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Thread: How to Mix SF and Fantasy
September 14th, 2014, 12:00 PM #1
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How to Mix SF and Fantasy
I bought Wen Spencer's Wood Sprites recently, number four in her Elfhome series. Though four does not refer to time. WS takes place at the same time as Tinker, Wolf Who Rules, and Elfhome. It's a "paraquel" not a sequel.
It reminded me how much I enjoyed those three books, so I went back and re-read them. I liked them even more with WS giving me a "second eye look" at the same events.
I was impressed at how well she combined science fiction and fantasy. She did it by making magic part of a scientific outlook, with some hand waving about the quantum nature of magic and parallel world lines and so on.
Which is one way to mix SF and fantasy, making the stories essentially SF. The other way is the fantasy way. An example might be the Sookie Stackhouse fantasy series. Or maybe the two series by Laurell K. Hamilton. There the world view is essentially fantastic and the scientific/technological side of the world is embedded in it.
The key to blending the two contradictory kinds of fiction, perhaps, is to think out fairly well how the two relate so the contradictions are not obvious, then not dwell upon the relationship in the stories. Instead, focus on making the people believable and likable, and get them tied up in their interactions so well that we never focus on the SF vs. fantasy issues.
Last edited by Laer Carroll; September 14th, 2014 at 04:01 PM.
September 15th, 2014, 02:11 PM #2
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After innumerable debates with/involving Kat, I'm inclined to agree with her hard-line classification system -- if there's a scientific explanation for the magic, it's not magic, so it's science fiction. If there's science within the magic, but the magic is still just magic, it's fantasy.
I'm no longer convinced that a hybrid form is possible.
September 15th, 2014, 02:32 PM #3
what about something like David Weber's Hells Gate and hell hath no fury series where one universe crosses with another? In one universe there is magic and the other has psychic powers.
September 15th, 2014, 05:20 PM #4
Multiverses are also used, like a number of premise/set-ups, for SF stories. In the fantasy multiverse and portal stories, though, one or more of the universe/realms has fantastic elements -- magic works there, magical creatures, divine/Gods magic, etc. The fantasy multiverse story hinges its story on the contrast between the fantastic worlds and the non-fantastic ones, which may be present day Earth, future Earth or future planets, or another world altogether but like Earth, it has no fantastic, non-natural elements.
Fantasy stories that use not just current technology but future, non-real science and technology and settings, such as multiverse/portal, alternate history, futuristic fantasy, post-industrial secondary world fantasy, etc. are mixing SF elements and that basically makes them a "hybrid." But every story is a "hybrid." If you have a romance, you are mixing romance elements; if you have a mystery or any sort of suspense, you are mixing suspense elements; you can mix in Western elements, Shakespearean elements (which Western elements steal from and which aren't of course limited to Shakespeare family drama, satire and farce, and so on. Putting in tech elements and non-real science based settings does not change the nature of the fantastic elements being made use of in the story, anymore than simply having a person have a cellphone in a contemporary fantasy does.
However, the use of fantastic elements in a science fiction story does stop the story from being SF (as opposed to having SF and tech and industrial elements in a fantasy.) SF is based on science -- on the idea of the natural world, the knowable world, the scientifically testable world. The things framed as being based in science can be highly shaky and implausible, but the author grounds them as natural, part of the factual world. That is the purpose and definition of science fiction, to explore science elements and to extend them with scenarios and constructions of what could/would have maybe developed from those scientific ideas and theories. That's a choice the author makes, and it's a choice that in some areas sometimes overlaps with our mythological, fantastical ideas and stories, the difference being that in science fiction, those ideas are given a natural science basis for existence -- telepaths and dragon creatures come from genetics not divine magic, vampires are alien life forms not damned souls or ghouls, the ghost in the machine is not a ghost but the A.I. created from the impression reading of a human mind, and so forth.
