We demand rigid boundaries between science fiction and fantasy!
March 26, 2013 7:03 AM   Subscribe

"There use to be just sci-fi [sic]; then along came New Wave, New Weird, Cyberpunk and countless other genres; now new writing is stepping beyond even these" -- The Irish Times discovers it can be hard to tell what's science fiction and what's fantasy these days.
posted by MartinWisse (160 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
See this is what I've been saying, those potion classes need fume hoods, eye-washing stations, some temp-stabilizing equipment, everything! It's like they're working in the dark!
posted by The Whelk at 7:09 AM on March 26, 2013 [10 favorites]


Some common 'elf and safety would be good, yes.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:15 AM on March 26, 2013 [13 favorites]


It's easy - SF is a subset of fantasy. NEXT!
posted by Mister_A at 7:16 AM on March 26, 2013


Fantasy is Bullshit. (NcompletelySFW)
posted by bondcliff at 7:17 AM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Pssht common elves. I prefer high elves. Very high.
posted by Mister_A at 7:18 AM on March 26, 2013


"These days"? When were the terms "hard" and "soft" SF invented, creating an continuum from journal-level articles to dungeon crawlers?
posted by DU at 7:20 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Irish Times discovers it can be hard to tell what's science fiction and what's fantasy these days.

It was *much* easier to tell what's SF when Damon Knight was alive.
posted by eriko at 7:21 AM on March 26, 2013 [7 favorites]


Bah, all labels! Says my (non-existent) beard.

I call what I write "speculative fiction" because it takes too much energy to draw boundaries between brothers.
posted by burnfirewalls at 7:22 AM on March 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


Some common 'elf and safety would be good, yes.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

well done, sir. Gold star.
wonder if anyone else gets that last....

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

#NotBoourns #NotDaveEither #BOOOOO
posted by eriko at 7:23 AM on March 26, 2013


I call what I write "speculative fiction"

No space squid for you than!
posted by MartinWisse at 7:23 AM on March 26, 2013


You should be ashamed of your elves for these jokes!

Slightly less stridently, the science fiction/fantasy world seems to fight this fight every decade or so. nothing is as contentious as the drawing of fine but arbitrary boundaries through genres, carefully defining your terms so that the authors you like are on this side and the ones you despise are on that. Well, ok, academics politics are more contentious, but that's in the horror genre, anyway, and outside of the scope of this article.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:24 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


If it has FTL travel, it's fantasy, right?
posted by gauche at 7:27 AM on March 26, 2013 [15 favorites]


Oh, or specific prophecies which come true.
Or time travel.
posted by gauche at 7:28 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's almost all fantasy. Science fiction, as a genre, is mostly dead. The modern stuff is a lot of fun to read, and I enjoy a lot of very, very much, but I don't make the mistake of thinking that it's science fiction, even if it's dealing with the future. Calling something SF doesn't make it SF.

I think a lot of this may be because basic science has barely moved in fifty years. The Universe, as it turns out, is an exceedingly difficult, dangerous, and expensive place for humans to try to go see. No miraculous new energy sources have shown up, no miraculous new theories have repealed the speed of light limitation, and the conservation of mass and energy remains in force. Therefore, SF, as a genre, has had to retreat into fantasy.

Honestly, I'd call the cyberpunk movement maybe one of the last gasps of true science fiction. Their worlds tended to be very bleak and depressing, but everything adhered to real physical rules, unless there was a very good explanation for why they didn't.

I've had several moments over the last year or two where I said, "holy shit, this world is exactly like Gibson predicted." THAT is science fiction.
posted by Malor at 7:29 AM on March 26, 2013 [8 favorites]


No space squid for you than!

Then what good these words? Screw this, I'm snapping my space-quill in half.

Where do you get space-quills?

From space stationery shops, of course.
posted by burnfirewalls at 7:29 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pshaw. I get my own straight from the space geese.
posted by straight at 7:32 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


From space stationery shops, of course.

You can find them in stationery orbit.
posted by eriko at 7:32 AM on March 26, 2013 [21 favorites]


I've had several moments over the last year or two where I said, "holy shit, this world is exactly like Gibson predicted." THAT is science fiction.

First proposal before the committee: the magic litmus test for science fiction/fantasy is that the former must contain an element of prediction.

Second proposal before the committee: science fiction, by adhering to the physical properties of the universe that we know and love, is always alternate history, whereas fantasy is not.

Third proposal before the committee: this plate of beans has been stacked too high whereas broadness should be favored.
posted by burnfirewalls at 7:36 AM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Calling something SF doesn't make it SF.

SF is a marketing category. Calling it SF puts it in the SF space on the bookshelf, which makes it SF. It's not like there is a Platonic Form of SF we can appeal to for judgement....
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:37 AM on March 26, 2013 [9 favorites]


Science fiction, as a genre, is mostly dead.

Meh.
posted by jscalzi at 7:38 AM on March 26, 2013 [53 favorites]


Science fiction, as a genre, is mostly dead.

We've been saying this since Wells, at least....
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:41 AM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


That's exactly what we don't demand! We demand rigid areas of uncertainty and doubt!

There seems to be a lesser amount of hard science fiction that ignores characters for plot, political structure or science. The stuff that Clarke and Asimov wrote. This is not to diminish their work, which I love, but that style seems to be gone, or at least is not nearly as prominent. The space opera sub-genre is shrunken, although not gone (Baen does well with that sort of thing).

We know the science more and more. We can no longer have people explore the forests of Venus (at least without 1000 years of terraforming), Kim Stanley Robinson and Ian McDonald covered Mars and the most exciting space material I have read in a while covers only the solar system.

Science fiction is not dead. The old forms don't show up as much anymore, but you know what? That's ok.
posted by Hactar at 7:43 AM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


Science fiction is not dead.

What do we want?

TIME TRAVEL!

When do we want it?

IT DOESN'T MATTER!
posted by eriko at 7:45 AM on March 26, 2013 [34 favorites]


Meh.

Mehist. Meh. EVAR!!!
posted by eriko at 7:46 AM on March 26, 2013


I demand that I am Vroomfondel!
posted by kyrademon at 7:47 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Genre-crossing is what all good fiction does. Don Quixote gets its power by being basically a medieval romance, but set in early modern Spain. Borges appropriated the conventions of the scholarly journal article and other "unliterary" forms for his own short fiction (e.g., "Three Versions of Judas"). SF itself is usually a cross between futurism and an established genre: Star Trek is basically Horatio Hornblower in space, much of Phillip K. Dick's work is SF detective fiction, etc. Let a thousand (genetically engineered) flowers bloom, I say.
posted by Cash4Lead at 7:49 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


It was *much* easier to tell what's SF when Damon Knight was alive.

WWDP: Where Would Damon Point?
posted by straight at 7:52 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


What do we want?

SF!

Where will we get it?

NOT FROM THE HUGO SHORTLIST! SHEESH!

/fandom
posted by eriko at 7:53 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Although sadly for eriko's joke, Damon actually said "we."
posted by straight at 7:54 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


My own personal take is that it all boils down to whether you're talking about future technology or the technology of an alternate present. If we're fantasizing about the future of technology, obviously it's fantasy regardless of how grounded it is in our current reality. When it is an alternate reality only using the science we know of today, it falls more into the science fiction category. The line is still grey to the degree that a story can both be science fiction and fantasy...but that's more of a bookstore/librarian shelf placement problem to me. Both are enjoyable to read.
posted by samsara at 7:55 AM on March 26, 2013


Does any bookstore or library bother separating the science fiction & fantasy? I've always seen them mixed together.
posted by jb at 8:03 AM on March 26, 2013


I call what I write "speculative fiction"

I prefer "Hedging with Futures Fiction"
posted by Kabanos at 8:05 AM on March 26, 2013


When I look at a list of what's hot/top-selling/whatever in "sci-fi" and I see fantasy novels mixed in with sci-fi novels, I tend to see it as a big disservice to both.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:06 AM on March 26, 2013


Meh.

Mr. Scalzi, I've enjoyed your books a lot. Old Man's War was a particular favorite. But you've been handed a fundamental unfairness; life has a way of doing that. The goalposts moved between Heinlein and you.

Heinlein could get away with calling a lot of stuff SF, and just issue a handwave and invent future societies, because science in general was moving at a dizzying pace. He thought those things might really happen, and, given the evidence at the time, there was every possibility that they could.

But say you write a modern replica of a Heinlein tale. When Heinlein wrote it, it was SF. If you write it, the exact same tale, a good chunk of it will probably be outright fantasy, because you know more than Heinlein did. Maybe not personally, in your own head, but you have a million times what he knew available to you for free, literally at your fingertips. After sixty years of progress, we now know that many of the things he wrote about can never come to pass. (while others have, like microwave ovens, frozen dinners, and waterbeds.)

