Tone Establishing

One of the most perennial arguments in fantastic literature was “science fiction or fantasy.”

Yes, yes, “science fiction is that which circumscribes itself to current knowledge of science and doesn’t use devices that translate as magic.” And that’s fine, to an extent. I mean, I used to write metered, rhymed sonnets, so I’m not going to dispute Jeff Greason’s comment on the subject that limits make art stronger.

Do I have stories I want to write within those limits? Probably, some, but at the moment I have others which are louder. Stories of galactic empires, and far flung frontiers to the cause of freedom.

Sure, those are “fantasy.”

But– But not really.

There are stories to be told that are obviously science fiction, not fantasy, even though the ‘science’ to the extent it is there, is not remotely within our grasp.

I am quite capable of saying that Star Wars is really fantasy — it is a classical fairy tle, after all — but that’s not how it’s perceived by most people. The idea of Jedis might be space wizards, but most people experience them as people in the future, using some force we have not figured out. Most people pour their dreams of the future into the touch-feel of it.

Look, yes, there are people who also pour their dreams into fantasy, but there’s something wrong with that. Going around imagining you can affect reality with words has led to all sorts of pathologies, including a generation that outright rejects reality.

While with science fiction, we know that it might not work exactly that way, and heaven knows, there are things we don’t understand, but if it works, we’ll need to figure out the science and logic and hard nosed facts behind it.

There was a thread on twitter about the difference, and obviously they’re supposed to be funny:

But the thing is, it’s not wrong.

The difference is in the writer’s and therefore the readers’ minds. And it influences what the story is and how it’s informed.

I have admitted to reading shameless space opera schlock. My recent discovery is Space Station Noir (I’m impatiently waiting the sixth book.)

It’s a story of humanity that has been invaded by a technologically (theoretically) superior alien species. but that species too is at war with itself, and–

And two criminal (more or less) mercenaries struggle to survive in the underworld and become enmeshed in the larger politics.

Is there much about science as we know it? Oh heck no. It’s …. well, a lot of things we can guess at, but mostly a lot of smoke and mirrors.

However, it’s not fantasy, because the assumption is that if this science were proven it would have the same rules as our science. It could be deduced and the hard facts would influence it. Nothing is achieved simply with thought or words. There is the presumption the scientific principles are at work, no matter how far-fetched and magic-like the results are.

It makes a difference to the touch-feel of the piece, and the mind set it fosters in readers.

I always prefer the touch feel of science fiction no matter how far fetched to that of fantasy. Because I prefer the idea that though it might not be in my time, and the science might be at several removes from ours, these wonders and marvels are achievable, eventually, by those like us.

This is different from the mind set of fantasy, which is assumed to be adventures in an impossible place that can never exist.

One is a call to life in the future, the other is a retreat into idle dreaming.

Me? I prefer the future. And I think it is a worrisome thing that for decades now publishing (traditional publishing) has emphasized fantasy.

I don’t have anything against fantasy — I’ve written it. probably will do so in the future. Though I’m told my fantasy often has a science fiction touch-feel — as a respite, an amusement, a moment of play.

But I think a steady diet of it is not good for a culture. Emphasizing it over fantasy marked something sickly in the gatekeepers.

Because what kind of dreams we have change what kind of people we are.

And whether we stride boldly into the challenges of tomorrow, or just hide and dream by the fire.

Me? I’m going forth. Playfully, Improbably, sometimes crazily. But I will chose to dream of a future that might eventually be, over what will never — can never — be. And is known to be so.

92 thoughts on “Tone Establishing

  1. If there’s a zeppelin, it’s alternate history. If there’s a rocketship, it’s science fiction. If there are swords and/or horses, it’s fantasy. A book with swords and horses in it can be turned into science fiction by adding a rocketship to the mix. If a book has a rocketship in it, the only thing that can turn it back into fantasy is the Holy Grail.
    Debra Doyle

    1. Keanally’s Keltia series had horses, and spaceships, and swords….and eventually the Holy Grail (pagan version) thrown in.
      As much as I wish the lady hadn’t gone off the rails and despite the little anti-Christian digs, those are fun reads.

    2. But what if the sword is a dimension-slicing energy sword made with nanotech and controlled by a neural-linked supercomputer?

  2. Category error: sets too large and imprecise.

    *Firefly* was a Western… in space! Which made it Science Fiction.
    So when *Serenity* abruptly tossed all Western conventions aside to become a Superhero Origin Story… in Space! was that kosher?
    After all, it’s still Science Fiction.
    (As you can tell, I had this argument a bunch. I was in the ittsy bitty teeny weenie minority who considered the shift unacceptable.)

    Or take Glen Cook’s brilliant *Passage at Arms*. It’s a WWII submarine story… In Space!
    I would call it “hard” SF, despite that fact that physics don’t work that way!

    I can come up with as many SF stories with Fantasy trappings as I can Fantasy stories with SF trappings.

    Would Tim Powers be classified as Science Fiction, or Fantasy?

    So long as *Cold Equations* and *The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy* are both considered to be the same category, the category isn’t very useful.

    In defense of Fantasy, however, I must note that a determined nobody, wielding a sword named “Truth”, defeating and casting down a seemingly all-powerful tyrant has a resonance that Science Fiction can’t simulate.
    And that dragon has meaning and threat beyond being a giant fire-breathing lizard.

    I would argue that the divide between Science Fiction and Fantasy lies not in future vs past, but in Aristotle’s empiricism vs Plato’s forms.

      1. Ten mile long starship made of ice, running an Alcubierre warp bubble drive and a Bussard ramrocket in-system drive/weapon…

        …for fighting demons raised by necromancers.

        Overkill, you say? Why yes. 🙂 Thank you.

        1. Well, I will admit that I don’t like science-fantasy. OTOH I might write it. Did I say I was consistent? Nope. The mind wants what it wants.
          I think I hate science fic/fantasy because almost every time I take a chance it’s horrible.

          1. I needed meaner Bad Guys.

            Somebody so bad a moral person can take pride in shooting them in the face, and big enough to need teratons per second. What’s big enough and bad enough to give entire space empires of nanotech AIs something to do?

            I already did megatons per second a couple of books ago, Mr. Tentacle didn’t do well in the exchange. >:D

            1. So there was one about space magic, and …. the worldbuilding sucks.
              Stuff like “If we always had magic, why isn’t this always done by magic.”
              Self-consistency and historical sense.

              1. Agreed. If it isn’t self-consistent it does make you groan. Particularly when the heroine (why is it ALWAYS a woman?) makes an utterly illogical decision and pulls a Magic Something out of her fundamental region to further something stupid in the plot.

                But then the Magic Something, which could have totally wrecked the Bad Guy, is never seen again.

                Also, why is it that wizards can never cast Fire Bolt! -inside- the monster’s head? “Fire Bolt-o!” Steam explosion [sploosh!] The end.

                1. IIRC that’s sort of what happened to Unicron in Transformers:The Movie. (AKA Orson Welles last film, for trivia buffs.)

              2. So it really comes down to consistency and making sure the characters have thought through the ramifications of their fantastical elements.

                And as I think about it, this may really fall more under the Weird West side of fantasy rather than than the high fantasy side of things too.

              3. I’ll confess that I’ve always wanted to make a standard middle-ages based fantasy world, then allow it to develop through an industrial revolution, an information age, and eventually go to space and build an interstellar empire.

                1. Brandon Sanderson seems to be doing something like that with the Mistborn and Wax and Wayne series–Mistborn was medieval/early modern, Wax and Wayne was late Industrial Revolution. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes next with it.

            2. For some reason people seem to get confused between magic and science and do stupid stuff. Or use magic as an excuse not to be logical.
              Heck, urban fantasy can run into the same.

              1. Both Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy series and Poul Anderson’s, “Operation Chaos,” stories did, “magic as dominant technology,” and stayed pretty consistent. But then, it was Anderson and Garrett.

                  1. The “magic as tech” subgenre traces it’s origins to two sets of stories, both from Unknown in 1940 — DeCamp and Pratt’s Incompleat Enchanter stories (starting with The Roaring Trumpet in the May issue, and The Mathematics of Magic in the August issue), and Heinlein’s Magic, Incorporated (titled The Devil Makes the Law in the September issue).

                    Amderson specifically dedicated Operation Chaos to Heinlein. And, in the Introduction he wrote in 1995 for the UK edition (Severn House hardcover) of Operation Chaos, he explicitly calls out Magic, Inc as one of the inspirations.

    1. In some ways the Hitchikers Guide felt like a step-child of Dr. Gamow’s science works. There were quotes of his in my Quantum Mechanics texts which were howlingly funny, especially about probability. Still waiting for the fully cooked turkey to appear in my oven. (That’s Gamow, not Adams.)

  3. The High Crusade was science fiction and it had the Holy Grail (or at least a search for it at the end.)

  4. I find that a majority of my writing starts with some extrapolation of a “scientific” event. Some item will catch my eye and then my mind/muse expands on it, into the sci-fantasy world. Might be modern, might be future…but a start in science. I only have 1 story currently that is hard fantasy (Is that a thing?). I think with fantasy, I look more towards myth and legends as the genesis of the ideas. SO, stories in the modern world or future world with werewolves and vampires, would be fantasy in general, unless they had a scientific reason for existing, which would make them science fiction. Whereas elves/sidhe would be more myth based, so in the modern world would be Urban Fantasy.
    So, would DaVinci’s inventions be science fiction? What about Jules Verne? Shelley? (I think they should be considered Sci-Fi.)

    1. Generally hard fantasy is fantasy that use the rigorous, rule-determining attitude in SF.

      To be sure there is SF that presents mysteries that are means to break down the protagonist’s assumption of the SF attitude. . . .

  5. The argument seems to be wish-fulfillment altogether (Fantasy) vs potential reality (SciFi), but I object to that form of categorization. (As a genre classification, I prefer “Speculative Fiction” with the inclusion of the Horror category — the sub-genre details are more stage dressing, as a rule, than substance).

    I think instead that what resonates with readers more is the attitude of the players and the consistency of the world: “This is the environment we’re in, and we’re just telling a story” vs “This is the environment we’re in, and we need to find out how it all works, which is a significant part of that story”.

    All my Fantasy books have a very strong element of “Science-of-Magic”. The ground rules may be fantastical, but everything that then derives from them is rigorous. Consistency (in all worldbuilding) is more important than Possible-in-Reality. Even religions strive for consistency — this is how godhood and sins and forgiveness and petitions work, without being judged (for story purposes) on primal first causes (atheism vs other). If you can “buy” the notion of Christianity, or the notion of FTL or Time Travel, or the notion of wizards constrained by practical issues, then the story will have a similar feel of “practical human world constraints”, necessary to telling a satisfying tale where it is important to understand those constraints. (Hence “Speculative Fiction”.)

    People who think of themselves as Realistic Scientists often disdain both fantastical and religious first causes, but the sort of science that flourishes in SciFi is hardly less fantastical or proven. All these things are treated as “what if X is true — let’s explore” — how much of X you already believe to be true varies.

    Even in a case where the SciFi science attempts to be rigorous (for the current world only), the stories are still typically worldbuilding extrapolations on “what might be”, c.f., existential disasters in SciFi fiction (planetary collisions, etc.).

    1. You’re invited to call it whatever you want. NO ONE is going to call it “Speculative fiction” in general, on account of the general population doesn’t care.
      That is not the point. I was pointing out that the trad pub preference for either fantasy or super-hard sf (which is an acquired taste) has skewed a generation’s way of thinking.
      And honestly, like me, you don’t write stereotypical fantasy. It makes it hard — I THINK — for us to achieve full market penetration, but it is who we are and how we write.

    2. Eh, I think Superhero has to be a fourth category. Too much gleeful but very selective ripping off of the other three.

