Fantasy and Science Fiction

In an earlier blog post I said that SF was a subcategory of Fantasy fiction. Now I'd like to expand a little on what I think the distinction is between SF and Fantasy as separate fiction categories.

A lot of ink has been spilled and pixels darkened on this topic in the past (for example, by Orson Scott Card), and I don't consider myself an expert on it all. But with that caveat out of the way, it seems to me there are two ways to approach the problem: as a functional matter or as a more philosophical matter.

Functionally, Science Fiction is fiction about scientific topics. In particular, it tends to be future-oriented, dealing with new technologies or scientific discoveries, or with extrapolations from present technologies and discoveries. It tends to involve space ships, artificial intelligence, computers and aliens from different planets.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is functionally about the past or a magicked present. It tends to involve medieval trappings like swords and castles as well as sorcerers, dragons, and alien creatures from the realms of human mythology like elves and dwarves. If it's set in the present time it tends to involve creatures like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches and again magic.

But I think we can begin to probe a deeper difference. SF worlds, it seems to me, are generally those that are closer to a naturalist paradigm where the universe runs by mindless physical or natural laws. The characters or their predecessors gained power through a scientific understanding of those laws, using it to construct new technologies.

Fantasy worlds generally work differently. They have the feel that the basic structure of the universe is sentient. For example, the universe understands spoken words, and so things like spells are possible. It is what we would call a "supernatural" metaphysics, and science often appears impossible or stunted in such worlds.

Of course, there are plenty of in-between places. Much of mid-20th century SF, for instance, dealt with ESP, and some SF deals with souls. People did think at one time that there would be a science of these things, or that they might work by physical law. Now we know they don't, indeed that the phenomena don't exist, so it seems to me that any story dealing with such things is a ways towards being Fantasy.

And of course there are other issues of so-called 'hard' vs. 'soft' SF, where 'soft' SF is again somewhere midways between being Science Fiction and Fantasy. One might say that Star Wars lives in such a place, although the notion of "the Force" is also sufficiently supernatural that one also might push aside all the functionally SF aspects of Star Wars and just say it's a space fantasy.

These semantic games are fun for awhile but when you step on the throttle you just spin your wheels. In the final analysis what's important is the quality of the story.


Biology in SF

Here's an interesting blog post about a recent discussion between Neil Tyson and Richard Dawkins on biology in Science Fiction. I've heard Tyson make similar claims in the past; he certainly could be right. But after thinking about it for several years on and off, my inclination is to opt for Dawkins's take.

Biology may be undirected, but environmental impactors are likely to be similar enough even in alien environments that we should expect rough similarities between how organisms evolve, at least on average.

This depends, however, on our aliens growing up on planetary environments rather than (e.g.) in space. Is it possible for life to evolve in space? I don't think there's any way to know, but clearly any such life would have radically different variables constraining evolution than that on a planet.

The other point here that impinges on SF is one of narrative, however. It's difficult to come up with compelling narratives about creatures that are very different from humans. And the more different they are, the more difficult it becomes. It's harder to create characters with whom we can empathize if they don't think in ways similar to ourselves, if they don't act in ways we can begin to understand.

Part of that has to involve physical action: we display emotion and intention through action. An alien without roughly human-analogous appendages can't gesture. This may seem a small issue, but it's difficult to construct a decent scene where one of the main characters can't make comprehensible physical motions. And the less comprehensible they become, the worse it gets. Until it's the author who's left flailing.

That may be fine for some who want to create faceless villains or the ravening horde, but frankly one can do that with humans. Creating incomprehensible evil is actually pretty darn easy. Politicians do it all the time. So it's just as much of a cop-out to produce human-disanalogous aliens and then make them the Blob.

So at any rate while it's theoretically possible that Tyson is right and the aliens we find may all be radically different from ourselves, I think he misses the point, at least as regards SF. SF authors don't simply cook up human-like aliens because it's mindlessly easy to put a different nose on a human character. They also do so because any reasonable narrative assumes roughly human characterization and action.


