amber, about which we can discuss at length—SF, Fantasy?
Felicino: Fantasy.
Gio: I guess I agree. Almost all the rest is Science Fantasy. Take LORD OF LIGHT. It’s the story of space colonists that developed a resurrecting technology complete with the download of a personality into a brand-new body, but there are demons, too. And LORD DEMON, a posthumous novel completed by Jane Lindskold, about demons who are in fact aliens—inspiration to SUSHI FOR DEMONS, which I wrote and which you’ll be reading as soon as—
Felicino: And other authors Anne McCaffrey with her dragons, Robert A. Heinlein (MAGIC, INC.), Leigh Brackett.
Gio: Jack Vance (DYING EARTH), Frank Herbert (DUNE)—
Felicino: Do you know that DUNE is the best selling science fiction book in the world even now? Twelve million copies sold!
Gio: I didn’t know, but it’s not science fiction. Come on, those guys who gobble down spice and become interstellar navigators capable of folding space, the body transformations that make Paul’s son a human worm—
Felicino: If one listened to you, China Miéville, with his ‘remade’ people in PERDIDO STREET STATION—
Gio: —is writing pure science fantasy, yes.
Felicino: Get out of here! What about Jeff VanderMeer?
Gio: His fruiting characters transforming into sapient mushroom are suspicious.
Felicino: Shhh…He can hear us.
Gio: Oh, sorry, I got carried away. But I haven’t finished with the oldies: Andre Norton (WITCH WORLD). And the founders, Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore?
Felicino: Henry Kuttner (1914 — 1958) and C.L. Moore (1911 — 1987).
Gio: They were married, and they collaborated.
Felicino: It never got ugly, really?
Gio: Shut up. Those two, they only wrote Science Fantasy, even when it wasn’t trendy at all because guys like you wanted to read about ‘serious’ science.
Felicino: I wasn’t even born.
Gio: And they inspired Marrion Zimmer Bradley. The Darkover cycle is a perfect example of Science Fantasy.
Felicino: Too romance-ey for me.
Gio: We’re meta-talking here. No reader’s reactions, please. Besides, I read it all and I liked it when I read it (a long time ago). Anyway, MZB took her inspiration from THE DARK WORLD of Henry Kuttner, 1946.
Felicino: I remember Kuttner because of the kuttnering thing. You know, the writing technique consisting in inserting unobtrusive splotches of infodump, as opposed to the heinleining, which consists in weaving information into the plot—
Gio: I was saying these two guys, Moore and Kuttner, published their first stories almost at the same time on Startling Stories and Weird Tales.
Moore began with her short stories “Shambleau”, 1933, “Black God’s Kiss”, 1934 and “Black God’s Shadow”, 1934, and Kuttner, a bit later, followed with stories that were still science-fiction-ey, but with fantasy and horror elements (“The Black Kiss” 1937 and “Quest of the Starstone”,1937). In their first collaborative novel, EARTH’s LAST CITADEL (1943), we can see the genre beginning to blossom, but it’s THE DARK WORLD that confirms the mix of technology and magic, defining the genre. It’s the story of a man that changes the worlds.
Here’s the e-text:
Anyway, Kuttner inspired lots of people. The Master—
Felicino: Stop calling Zelazny ‘The Master.’ You sound like a cult—
Gio: And Matheson dedicated I AM LEGEND to Kuttner. Bradbury has referred to Kuttner as a neglected master and a “pomegranate writer: popping with seeds — full of ideas.
As for Moore, she wrote (for Weird Tales) the stories of Northwest Smith, the guy with ice-eyes and a debatable past. For example, Northwest Smith flees from a fortress in which a black larva lives by vampirizing the most perfect beauty it can create (in “The Black Thirst”). I think Zelazny was inspired by Northwest when he created Corwin of Amber.
I will never stress enough the importance of characterization in Moore’s work. Do you remember Jirel of Joiry? The female warrior who seeks love or revenge in strange worlds? The universe she evolves in is techno-magical. Science Fantasy, pal, pure Science Fantasy. Jirel is the archetype of our contemporary heroines. She’s strong and ruthless, but also fragile, sensual but sensitive…
So, magic and transition to other dimensions, plus technology are the elements defining the genre.
Felicino: I’m sorry. I see no magic in the NEW WEIRD novels I know about.
Gio: Well, but other people think that Science Fantasy is just Science Fiction with elements of the fantastic. I’m also thinking of Gaiman’s ANANSI BOYS, with the illusions spun by Spider…
In other words, the frame of a Science Fantasy story is the ordinary world (even if it’s a city that doesn’t exist), and the fantastic element (take Miéville’s winged creatures that hypnotize and lobotomize people) is, however extraordinary, an accepted part of the ordinary world. There is NO extraordinary world, only a world in which strange things happen.
Felicino: Like in Magic Realism.
Gio: You could say so. But I introduce the idea that even when magic is absent, and all that rests is a fantastic element that isn’t explained—all this bathing in some new technology—you have Science Fantasy. In this case, the definition applies to our New Weird friends, the Remade, the Worms that dream—and the fruiting Mushroom.
Felicino: Nah!
Gio: Why do you think they call it ‘weird’, then? Since when Science is weird?

More discussion about Science Fantasy:
• 1980 G. Wolfe What Do They Mean, SF? Writer (Aug.) â„– 13/1: Like fantasy, science fantasy rests upon, and often abounds with, “impossible” creatures and objects — girls asleep for centuries, one-eyed giants, weapons that can speak and may rebel. But it uses the methodology of science fiction to show that these things are not only possible but probable.
• 2001 M. Moorcock R. Klaw Geek Confidential (2003) № 194: Whereas I grew up reading science fantasy, Leigh Brackett and stuff like that, which, to me, is the perfect combination. You can have magic and science, throw it all in.

BLOGPOST posted by Gio Clairval:

10 comments on “Does It Need to Be Magic to Be Science Fantasy?

  1. This is a very interesting subject. I suppose there are all sorts of definitions. Looking back, I see all sorts of stuff in novels I’ve read that are accepted in science fiction that I see as hogwash (not real). Example, Niven’s time travel tales, other dimensions, FTL travel.

    My first novel, Priestesses of All has psychokinesis, FTL travel and time travel. I see it as fantasy, not hard science fiction. The other issue, you touched on in you VanderMeer post is time. Today’s hard science fiction might end up tomorrow’s fantasy as time is not so kind to certain writer’s predictions. I still get a kick when I read about smokers on space ships, analog wrist watches a computer keyboards.

    The real truth is that when I read about swords, horses (which I love) and magic, I see that as fantasy. I don’t see the science in any of that. Science fiction, IMO, should stay with science, the evolution of mankind, civilization, the human spirit and technology. So much for my two cents worth….

  2. Daniele Pase says:

    What’s the difference then between what you define “Science Fantasy” and those moments in Science Fiction where preliminary conditions are yet quite different from the real world as we know it?

  3. Gio Clairval says:

    Daniele: Sterling’s definition (Science Fiction describes improbable things that may happen in certain circumstances, while Science Fantasy gives a sense of reality to things that could never happen in the world as we know it, not even if certain conditions should come true) can be applied to various subgenres of Science Fiction as well, particularly classic SF, which imagined a few preliminary conditions would occur. Or, more often, classic authors DIDN’T imagine that certain conditions would occur, but these improbable things did happen later on, which made the universes of those novels implausible to the reader.

    In the case of Science Fantasy, it’s an authorial decision. The imagined universe is implausible because the author wanted it to be just so.

    It’s different from dystopian Science Fiction, in which the premises are always political and evolve in a historical and political reality. Science Fantasy doesn’t need these constraints.

  4. Deightine says:

    My first exposure to Science Fantasy was Michael Swanwick’s THE IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER (to steal your format, Gio.) Oddly enough, that was the terminology I used to describe it at the time, never having heard any fiction referenced that way before. Perhaps Science Fantasy is a natural genre evolution that was meant to occur once Fantasy reached a point where the pre-existing fantasy works served as a knowledgebase for magic-as-technology?

