Why Differentiate Science Fiction from Fantasy

The genre labels of Science Fiction and Fantasy (or, for that matter, Detective Fiction, War stories, Westerns, Romance, Pirate stories, or Air Wonder stories) are a convenience for the bookstores and magazine racks, so that the readers have an idea beforehand what kind of story they are spending their beer money on.

The labels should not be used as a blinders, bridle and bit on the imagination of the author, and it is damaging to the imagination so to use them.

Had George Lucas decided to eliminate the psychic powers of his space samurai, or make them drop their laser swords, on the ground that this was insufficiently science fictional and too fantastic, we would have been the poorer for it. Likewise if the Lensmen had never gotten their magical, mind reading talismans from planet Arisia.

But let us not be so bold as to claim the genre labels serve no purpose. If they served no purpose, they would never have been maintained for so many years.

If the reader is in the mood to read a Jules Verne style story, this is different than if he wants to read a William Morris style story.

Part of the appeal, and part of the magic spell of verisimilitude, in a Jules Verne story is treating with make believe inventions and make believe sciences in a consistent way.

The reader knows that submersible vessels, heavier than air flying machines, and voyages to the moon are make believe. But the whole point of taking the time and effort for the writer to invent a plausible-sounding way these things might be real, or a plausible-sounding speculation of the side effects, including the effect on society, of what would happen were they real, is that this entertains the reader.

And so the author invents a way to say or imply how the Nautilus, or the Albatross, or the Columbiad Gun works. It does not have to be plausible. We are not engineers, after all. It only needs to sound plausible. That is part of the charm of the work.

More to the point, it is something found in no other type of story, and for which readers are willing to part with their hard earned beer money.

If the tale simply ignores the nuts and bolts of how the implausible gadget works, but dwells on some side effects of how it operates, this is a similar type of appeal.

H.G. Wells, for example, does not say how to mine or smelt an alloy opaque to gravity, but he does say that if you erected a disk of it in your shed, the whole column of air above the shed would become weightless, be vented into outer space, and the resulting gale when the surrounding air toppled into the column of vacuum would flatten the shed.

Even known scientific and logical absurdities such as faster than light drives or time travel if the material is handled in a speculative fashion, and the resulting sense of wonder has the tinge or hue or savor of scientific wonders, scoffers may call these things fantasy, but the readers generally classify them as science fiction. THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir is in the same bookrack of the bookstore as THE TIME MACHINE by H.G. Wells.

Contrariwise, ATLAS SHRUGGED or the film MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN while they both have make believe inventions in them, neither is usually shelved next to Verne and Wells. The first is a work of apologetics for individualism, and the second is a spy movie.

I have known many readers of Ayn Rand, and, so far, not one of them has complained that his suspension of disbelief was jarred by the unrealism of a metal lighter and more durable than steel, or a valley hidden beneath a screen of light-bending rays, or a sonic weapon, or  a gizmo drawing on atmospheric electricity for power.

Each genre and subgenre is controlled by the unspoken expectations of the readership as to what is allowed as believable.

Some genres have more flexibility than others. Some readers are more strict than others. For example, in a comedy, the readers will generally call anything believable as long as it is funny, or in a horror, anything is allowed as long as it is scary.

On the other hand, making a scientific error in a science fiction story will provoke readers. Larry Niven was famously upbraided about the need for altitude jets on his Ringworld — a gaffe he corrected in the sequel — even though this mistake is one you need calculus and a knowledge of orbital mechanics to detect.

The only readership more demanding is that of Regency romances, where the smallest historical error of manners or dress will provoke reader ire.

But the general consensus of any genre tends to hover around certain tropes which, if they are not affirmed or at least addressed, will cause the readers to feel cheated of their expectations.

In the case of Ayn Rand, she is somewhat sui generis, but nonetheless a small number of imitators have produced enough libertarian and objectivist books for this to be called a subgenre, and to have identifiable tropes. In this case, scientific and technical inventions are one of the blessings objectivist philosophy says springs from individual liberty and the free market, and so the portrayal of such inventions is allowed in the genre without it necessarily being a science fiction story. The caveat is that the inventions, if invented by an individual, are portrayed as beneficial, and if invented by a government committee, are either impossible, or are deadly weapons. Any other use of the inventions will leave the libertarian reader feeling cheated.

In the case of James Bond, a solar energy McGuffin falls in the same category as atomic weapon research, rockerty, radar, the Norden bombsight, and other scientific weapons invented during and after the Second World War, whose secret plans are an expected and even commonplace trope of the spy thriller. Such super-weapons are allowed in the genre without it necessarily being a science fiction story.

Likewise the gadgets allowed for spies, such as trick cars, fountain pen pistols, and jet packs step into science fictional territory, but unlike the Nautilus or the Albatross, these things are not the crux of the story. Usually such toys need to be something the reader will grant is feasible as a current, cutting-edge technology, or only a few years ahead of time. Things that strain the imagination fit into science fiction with less risk of reader disappointment.

While THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK had many of the tropes of a spy thriller, even to the point of the hero being hired by a secret government agency to recover the McGuffin, since the McGuffin is supernatural, the Ark of the Covenant, and since the film maker deliberately paid homage to as many cliffhanger adventure serials as he could, this film is usually categorized as an adventure story, not a spy story, not as science fiction. I have never seen it placed in the ‘spiritualism and religion’ section of the movie store.

Please note that in a spy thriller that the fantastic invention is only ever a McGuffin. It never has any broader implications for society in general. If James Bond recovers the Solar Agitator, for example, the movie does not examine England’s rise to an economic superpower because she alone has cheap and infinite solar energy.

Nor does the film DIE ANOTHER DAY explore the many ramifications of invisible car technology on society. (And, it must be noted, for many a Bond fan this particular gizmo was a bridge too far, that is, not sufficiently believable to fit withing the trope of spy thrillers.)

Now, much ado is being made these days over the relative freedom allowed by space operas, sword-and-planet stories, and the various genre-breaking stories once commonplace in pulp magazines.

That genre-freedom is certainly evident in the superhero comics and shows. No fan of the Avengers or Justice League is even slightly taken out of the story if Dr. Strange, a magician, is in the same tale as Thor, a god, or on the same team as a supersoldier, a playboy inventor, a mutant, space alien and a robot. The readers in this genre want heroics and awesomeness, and will accept anything which does not ignore these basics.

I salute the spirit of those who say write what the muse dictates, and let the readers find you where you stand, come what may. That is my own philosophy of writing, and it certainly has done me no ill.

But let us not take these calls to defy genre tropes to mean you should write something that cheats the expectations of the reader.

If you are going to have magic in your story, for example, you have to tell the reader fairly early on. If, after a duel with laser pistols by two soldiers flying through a ruined space station on jetpacks while the space station orbit degrades into the atmosphere of Jupiter,  the survivor escapes by drawing a magic circle in the blood of his foe and summoning up the devil-god Pazuzu of the Black Wings…

Well, never mind. That scene sounds kind of awesome, come to think of it. And I seem to recall that CATCHWORLD by Chris Boyce had exactly such a scene. On the other hand, that book is one I did not much appreciate upon rereading it.

So my point is that one should not topple a fence without first taking the time to discover why it is there. Genre boundaries are established not by some sinister conspiracy of editorial Illuminati, but by the consensus opinion and buying habits of our beloved patrons, the readers.

The generous readers will often follow an author who leaps fences and scoffs at boundaries if he does it with panache and verve and show them he knows what he is doing, and, more to the point, shows them a good time.