David Redd writes about...
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Dear Editors (but mainly Don)
I liked your final verdict splitting the genres into SF as “knowable technology” and fantasy as “unknowable technology.” This seems to me a valid division even for stories such as Moorcock’s “Pale Roses” which combine the two.
But, this is 2006; our world is changing and preparing for changing, with VR games such as Second Life edging closer to alternate reality (actual crime in there now) and the Chinese busily scanning and tagging all knowledge into one genuinely interconnected web (albeit with censorship). So the Vingean Singularity in which scientific progress goes asymptotic does seem on the way, and our virtual/nano/bioengineered world may indeed progress beyond understanding, as per Clarke’s Third Law. (The full three appear in his Astounding Days, chapter 35.)
In short, self-directing technology may no longer be knowable by us, and soon may as well be magic which obeys the Clyde Andrews magical formula principles. We’ll just ask the twizzlebot, and an oomphaloomph is materialised for us, like magic. Mind you, I’ve known someone for whom the internal combustion engine was just the magic box which made the car go. Seriously, that’s how he thought, here in Wales, not quite the most primitive of countries. I call this phenomenon the “slow singularity.” Advanced technology co-exists with people who just can’t understand it. And people like Tala Bar, who probably can understand it perfectly well, but don’t care to.
You could say that primitive and modern have always come up against each other in this world, like those Stone Age Andaman Islanders who killed modern fishermen with poison-tipped arrows this February, and that’s nothing to do with any slow singularity. I’d say that factors such as the rise of tribalism, fundamentalism, alternative medicine and simple mental overload show that the human brain, still hardwired for the Neolithic, cannot fully comprehend the modern world already. (Including sociology it seems: Messrs Bush and Blair went into Iraq obviously unaware that post-dictators the criminals and warlord types do best, most sensible, able people having fled or been liquidated. See the Promised Land post-Solomon, Yugoslavia post-Tito, etc.)
So, after that digression, I’m convinced that the products of the Singularity in California, say, will be treated as magic by the rest of the world, particularly when we lose batteries, wires and the other physical components of technology. Liz Williams reports people out East with equal belief in computers and spirits... people with degrees, yet.
One last pointer towards the Slow Singularity close to home: an old Interzone story (I think by a Mr Don Webb – you?) in which some large robotic device trundled through the office delivering mail. From where I live, was this a futuristic prediction or simply everyday life in the advanced civilisation of Austin, Texas or wherever? When the visible technology disappears on-line, “generation@” might just as well treat everything as magic. (As you and Rachel Parsons point out re food, I know youngsters here buy boxes of magically prepared stuff to heat up in the magic microwave, and never know where potatoes or meat come from.)
The worry is that such trends will polarise the differences between the haves and have-nots even more than money is doing already. The key country to watch is Turkey: ancient and modern clashing in both technology and mindsets. If Turkey doesn’t pull through, I doubt whether anyone else will.
Having looked at where progress might take us, I do wonder whether the old sf/fantasy split will mean anything for much longer. It might become a secular/religious divide between science and faith. SF would be fiction where everything is founded on the logic of rational knowledge, and fantasy would be the rest, logical or not. Except, science fiction which accepts the existence of God as reported in various trusted documents would still be sf – which in your definition of “knowable technology” it wouldn’t be.
I think you’d have to set out the premises for dividing SF and fantasy within Clarke’s Third Law. Say, (a) science consists of achievable actions, (b) magic only works when it coincides with science. Then, SF is achievable with future or foreseeable science, and fantasy is following non-scientific bases.
Not the best split ever devised and lacks the elegance of yours, but it points to the problems ahead. In fact for Generation@ fiction such as Alan Jackson’s “The Retarded Bomb” and my own stuff will seem quaintly old-fashioned with our insistence on visible cause and effect, and rational thought...
(Aside: the hero’s final shout in “The Retarded Bomb” exactly echoes the Famous Last Words of a colleague who stepped off a too-high ledge. Admittedly it was only Famous Last Words for his legs, since the rest of him survives, but it shows that Jackson was spot-on. Hope to see more stories by him.)
Enough rambling. Sorry can’t quite make an article out of it. Just a final word of thanks for Jerry’s gathering-together of the writing tips; great stuff. Can I mention a couple of links, if nobody else has suggested them? Jeffrey Carver (Star Rigger’s Way) has a good on-line writing course, and Simon Haynes (the Hal Spacejock books) has more good stuff.
Copyright © 2006 by David Redd
Thank you very much for the insights and information, David!
First, a little housekeeping: the Don Webb who wrote the story about the postal robot may be Don J. Webb, the author of “Seventeen Views of Madness,” in issue 159. Unless it’s yet another Don Webb. Much more of this and we’ll have to parody Amos ’n Andy’s famous line about diamonds: “Names is wuthless?!”
You’re certainly justified in approaching the difference between science fiction and fantasy as a problem in philosophy. Now, do we go through the door marked “epistemology” or do we go metaphysical and open the door marked “consciousness”? Disclaimer: “I am not a philosopher” — much as one would say “I am not a lawyer” — and prefer to stick to literature. That way we can use philosophy for literary ends rather than the other way around.
I have a little trouble with classifying science fiction as using “achievable actions” be they present or future, while fantasy works “only as it coincides with science.” That defines fantasy away. And yet fantasy remains with us.
You correctly summarize my view as: science fiction uses knowable technology; fantasy, unknowable. The distinction thus hinges on what is “knowable” and “unknowable.” You may well be right that it does differentiate the two as rational versus non-rational. In any event, a few examples will show that the definition is dynamic:
In the 17th century, Cyrano’s “pigeon rifle” was basically a joke; in the 20th century it became reality in the form of fast-food franchises. Cyrano could imagine high-tech kitchen appliances, but in a pre-electronic age he could not know how they might work. However, they’re science fiction: in Cyrano’s time one could reasonably imagine that the technology might exist some day; in our time it’s a commonplace reality.
As Jack Alcott points out in his synopsis of Grim Legion, we have been living in a science fiction culture since the Industrial Revolution came to North America at the beginning of the 19th century. Only specialists understand technology even though most people can use it.
Do technicians live in a world of science fiction while non-specialists live in a world of fantasy? No, I wouldn’t say that at all. I don’t know how fishing is done in the Andaman islands or how to make a poison-tipped arrow; to me they amount to science fiction, but I could learn, if I had to.
Thus, people like Tala Bar and myself may use electronic equipment — not to mention automobiles — without knowing much if anything about how it works. But the science and technology are real; they’re currently known and knowable. Jerry Wright regularly holds seminars in electronics. If we have questions about such things, we can ask him.
Alan Jackson uses a time-honored premise in “The Retarded Bomb” where a computer is so complex that free will becomes an emergent property. The technology is currently imaginable but not “knowable”; no one can build it yet. In that sense, Alan’s bomb is also an equivalent of Cyrano’s pigeon rifle. Much the same can be said of Rachel Parsons’ Crucible of Pain, although it may be even more technologically advanced than Alan’s bomb.
Clyde Andrews’ magician L.J.P. uses “formulas” that, as I’ve mentioned, have two characteristics: the need for study and writing. Otherwise they are unknowable technology, like Achab’s rowing a boat to the Moon; the formulas can do anything, as far as we can see. They’re a “wild card” that makes L.J.P. a walking deus ex machina. But Clyde’s stories are resolved not in the ending — the magical formulas are a colorful way of bringing down the curtain — but in L.J.P.’s interaction with his friends, especially young people.
A similar example in terms of sociology: at the end of the first Harry Potter film, the school headmaster grants Harry and his friends the victory in a contest in which they’ve been soundly outscored by their less kempt-looking rivals. Now it’s hard to tell whether the film is making a cultural or a political statement; perhaps both.
An American — or at least a liberal — chokes on the headmaster’s arbitrary decision; it seems blatantly unfair. Wouldn’t a politically astute monarch have awarded the rival group the contest prize and given Harry and his friends a special medal of some sort? Does a rationalistic ending belong to science fiction while an arbitrary one belongs to fantasy?
Your example of present-day politics inexorably calls to mind Rachel Parson’s observation that fantasy can expose psychological pathologies. When fantasy — in the form of the political dogmas, personal neuroses, and delusions of various politicians and violent activists — collides with external reality, the demons of wishful thinking unleash consequences that are very dire indeed, such as terrorism and chronic wars.
The difference between fiction and reality is, as always, essential. Science fiction shows rationally how technology and reality shape each other even at the cost of making tools mysterious to all but technicians. On the other hand, fantasy is almost a practical necessity for depicting — let alone explaining — the insanity in current events.
I would not echo the line Goethe uttered in his later years, that Classicism is healthy and Romanticism is sick; it’s too categorical for me. However, I sympathize with Goethe’s ambivalence in calling himself an unwilling Romantic. I would also add that whichever mode — the rational or non-rational — one prefers in literature, neither is about to go away. I would say — without hypothesizing a “human nature” — that they need each other.
Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb