Fantasy and Science Fiction: Defined

Twin genres! Tied together!

I don’t quite divide them up the way lots of people do, by tropes. You know what I mean: SF is spaceships and future stuff and lasers and ~technology~; F is magic and impossible creatures and the medieval-esque.

Interesting fact: ‘technology’ isn’t about machines. It’s not about iWatches and LightSails. Technology is process. It’s algorithms.  It’s knowledge. The 3-field system is technology. So is bureaucracy.

For me, ‘fantasy’ uses the trappings of SFF–spaceships, magic, impossible creatures, whatever–but those trappings don’t have any impact on the fundamental human condition. There may be miracles and wonders but they either mostly address other miracles and wonders, or they provide, at best, a short-term solution. Fantasy is about coming to terms with what is unalterable. Fantasy brings you courage to face the ordinary hidden in the stories of gods.

In fantasy, when magic could save somebody’s life at the expense of changing them forever (or even without consequences), they instead come to terms with their death, because that’s what we all have to do, eventually. Magic restores the natural order and the most important magics do things like bring hope, or peace: achievements we can all strive for, right now.

In science fiction, the tropes do change things; science fiction explores how. The trappings aren’t miracles or wonders (except maybe at first). They touch many people’s lives and people respond and adapt to them. Whether the magic is sorcery or pocket computers, society adapts to it. It may become something strange or alien, or it may be just a little bit different from what we know.  But the tropes aren’t just trappings. They’re (at least partially) the point.

In science fiction, when magic could save somebody’s life at the expense of changing them forever (or even without consequences), many people will face that choice. Some people will choose life. Society will change. There is no ‘natural order.’ (Some of) what is done is nothing more than thought experiments, beyond our current reach. But the ‘science’ in science fiction is methodology. Questions are asked and answers are proposed. Ideas are applied to a world.

Even defined this way, many stories straddle both fields, of course. But a lot don’t.  And sometimes fairy stories are science fiction, and we all know science fiction that is really fantasy.

I think it’s an interesting enough way to approach how I read and how I write that I wanted to share it. 🙂

Queens of A Radiant Tomorrow

A Writing Wednesday post, delayed!

I’ve had three or four topics drift through my mind as I think, “Man, I need to write my weekly post.” A post about what people seem to value in blogs, a post about the trouble with titles, a post about following the rules and how it does and doesn’t help–

But right now, the spinner has settled on ‘steampunk’ as a topic. The immediate idea comes from reading this post at Carina Press’s blog, but it draws on thoughts dating back much further, including a discussion of steampunk on the Satellite Show.

I’m afraid I’m one of those purists who draw a distinction between ‘steampunk’ and ‘gaslight fantasy’. Properly done steampunk is science fiction as much as its parent genre, cyberpunk. Weird technology in a Victorian setting isn’t steampunk unless it focuses on the technology, and how it influences the setting. If the technology is just flavor, just a part of the setting, it’s gaslight fantasy– which I do also enjoy. But the splat-punks have a special place in my heart.

I think Satellite Show said it well: “The “punk” aspect of Cyberpunk or any of its derivatives (of which Steampunk is only the most well known) is not just there for show, but because any of those genres should capture a spirit of a society bleeding out on a technological fringe, a technology that has the power to both free and oppress, a height of wonderment and possibility contrasted with a depth of exploitation and despair. These are the times and places where the rebels thrive, in the scientific revolutions that reshape the world.”

It was fascinating to read this definition, which encapsulated thoughts of my own perfectly, for two reasons:

1.) Most things I write have some element of that nature to them. I love technology, and watching how technology impacts humanity. And in all of my fantasy worlds, I tend to have a carefully developed technology that heavily influences the plot and the world– even the magic is usually more technology than magic. One of my favorite bricks-under-the-bed could be described as ‘angelpunk’. And yes, that means what it sounds like: angels used to power a technology, and how that shapes the world. How that both liberates and oppresses elements of that world.

2.) Think of the possibilities! You could take almost anything, add -punk to it, and using the above definition, have an instantly interesting world! (Maybe only interesting to me). As an example, at one point Jess Nevins mentioned ‘geisterpunk’, German for ghostpunk, on his twitter stream, which prompted a wild frenzy of speculation:

I imagined a technology inspired around using scientific proof of an immortal soul. Like, half of eternity is still eternity so POOF, power. So, a situation where you have immortal souls and they can be split– but the amount of work a soul can do via this technology is limited. Souls aren’t infinite, so there’s this back-alley bartering of fragments of one’s soul, and accumulating more soul is relevant and meaningful.

Tiny totally frayed souls in strung-out junkies, some of whom are desperately scrabbling for more soul to supplement those, and some who are barely more than zombies because they’ve given– or had taken– all they can.

Awesome, right? And I haven’t even gotten into the kinds of work that soul-powered machines might be especially useful for doing, the weird and wonderful advances enabled by ghostpunk technology.

But anyhow! I think the reason that steampunk is so interesting right now is because it lets us explore the potential consequences of what’s happening to our society right now. Cyberpunk is a little too close to home, but steampunk has that necessary remove which allows so many people to really think about an idea. Our own world is changing so fast, with so many varied threats and promises contained with the technologies we’re exploring. How do we cope? How do we even understand? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, I think that’s part of the power of fiction. We have everything we need to understand ourselves and our own world, right there at hand.