It's not at all fair, but you have to work harder than he did, a lot harder, if you want to write true SF, and not just space-themed fantasy. As much fun as your books are, that's where they really fall, because we know perfectly well they can't happen. They're called SF because stories on those themes always have been, but as our knowledge has grown, they've changed into space fantasy without the broader culture noticing, understanding, or reclassifying.
posted by Malor at 8:07 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Any sufficiently narrow definition of science fiction is indistinguishable from bullshit.
posted by kyrademon at 8:08 AM on March 26, 2013 [29 favorites]


The distinction for me is that even when the fantastic elements are justified by some future tech, if the end result hews toward comfortable tropes such as elves, vampires, zombies, and so forth, it's fantasy. Whereas even if the justification is all hand-wavey and inconsistent with known science, if it's a solid exploration of people facing something strange which manages to prop up suspension of disbelief, it can be SF.
posted by localroger at 8:12 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Any sufficiently ill-defined literary movement is indistinguishable from an arts-section columnist with a looming deadline.
posted by pont at 8:12 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Even Greg Egan has retreated to parallel universes. It's a bad sign.
posted by wobh at 8:12 AM on March 26, 2013


Hard to differentiate maybe. But if I know anything about the issue, it's easy for people to tell what the difference is. They seem to be doing it all the freaking time. (Problem is they think everybody else is wrong.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:15 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have very little patience for definitions of science fiction that insist on scientific plausibility -- precisely because it's a definition that keeps moving the goalposts, and because it's a definition that ignores the actual differences between things-we-put-in-the-SF-basket, however implausible, and things-we-put-in-the-fantasy-basket.

Genre is about the conversations that different works are having with each other. There is a coherent genre made up of "stuff set in the future" and "stuff that has spaceships in it" and "stuff that has aliens in it" and "stuff that has time travel in it" and "stuff where the central plot point is related to technology that doesn't exist," and that genre isn't called fantasy.

It's overly simplistic to say "If it has spaceships it's science fiction, if it has dragons it's fantasy," but it's just as simplistic to toss out of the genre of science fiction everything with faster-than-light travel.
posted by Jeanne at 8:19 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


A short guide to the FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCES between fantasy and scifi:

Fantasy | Scifi

Magic Swords|Laser Swords
Pointy-eared, wise old elfs| Pointy-eared, wise old aliens
Magic Wands|Blasters
Evil Overlord|Sith Overlord
Orcs|Aliens with lobsters on their heads
Vampires|Mutant ur-humans with non-sapient cognition
Talking cats|Talking cats (Ok, I'll give you this one).
Charming wee folk|Little fuzzy forest moon dwelling aliens
Pirate Ships!|Neer-do-well smugglers
Magic|Psi-sensitive organelles

These are just a small few of the common CLEAR DISTINCTIONS between these two VERY DIFFERENT types of literature. I hope this helps clarify these discussions!

Also, does it bother anyone else when they put the Dragon Lance books with the Forgotten Realms ones? Don't the stupid booksellers know these are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT Universes?
posted by bonehead at 8:28 AM on March 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


"If it has spaceships it's science fiction, if it has dragons it's fantasy,"

And if it has dragons flying spaceships, it's on my bookshelf.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:29 AM on March 26, 2013 [15 favorites]


"I think a lot of this may be because basic science has barely moved in fifty years. The Universe, as it turns out, is an exceedingly difficult, dangerous, and expensive place for humans to try to go see. No miraculous new energy sources have shown up, no miraculous new theories have repealed the speed of light limitation, and the conservation of mass and energy remains in force. Therefore, SF, as a genre, has had to retreat into fantasy."

Bullshit. The advance of science and what science allows us to imagine hasn't slowed in the least, it has accelerated dramatically. What has slowed is science fiction authors' and readers' ability to keep up, and while the effects on science fiction may be largely indistinguishable to the average science fiction fan, there is a very important distinction to be made from which we have a very good case for better science education.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:35 AM on March 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


And if it has dragons flying spaceships, it's on my bookshelf.

I want this book. Unless it's Ann Mccaffrey. I never could get into her books.
posted by Hactar at 8:37 AM on March 26, 2013


It's almost all fantasy. Science fiction, as a genre, is mostly dead. The modern stuff is a lot of fun to read, and I enjoy a lot of very, very much, but I don't make the mistake of thinking that it's science fiction, even if it's dealing with the future. Calling something SF doesn't make it SF.

If you apply the standard of "To be SF, it must be possible, or at least not known to be impossible at the time of writing," then SF isn't just dying, it has never existed in any meaningful sense. Lensmen? Fantasy, because sense of perception and FTL. Foundation? Fantasy, because FTL. And psychohistory. And psychics. Heinlein? Fantasy because FTL. Known Space? Fantasy because so many reasons. Clarke? FTL.

The obvious defense will be that they didn't know that hyperspace didn't exist, or that Cerenkov drives that work because reasons can't exist, or that monolith-stargates don't exist, or that psychic powers don't exist, or that genetically determined luck doesn't exist, but come on. These were smart enough dudes to know full well that hyperspace or stargates or other FTL means were purely plot devices to let the rest of the story unfold.

Scalzi's OMW stuff is at least as SF as Lensmen and Starship Troopers and Slan and Foundation and 2001. So either it's SF, or just about nothing is.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:38 AM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


The distinction for me is that even when the fantastic elements are justified by some future tech, if the end result hews toward comfortable tropes such as elves, vampires, zombies, and so forth, it's fantasy.

Try Morgan's _The Steel Remains_.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:40 AM on March 26, 2013


When Heinlein wrote it, it was SF. If you write it, the exact same tale, a good chunk of it will probably be outright fantasy, because you know more than Heinlein did.

If memory serves, Zelazny wrote The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth under the gun, conceptually, because at the time of its publication, the findings of the Mariner probe definitely ruled out the sort of "jungle world" that many had imagined might lie beneath the clouds of Venus. That is, he was trying to capture the last embers of a pre-Mariner era, because that genre (it was felt) relied on the plausibility of the premise. Over 40 years later, S. M. Stirling would feel no such pressure in writing The Sky People. The jungles of Venus, it would seem, were back.

Science fiction in any era reflects not just the knowledge of its audience, but also their demands. In the era of scientific positivism, most science fiction was, if not a promise of a better (or at least, more interesting) future, then it was at least an escape into such a future, made palatable by its plausibility. As the politics of identity and protest rippled through society in the 70s, these changes were reflected in the themes science fiction chose to address. It's difficult to imagine Harlan Ellison's Approaching Oblivion being published in 1955. Such changes are reflected moving back in time as well. The priorities of H. G. Wells, as an author, are very much a product of his time (as can be seen in many of his less-known works, like The Research Magnificient and Men Like Gods).

If people refer to the genre of "science fiction" but are really only referring to the form that its most popular works took between 1945 and 1970, then yes, science fiction is a dying genre, because the authors whose lives were informed by that era are dying. That's a narrow-minded definition of the genre, and not one worth taking seriously. Especially when there are so many really good stories being written at this very moment.
posted by belarius at 8:42 AM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


I favor the big fuzzy circle theory - although there are distinct SF flavored within what we call SF/F or genre or whatever and it can be distinct from straight fantasy establishing hard boundaries anywhere is utterly futile.
posted by Artw at 8:42 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pshaw. I get my own straight from the space geese.
posted by straight at 10:32 AM on March 26 [1 favorite +] [!]


Straight gets his Straight from the space geese?

areyouawizard.jpg
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:43 AM on March 26, 2013


I remember in bookstores this being the "we'll just throw all this shit in here" section. I know for certain back in the day that B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, etc, lost hundreds of dollars of purchases from me because I wasn't up to trying to figure out which genre was what, especially with the ambiguous or irelevant cover art on some books, so normally I'd skip it and browse some other section.
posted by crapmatic at 8:46 AM on March 26, 2013


Does any bookstore or library bother separating the science fiction & fantasy?

Yes. This one does.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:48 AM on March 26, 2013


If you apply the standard of "To be SF, it must be possible, or at least not known to be impossible at the time of writing," then SF isn't just dying, it has never existed in any meaningful sense. Lensmen? Fantasy, because sense of perception and FTL. Foundation? Fantasy, because FTL. And psychohistory. And psychics. Heinlein? Fantasy because FTL. Known Space? Fantasy because so many reasons. Clarke? FTL.

Of course, you can have a perfectly SFy idea that you use those handwaves as a tool to get to. Writing straight mundane SF is bloody hard - I don't think I've ever managed it.
posted by Artw at 8:48 AM on March 26, 2013


So here's a serious question: What's Gene Wolfe's stuff? Which neat box does it fit in? It's written like a fantasy, but the bones of it are more "realistic" than much "hard" sf (no super-luminal travel, for example). Yet, at the same time, it's a fantasy of a young man with an ancient sword, who wanders aimlessly towards first adventure, then war, and finally power. There's more Conan in Severian than Lensman.
posted by bonehead at 8:49 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I want this book. Unless it's Ann Mccaffrey. I never could get into her books.

I have multiple copies of Volume 3 of The Chronicles of Captain Chrysophylax I'd be happy to send you, but by that time Ghourdi was really, really wrapped up in her overarching plot so I'm not sure if The Frostfire Remuneration is the best jumping on point for the series. If you can find the first two volumes (Horded Planet and When Came the Knight), let me know and I'll send 3 along. Although if you're on the hunt, your best bet is tracking down the omnibus that has the first three volumes and half the novella from Locus.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:49 AM on March 26, 2013


It's almost all fantasy. Science fiction, as a genre, is mostly dead.

Same as it ever was.

As a life-long voracious reader of science fiction, I can't keep up with what I consider the good stuff (which is only a small subset of what's actually being published in the genre). So, bah.

The modern stuff is a lot of fun to read, and I enjoy a lot of very, very much, but I don't make the mistake of thinking that it's science fiction, even if it's dealing with the future. Calling something SF doesn't make it SF.

No. *Selling* something as science fiction makes it so. Even if you have an axe you'd like to grind on it.
posted by aught at 8:56 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm considering here only of the 10 books in the Severian-Patera Silk-Horn Solar Cycle books, but interesting arguments can equally be made for the Soldier books too, for example.
posted by bonehead at 8:56 AM on March 26, 2013


If you apply the standard of "To be SF, it must be possible, or at least not known to be impossible at the time of writing," then SF isn't just dying, it has never existed in any meaningful sense.

That's kind of actually what I was going for with my comment above, albeit sarcastically and perhaps too obliquely: that the application of a "science or GTFO" principle would cut a giant chest wound right through the middle of canonical SF.
posted by gauche at 8:56 AM on March 26, 2013


So here's a serious question: What's Gene Wolfe's stuff?

One of the reasons Wolfe is so famous an example is that he successfully plays the conventions of sf and fantasy (as well as the tropes of mystery and horror stories) against each other for literary effect.
posted by aught at 8:59 AM on March 26, 2013


Malor:

"As much fun as your books are, that's where they really fall, because we know perfectly well they can't happen."

Pish and tosh. I did write a modern replica of a Heinlein tale with Old Man's War, and because I knew more than he did (or more accurately, others discovered more about the nature of the universe than was known before, and I was in the fortunate position to receive that knowledge), the speculations I made were done with that knowledge in mind. This is why (as an example) there is no "faster than light" drive in the OMW universe, because I'm of the opinion that the speed of light is not only a good idea, but the law. "Skip Drives" get around through another mechanism entirely.

And so on. We know more than we did before, but it's really not that difficult to get to the edge of what we know and speculate from there. And what we do know now opens as many doors as what we didn't know then. We know Mars is dead, but we also know Europa and Enceladus might be alive. Knowledge takes away with one hand and gives with another. If you seriously believe that the ground for science fiction is not as fertile as it once was, you're not following the science.

Beyond this, you appear to be falling into the common perceptual trap of believing you (and we) know all there is to know at this point in time, which no less true today than it was a century ago, when we were still one solar eclipse away from solid proof of relativity and the Andromeda Galaxy was still thought of as a nebula. When you say "we know perfectly well they can't happen," unless you're using the royal we there, then, no, we don't know they can't happen. I would agree it's unlikely to happen as I write them, because I'm a commercial artist who writes to an audience who lives in contemporary time. But it doesn't mean that the things I write about are impossible, especially if I follow the science to have a good idea of where the edges of our knowledge are and speculate from there.

So, yeah: In fact, I write (mostly) science fiction. It's all right if you disagree, but I disagree with your apparent reasoning behind it; it doesn't have much relation to how I write or how I approach our set of current knowledge when I'm making things up.
posted by jscalzi at 9:00 AM on March 26, 2013 [23 favorites]


the application of a "science or GTFO" principle would cut a giant chest wound right through the middle of canonical SF.

I would instead say that "science or GTFO" folks have never actually understood what science fiction was in the first place, as practiced in actual novels and stories being published -- they have a naive purists' view of the genre that simply falls apart (now, as it did in the 60s, then the 70s, then the 80s, as the field continued to evolve) when tested against real books being published.
posted by aught at 9:06 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


When Heinlein wrote it, it was SF. If you write it, the exact same tale, a good chunk of it will probably be outright fantasy, because you know more than Heinlein did.

Pierre Menard, Author of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:17 AM on March 26, 2013 [12 favorites]


Science fiction minimizes implausibility. Fantasy has no such limitations.