  6. I usually just post an old pulp magazine cover like “Outlaw Queen of Venus” from Fantastic Adventures to get reactions when this sort of point comes up. ( I have no idea if I can correctly get an image into a comment here but lets see…)

      1. The Pegasus has both wings. The right wing is just angled so the feathers aren’t obvious.

        The real issue is that the wings are attached much too far forward. That horse would fly pretty much vertical and she’d fall right out of the saddle.

        1. Okay, sorry, didn’t notice the white shapeless thing at middle of far-right of image. And yeah, rule of cool is the only thing keeping pegasi level in the air when they have the classic wings on withers config.

    1. I can only hope that this wonder of a magazine gets reprinted now given how many other pulps have been recently.

  7. *types and deletes long bitter rant about SF authors who seemed determined to lecture me about astrophysics, political theories, and military protocols instead of telling me a frigging story*

    *types and deletes long bitter rant about the people who argued for social engineering and the sterilization of the unfit in the name of SCIENCE! and how they plus the horrors of mechanized warfare spawned the Tolkien and Lewis works that led to modern fantasy, and how the people who thought they could fix people’s brains with SCIENCE! in the shape of narcotics and psychedelics contributed to the popularity of modern fantasy*

    *types and deletes long bitter rant about the rampant charlatanism, Lysenkoism and dishonest invocations of SCIENCE! in the modern scientific community, and about the state of the education system in my lifetime*

    *resists urge to youtube-link my least favorite variant on my favorite movie mad scientist ranting about progress and SCIENCE!*

    *resists urge to link to Chesterton on Cheating the Prophet*

    *tries to look on the bright side and remember that everyone here already knows this stuff, especially that first long bitter rant*

    Good luck, science fiction writers! You have a tough row to hoe, but I’m rooting for you!

    1. You have this tendency to go off half-cocked without thinking.
      Now you’re going to force me to pull out all the fantasy where, well, women are superior to men, and men killed the magic.
      Or if only we got back to the old ways and ignored those evil Christians: paradise.
      Or, civilization must be destroyed so magic flourishes.
      WITH an added side that a lot of the people reading this have trouble realizing it’s not true, so it gets sold as almost a religion, where evil science killed magic.
      None of this applies to fantasy as Karen or I write, but it is the BULK of it out there.
      And unlike eugenics, it’s really hard to prove it’s a bad idea, until science is destroyed and magic fails to come back. And hell, half the writers of that crap believe it.
      So, I wish you fantasy-oriented writers luck, you’re going to need it.
      Or, you know, you could be sane and admit that using a quasi-religious pseudo-history as background (And boy, do your practitioners get tedious) is dangerous.
      Not dangerous as in should be forbidden, but perhaps the trad pub prioritizing over sf/f was a really sucky idea. Which is all I was saying.
      BAH. Think woman.

      1. FWIW, I despise all the brands of fantasy you mentioned just as heartily as I do “all homework all the time” scifi. The initial long bitter rant included a discursion on how fantasy was actually worse than SF on the political lectures in the 1970s, and only improved marginally in the 1980s due to the D&D crowd providing a market for lowbrow entertainment (that didn’t have to be a tie-in novel officially, although it often was in spirit), whereas in SF that section of the market seemed to remain exclusively actual tie-ins, and how that was part (IMO) of what led to fantasy crowding SF out of the tradpub market. Today, of course, they’re equally bad at the political lectures in tradpub, because they’re both equally scrutinized and taken seriously.

        I want people like you to succeed. I’m just angry at both genres and the world in general right now. I apologize for taking it out on you.

        1. I am there with you, m’dear. I was there in 2010, and things have regressed mightily since then.

          That’s why I spend my time writing about gigantic spaceships vaporizing evil from orbit. Nobody else is doing it, so I have to do it myself. More vaporization is more better.

      2. What it seems like from this and other comments is not that you dislike fantasy as a concept, but that “fantasy” AS IT IS PUSHED BY THE BIG PUBLISHERS has a style of thinking that you deeply dislike.

        Which is why your definition of fantasy has me scratching my head and thinking “what?” I’m not seeing the same stuff that you are, because I’m not reading those books. I’m reading fantasy where yes, there is magic—subject to laws and limitations, and the characters have to deal with the complications just as they would in a scientific world.

