Science Fiction and Fantasy: They Don’t Mix Well

A recent Freelance project got me thinking on this topic.  And since it’s the holiday season, let’s talk about something non-awful for a change.

I’ve been a scion of Science Fiction since childhood, and during moments where I’m feeling particularly iniquitous I’m apt to say it’s the only genre left where there’s room to create Art; Clint Eastwood tapped the last of the Western stories waiting to be told, and I think Shakespeare pretty much covered everything else.

But that’s just my own prejudice, and it’s not what I’m going to write about today.  Instead I want to talk about what separates these two closely related genres – Fantasy and Science Fiction.

At first glance the two seem to be part of a spectrum, rather than distinctly separate taxona.  If you were to walk into your local bookstore and try and separate all the books in the Scifi/Fantasy section you’d get something more like a like a Venn Diagram, than a phylogenetic tree.  Memes cross pollinate, after all.

So first, let’s define some basic terms.  Science Fiction at its quintessential is a type of fiction which deals with game-changing devices, exploring their ramifications.  These devices can be as real as a chimp discovering how to sharpen a bone, or as silly as a device which perfectly predicts your moment of death.  While game-changing devices aren’t unknown in Fantasy (Lord of the Rings comes to mind), the important distinction is that Science Fiction asks: What are the consequences of this device? It explores how the chimp society changes with this new tool, how the Life Insurance companies deal with the ruination of their industry.

Fantasy, meanwhile, focuses on the spiritual aspects of the human condition.  Frodo’s growing obsession in Lord of the Rings is often compared to an opiate addiction; what happens when your devotion to Truth and Good requires the sacrifice of your very personality?  Then there’s my all-time favourite post-modern Fantasy, The Last Unicorn.  The question asked there is: What happens when the Avatar of Beauty is forced to learn of mortality? Even the earliest examples of Fantasy, such as the Mabinogion, deal with impossible and unexplainable devices and characters, never explores the how or why they exist, but instead uses them to draw out moral lessons.  It’s a genre which deals with imaginary, impossible concepts, almost like the Mathematics of Infinity, or imaginary numbers, to provide comment on the human condition.

So with that out of the way, let’s contrast a couple of examples where the lines are blurred.

On the one hand we have Star Wars, a pulp scifi setting with mystical powers, and a single Knight Errant changing the course of Galactic History.  On the other we have Dungeons and Dragons, a setting where magic follows distinct rules (as opposed to the “Magic do as you will!” style in The Last Unicorn), and mechanical devices built by Gnomish Technology are common.  Doesn’t this show that there’s a middle ground between the two extremes?

No, it doesn’t.

First, let’s consider that these are some of the worst examples of their genre; which isn’t to say that they’re bad in and of themselves.  I’m a huge fan of both.  But at the end of the day, both settings are nothing more than excuses to tell the story of Joseph Campbell’s thousand-faced hero.  Neither have the pretension or ambition of saying anything profound, they’re just good stories.  In Star Wars, Jedi philosophy is nothing but Taoism Lite, and its technology is incoherent and anachronistic.  In D&D the fact that Good/Evil/Law/Chaos are confirmable Ontological Truths gives the characters a cheat sheet when it comes to figuring out How To Live The Good Life – a cheat sheet which is always ignored.

The difference between a good Star Wars/D&D story and a bad one, is that we have simply have a great time while reading/watching/playing the former, while in the latter we notice all the gaping flaws.

How, exactly, are the Sith ‘evil’ and to what end?

Couldn’t you achieve a higher standard of living through the use of Clerical spells and accident/life insurance policies, than we currently enjoy in the modern world?

Why do all the spaceships seem to move at Jet Fighter speeds across interstellar distances?

Explain to me why the Archons don’t get involved in this reality-shaping quest, instead relying upon us 10th level adventurers?

And what’s the deal with Princess Leia’s sovereignty?

Star Wars isn’t Hard Science Fiction, and D&D isn’t Deep Fantasy – but despite that both adhere to the rules of their own genre.

Star Wars might have a magical-sort of psychic ability, but ultimately it’s very prosaic: telekinesis, a touch of clairvoyance, and a mastery of swordplay which is more a matter of Karateka Discipline than Divine Blessing.  Notice what we don’t have: non-human immortals or absolutes, scrutable Gods (the Force may be a Power, but it lacks personality or intention), Destiny (ignoring the films-we-shall-not-name) or Divine Intervention.  The plot might conveniently deliver the characters to exactly where they need to be, but no higher power is messing with the story.  It’s a mechanically-consistent reality; in it people die for tragic, meaningless reasons.

D&D, meanwhile, relies upon rationalizations to prevent the setting from going to its logical conclusions: the world must remain medieval in nature, despite magic which can regrow limbs, communicate instantly across any distance, and power streetlamps indefinitely at no cost.  The most dire battles of universe-shaping proportions will always boil down to something regular people can solve, by finding the One and Only McGuffin (until you buy the Epic Levels Handbook, of course).  And most importantly of all, the world is built around the tropes and conventions of High Drama.  It’s an emotionally consistent reality; everything happens thanks to the Hands of Fate.