    Knowledge gathers often to the benefit of technology, but until a significant quantity _of_ knowledge is gathered, technology is dramatically slowed in its revolutions. Once enough builds up, the technology leaps forward in the testing phase. The lab work and research have to be done before the practical applications are ethically viable.

    With that being the case, once a significant enough surplus of magic/fantasy themed material hit the market and magic/fantasy went from taboo or “wishful thinking” over the barrier to accepted and encouraged, it was natural that it wouldn’t just spawn varietals (such as sub-genres) but eventually present significant knowledgebase for the formation of a new genre entirely. I would hazard that in this day, the year 2009, not only will you not be ostracized for your interest in the occult, but in some western cultures heralded (see Harry Potter and Twilight).

    Science Fiction has been acceptable because of its direct link with Science (“It’s not likely, but at least you aren’t reading religiously heretical books on hermetic magic and the works of Dr. John Dee–you’ll be alright, son.”) despite often amazingly heretical thinking in terms of androids achieving sentience and alien races that can work miracles. That was a point where Science began to emulate fantasy, but because we already -had- science, it seemed like “sufficiently advanced technology” instead.

    With fantasy being de rigeur in our day, it was only a matter of time until someone took its knowledgebase as a “given” and built upon it. Magic, once ephemeral, now applied as technology: Science (of) Fantasy.

    All interesting thoughts. I enjoyed this transcription immensely.

  5. I just thought of an additional consideration. Throwing nomenclature out the window, the real differences between the Science Fiction, Science Fantasy and Fantasy genres are not the writing so much as the viable markets they sell to. Though I know very little about the markets, I think they should be the best delimiters of the genres. For example, if three different genres appeal to the same markets, it makes more sense to group the genres. I’d separate genres that did not appeal to the same groups. I believe that the market should define the genre groups, and I suspect that this should be reviewed every few years for changes in the market.


  6. Dan Read says:

    Great post, Gio. I enjoyed both the topic and the presentation.

    While I basically agree with commenter Larry’s pragmatic, commercial view on the matter, I do enjoy the exercise of genre definition and nomenclature. The problem with nailing this down is appears would be the baggage inherent in the words “science” or “fantasy,” which are like red flags waved in front of bulls with a strong affinity for a certain definition of “science fiction” or “fantasy.” Trouble is, as soon as we start trying to come up with more formal and precise terminology, we’re probably coming up with something that would mostly be useful in an academic/critical context, and not so much in a reader/fan/commercial context.

    I like the distinction you make at the end of the piece between whether or not the fantastical elements take place in “this world” vs. an “other world.” That seems quite useful to me. It reminds me of something someone said on a panel at World Fantasy this year (great to meet you there, BTW, Gio): in SF the world is ultimately “knowable” and in fantasy the world is ultimately “unknowable.” So in that view, where does the hybridization suggested by “science fantasy” come in? Unknowable things happening in a knowable world? That might be it…I think science fantasy is as fine a term to describe that as anything else.


  7. Lee says:

    I’m not usually one to worry about definitions and categories, but I must admit that ‘science fantasy’ has a certain appeal – and may even apply to my latest novel (if it’s even a novel…).

  8. Gio Clairval says:

    Gio: “Unknowable things happening in a knowable world.” I like that, Dan. And Adrian Kraig, a friend who commented on Facebook (why don’t all those bagfuls of people comment here? Are they afraid of the Jeff?). So, Adrian said that “more important than reality is the perception of it”. And Deightine, “Magic, once ephemeral, now applied as technology: Science (of) Fantasy.” Wow.
    Felicino: That’s all very interesting. Now, can’t you hear it?
    Gio: Hear what?
    Felicino: The raven. It’s not happy. It’s whispering that NEW WEIRD has that horror feel. Did you forget the horror feel?
    Gio: I did not.
    Felicino: You did.
    Gio: Did not.
    Felicino: Science plus Fantasy plus Horror = New Weird.
    Gio: You always want to have the last word.
    Felicino: Look who’s talking.

  9. xeno says:

    This is a great post. The question of genre classification doesn’t really interest me, but you mentioned several authors who are unknown to me. Thanks a million for the Kuttner link.

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