When you step out of the natural world into the un-natural, the paranormal that simply exists without a science rationale, the magical and divine, you are going away from concepts of science into a separate notion where rules are not based on fact and testability but on simply being, on otherwordly forces, divinely given gifts, on a suspension of natural laws that may be native to the world of the story but certainly not in existence in our reality, nor even theoretically possible. The ghost in the machine in fantasy is a ghost, a dead soul, supernaturally in the machine just as much as in a house. In Mieville's New Crubazon, there's a magically developed A.I. and magic is studied with scholarly devotion and math, but not everyone can do magic or the same magic and there is no scientific explanation for the magic's existence. It is a fantasy series. That a type of magic operates with technology and is used as technology does not make it science. That a type of science seems like sorts of magic also used in fantasy stories does not make it fantasy. And the type of setting outside of the science versus paranormal-based rationale is irrelevant.
For the writer, it is not a critical debate, since readers tend to interpret according to their own preferences, but a choice of focus. If a writer wants to write a fantasy story with magic but also things like spaceships and robots, it's relatively easy to blend them together and has been done countless times. If a writer wants to write a science fiction story but have it seem like a fairy tale of sorts, that writer sets up a scientific rationale for the existence of the circumstances he or she wants to work with. That can range from the comparatively easy -- like a space opera in which spaceships act like pirates and folk have laser sword battles with the scientific rationale being that we have established a far flung civilization out in space and figured out how to make laser swords (which actually sort of already exist,) -- to the trickier and more existential -- quantum theory makes us able to reshape reality by manipulating matter, etc.
But the choice is whether to root the story in the natural, factual, more or less scientifically testable world, where we extrapolate, sometimes wildly, from what we know now, or to root possibly similar ideas into the fantastical, un-natural, un-based elements of that which cannot exist but does. Both forms deal with unreality, but approach it from different directions. Fantasy, because it is not of the natural, factual world, can't mix with science fiction, which shares the natural, factual world with real world forms like mystery and drama, but science fiction, just like our real world now, can mix with fantasy in a fantasy story. Fantasy fiction, essentially, is unique, and science fiction itself, being set in the unreal but natural, is special.
Some novels are sold deliberately with the designation being ambiguous, and there's nothing wrong with that. And the idea that you can't mix the elements in a fantasy story with an eye to engaging some SF readers too is silly, to my mind, as is the idea that if you write a SF story where you play with a scientific rationale for fantasy-like elements, you've somehow crossed over into fantasy and can't entertain SF readers. Whether we are looking at it from the natural or the un-natural, we are in SF and fantasy looking at the unreal, and there is a kinship in that which comes out of human experience and simply is not dismissable. It is part of us studying and exploring ourselves and the world -- the use of fiction -- by looking outside our usual frames of reference for the world.
A fantasy writer who is using SF elements, however, may need to take in some of the factors involved in using SF elements as opposed to real world tech elements. In a post-apocalyptic fantasy, that may not be a big deal as the unreal science is that science has been lost due to cataclysm, unnatural or natural. In a story where you are trying to mix SF tech, however, with fantasy elements, you may need to look at how SF writers introduce and manage that sort of unreal but not unnatural tech.
September 16th, 2014, 08:14 AM #5
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A Slight Addition
Stop being so definitive and exhaustive in your explanations, KatG! Your a discussion killer :P (I say that with affection) While you have made a very convincing case I just want to say that fantastical fantasy elements can be treated as SF for some very interesting results. A "hard"magic system, wherein many of the rules and mechanics are laid out 'according to natural and rational laws' (conservation of energy, thermodynamics, ect) feels like an entirely different system despite not actually being a hybrid. It is a fantasy system, without doubt, as it is based off of an improbable foundation; however, its execution in the text comes a across as entirely rational and consistent with reality. Again, it does have arbitrary fantastical elements which make it a fantasy system, but to the reader it is not always a clear distinction. Like stage magic, this situation can be utilized by the author for other purposes.
There may only be two categories, fantasy and science fiction, but we should all keep in mind that this does not mean that we authors are limited. Try and blend! Go forth and tug at heartstrings, dear fellows!.
September 16th, 2014, 04:04 PM #6
Brandon Sanderson's "hard" magic idea is fine as a descriptor. It's less useful when authors who are not writing such systems, who have what is sometimes called a numinous approach (and now thanks to the desire to import SF terms, a "soft" magic system approach,) are discouraged with it that they aren't writing really good fantasy if it's not hard magic and should bail, as if numinous fantasy wasn't an essential part of fantasy literature. So when terms are descriptors, they are useful. When they are used to bully and limit, with definitions that don't actually apply, they become things that authors whine about doing away with, as is currently going on now, and can cause problems.
The idea of a "hard" magic system is to put the ghost in the machine -- it is to mix regular science and science fiction science in with the fantastic to give those fantastic elements a certain feel. It is a tradition coming down from things like The Compleat Enchanter stories from L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, and Larry Niven's Magic Universe stories. It is also used very extensively in steampunk fantasy, like Mieville's New Crubuzon. It is a mirror to the science fiction stories that take a fantastic element and turn it into natural phenomena with a science basis, making a science fiction story akin to a fantasy story, but not.
It comes down very simply -- mysteries, romances, dramas, etc. with no unreal elements are using a framework of real and natural to create a fictional story, which may include fictional places. Science fiction writers keep the natural but eschew at least partly the real, creating a fictional story about possibilities of what reality could become or might have been, or been elsewhere (alternate universes,) based on science rationales and theories. Fantasy removes both the natural and the real as boundaries, creating fictional stories that may and usually do include the natural and the real, but also include elements that are neither. Those fantasy stories that mix SF elements thus have elements that are real and natural, SF elements that are unreal but natural, and fantastic elements that are not real or natural.
That makes it fairly easy to blend SF and fantasy elements in a fantasy, even if you aren't using a hard magic system. The big things you are looking at there are which unreal elements will be SF and which will be fantasy, what science rationale will you give the SF elements and how much of that will be present in the story. If it's a SF element people are very familiar with, such as spaceships, you probably don't have to give a lengthy science explanation for its existence and operation, but if you come up with some sort of SF weapon, you may have to explain how it works.
If the fantasy and the SF elements are blended into the same piece of tech, you are likely to have to give the mechanical SF aspects explanation and the fantasy elements can be explained to the degree that works with the systems in the story. In Ken Scholes' Psalms of Isaac series, there are automatons in a pre-industrial, vaguely medieval setting, that operate with gears and metal that are examined, but animate with magic. There is a magical bomb the equivalent almost to a nuclear bomb, its design somewhat explained and somewhat not. If you're looking for a good example of how to blend the two, especially in a secondary world setting, that's a good series to look at.
October 3rd, 2014, 03:07 PM #7
A lot of futuristic things in SF are fantasy like FTL, Light sabers, all the aliens and just about every machine that does anything other than what machines can do right now. And they won't stop being fantasy if they eventually are invented because you can make a pretty safe bet that the actual real thing won't be a lot like what the writer imagines they will. There are so many examples of bizarrely imagined future science in classic science fiction that it's almost impossible to find an accurately predictive scientific element in any of them. But they are science fiction still because the device, whatever it is is described as being man-made or alien-made and not conjured from thin air or from some mystical realm. A science fiction story will not have its hero discover the key to immortality in an ancient Egyptian fountain that has been filled with the blood of imps and elves generally, He will discover it by working many hours in a lab and mixing exotic chemicals in a flask over a Bunsen burner and even if that is out of date and completely impossible or entirely unlikely, with every scientific element a pure fantasy, it's still SF.
Sorry if this is off topic but I wasn't sure what everyone else was saying, exactly.
I do think you can mix the story devices however because a world where genies and Minotaurs get recreated (by mixing their ancient DNA with animal fetal matter) and run wild, only to be gunned down with photonic blasters and blown up with nucleotastic grenades is entirely workable.
My question though is whether their is a standard form for sci fi regardless of what toys the writer gives his characters to play or contend with?
Is sci fi fundamentally differently plotted or realized than fantasy? Are there rigid conventions that wont yield to the others form or are both just completely freed of standard models?
I'd imagine that pure fantasy would generally involve some kind of spiritual pilgrimage, or some such - like Frodos quest with the ring. While SF probably has a loner guy/girl who doesn't rely on a spiritual transformation at all to get where he/she wants to get to. Which usually wouldn't be any place other than out alive with his/her skin intact. Which is found through quick thinking, blind luck, deduction and reason.
I might be completely wrong though but these things seem fairly obvious and striking dissimilarities. More or less like the conflict between superstition and reason.
Last edited by Luka Datas; October 4th, 2014 at 02:04 AM.
October 5th, 2014, 02:53 PM #8A lot of futuristic things in SF are fantasy like FTL, Light sabers, all the aliens and just about every machine that does anything other than what machines can do right now. And they won't stop being fantasy if they eventually are invented because you can make a pretty safe bet that the actual real thing won't be a lot like what the writer imagines they will.
Is sci fi fundamentally differently plotted or realized than fantasy? Are there rigid conventions that wont yield to the others form or are both just completely freed of standard models?
October 6th, 2014, 05:18 AM #9
SFF has basically stolen SFs thunder and run off with it.
October 6th, 2014, 08:27 AM #10
A story in which something fantastical is discovered doesn't have to be fantasy the genre, it depends on the treatment. All this is conflating genre labels with conceptual categories - forget about sf/f/h and any other genre, by that rational everything not explicitly a first-hand historical document or work of auto-biography is fantasy too. Even historical commentary and third-person biographies are just, like, your opinion, dude. Come to that, most auto-biography is just some dude's opinion too, and who trusts some old dead dude to have been telling the truth?
ALL FICTION IS FANTASY.
BURN THE LIBRARIES.
October 6th, 2014, 09:02 AM #11
Ok I'll buy that
To prove my point. When you say.
but then, if everyone thought it was a great idea to
Where would I get my hands on a Enid Blighton novel then, hey?
The thought is too terrible to even contemplate.
October 6th, 2014, 09:16 AM #12
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I think the mistake is in thinking that SF and F are separated bodies in parallel, existing side-by-side. I think there's a good argument to be made that they are, in fact, degrees of specificity of the same thing.
I've said it before, I'll say it again: All fruits are vegetables, but not all vegetables are fruits.
All sci fi is fantasy, but not all fantasy is sci fi.
SF is a classification within Fantasy more generally, and Fantasy a classification within Fiction more generally.
Fiction can talk about anything. Fantasy is a certain collection of attributes within Fiction, and it must contain an element of the unreal. SF typically has the very same collected attributes as Fantasy, including the unreal, but with a few additional attributes.
For whatever reason, we rarely classify your average Tom Clancy novel or James Bond film as SF, even though it would tick all the normal boxes -- nifty gadgetry, action/adventure plot, etc. The reason we don't call it SF is because it doesn't often meet the Fantasy threshold. Usually, something has to fairly obviously already be Fantasy before we call it SF.
This is why the Soft SF vs. Fantasy divide always comes up, IMO. There is actually no significant difference between Star Wars and Lord of the Rings but setting, really. There is only the barest hint that Star Wars is SF, and the SF quality is determined principally by the futuristic setting, NOT by the sciency-ness of it. Both are clearly Fantasy, but Star Wars has a small number of additional elements that specify it as SF within its Fantasy designation.
Very-Hard SF likewise occupies a strange position. Like the Clancy/Bond example, it doesn't always step into the fantastical. When it's too close to home/reality, we tend to call it something like "Science Forecasting" or the like, or we just call it a Thriller or something. These tales sometimes are in the vein of Fiction moreso than Fantasy, and thus our understanding of them as SF becomes complicated (which isn't to say that they aren't SF tales, just that they are in a weird border zone).
None of these definitions are fixed, of course. But I think trying to define SF separately from Fantasy creates more problems than it solves.
October 6th, 2014, 09:58 AM #13
Really wish there was a like button
Really wish there was a like button here, like there is on that FaceBlink.
Could agree more, Fung. But only if I got all clenched up.
Although Andrew and Kat make some good points too.
Och!!! my poor brain.
I think maybe it comes down to whether you think on the eastern or western hemisphere of your brain whether you write SF or Fantasy, probably.
But If most of your thinking happens in the crack between the hemispheres then you may write SFF.
October 6th, 2014, 10:53 AM #14
If instead of SF/F/H, that bottom level was routinely called "science fantasy", "mythic fantasy" and "horror fantasy", then I think we'd be fine. But it isn't, so to assign a category label as a sub-category label as well strikes me as clumsy. Maybe what we need here is a parallel of the theory/theorum distinction occasionally mooted as a way to avoid the "Evolution is just a theory" claims, and the failure to recognise there being two meanings to the word. Instead of the group name "Fantasy", we need "fantastical literature", or "irreal literature", etc.
I'm sure that would lead to a real smooth transition, whatever we picked!
It's an over-generalisation, but I occasionally think of the respective pleasures of the three genres as being predominantly intellectual, emotional and visceral fantasy - or at least, I'd like to, but there's not as much intellectually stretching scifi out there as I'd like. Claiming this as an absolute would imply each is in some way denied the capacity to satisfy on the same terms as the others, which isn't fair, but I think this is not a completely unreasonable thumbnail of what the genres are about, at their cores.
October 6th, 2014, 06:06 PM #15Originally Posted by Fung Koo
Fantasy is a word with many definitions (as well as the related word fantastic.)
One definition of the word "fantasy" that we use regularly is that fantasy is something we imagine. Therefore all fiction is fantasy if that's the definition that you are using. (Why that requires burning libraries, Andrew, I shudder to think. )
A further, additional definition of the word fantasy that we use from that is something that we imagine that does not and could not exist in the real world that we currently know and historically have known. (the unreal as opposed to just the imagined conceptual) Science fiction and fantasy stories are both fantasy under that definition of the word, in that they imagine something that is not or is not currently known reality. (Horror stories may or may not be.)
But neither of those definitions are the variant definition of the word we use when we talk about fantasy fiction, when we sell fantasy fiction and when we call fantasy fiction a category or genre. The definition of fantasy that we use when we are talking about fantasy fiction, as a genre definition, is a story that contains fantastical elements -- elements that are unnatural/supernatural -- magical, divine. (the unnatural in addition to the unreal and the imagined) Fantasy fiction has at least one element to it that is not simply scientifically improbable or only scientifically theoretical, it has nothing to do with science at all, because it is unnatural -- it is not part of the physical and natural world. It has no scientific rationale and basis for its existence in the story, including speculative scientific theory based on what we know now (such as quantum theory.) Science is:
"the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment"
Even if you have math and machines involved in magic, the magic itself, the unnatural part, is not part of the natural world. It can't be studied by science. (I.e. you cannot scientifically prove that a creator god does or does not exist.)
So if you write a story about people who eat ergot-poisoned rye bread and have hallucinations and behavioral effects and are seen by others as werewolves, you are writing a fictional story (probably a historical one.) If you have scientists on a mission on a planet in the future eat grains that then produce abnormal hair growth, hallucinations, violent behavioral changes, spasms and abnormal hunger, that's a science fiction story. If you have a story about people who become wolf-like creatures because it's a full moon, it's a fantasy story, and possibly a fantasy horror story, depending on what other elements you have. If in a story a scientist enters an isolated cave and discovers a race of very short people who have mutated from their environment and been hidden, but whom previous sightings of may have created myths about dwarves, that's a science fiction story. If instead the scientist enters an isolated cave and discovers a race of short goblins who cast magic spells on him, it is a fantasy story (genre.) It's a gradation, not an umbrella.
So if you look at Terry Brooks' post-apocalyptic futuristic fantasy novel, The Sword of Shanara, for instance, you have Brooks imagining just that -- there was a nuclear holocaust (science, natural,) with fallout, some surviving humans took shelter in caves and such, and over a great length of time those humans mutated, their bodies and some biology changed and those humans are now called dwarves and goblins (science, natural.) But there's another set of creatures -- the elves. The elves lived hidden all along, and the elves have magic and bring it back into the new world. And some humans are able to do some kinds of magic and become sorcerers, and there are objects that are imbued with magic (not science, not natural.) So even though Brooks has nuclear fallout on Earth, scientific mutations and even a leftover flashlight, it's a fantasy novel. It's not what is used in the story; it's why and how it is there in the story.
Horror stories don't have to be unreal. They just have to elements meant to scare people. So you can have a horror novel about a human serial killer and it's in what we call the horror genre or category. But most horror has either science fiction elements (SF) or fantasy elements (fantasy,) or both (fantasy.) Horror stories, whether they are SF, fantasy or non-SFF based, are sold all over -- general fiction, SF, fantasy, westerns if they have one and it has western elements, romance if it's a romance with horror elements, etc., and sometimes in the now launched horror sections themselves. Often they may get placed in more than one area of a store/outlet (usually if publishers pay for it or if an author's previous books were sold in a different section than the current section publishers are focusing on.)
Tom Clancy's novels are science fiction novels. They are called science fiction novels. They are sometimes sold in SF sections of bookstores and in SFF specialty bookstores. But bookselling is not about teaching people what different types of stories are. Bookselling seeks to connect readers as quickly as possible with stories that contain elements they like and therefore are most likely to buy. The only reason there is a SF section in some bookstores -- an extra set of shelves -- is to help readers with an interest in stories with SF elements find those stories faster.
But SF stories are also sold in general fiction. In Clancy's case, the potential interest of thriller/war novel readers in The Hunt for Red October was assessed as potentially greater than the interest of SF core fan readers who mostly shop in the SF section. But they didn't want to just call it a war novel either. So they came up with a new sub-category, technothriller, which is a sub-category of both of thriller/suspense and SF. And they sold it with that handle in general fiction. And they cross marketed it to SF core fan readers as well, so that those readers would know about the book even if they didn't shop in the general fiction section. And the same with James Bond, for that matter, except that it was a thriller/spy/SF series, where the potentially greater audience was in spy thrillers.
David Anthony Durham's first fantasy novel, Acacia: The War with the Mein, a secondary world epic, was sold in general fiction. That was because Durham was a well known historical fiction author. The potential interest in his fantasy novel of the fans of his historical novels therefore was assessed as high and important, but if Durham's fantasy novel was sold only in the Fantasy section, where his historical fiction fans don't shop, they might therefore not find it. So Durham's novel was sold as a fantasy novel in general fiction, and it was also cross-marketed to the fantasy fan audience, with Durham going to conventions, etc. The novels these days may be found in general fiction, with Durham's historical fiction, or sometimes in the Fantasy section or both, depending on the outlet.
Fantasy novels that contain a fair amount of science fiction elements in addition to their fantastic ones may get marketed additionally to SF fans because A) SF fans might read it and B) SF and fantasy are marketed through numerous outlets like magazines, specialty bookstores and conventions together so it's easy to do. Some SF stories that contain a loose appearance of fantastic elements may get marketed additionally to fantasy fans because A) fantasy fans might read it and B) SF and fantasy are marketed through numerous outlets like magazines, some bookstores and conventions together. The publishers and the booksellers don't really care if some people think that the science of Anne McCaffrey's Pern books is too implausible and involves dragon creatures and therefore they feel it's fantasy no matter that it's got a scientific rationale for being there. They don't care if some folk like and enjoy China Mieville's Crubuzon novels as SF, because it has steampunk in them and they are ignoring the unnatural magic parts. But those elements are still there, of course.
So if you want to write a fantasy story with science fiction elements (the ghost in the machine,) and try to appeal to SF fans also and market to them too, you can do that. The market doesn't mind a bit. The development of category markets -- specialty sections in the bookstore, dedicated imprints -- is due to bookselling strategies to find a maximum number of customers for a title and make it as easy as possible for them to find it, not new changes in genre/category. We didn't have a horror section in most bookstores before because they had trouble sustaining it, even though horror was one of the bestselling categories in general fiction. But due to a variety of organizational and market factors, we often do now. It does not change horror having horror elements.
Last edited by KatG; October 6th, 2014 at 06:27 PM.