Don’t Reinvent The Wheel

Because this distinction of genres is aimed at letting you know where to put your stuff, I’m going to kind of race through science fiction.

There is a reason for that: in the last 20 years or so, since I had the inside view of publishing, science fiction has got short shrift.  So if you are writing science fiction at all, you’re going to be sought out by people who read science fiction.

One exception is hard science fiction.  If you’re writing hard science fiction, like writing historical anything, make sure you have all your facts in order, because they will eat you alive, without pausing to slather on mustard.  Also in hard science fiction your facts must be as much as possible plausible to present day.

The only caveat I have if you’re writing hard science fiction and you get your story from the plot out, do yourself a favor and buy this book: Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight Swain.

I apologize if you’re the one in a thousand hard science fiction writer who really gets his stories from people, but the two types of mind don’t seem to work the same and I’ve found myself loving the concept of many a book while huffing at the wooden puppets instead of characters.  Read the book.  It will be good for you.  Other than that, write more.  Other than Asimov, hard sf writers seem to not be incredibly prolific.

The other thing is that hard science fiction readers don’t seem to like any other kind of science fiction and look down on them as though they were the poor stepchild.  To that I say tough noogy.

I like and enjoy hard sf, but what captured me for science fiction first was the crazy, which might as well be fantasy, Clifford Simak’s “Out of Their Minds” and space opera, i.e. Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel.

Years ago, when I was trying to figure out this stuff (I’d written one, unsaleable novel, and was 23) I bought Orson Scott Card’s book on writing science fiction and fantasy (very recommended if you’re a raw beginner, to work some crazy fidgets out.  The thing that stuck with me was “don’t call a rabbit a schmerp.”)
He was brutally honest about how publishers viewed the difference between science fiction and fantasy: trees are fantasy; machines are science fiction.

I thought he was oversimplifying and made fun of this for years.  In fact, I have a started (might be finished, I haven’t looked through old diskettes) novel called Big Bright Shiny Machines which makes fun of this entire concept.

BUT I was a twerp and should have known it.  He was right, as far as the establishment was concerned.  I found this out when I wrote a novel (Witchfinder) which had both magic and was part of a chain of worlds, of which we were one.  Because the main female character is pulled from our world, and starts out as a computer programmer I was told the book is “neither science fiction or fantasy.”

I don’t think this applies to readers, mind.  I think it’s one of those traditional publishing crazinesses that took over in recent years, as they hire more recent college graduates who never read the genre. Because my world was not patterned, but fit into a subgenre of multiverse hopping, some with magic that includes Diana Wynne Jones Chrestomanci.  And no one tried to say those were “neither science fiction or fantasy.”

From a reader’s point of view, to me, what distinguishes sf from fantasy is that SF at least TRIES to be logically derived.  Yes, there might be things in that time that are “impossible” in ours, but depending on far away it is that doesn’t hang my disbelief by the neck till dead, because, well, think of how we live.  I’ve long decided if there was a time slip, and middle ages people came to us, they’d think they were in fairyland.  We are ridiculously long-lived and have very few children, like the elves, too.

Fantasy, on the other hand, needs only follow internal logic, which does NOT need to relate to the logic of our world.

If you’re straddling the line and want to be thought pure sf, if your choice is between elves and time travelers, or elves and aliens, just monitor your words.  Not spells, but something else.  Come up with something scientific-y sounding.  Heinlein’s “sensitives” were a touch of magic in his science fiction, and if he’d called them “low grade mages” it would have put the entire thing in fantasy.

I’m told sf/f straddle is a thing, so if you want to do that, shine on you crazy diamond.

In science fiction, off the top of my head and as usual missing a ton of things that escape my uncaffeinated morning brain, I can think of the following categories:

Reality with a twist – the world is ours, the reality is our everyday one, but there’s a science fiction element, usually mysterious or at least it might not be explained till the end of the book, but it affects and changes the world and all in it.  This can be mini black holes opening everywhere; we find the sun is sentient and is pissed at us; or there have always been aliens among us, living disguised, or a ton of other twists.  For a while there, in the eighties, this was the favored “science fiction” of big houses.  For a gonzo example of this that is probably not to the taste of current houses, try They Walked Like Men, which will make you feel very uneasy driving in mountain roads, when the car behind you has makeshift headlight arrangements, or, now that I think about it, selling a house.  I was thinking of this book through our endless house search.

It can be done very well, and when it is it leaves you breathless, however like Magic Realism it is an incredibly difficult art form, and most practitioners just manage to make it blah.  Okay, that’s true of most writing, but this one challenges even writers who would be fine in other subgenres.

Next up, in “distance from the real world” are science fiction thrillers.  More or less like the above, but the thing that’s different is valuable and someone is trying to get it/make sure it doesn’t fall in the wrong hands/kill someone for it/destroy the world with it.  Whatever.

Hard SF comes next.  It’s usually — but not always — got some element of space.  Even if we’re not in it, this change whatever it is, relates to space.  Again, not always, but the ones that sell well seem to have this.  I’ve talked a bunch about the genre above, so no more on it need be said.

Next up is Time Travel science fiction.  This differs from time travel fantasy in that the mechanism is usually explained in science terms, and from time travel romance in that there are usually (but not necessarily) a lot fewer hot guys in kilts.  Either the dislocated come to the present, or we go to the past.  Your principal care should be that there should be a semi-plausible mechanism for time travel, even if it’s just “we discovered how to fold time” and if you’re taking your character into historic times, for the love of heaven, make sure you have those correct.  My favorite — to no one’s surprise — of these is The Door Into Summer which does not take you to past times.  Of those that do, the favorite is The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.  My one caveate, re: putting it on Amazon is for the love of heaven, I don’t care if you have a couple who fall in love, do not put this under time travel romance.  Do not, do not, do not.  You know not what you do.

Next up is Space Opera — my definition, which is apparently not universal — Earth is there (usually) and the humans are recognizably humans, but they have marvels of tech we can’t even guess at.  The tech or another sfnal problem (aliens!) usually provides the conflict, and there’s usually adventure, conflict, etc.  My favorite is The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.  (And by the knowledge of his time I think it was hard SF except for the sentient computer which we STILL don’t have.  Yes, I cry when Mycroft “dies”  What of it?)

Bleeding in from that and what many people actually think Space Opera is EXCLUSIVELY (It can be a sub branch of space opera.  But these people say space opera is if you have my lord and my lady in space.  They’re young.  They should get off my lawn already) is what I call “vast empires in space” which can be shortened to “lords and ladies in space.”
It usually is science fiction because GOOD practitioners of the art don’t just wave their hands but take in account what different planetary conditions do to people and human society, etc.  I.e. they assume some things that are fantastic to us, like say faster than light, but they use reason and extrapolation for practically everything else.  I feel uneasy with the genre (which doesn’t mean I don’t promise to write it) mostly on the political speculation, because my internal clock says the idea is “off” for the vastness of space, but if you’re going to read it, you can’t go wrong with Lois McMaster Bujold.  (Yes, I know not precisely that, but close enough for government work, like the Door Into Summer with time travel.)  This is a sub branch of Space opera to an extent, but distinctive enough to merit mention.  Since I haven’t put any up on Amazon I don’t know how you signal it, but I’m going to guess you put words like “king” or “queen” in the key words.  It has its devotees and people like me who approach it uneasily because …. from the pov of space and humans it doesn’t seem right.  OTOH how am I to tell others how to dream?

Bleeding in from that, and as a subgenre of both space opera and empires in space is military sf.  It can also be a subgenre of hard sf or near future (few changes) sf.  It involves the military.  There’s a war.  I haven’t read much of it other than David Weber.  I don’t have anything against it, mind, just nothing has really captured me or if it has, it was forgetable enough the brain can’t call it up sans caffeine..  The grandad of the genre is Starship Troopers.

There used to be a very common subgenre, which I’d love to say was in the seventies, but I’ll be d*mned if I know, because in Portugal things were translated whenever, and sometimes decades late, which I called “space colony or planetary exploration.”  I suspect the grandad of that is Tunnel in the Sky.  Thing is, you drop a bunch of people either on purpose or by accident, to explore the planet, and then it’s a test of character and moral fiber.  At some point the writers rebelled against the “some people are more fit for survival than others” trope, and we got characters who were all despicable and where either no one survived or the nastiest survived.  What you could call Alferd Packer fiction.  I stopped reading it shortly thereafter.  I haven’t seen much in this in Amazon, and wonder if there’s a market for it without the nihilism and human hatred, but I have had neither the time nor the inclination to explore it.

Okay, right now, off the top of my head, this is what I have.

My big caution, and hence the title is that some indie authors, for reasons unknown to me — maybe they don’t read in the genre, maybe they think other people don’t — is that some authors insist on reinventing the wheel.

Sure, tell us your computer gained consciousness by THIS method, but don’t stand there and give us an history of how AI shouldn’t be possible, and deary me, this is what computers are.  Because anyone who reads SF either knows what AI is or can infer it from context.

And for the love of BOB unless you’re actually writing middle grade YA do not have a glossary on the front defining such “difficult” terms as robot and spaceship.  Because what will happen  then is that when my husband stumbles on your book during a late-night reading jab, he’ll wake me to read me these definitions in a dramatic voice.  And I will never forgive you.  Ever. Ever. Ever.  Being awakened at 3 am is NEVER funny.  So don’t do that.  Read a little in the field and assume your readers know what you’re talking about.  (Unless you’re writing science fiction romance — romance, groan, next week — in which case you’ll find you do need to explain all that stuff, as these readers aer not preferentially SF geeks.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

91 Comments

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91 responses to “Don’t Reinvent The Wheel

  1. On hard SF and characters:

    Have never done a hard SF story, but recently did a hard science crime story that’s awaiting rejec – er, review. What was interesting is that it started with a hard SF concept, with tech that’s been around since the 17th Century. Then the idea of a crime story based on this hit. I made several attempts at it, but the characters didn’t work. The hard SF was there, but the characters didn’t fit just right.

    It was only in changing the focus and eliminating some characters that made it gel. The story wasn’t the hard science premise, but the protagonist, and what he did with it and why. That, not the hard science, is where the story lay.

    Is it good enough to sell? Don’t know. But the others certainly weren’t, because, in the previous versions, the characters didn’t really have a story to tell. It was all about the hard science aspect.

    I don’t know if this holds for hard SF, but suspect it does.

  2. Second attempt, of course:

    On hard SF and characters:

    Have never done a hard SF story, but recently did a hard science crime story that’s awaiting rejec – er, review. What was interesting is that it started with a hard SF concept, with tech that’s been around since the 17th Century. Then the idea of a crime story based on this hit. I made several attempts at it, but the characters didn’t work. The hard SF was there, but the characters didn’t fit just right.

    It was only in changing the focus and eliminating some characters that made it gel. The story wasn’t the hard science premise, but the protagonist, and what he did with it and why. That, not the hard science, is where the story lay.

    Is it good enough to sell? Don’t know. But the others certainly weren’t, because, in the previous versions, the characters didn’t really have a story to tell. It was all about the hard science aspect.

    I don’t know if this holds for hard SF, but suspect it does.

    • Huh. Maybe did’t wait long enough.

    • Without characters who matter to the reader, it’s a science lecture.

      • Too many hard sf books seem to be.

        • If I ever forget the difference between idea and story, please kick me.

          • Will do. Stories are about HUMANS. I mean sometimes I find absolutely wonderful ideas and want to strangle the writer because there are no real people there.

            • Luke

              Sarah, there’s a whole passel of animals here at the door, and they look angry for some reason…

              Ok, beast fables are only one of the examples that popped quickly to mind.
              Stories don’t really have to be about humans, or paste humanlike attributes onto a proxy. They just have to relate to human nature in some fashion.
              Take Arthur C. Clarke’s classic “The Sentinel”. The main character is a cipher for the reader to project himself on to. We know almost nothing about him, other than he’s curious about an unexpected flash of light. Yet it’s a powerful story for all that.
              Asimov’s “Nightfall” can fairly be said to have people-shaped props instead of characters, but the story still works and resonates.
              (Now, I believe you can fairly argue that for a novel, there have to be relatable characters. But even truly alien races would likely have stories–even if we had trouble identifying them as such.)

            • Terry Sanders

              There’s a group of SF fans who think obsessively about realism (or at least verisimilitude) in space combat. To a man, they agree on two things:

              1)
              Space fighters brake no sense at all.

              2)
              We are stuck with them for a long time to come.

              BURNSIDE’S ZEROTH LAW
              Nobody buys a book to raid about noble and heroic robots.

  3. Will confess that when Tom Clancy was at the top of his game, would have liked to have seen him turn out a Star Trek technothriller. Technothriller SF?

  4. paladin3001

    Loving these definitions of genres. Helping me focus a bit on what I am actually writing. 🙂

  5. garynealhou

    I’d definitely add first contact and alien invasion to that list.

    There’s also a broader category that focuses on “figuring out technical problems” with no clear antagonist unless you count the world and the universe. The Martian is a good example of this. These usually get sorted based on the type of problems the antagonist needs to figure out, and stories of this type can get sorted into colonization, space exploration, first contact. If realistic enough, they become hard SF.

  6. frank4man

    Hard SF. Yes, I wish there was more of it out there. In the meantime, I’m collaborating on a hard SF series with my son, that I think I need to call science fantasy. I don’t want to, but……the critiquers who read the books say they read like fantasy. And they do, because of the technology indistinguishable from magic and loss of historical memory. The readers don’t find the thousands-year-old crashed space ship until book five or six (depending on where universe-owning son puts it). I don’t know how to solve the issue except for calling it science fantasy, which sounds like a weird-walking schmerp to me.

    • SheSellsSeashells

      I’d categorize the Lee and Miller Liaden books as science fantasy, so you’re in pretty good company there. And it sounds quite interesting. 🙂

    • That’s the Pern books right there. They got filed as “fantasy” recently because dragons. *facepaw* But the science works as McCaffrey set things up, if you accept her basic premises (see _Dragonsdawn_).

      • Some years ago saw Eaters of the Dead in a non-fiction classification in a library. A quick check of the Dewey Decimal on the spine showed that’s where the library thought it belonged.

      • Heck, honestly, until I found out about the colony space ship it didn’t twig for me that the series was Sci-Fi. Mind, I loved it no matter the category, and thought it was an awesome way to tie the people to Earth.

        Stuff like that, is it categorized as fantasy or sci-fi? Starts off with a ‘fantasy’ setting, then you get the sci-fi angle….

      • Randy Wilde

        I thought the Pern books were fantasy until the Landing excavation. I don’t remember if the library copies that I was reading had the same prologue the books do now ( Rukbat in the Sagittarius sector, etc.).

        • Dorothy Grant

          I thought they were too – might have been due to skipping prologues. In fact, don’t remember if the dragon singer/dragonsong/dragondrums had that prologue or not. I definitely skipped it when I got to the other books after a cursory read, because “It’s the same in every book!”

    • Luke

      See also: Brooks, Terry, Shannara.
      (Ok, those are straight fantasy with repeated in-world statements insisting that they’re not. But how do you draw the distinction?)

  7. “Sure, tell us your computer gained consciousness by THIS method, but don’t stand there and give us an history of how AI shouldn’t be possible, and deary me, this is what computers are. Because anyone who reads SF either knows what AI is or can infer it from context.”

    Before buying my first Analog story, Stan Schmidt said, “There’s quite a good story in ‘Not Close Enough’, but it takes too long to get there.” As editors are wont to do, he didn’t tell me what to change. I had to figure it out for myself.

    What I eventually figured out was exactly this: I was trying to sell a story to Analog. For ANALOG READERS. And I spent about a thousand words up front establishing the setting… details I would’ve understood by age 11. Maybe younger. And if I understood them without explaining, Analog readers would understand.

    I took out those thousand words, and Stan bought the story. Later he took me to lunch, and he confirmed that that had been exactly the right analysis. Trust SF readers, especially Hard SF readers, to know the basics.

  8. “Because the main female character is pulled from our world, and starts out as a computer programmer I was told the book is “neither science fiction or fantasy.””

    Barbara. Hambly. Sheesh. Given the probable timing of this, I can only imagine this editor was not as well-read as they thought they were. (I mean, that EXACT scenario was one she had published in what, the late 80s?)

  9. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    “don’t call a rabbit a schmerp.”

    I almost fell into that mistake. I had an alien critter that looked like and behaved like a wolf. (Turns out that they also have human-level intelligence).

    After reading about the “schmerp” problem, I “forgot” about that alien critter but did create another alien critter that fitted into the “dog role” of an alien society.

    IE Hunting partners, herding animals, and pets but they resemble Raptor Dinos.

    I called them “Schmerps”. 😉

  10. Draven

    Also keep in mind hard SF is usually a niche.

  11. Nice description of near future military science fiction by its setting being hard SF. Give me confidence in using hard SF as a tag for my first novel, called Bad Dog, which as you can guess is set 60 years in the future, on an Earth that could well not be ours, but is a close analogue of ours.

    • And I forgot to add and can’t edit my reply: “The only caveat I have if you’re writing hard science fiction and you get your story from the plot out, do yourself a favor and buy this book: Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight Swain.”

      I would second this as a recommendation. Currently reading it myself, and I like the way it gives one structure to build characters that serve the story.

    • Yes, don’t sell yourself short on tagging your work hard SF if it is. I was too nervous to tag my novel about orbital debris as hard SF because it had a romantic subplot. I was wrong. And stupid, and wasted that precious first 90 days where Amazon would have showed it to the right audience.

  12. Albert

    I think Card’s _best_ advice for modern aspiring Indie writers, ie that hasn’t aged out of relevance _at all_, was his advice for questions to use when training beta readers (slightly paraphrased):

    #1: Don’t get reviewers who are trained in literature, they tend to give you prescriptions and diagnosis. (“This characterization was thin”, “You need to cut out this description”, and other Writing Class jargon-laden content-empty bullshit.)

    #2: Were you ever bored? Did you find your mind wandering? Where did this happen in the story?

    #3: What did you think about character X? Did you like him? Hate him? Did you have a hard time remembering who he was? _Why_ did you like him, hate him, find him memorable/forgettable?

    #4: Was there anything you had a hard time understanding? Anything you had to read more than once to figure out? Any place where you got confused about what was going on?

    #5: Was there anything that snapped your suspenders of disbelief? Would TvTropes list something in the book as an example of what not to do.

    #6: What are you expecting to happen next? What are you wondering about?

    • TV tropes lists lots of my stuff, Larry’s stuff, etc. They are partly the literary side. MEh. I decided to no longer let htem restrict me.

      • Albert

        And, being published in 1990, what he wrote was: “Was there anything you didn’t believe? Anytime you said, ‘Oh, come on!’ (This will help you catch cliches or places where you need to go into more detail in your world creation.)”

        I wouldn’t say that the listings on TvTropes are bad, _most_ of them. But they’re useful for knowing what others in the field have done. Even then, there’s a difference between ‘classic’ and ‘done-to-death’, and the author has to decide for himself what he wants to do.

      • TV Tropes is like the Pirate’s Code, there as guidelines to be broken.

  13. Because the main female character is pulled from our world, and starts out as a computer programmer I was told the book is “neither science fiction or fantasy.”

    For me the difference between science fiction and fantasy is one of “mindset”, specifically that I need to have a certain mindset when reading one and a different mindset when reading the other.

    Anne McCaffery’s “Dragon” books were generally considered Science Fiction, or so I am told. Indeed, the seminal work in the series, “Weyr Search” was published in Astounding/Analog (don’t recall whether it was before or after the name change) of all places. Yet when I read it, I invariably read it in “fantasy” mindset. It just read more like fantasy to me.

    My “mindset” for hard science fiction is a bit more flexible than some. I don’t require that it conform exactly to current scientific understandings. After all, I don’t think our current understandings of physical theory are the final ones. And just like the series of discoveries that marked the change from Classical to Modern physics led to changes on what was and wasn’t possible under those systems of theories, so to will the ones in the futre lead to changes in what is and isn’t possible. It’s the attitude that makes it, the idea that the “impossible” stuff is a result of learning new physics and that it has rules that one can understand through study.

    The difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. Both are ridiculous in light of current knowledge of science and Star Trek uses at least as much handwavium as Star Wars. But in Star Trek the people who make things possible are scientists and engineers. In Star Wars, it’s space wizards. Somewhere along the way they changed the lightsabers from something that was a “cool” piece of technology to something that requires a space wizard to make. They aren’t tech. They’re magic swords.

    Going the other way, the late Poul Anderson thought through his magic in Three Hearts and Three Lions to such an extent that it’s very nearly science fiction–the “magic” simply being the physics of a different reality–and the analytical nature of the protagonist presented it that way to the reader. (Example being _why_ troll-gold is “cursed”–it’s radioactive from the transmutation that turned the troll into stone.)

    So, when I read Card’s book, I immediately grokked “science fiction has rivits”.

    • Ben Yalow

      And Anderson’s “Operation” stories are even closer to SF, while still being technically fantasy (werewolves, demons, etc. are not normally SF — but the stories read like SF). Although, from the beginning of the story, it could well be an alternate universe where, as described above, the “magic” is that universe’s physics, as described above.

      • Arthur C. Clarke, in his book “Profiles of the Future” in which he tried to forecast the future of technology (making for an interesting read these days as a cautionary tale about attempts to predict the future) coined the third of his three laws of prognostication: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” From time to time you see where people have inverted that: “Any sufficiently developed magic is indistinguishable from technology”. There’s a lot to be said in favor of those two expressions for the purpose of exploring the very fuzzy boundary between science fiction and fantasy.

      • Go read the first five pages of operation chaos to how he cues us to world building. It’s MASTERFUL. (Sorry, fangirl out.)

  14. Okay, I’ve tried to make a comment here which I’m not seeing, but which WP tells me I’ve already made if I try to resend it.

  15. Heh. I need to publish all the under-the-bed manuscripts. Er, after I fix them and finish them. I think I could hit all the subgenres.

  16. A great deal of what was labeled as Science Fiction when I was a young man would probably be considered Slipstream or Magical Realism or Experimental Fiction today.

    Perhaps it’s nostalgia on my part, but what I loved about the SF of the New Wave era of the 1960s and 1970s was the feeling of entering an unknown world. I don’t see that in modern works of genre fiction (with a few notable exceptions like Tim Powers and China Mieville).

    That’s not to say that the stories themselves are predictable or formulaic–one can write an exciting story in any setting–but that the worlds where the stories take place very seldom stray out of a few basic templates.

    You’ve got your basic zombie world, your basic werewolf/vampire world, your basic D&D clone world, your basic cyberpunk word, and your basic military in space world, and a few others, but I think it’d be possible to read most of the best sellers in SF/F and never encounter any idea that hadn’t been pioneered in some other novel.

    That makes me very sad.

    • snelson134

      Misha, that’s always been true, as Kipling describes. The question is can you tell the story sufficiently well that your reader or hearer finds the tale interesting when you tell it.

      When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre,
      He’d ‘eard men sing by land an’ sea;
      An’ what he thought ‘e might require,
      ‘E went an’ took — the same as me!

      The market-girls an’ fishermen,
      The shepherds an’ the sailors, too,
      They ‘eard old songs turn up again,
      But kep’ it quiet — same as you!

      They knew ‘e stole; ‘e knew they knowed.
      They didn’t tell, nor make a fuss,
      But winked at ‘Omer down the road,
      An’ ‘e winked back — the same as us!

      • Which is why all of this discussion of “genre” is pointless.

        • Misha, it’s a way for people to find books they might like. That’s all. There are no shelves. These are virtual shelves.

          • It’s one way for some people to find books they might like. But I think it’s focusing on externals.

            • It doesn’t matter. How do you propose to organize books so people can find what they might like to read in the e-market place?
              I think you’re making the same mistake newbies used to make when they said “They want a one page query? But they’re missing the richness of my novel!” Nine times out of ten the one page query or “external” classification works. Most of the richness turns out to be stuff that honestly makes no sense except to the author.

  17. “neither science fiction or fantasy.”

    “It’s science fiction.” “No, it’s fantasy.”
    “It’s fantasy.” “No, it’s science fictions.”

    “It’s a particle.” “No, it’s a wave.”
    “It’s a wave.” “No, it’s a particle.”

    Ah, classical physicists, er, publishers, in a quantum world.

  18. From a reader’s point of view, to me, what distinguishes sf from fantasy is that SF at least TRIES to be logically derived.

    I’ve been musing over this for more than twenty years, and no answer appears to be entirely satisfactory. But one pattern seems strongly enough established to be noteworthy.

    Fantasy, unlike SF, embeds a concept of special powers or differences. That is: Particular persons or races, specifically because of who or what they are, can do / be / become things that others cannot. In contrast, SF implies that “what is possible” is available to anyone who possesses the right constellation of intellect, hardware, and determination. Nothing is barred to Smith simply because he’s “not Gandalf” or “not a member of species X.”

    Both sorts of story, to be satisfying, must evolve logically from premises that are either explicitly disclosed or that the reader can infer with modest effort and attention.

    Of course, this raises the question “Where do superhero stories fit in?” But I can’t do that much heavy lifting this early on a Saturday morning.

    • Dorothy Grant

      *shrugs* I am able to believe six contradictory things before breakfast. I am also able to have multiple dividing lines between SF&F, and recognize that a chunk of literature will always fall into overlap.

      One diving line is: fantasy is trees, scifi is rivets. Another is: fantasy is escape, scifi is “if this goes on, what happens then?”. A third is: Scifi and Fantasy are settings, with specific conventions, in which other types of plots happen.

      Superhero neatly falls into fantasy for me, because it’s an escape from reality – “If only I had magic powers, I’d totally get back at bullies. Or anyone who’s doing wrong!” Superhero powers also tend to function like magic systems.

      If you had a book in which a modern prosthesis could make unbreakable bones, massive regeneration and functional immortality – and then you had a character explore how that changed society, and the world, that’s science fiction. If you have only one guy who escaped some super-secret research facility and runs around Canada with extendable claws beating up villains and other mutants – that’s fantasy.

      And then you have Wearing The Cape, which expertly blends both, and defies everything! But since the bulk of superhero falls under fantasy, it’s fantasy, just like wizards in spaceships with lightsabers, blasters and aliens is going to fall into science fiction.

      • Ben Yalow

        And if you’ve got Zelazny putting a story with what seem to be the Hindu gods on another planet in _Lord of Light_, it’s SF. As are the witches that Schmitz puts onto spaceships in _Witches of Karres_.

        And Heinlein’s “Waldo” — despite first describing remote manipulator technology years before they were invented (which is why they’re informally called Waldos) is probably fantasy — there’s just a bit too much magic for it to be SF.

        • Mmm. Waldo, by itself is pretty clearly science fiction. The gimmick is some kind of previously unknown all-pervasive energy source (the Force? 😉 ) that Waldo figures out well enough to take out of the realm of fantasy and make scientific. However, every time I’ve seen that story it’s been paired with Magic, Inc. which is pretty clearly fantasy. I don’t recall any textual evidence (but it’s been a while) that shows these two stories as being connected except that they’ve been published within the same covers.

  19. Ben Yalow

    It’s very much arguable in either direction. Waldo (the character) explicitly refers to the phenomenon as “magic”, rather than a scientific effect, and it says that the universe behaves in a fashion because people believe it to be so, which is pretty much a fantasy trope. And then he (waldo) imposes his ideas on the universe to make it behave in a scientific fashion — so science works, which would make it SF. Or we can just say that it’s clearly a boundary story, and reasonable arguments can be made to put it on either side of the line (assuming there is a line, which I don’t really believe).

    To me, _Mission of Gravity_ is SF, _Lord of the Rings_ is fantasy, and there are lots of works on the spectrum between them

    As for “Magic, Incorporated” — it got paired with Waldo because neither novella (although it was listed as a novel in the table of contents, it really only was of novella length), by itself, was long enough to make a commercially publishable book, but, by putting them together, you got something long enough. But “Waldo” was first published in Astounding in 1942 (it was under the Anson MacDonald pen name that Heinlein was using most often for stuff that didn’t fall into the Future History timeline he was building under the Heinlein name), and “Magic, Incorporated” (under its original title of “The Devil Makes the Law”) was first published in Unknown in 1940.

    And it’s a hard-boiled detective story, except with magic. And it’s a very scientific kind of magic (which is very typical of stories in Unknown, because Campbell was that kind of thinker). But it uses all the hard-boiled plot tropes starting from the opening line:

    ‘“Whose spells are you using, buddy?”’

    (Which, as an opening line, violates the writerly advice of not starting an SF / fantasy story with dialog, since you haven’t established the characters yet — but this was Golden Age Heinlein, who knew all the rules, and when to break them.)