The Critics’ Corner
Between Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Don Webb
In a discussion of “One Beast That Cannot Be Tamed” (see Rachel Parsons’ response to Challenge 196), Rachel cites a principle propounded by the late Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell. In brief, it says that stories should be written for an audience contemporary with the story itself.
On its face, the principle is absurd. In science fiction and fantasy, an “audience contemporary with the story” does not exist, by definition. It’s like saying that works of literature ought to be translated into a language contemporary with the work. Well, so much for the epic of Gilgamesh: at the time of the Sumerians, the English language was still thousands of years in the future!
And yet Campbell’s principle has a practical application: an author ought not to bring his story to a screeching halt in order to fill in the readers on the technical specifications of futuristic devices. For example, in Campbell’s own short novel The Moon is Hell, he does not stop to tell readers how rocket ships work or how a Moon colony might be established. And it explains my attitude toward, for example, time machines: “Just show us what it does; we’ll hire someone else to build it.”
However, some things do need to be explained. The Campbell principle risks running afoul of the Clarke theorem: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And the Clarke theorem implies a danger in writing science fiction: at what point does it wander over the border area between science fiction and fantasy?
For example, in Campbell’s novel, the reader is left worrying whether the spacefarers stranded on the Moon can really get water and air from Moon rocks and whether a new vitamin really need be discovered to explain the malnutrition that afflicts the explorers at the end. Does the novel have a firm grip on contemporary science, let alone that of the future?
Asimov was very careful not to mystify his readers with technology, magical though it may be. In The Stars, Like Dust, he stops the action for a kind of show and tell presentation on board an interstellar passenger liner. The captain explains to the passengers, most of whom have never been in space before, how the “hyperspace jump” works. The explanation turns out to be crucial to the plot of that particular novel.
Otherwise Asimov doesn’t worry too much about technical explanations. How does a robot’s “positronic brain” actually work? Well, who knows and who cares? The important thing is its capacities and limitations; they are at the center of his robot stories.
And that gives us a handle on the difference between the technology of science fiction and the magic of fantasy. We know what Asimov’s spaceships and robots can and can’t do, and we know when and where they can work. How, that’s an “academic question.”
Likewise, Rachel Parsons invents a Crucible of Pain that allows Rhiannon to acquire information otherwise inaccessible. We have an idea when and where it can work, but we’re not sure exactly what it can’t do. It’s fantasy, but it’s getting close to science fiction.
A few more examples, arranged in order from science fiction to fantasy:
In Ward Moore’s classic time-travel novel, Bring the Jubilee, Hodge Backmaker is put into a time machine and sent back to the battle of Gettysburg. We don’t know how the time machine works, of course, but we do know its limitations: it must stay in one place, and Backmaker must return to a certain location by an appointed hour in order to return to his own time. The machine is a science fiction literary device that enables the author to contrast an alternate history with ours.
Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World contains both science fiction and fantasy, but Cyrano carefully separates them. Conversations with Elijah and Enoch while munching apples from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden? Pure fantasy: it’s a never-never land where anything can happen, and at the end Cyrano has reason to doubt its reality.
But when Cyrano is on Earth or among the Moon-beings, he trots out on almost every page one new technological invention after another and demonstrates their capacities. Was he writing science fiction for an audience three centuries in his future? Whether or not that was his intention, he achieved it as no one else ever has. Realistically, though, we can only envy the glorious bull sessions he must have had with his fellow libertins and philosopher-scientists of the mid-17th century. Little did they know how prescient they were.
Clyde Andrews’ magician, L.J.P., uses magical formulas. They can be used at any time, anywhere, but they do have two limitations: they must be learned through diligent study, and they must be written down when needed. Science fiction? Of course not; we don’t know what the formulas can’t do. They’re a literary device of fantasy that gets L.J.P. and his friends out of scrapes.
S. Michael Leier’s Rick Vargo has a paranormal talent that exposes him to entities from a realm invisible to others. There seem to be no limits on when and where Vargo’s talent works, and we don’t know what its limitations are. Is that good or bad? Neither: it’s a literary device of the fantasy genre; its purpose is to enable Vargo to encounter characters and situations he never could in a realistic setting.
In sum, then, science fiction uses advanced technology, but we have a good idea of its limitations; fantasy does the same, but we don’t know what the technology’s limitations are.
Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb