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Notes on genre: the ontology of sci-fi and fantasy

January 25, 2014

A friend recently linked to this blog post about the distinction between sci-fi and fantasy, and since this is a question about which I think constantly, I thought I’d comment. I will do so over the course of two posts. This one will focus on my disagreements with the original post; basically, though I greatly sympathize with most of the positions expressed, I think they include a number of dangerous over-simplifications:

So. I’ve often expressed dissatisfaction with the fantasy/sci-fi dichotomy. It’s useful and necessary, I know, but these are basically commercial categories. They do reflect a real division in the literature, but the boundaries don’t everywhere coincide.

Yes, but genres have no a priori existence. They’re historical entities; “science fiction” is more like “America” than it is like “animal.” Genres serve (at least) two purposes: they help readers understand what kinds of literature have been written, and they help writers decide what kinds of literature can be written. But there’s no guarantee that every book belongs to exactly one genre, any more than there’s a guarantee that every person is a citizen of exactly one nation.

My main problem, I think, is that the classification concerns material elements only. If you have an elf, it’s a high fantasy, or maybe an epic fantasy. Unless he hangs out in coffee shops and tattoo parlors, in which case it’s an urban fantasy. But I don’t read books because of the matter. I read them because of the form.

Yes, but readers look to matter to find the form, and writers shape the matter to put it there. That sounds really abstract, but all it means is: people infer from the presence of an elf that the writer’s trying to write high fantasy because… why else would he include an elf? If the book doesn’t feel like high fantasy in the end, it’s perhaps because the writer failed to realize that “elf” implies more than just “pointy eared immortal person”–the concept “elf,” which is supposedly “matter,” already includes the more abstract things that are supposedly “form.” Or, perhaps, it’s because he wasn’t trying to write high fantasy, but to create a new genre, the way Shakespeare created a new genre, the Shakespearean romance, by blending (both “formal” and “material”) elements of tragedy and comedy.

There is no difference between magic and technology, except in the eyes of conceited modern observers. Just because I’ve rejected some hypothesis in my systematic attempts to control my environment doesn’t somehow render the  hypothesis a member of a different category from the ones I accept. A savage practicing homeopathic magic or whatever it is they do nowadays is merely exhibiting a certain belief regarding cause-and-effect. A medical professional does the same. The latter presumably has better results. But this is a difference of degree, not of kind.

Yes, but… actually, just no. The primitive magician does not understand himself to be controlling his environment, but to be controlling spirits, i.e. noncorporeal persons who nevertheless possess physical powers. It’s not like owning a machine, it’s like owning a slave: it doesn’t require formulae that control, but rather words that command. “Command” is a curious concept; the slave owner wants his slave to act rationally–the whole point of owning slaves is that they’re smarter than other animals–but he wants there to be a cause-and-effect relationship, rather than a socially and linguistically mediated relationship, between his commands and the slave’s actions. Christians reject magic because they don’t think spirits can be enslaved; materialists reject this because they don’t think spirits have material existence. Perhaps these amount to the same thing.

And yet, I agree with the sentence that follows from the quoted argument: “A belief in a supernatural world subject to testable and consistent rules and limitations is no less “scientific” than phlogiston theory or M-theory, whatever we may think of the truth of the thesis.” And if such a belief is what the fantasy audience understands “magic” to entail, I agree that they’re mistaken in thinking this “magic” distinct from technology; whatever magic is, it has to be about words, symbols, physical entities with metaphysical significance.

So, when people go on about how a fantasy needs to have a well-defined magic system that’s adhered to consistently, they’re not talking about fantasy at all. They’re talking about science fiction, or, at any rate, technology fiction. Galadriel the queen of Lothlórien gently mocks Samwise for wanting to see “elf magic,” confessing that she isn’t entirely certain what is meant by the word. Thus does she smile at dragon dice, Magic cards, and other systems. Did Merlinus Ambrosius adhere to a magic system? No. He simply went places, and things happened.

Yes, but what fantasy fans really mean, when they say these things, is that they want a magic system that they can imagine what it would be like to enter into. This seems to me the unacknowledged project of at least a certain branch of modern fantasy (perhaps the branch that most interests me). Galadriel and Merlinus Ambrosius are great, but they’re not the protagonists, and we do not identify with them. As such, magic they possess isn’t like the commanding magic of a magician; they’re more like the spirits themselves, persons mysteriously attuned to the physical world. The Silmarillion is an impressive attempt to tell stories about elves, rather than about men being enchanted by elves, but too often, insofar as we sympathize with the elves, it’s because we’re imagining them as human. A Wizard of Earthsea takes up the challenge in a different and interesting way, but I’m not sure we’re really able to buy into the “natural language” conceit that it requires to get off the ground. The Book of the New Sun gets around the problem by showing us a magical figure who doesn’t realize, or doesn’t want to admit, that he’s magical. These seem to me three of the greatest works of modern fantasy, but all are nevertheless inadequate.

Or take Harry Potter, as both negative and positive example. It purports to show us a school of witchcraft and wizardry, but really, the students are just mastering a really bizarre form of technology. Nevertheless, there is magic, the deep “love magic” that protects Harry from Voldemort. None other than Dumbledore are ever allowed to manipulate that magic, and so at first, it seems like background magic, akin to Galadriel’s or Merlin’s. Until Book 7, when we learn that Dumbledore is less like Merlin and more like Faust, or at least Prospero. I’ve always thought this was a bold move on Rowling’s part, and one insufficiently commented upon. It achieves a strange fusion: at one time we imagine Dumbledore as a practitioner of deep magic, and at another we imagine what it is like to be Dumbledore, but the Dumbledore with whom we empathize is not the Dumbledore whose deep magic we had desired for ourselves.

Anyway, back to the sci-fi/fantasy distinction:

Speaking broadly, we might say that fantasy has an ecological, holistic outlook. It integrates. Science fiction is about doing; fantasy is about being.

I’m not sure I understand what this means. Perhaps I agreed with the second part when I suggested that fantasy is about what it would be like to live in world where the physical was metaphysically significant. For sci-fi to be about “doing,” perhaps, is for it to be about what it would be like to live in a world where certain currently-impossible actions were possible. I suppose I agree with this, but to fully understand what it means, I think we have to take a step back and look at some other relevant dichotomies. For example, objective/subjective; mechanical/organic; analytic/holistic; clarity/mystery; reason/emotion; Enlightenment/Romanticism.

All of these could be mapped onto sci-fi/fantasy, and I think many fans of both genres would endorse such a mapping. The funny thing about the Enlightenment and Romanticism dichotomy, though, is that they’re so deeply intertwined, they can’t really be separated. To participate in either is, essentially, to be someone who thinks that the above dichotomies are the important ones, and that they are true dichotomies, not easily reconciled. That agreement seems of much greater importance than the disagreement about which one should take priority, about which most great writers (though not all) had more nuanced opinions than simply “side A!” or “side B!” Similarly, we sometimes have trouble saying whether a given work is sci-fi or fantasy, but we usually know for sure that it’s one of the two. I’m not sure why we feel the need to decide definitively which one it is. People who care about science fiction and fantasy are people who think that the gap between objective and subjective, mechanical and organic, clarity and mystery, matters–matters enough to think about, a lot.

But that’s not all we care about. I’ll spend the next post discussing the defining features of the sci-fi/fantasy genre(s), by way of a brief history of the novel.


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