Atwood and Le Guin on Realism vs. SF

Here's a post on io9 about a discussion between Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin on realism vs. Science Fiction. I agree with their stance: there is no principled distinction between "literature" and "SF". The distinction is between realist literature and SF literature (and realist or SF stuff that isn't quite up to the task). Personally, with very few exceptions I have not been interested in realism as a genre. I find it tedious. If I want realism, I prefer to get it unmodified: as well written history or biography. Further, as they point out in the discussion, realism has limitations in which subjects it can easily take on. I don't believe the same limitations apply to fantastic fiction generally speaking, since any fantasy (and here I include SF as a sub-category) can tackle any of the common tropes one finds in realism.

If you stop to think about it a bit, the whole notion of realist fiction is a kind of contradictio in adjecto. It's fake history trying to appear as mundane as possible. The problem is that some believe this provides it greater intrinsic worth than fiction which fails to meet that arbitrary standard. I've never understood why.

On the other hand, is there really any such thing as an objective or intersubjective aesthetic standard to which we can hope to aspire? Or is it all simply a matter of pose and marketing?



Really, what does the term "natural" mean, except as a term of praise?

Certainly, sometimes "natural" is used to mean "not manmade", but then aren't we ourselves "natural"? And then why should there be any difference in kind between what we natural things create and the natural things themselves?

Aren't spider's webs "natural"?



Community is a good thing. Community is also a bad thing: it can lead to groupthink and the unquestioned following of authority figures. It also splits the world into "us" and "them", those of us who are part of the community, and those others out there who are not, or who choose not to be. This is why the question as to whether or not religion is a good thing is so difficult to answer.

On the one hand, religion provides community. Community can be a very good thing.

On the other hand, religion provides community. Community can be a very bad thing.

It's banal but true to say this is part of the human condition. But is there some way to mitigate the bad parts of community, while keeping the good?


Naturalist "Spirituality" and SF

There's been some recent disagreement about the desirability or even the meaning of "spirituality" from within a naturalist framework. The word itself seems to imply a supernaturalist dualism of body and spirit. A naturalist, of course, must reject such dualism.

As we see from Chris Mooney's article in USA Today, though, some of the most ardent naturalists have been willing to embrace the term. The question then becomes what the term "spiritual" means in a non-dualistic, naturalist framework. Richard Dawkins describes it as: "a sort of sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time. All those things create a sort of frisson in the breast, which you could call spirituality." Dan Dennett says he feels spiritual when he's "just transported with awe and joy and a sense of peace and wonder at, whether it's music or art or just a child playing or some other wonderful thing off of my sailboat, being amazed at the beauty of the ocean."

So it's something like a sense of awe and wonder. I'd like to be a little more precise, though. It seems to me that in the relevant sense, a "spiritual" feeling is one that reveals a certain sort of relation between ourselves and the universe. It's a frisson or feeling that accompanies our awareness of our smallness, and in particular the smallness of our daily worries and preoccupations before the immensity of reality. It is our awareness of the insignificance of all human worries and preoccupations; the sense that we are all but a mote of dust in something vaster than we are capable of completely grasping.

That is a feeling that a naturalist can share with a non-naturalist. Indeed, I'd argue that naturalism is actually the way to approach this sort of spiritual feeling par excellence, since it is only through a scientific framework that we begin to grasp the true vastness and grandeur of reality, rather than finding phantoms of it through images of human fantasy.

But there are ways that human fantasy does approach a correct understanding of this sort of vastness. It can be done in literature, the arts, but one classically naturalist, or at least scientifically oriented way that it can be done is through SF. The great SF stories are intended to be spiritual in the sense outlined above. They give a sense of the sweep of time and space that is not normally found in other forms of literature, although of course they borrow tropes from all parts, particularly from forms of epic myth. In this way they meld the mythopoetic human impulse to narrative to a naturalist, hence to an extent real and accurate, picture of the universe. 

I don't mean that SF is always a true and accurate picture of reality, of course. Even hard SF fudges at the corners. But it seems to me no other form of contemporary literature is more interested in notions of the spiritual in a rough-and-ready naturalist sense than is SF.


First Post

Welcome to my new website, SmithOrbit.com!  It's going to take me awhile to figure out how to configure the site properly, and right now there's not much here.

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