Friday, February 7, 2014

What Is Science Fiction and What Is Fantasy?

First, what is STORY? 

A story tells of characters with a problem in search of a solution. Speculative fiction, in that sense, is like any other fiction. It must have a plot, which is motivated action: the hero is driven by a purpose.

Marion Zimmer Bradley explains motivated action as, “Joe gets his ass caught in a bear trap and tries like hell to get it out.” Dean Koontz provides a more detailed view of story structure: “The hero has a serious problem (or something he wants very badly). He tries to solve his problem (or attain his goal) but plunges deeper into difficulties and danger. His stumbling blocks arise logically from his efforts to find a solution. His troubles increase monumentally. Finally, forced by harsh circumstances to discover a truth about himself or the world, he is enabled to solve his problem or attain his goal (or fail dramatically).”

Without these elements, it’s not a story, but just a vignette—a “slice of life,” where nothing much happens. Or, it’s a case history, a story in which the issue—date rape, drug abuse, spousal battering, terrorism—is more important than the people it happens to. One avoids case histories by writing about particular people; real people, not stereotypes. The character must act for her own reasons, not the needs of the story or the author’s message.

The key to the definition of science fiction is that the problem would not happen at all except for the science context and content. That is, some aspect of technology, or a future or alien environment or society, challenges the characters. If you take these central aspects out of the story, you don’t have a science fiction story.
This is very close to the definition of a fantasy story, where characters face some aspect of the supernatural, or a magical society, or environment. Magic must be coped with.
 When a new technology or magic is developed, people have to deal with the unintended consequences. These unforeseen ramifications make science fiction and fantasy humorous or sobering.

The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Fantasy stories contain elements that are known to be impossible (for example, a magic watch that stops time, enabling the hero to walk through a “time-frozen” world). Science fiction contains elements that might be possible—the technologies don’t violate the known laws of physics.

If your hero gains the power to read minds through a magical incantation, or by allowing a female wizard to inhabit the left half of his body, that story is fantasy. But if the power to read minds comes from evolutionary mutation, or from genetic engineering, or computer-brain interfaces, then it’s not magic—it is perhaps possible—and the story is science fiction.

So science fiction is based on scientific rationalization and extrapolations of known science—and the story is believable within a rational worldview. (Admittedly, common SF story elements such as teleportation, faster-than-light travel, teleportation, or sub-space communication violate our current understanding of physics—so these are gray areas of science fiction.) Fantasy is built on the supernatural, on magic and gods and goddesses and ghosts and leprechauns and mermaids. It’s rich with the same powers that enliven mythology and religion—and the reader must take the story on faith.

Ursula LeGuinn on fantasy: “Its affinity is not with daydream, but with dream. It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic, but surrealistic, super-realistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction.”

Metaphors may be a theme in both fictions, but they will be differently explored. Take the metaphor, “edge of the world.”

Science fiction might tell of an immense world that rings a star, constructed of material from its demolished solar system. In Larry Niven’s Ringworld, the “edge of the world” is a thousand-mile high wall to hold in the atmosphere.

Fantasy might tell of a village perched on the edge of The Known, and at the end of the village lies a cottage named “Border House” that opens into The Unknown. You enter the front door of the cottage and take a few steps and you are in a realm of magic in which all the laws you have learned to trust—like gravity—no longer apply.

The best science fiction or fantasy is not fiction about science or magic, but stories about CHARACTERS who are affected by science or magic. The characters could be humans, elves, aliens, machines, pet rocks—whatever. But since we are human writers and readers, the problems that challenge the characters will necessarily be more-or-less human problems.

A typical flaw in science fiction or fantasy tales written by novices is the lack of a central, motivating human problem. In science fiction, we often encounter a bunch of techno-babble: The jumpship carrying medicine to combat the Vlorg Plague at New Tokyo Colony develops a phase uncoupling in the wave intolerator. Time ticks away as the hero rigs a Rothman wave-bridge out of garbage bags, a laser spectroscope, a rectal thermometer and an ancient Bic lighter. The colony is saved!

Big deal. The problem was imaginary and so was the solution.

On the other hand, one could imagine a story about a ship rushing medicine to a colony infected with a deadly virus, in which the crew must deal with the real problem of the damage to the human body caused by high acceleration and deceleration. (If you can only tolerate accelerating at a constant 2 Gs, you can’t “put on the brakes” at 40 Gs. But a more gradual deceleration will make the ship reach the colony too late.) The rescue ship lands on auto-pilot carrying crates of needed medicine and two dead crew members, crushed by the deceleration. The colonists are saved, not by techno-nonsense, but because of the tragic personal sacrifice of heroes.

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