Examples:
1) A group of hobbits journeys forth to slay dragons to prove their value to the tribe and learn about life and love in the process: FANTASY

2) A group of diminutive proto-hominids (like the fossilized ones found in Java) journeys forth to slay Komodo dragons to prove their value to the tribe and learn about life and love in the process: SCIENCE FICTION

2 is vastly more plausible than 1 although a talented writer could write both.
posted by Renoroc at 9:20 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pierre Menard, Author of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

But even more so, right, because when Heinlein wrote it, he was merely participating in the droll modernist expectations of his historical moment. But imagine! To write those same words today, knowing what we now know, is a bold act of mythopoesis, a conscious shrugging off of the shackles of contemporary scientific understanding. A step into not an expected future, but into an entirely imaginary world which we know to be impossible.

History, the mother of truth indeed.
posted by gauche at 9:23 AM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


For those in need of a stellar space opera operating on the edge of what we know, look no further than James S A Corey's Expanse series which kicks ass about 7 different ways. And the delicious part is, Corey is actually the team of fantasy author Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Franck is also an assistant to some guy named Martin that dabbles in fantasy but has also written some science fiction.
posted by Ber at 9:25 AM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's easy, people.

Robots (artificial life forms that are run by programs): SF!
Golems/zombies (artificial life forms that are run by magic): Fantasy!
posted by emjaybee at 9:29 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Science fiction minimizes implausibility. Fantasy has no such limitations.

Science fiction fetishizes the future. Fantasy fetishizes the past. That's about it. Science fiction has a marginally better track record of paying attention to thermodynamics but not by much.
posted by GuyZero at 9:31 AM on March 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


bonehead: "Vampires|Mutant ur-humans with non-sapient cognition"

What's New handled this one well: "Mutants! Trolls! Mutants! Trolls!"

Personally, I prefer a tag-based definition of SF or fantasy. If it has a preponderance of tropes from list A, it's SF. If it has a preponderance of tropes from list B, it's fantasy. Trying to narrow the difference down to a single worldview is pretty impossible, I think.
posted by jiawen at 9:34 AM on March 26, 2013


Why did they have to mention Chuck Wendig? Blackbirds was a derivative piece of Chuck Palahniuk fanfic and not worth the electrons it takes to beam it to your Kindle.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:38 AM on March 26, 2013


So here's a serious question: What's Gene Wolfe's stuff? Which neat box does it fit in? It's written like a fantasy, but the bones of it are more "realistic" than much "hard" sf (no super-luminal travel, for example).

There's the added complication that Wolfe's "Sun" series arguably contains miracles, but also that Wolfe believes miracles are possible in the real world.

Are ghost stories fantasy if you believe in ghosts?
posted by straight at 9:48 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I read "genre-blending", thought of "gender-bending", and was reminded of The Kinks and Weird Al.

"Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It's a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Yoda
Yo-yo-yo-yo Yoda...."

I guess this genre-bending isn't all that new huh?
posted by philipy at 9:52 AM on March 26, 2013


Science fiction fetishizes the future. Fantasy fetishizes the past. That's about it.

When it's any good, you can replace "fetishizes" with "interrogates."

Anyway, I've read some shatteringly good science fiction in the past few years (John Barnes, Kim Stanley Robinson, Peter Watts), so the rumors of its death as a genre seem to continue to be exaggerated.
posted by Sokka shot first at 9:58 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Robots (artificial life forms that are run by programs): SF!
Golems/zombies (artificial life forms that are run by magic): Fantasy!


Oh no you don't, come back to the table and finish your beans.
posted by crapmatic at 9:59 AM on March 26, 2013


I like the idea that "Science Fiction" is a type of story and "Fantasy" is a type of setting. So just like you can have a mystery story in a historical setting or a romance in a high school, you can have a Science Fiction story set in a Fantasy universe, or set in the real world Or you can have an adventure story or a police procedural set in a fantasy universe.

(For added confusion, Science Fiction can also be a type of setting. Star Wars is arguably an adventure story in a Sci-Fi setting, that takes place in a Fantasy universe.)

And in conjunction with that idea, here's an AskMe where we consider Ted Chiang's idea that a Fantasy setting is one in which the universe recognizes the existence of persons.
posted by straight at 9:59 AM on March 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


We know Mars is dead, but we also know Europa and Enceladus might be alive.

We also know not to land on Europa.

More seriously, we live in a world where people are complaining that growing organs in vats isn't widespread enough and fighting over wearable computing (yesterday's Mefi threads). I doubt SF will run out of steam any time soon.
posted by ersatz at 10:02 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


I just know if there are dwarves, elves, wizards or trolls I don't want to get near it.
posted by cccorlew at 10:08 AM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


As a used bookstore clerk who separates fantasy from SF daily, it's really simple. Swords and mighty thews on the cover? Fantasy. Round space helmets and lasers on the cover? SF. That's how it was done before I came to work there and - despite everything I keep trying to tell them, as one of the very few staff members who actually reads the stuff - that's almost how it is still done today. There are a few other differences, namely that Fantasy is more expensive than Science Fiction and Science Fiction contains a box for "Vintage" which is a treasure trove of aforementioned space helmets. Yes, DragonLance, Forgotten Realms and Magic the Gathering all go into Fantasy (together! Mwah ha ha!) unlike Warhammer, which goes in Science Fiction for the very good reason that we ran out of room in Fantasy. Gene Wolfe, like many authors, goes in both places depending on the subject matter and if you think that makes it hard to find his books, then you are not entering into the spirit of the chase. Besides I did that so that at least some of his books would be slightly cheaper and they're right next to each other anyway.

And then there's the vampire thing. They don't go in science fiction, except for those postapocalyptic ones whose author I can't recall offhand but I think it starts with a K but they don't go in Fantasy either, except when it's Jim Butcher or maybe another one of the ever growing number of urban fantasists and while they used to go in Horror except for the 19th century ones, who are in Literature by dint of survival, now that seems too simple. Confused yet? Do not even get me started on the bizarre distinction between Paranormal Romance (dude on the cover, definitely a Romance with a capital R, cheap) and Fantasy Romance (chick on the cover, quite possibly urban fantasy, maybe not Romance at all, expensive.)

Why do we do this? Well, you can't really put thousands of books in alphabetical order by author; it upsets the browsers. And people like it - in fact, they demand ever more micro genres, like the very angry lady who feels that seeing vampire romances next to her preferred time travel romances is a horrific and unfair experience that she should not have to undergo. She demands - in person, on the phone and by email, now - a separate section containing only time travel romances without unnecessarily lurid covers.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:11 AM on March 26, 2013 [28 favorites]


This discussion mirrors the way that a lot of people look down on SF&F as a whole in comparison to "proper literature". The same kind of arguments that what-I-like is important and worthy, and what-you-like is silly escapism.

Such generalizations are usually about as valid as saying Hamlet and Macbeth can't be any good cos they've got ghosts and witches in them.
posted by philipy at 10:18 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just like the mandatory minimum 38 millimeter separation between the peas, potatoes and hamburger on my plate, I demand that my hard SF has no emotional development of its characters.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:18 AM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think this is much ado over nothing. 'Hard' SF has never been the dominant subgenre of SF, but some readers insist on defining it as the One True SF. It continues to be less popular than its more fantastic and hand-wavy cousins, and that pisses off thin-skinned hard SF nuts.

Here's the problem with hard SF: You will be proven wrong. In your lifetime, if you write something in your 30s or 40s. Think about it. You will be proven wrong, almost guaranteed, if you base your book on the current model. That model has a shelf life, because science is growing exponentially, and new models are constantly supplementing or supplanting the old ones, in every branch of the sciences. I think this gives 'hard' SF a shelf life too, and probably scares a few authors away to boot.
posted by Mister_A at 10:19 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


I demand that my hard SF has no emotional development of its characters.

You'll want to read Stephen Baxter, I think.
posted by sonascope at 10:20 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Though, in good conscience, who can recommend that!?
posted by bonehead at 10:22 AM on March 26, 2013


This discussion mirrors the way that a lot of people look down on SF&F as a whole in comparison to "proper literature".

don't say her name. don't say her name. don't say her name.
posted by GuyZero at 10:22 AM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


Who, Margaret Atwood?
posted by Mister_A at 10:25 AM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


She demands - in person, on the phone and by email, now - a separate section containing only time travel romances without unnecessarily lurid covers.

Oh man, sometimes I miss book retail, thanks for the reminder of why I don't have to.
posted by emjaybee at 10:25 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yo, MetaFilter project:

Hard SF Guy Fieri Time Travel SlashFic Exquisite Corpse.
posted by Mister_A at 10:28 AM on March 26, 2013


Every time I think we can have a conversation about SF without talking about why Margaret Atwood dislikes being called an SF author, they pull me back in.
posted by Cash4Lead at 10:37 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


If someone says her name a third time in this thread, SHE WILL APPEAR!
posted by Mister_A at 10:39 AM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've got a friend who could make her walk right out again, so we're safe.
posted by sonascope at 10:43 AM on March 26, 2013


Robots (artificial life forms that are run by programs): SF!
Golems/zombies (artificial life forms that are run by magic): Fantasy!