Science Fiction and Fantasy are two separate genres, and never the twain should meet.  And yet earlier I said that if you sorted out all the books in the bookstore, you’d wind up with a Venn Diagram.  So what exactly are you getting in the middle pile?

To put it simply, you’re getting the utter hack writing.  Authors who buy into modern-age woo, yet love reading Popular Science; who utterly fail to understand the analytic method present throughout Science, History, and Engineering, while also failing to show any depth on their analysis of the human condition.  Stinking garbage is what you’ll find here.  Let’s explore a couple of examples.

One novel I’m sad to say I purchased was a post-modern Japanophile’s foray into Cyberpunk.  I forget many of the details – largely because the plot was nonsensical and lacking in Scientific concepts such as ‘Causality’ – but essentially this is what happened: a bunch of entities which existed solely on the Interweb decided to craft a virus, so they could trap everybody who was jacked in to their Muhmorpaguhs (MMORPGS) in Virtual Reality.  Their reason for doing this was that they wanted to merge the two worlds, so that OL could take over RL.  Think Serial Experiments Lain, with less Loli, and more You Fail at Internet.  The resolution in this novel – unlike Serial Experiments Lain, which required Lain to do something consistent with the imaginary tech already established – required the protagonist to make peace with the OL shadow of his dead wife to gain the spiritual power to beat the Interwebs.

The whole thing was utter crap.  The only reason I finished it was because of my deep-seated self-hatred and masochism.

The other example I’m going to give you isn’t actually a published book, it’s only the idea I heard from someone (not that there isn’t plenty of this crap out there, I’m just usually pretty good at sniffing it out before I buy).  It goes like this: a magical meteor hits the earth, splitting it into two halves; on one half the world of Technology still reigns, on the other half the powers of Magic reassert themselves.

If that’s the case, I have a few questions:

To what extent does Science still operate on the Magical half?  Specifically I’m thinking of Chemistry, Atomic Structure, and Thermodynamics.  If I go to visit the Magical side, does my gut still digest a sandwich the same way?  What if I leave a piece of meat to rot under a glass jar, will maggots form?  Can I build a perpetual motion machine?  If the answers are, respectively, “Yes, No, and No,” then answer me this – why won’t my atomic weapons work, and where do you disspate the heat energy from my machine gun bullets bouncing off your Mage Shield?

Incidentally, the same questions apply to that Wiccan cream-dream series written by Creepy Castrado S.M. Stirling.  In Dies the Fire it’s established that gunpowder burns at the same rate as tobacco, bloody steam engines don’t work any more, and yet metallurgy, gas lamps, and – of course – digestion are unchanged.  Why?  Because metallurgy is a natural technology – everybody knows that Swords are Good, and Guns are Evil!

You show me a Scifi/Fantasy mixer, and I’ll show you a liberal arts major who wishes their degree was useful.

In the end what it all boils down to is that Magic and Science are incompatible metaphysical constructs.  Technology follows counter-intuitive rules, with no regard of the creators intention – it doesn’t even care about the creator’s hubris.  In this awful reality, Doctor Frankenstein is as likely to get rich, as he is to destroy humanity; rain falls upon the heads of the just and the unjust alike.  Magic, on the other hand, is by definition intuitive.  It’s the outward manifestation of our emotional make up, and in some situations it actually works – just look at the ‘group mind’ experienced by concert audiences, or the effectiveness of Tai Chi against believers.  This doesn’t mean that it’s true – it just means that we wish it was.

The amount of mixed Science Fantasy seems to have started ballooning in recent decades.  I have a theory as to why.  Just look to the device you’re reading this on.

Fifty years ago technology was simple – it had a switch to turn it on or off, and maybe a rheostat to adjust how much it was on.  The back panel could be screwed off, and the wires played with.  Even the most technically ignorant person recognized that a toaster was, in essence, just a very complex lever.

Nowadays our technology is so complex, that unless you’re Richard Stallman, most of everything you use is going to be a black box.  I’m a huge Linux junkie (I run Fedora because Ubuntu is too hippy-dippy for me), but I’ll be the first to admit that even something as relatively basic and technical as root commands in a terminal window are far closer to Magic, than they are to the tech-savvy process of building a circuit board.

We think Magically, so we have designed our technology to behave Magically.  Every so often we’re reminded of its scientific basis (how often does a Sending Spell cut out because of excess network traffic?), but it’s easy to miss if you’re not technically savvy.  Our Machines do what we want them to do as if they were some sort of animate Golems.  As the Apple commercials used to say, “It Just Works” – and if you think it’s crazy now, just imagine what it’ll look like in two-hundred years.

Ignorance of the technology underlying our Magical Black Boxes is understandable; but that doesn’t mean you can have Magic in a Science Fiction Story, and still have it be a good story.  The two Metaphysics are inconsistent, they negate, and that spills over into the genre.  By all means, have your Science Fiction story with psychic abilities; have your Fantasy story with anachronistic elements.  But decide from the beginning which genre it’s going to be.

