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Bewildering Stories

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 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

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