        I don’t think of that as an “SF mindset.” I think of that as “good storytelling.” 😉

        1. Yes. Precisely. I heartily dislike the fantasy as religion that the big publishers pushed by preference to SF.
          I read fantasy, like Pratchett’s, quite happily. I still prefer SF and hte unspoken “This might happen someday.”

        2. Yep. It seems like the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas did good field work early on, but her later, more theoretical work (the inspiration for a lot of “noble matriarchy” fantasies) has a lot to answer for.

  8. What about blended genres? Is Wen Spencer’s ‘Elfhome’ series fantasy, or science fiction?

    She’s got elves, magic, dragons, wargs and walking carnivorous black willow trees — but the wargs, and the living blimps, were created by using magic to do genetic engineering. Ironwood trees were bred and modified to grow wood stronger and harder than steel. There’s an interdimensional hyperphase gate in geosynchronous orbit — which is partially operated by magic. Flying motorcycles, in which a gasoline engine drives a ‘spell chain’ that provides lift and acceleration, in proportions controlled by the rider. Black willow trees are suckers for a stick of dynamite strapped to a dead chicken. (Don’t strap a stick of dynamite to a live chicken. Just…..don’t. Ever.)

    There are…interesting interactions between magic and electromagnetism, which can cause all sorts of problems if not taken into account. A ley line running through an ice cream warehouse made light bulbs pop, and the refrigeration equipment prone to burning out, until a spell was drawn in conductive metallic ink around the compressor to divert the magic. Metal, electricity and magnetism can disrupt spells, too. Spells can be stored on computers, and printed out on special paper using metallic ink. Just don’t try to use a spell that’s been folded up!

    Magic is, essentially, a fifth fundamental force. Derive the rules of magic and you can manipulate it, alone or in conjunction with the other forces.
    At my house, the ‘things that go bump in the night’ are cats.

    1. In my very own Winter’s Curse the wizards can do light spells that are all heat and no light. (Very useful when camping in wilderness.) So is using infrared radiation SF?

      1. And cats to trip over while trying to find them in the dark. ~:D

        At Chez Phantom we trip over the black poodle in the dark, or sometimes in broad daylight if he’s lying on the navy blue rug. (Don’t ask about why we have a blue rug that makes the black dog invisible. There’s no good reason.)

        There is usually a big roar and lots of barking. He doesn’t like being tripped over, and will let you know in considerable detail.

        1. I wish I could find that youtube clip of the two standard poodles sparring and play-growling in the snow, with the bazillion comments in cyrillic characters that mostly auto-translated to “they sound like bears.”

          1. Poodles are so smart they know humans are talking to them, and sometimes mine knows what the subject is, if he’s interested. Food or going out are big topics for him. He also talks back, mostly “rrrooooroorooroo!” but the gist is understandable.

            When someone dares drive down our road, or Heavens forbid walk down it, he tells them off, then he tells me “THERE’S INTRUDERS!!! HOLY CRAP!” then he tells them off some more. Fortunately, cars are few. ~:D

            Delivering to Chez Phantom can be exciting. Huge, coal-black monster raging at the front gate. Very white teeth, very red tongue, no visible eyes. Gate clearly there to keep monster from eating delivery men. Locals are not deceived by the roaring and pet him through the gate.

            1. Yep, we only had a miniature one (barker not yipper) and I think maybe a poodle cross at one point. They are fun and definitely not your average dogs.

  9. What am I going to have to do to get the kind of fantasy I would like to read? Write it myself? (grumble, grumble.)

    1. That’s why I have precisely one book published. It was the only way I’d have it around to read. (This is why I keep saying I Am Not a Writer. Writers have to write or die inside. Me, I am a reader.)

    2. that is unfortunately how it works. Word of warning: do not attempt market research of stuff that appears adjacent to what you want to write. Doing that is part of why I am grumpy right now.

      1. Currently, I am convinced that all market research not directly involving readers is a lie. Anything to do with media, what the Establishment is doing has zero relationship to what the audience wants.

        Therefore, if you are writing something NOBODY in dead-tree is doing, you probably can’t go far wrong. ~:D

          1. It seems insane, doesn’t it? That they’d focus on screwing the authors instead of mapping the audience.

            Publishing aside, Amazon also declines to provide audience analysis, and we know their numbers are to the penny. You would think they’d be all over that, and encouraging self-pub authors by showing them where the hot-spots are, if only because it would be so easy for them. But no, not really.

            Streaming though, they really have no excuse. Their numbers are perfection.

    3. Somehow, the only person stupid enough to cram “it needs more puns. And fandom shout-outs. And song references. And a brick joke about a girl named Catherine loving horses. And snark hunters. And Pappy quoting Kipling to a black sheep. And a McGuffin called McGuffin. And an underlying theme of free will vs fate. And a protagonist who would happily trade a wish for clean underwear and socks…” into the first dozen chapters, is me.

      1. My WIP is a prehistoric fantasy, set, or at least beginning, in Central East Africa. No dinosaurs or lost cities, but it will have leopards and crocodiles. And magic. I’m still still doing research. I haven’t started writing it yet.

    1. If it is that will be cool surprise for me since I don’t see that. If it isn’t, I still have fun reading Larry Correia. Win win for me really.

  10. Fantasy, to me, seems to more deal with how humans deal with dreams and how they can tell good dreams from bad dreams. Or at least fantasy in it’s functional mode. Science fiction in its functional mode is about what humans do with their dreams, to make them things they can actually touch.

    Fantasy, again, it seems to me, is the foundation of Science Fiction. Fantasy tells us dragons can be killed. Science Fiction tells us how to kill them. Both echo pieces of what comes after the death of the dragon. Fantasy tells us what comes with the spiritual side of the dragon’s death… Science Fiction can hint at the spiritual, but it deals more in the reality of the dragon’s death.

    I’m not sure I’ve manage to put this sensibly enough, but I hope so.

  11. My definition of the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

    Science fiction is about science. Science lets us develop tools.
    Tools are objects that anyone can use.
    A faster than light spacecraft is a tool. A light saber is a tool. A communicator is a tool.

    Fantasy is about people. People have different talents and abilities.
    Some of these talents or abilities might be called magic.
    Magic is something that is innate to an individual. It can not be transferred or given to someone else.
    If someone has a magical ability it can be increased by training. If you have zero ability you will never be able to do magic.

    1. I’m glad you have your own definition. I doesn’t track even vaguely at any level to the marketing categories used by everyone else, so if you use those prepare to be disappointed.
      However, well played in the category of “I make up my own reality and reject the world.”

      1. I’m pretty sure that’s a survival trait amongst writers, and a major draw for readers.

    2. In my fantasies, I never have anyone unable to do magic. There might be, like there are tone-deaf people, but I haven’t had them in a story.

      I mean, in Spells In Secret, there’s great discussion of rote spells vs the courses of study the main characters are on, and most of the spells cast in the world are rote spells, and a fair number even by the main characters, but that’s because most people don’t want the theory.

  12. I think we can agree that Mission of Gravity is SF. And Lord of the Rings is Fantasy. And there’s stuff in between.

    But, particularly with older genre works, trying to figure out a genre is a more complicated problem (to the extent it’s relevant). So that DeCamp’s Divide and Rule has knights in armor on horses — and is SF. Arguably, so is Brown’s “The Angelic Angleworm”, despite God (probably) being there.

    And, in the first story, McCaffrey’s dragons were Fantasy. Later, they became SF.

    I realize that, particularly now, people expect genre boundaries to be real. For me, I just want a good story, and, if it breaks genre boundaries, that’s fine.

    1. To use food as an analogy: Fantasy is one range of flavors, Science Fiction is another range of related flavors. They can be blended together, but you want to make sure your readers know what flavor they’re getting so you don’t serve them steak when they wanted ice cream or vice versa or, more subtly, you don’t serve them chocolate chip cookie dough when they wanted mint chocolate chip.

      Current fantasy offerings (on the trad side mostly) tend to be poisonous mushroom flavor sold as mint.

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