It’s like Violent Whiskey Drunks and Family Dinners – both are great in their own right, but they go together poorly, and really shouldn’t be mixed at all.

Reddit comment thread here.

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Davis M.J. Aurini

Trained as a Historian at McMaster University, and as an Infantry soldier in the Canadian Forces, I'm a Scholar, Author, Film Maker, and a God fearing Catholic, who loves women for their illogical nature.

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5 Responses

  1. Ed Farnsworth says:

    Not bad.

  2. J Lamps says:

    You make allot of good points and for the most part, i agree. But i don’t believe the two are impossible to mix well, just difficult and usually done badly.

    EG: what if you were to establish, that science led to the discovery of truly god-like beings, beings that did in fact create the universe.

    In the Sci-fi side of this idea, it is easy to see how one race could advanced to new heights and through study of the universe, discover the existence of higher beings.
    Now we have a source for our “Magic” to come from, in a far future setting.

    Another simple example would be to apply a medieval social structure to an advanced society. Now this is a structure, giving one man all the power and his lower born subjects poor living conditions.

    Now a smart king of the future, would of learnt from dumb kings of the past and might of changed a few things.
    Thinking that the peasants might one day rise up, he introduces human right, available for any peasant to earn, through mandatory military serves.

    One last example. In a fantasy setting a wizard could wave his hand, shout the incantation and poof, his enemies burst into flames.

    Adding some Science into it. Now maybe this ‘Wizard’ is more of a scientist character, and has a basic understanding of the universe.

    He knows that when atoms vibrate they create heat. So looking at his enemy, he visualizes his molecular structure and using his “Magic” power, he vibrates the atoms this enemy is made up of, at such a speed, the man bursts into flames.

    I like both genres and for a long time have tried to mix the two together, simply to save my self from having to create two separate universes, knowing they will both share some major similarity’s.

    Now to this end i have thought allot about how to mix these two genres well and although i have not yet come up with the answer, i do think an answer exist’s and will one day be found.

    Fantasy drags the reader into a world of myth and magic, a world of fantastical things that don’t need explaining. Why not drag the reader into a universe of wonder instead?

  3. tha dude says:

    This is a good article that provides points for the hacks who try to combine the two genres out of laziness, or some other reason that ends up harming the story.

    I will say, and with the utmost respect, that you clearly have reservations and a bias which means that those who dare venture to explore this kind of genre shouldn’t give up because of what’s written here.

    This concept is definitely doable for the person with the right effort and knowledge of how these two concepts can blend together. I think if you come into it wanting to write about a world that is technologically advanced, but still has a mystical vibe about it, then it’s perfectly doable.

    Ed: I completely agree. If anyone out there is really committed to doing a blend of scifi/fantasy, they should take this post as a challenge to overcome.

  4. Vader999 says:

    Actually, the Prequels screw up the whole destiny angle. The Jedi even muse that they might have misunderstood the prophecy or that it might all just be bunk.

    But as for your other questions:

    The Sith are mostly evil because their rules make it so: you have to be a backstabbing psychopath to be considered prime material for Sith apprenticeship; Palpatine was playing around with Dooku and Anakin, and Vader openly suggested to Luke that they tag-team the Emperor. That doesn’t stop a good person from clawing his way into the Sith power structure through manipulation and tactical brilliance, and it also doesn’t stop the Jedi from becoming complete assclowns; despite their code, they’re only human. Notice how much of an ass they were to Analin, and how callous Yoda was towards Luke’s friends. No more than it would stop a Federation Captain from Star Trek whose supposed to stand for truth, justice, enlightenment, and freedom from becoming an asshole who cares only about his advancement, or a Klingon warlord who’s a wise soul making it big in the Klingon Empire even though the Empire back in TOS was seen as bloodthirsty. There can be good people in bad organizations and vice versa.

    Princess Leia’s mostly like the English royalty. Her stepmom was a queen, but the Alderaan royalty can’t muzzle the populace. They’re only royalty as much as they represent the interests of the Alderaanian people; they start acting like assholes and they’ll easily be overthrown.

    The fighters move at jet fighter speed for plot convenience. In reality, even with their regular drives, they can go from one ass end of a solar system to another in minutes. Hell, Han makes it to Bespin, three solar systems away from Hoth, WITHOUT his hyperdrive, in a period of time so short that they dont even change clothes. Far faster than Trek sublight, but hey, that’s because they’ve been trolling around the galaxy for a thousand generations……….

    If you want your tech specs, there’s books for that. I recommend the whole set of Incredible-Cross-Sections books that were written by PHDs in Astrophysics like Curtis Saxton.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This argument at best is a strawman. You proceed to give two very narrow definitions of science-fiction and fantasy, and based on said definitions, you go on to present the argument that the two are insoluble.

    There are numerous examples of science fiction and fantasy merging. My favourite example is China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels. Magic is explained as a fundamental law of physics, like gravity. And characters within the universe study and attempt to understand it.