Ted Chiang, Seventy-Two Letters
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:57 AM on March 26, 2013 [7 favorites]


I was thinking of that story too, Mars!
posted by Mister_A at 11:01 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Which is a thing Chiang has done a couple of times really well: appropriating fantasy tropes as a world setting then telling a Science Fictional story within that setting. The story is even in part about the history of science (as is the awesome Exhalation).
posted by Artw at 11:03 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


A book I like that's tangentially related in Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Which is set, literally, in a science-fiction universe but it really ultimately a fantasy book. Or neither sci fi nor fantasy quite possibly.
posted by GuyZero at 11:05 AM on March 26, 2013


robocop is bleeding: I have multiple copies of Volume 3 of The Chronicles of Captain Chrysophylax I'd be happy to send you...

I think you are a very very very bad man for trolling quite that hard.

I did NOT just spend 15 minutes looking for these books.

I DID NOT!

NO I DID NOT!! SHUT UP! MOM!!

posted by hanov3r at 11:24 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


"..because I'm a commercial artist who writes to an audience who lives in contemporary time."

As another self identified SF write once said (paraphrasing) SF is often commenting on the present rather than speculating on the future. One could argue that this tends to be more true of SF than Fantasy.
posted by digitalprimate at 11:43 AM on March 26, 2013


Nahh, fiction in general is a commentary on the time and place of its writing.
posted by Mister_A at 11:49 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've been reading SF for 45 years or so: the first non-picture book I ever read was Heinlein's "Between Planets" (I figured this out years later at the advanced age of 9 or 10 when I ran into the book again because at 5 I was puzzled by the expression, "You'll all be clicks in a Geiger counter".)

I first think discussing the meaning of the terms SF and fantasy is a bit navel-gazey, but overall it's pretty straight-forward - if it's something that "could" happen in the future, or it's something that could have happened in the past or be happening now but is concerned with new technology, science, inventions and such, it's science fiction.

Above and beyond that, of course, it has to be a compelling story, so we get e.g. faster-than-light even though it might be impossible - because if we had to stop and argue if each idea could "really" happen we'd never get to reading the ripping yarns.

Poul Anderson's "The High Crusade"? SF, even though it's set a thousand years or so ago. Gene Wolf's brilliant "Book of the New Sun" series? SF, even though there are "miracles".

Sure, there are liminal works, but interestingly enough most of them seem to fall into the category of "horror". "Carrie"? Probably SF. "Salem's Lot"? Probably fantasy. "The Color Out Of Space"? SF. "The Thing at the Doorstep"? Probably fantasy. "The Atrocity Archives"? Probably SF. Not that anyone should care how I categorize these!

Overall, I feel I've been better prepared for the future from having been exposed to science-fiction at a young age. Indeed, I'm more or less living as the science-fictional character I wanted to be as a child in London in 1967...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:02 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Urban fantasy, I heard the term recently and immediately thought Wu-Tang meets Tolkien and then thoughts its the greatest genre which may not yet exist: guns n'goblins.
posted by Damienmce at 12:06 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's the problem with hard SF: You will be proven wrong.

That's not a problem for hard SF any more than it's a problem for science. It's not about the answers you come up with; it's about the process that got you there in both cases. "Being proven wrong" isn't a problem any more than "being proven right" is the goal of writing SF in the first place.
posted by Amanojaku at 12:15 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Which is a thing Chiang has done a couple of times really well: appropriating fantasy tropes as a world setting then telling a Science Fictional story within that setting.

And why he's often compared to Gene Wolfe.
posted by aught at 12:19 PM on March 26, 2013


guns n'goblins.

With a proviso: though the author might be Gentle, the book is decidedly not.
posted by bonehead at 12:19 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pass me another elf, this one has split.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:21 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Damienmce: "Urban fantasy, I heard the term recently and immediately thought Wu-Tang meets Tolkien and then thoughts its the greatest genre which may not yet exist: guns n'goblins."

This made me think of Shadowrun, which has been around for more than two decades.
posted by jiawen at 12:25 PM on March 26, 2013


On a panel almost precisely a year ago, I made the mistake of talking about Ted Chiang's work as fantasy. He corrected me in that incredibly kind, inquisitive way that he has. I'm a big Ted Chiang fangirl, yes I am.
posted by jiawen at 12:28 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Malor is following in the tradition of Gharlane of Eddore who beat that dead horse for years on Usenet. Gharlane would constantly quote Campbell as saying
"It's Science Fiction if, presuming technical competence on the part of the writer, he genuinely believes it could happen."
But Gharlane was wrong, as was Campbell, assuming Campbell actually said that. By this definition there are approximately 3 science fiction novels in history, all of them by Hal Clement.
posted by Justinian at 12:40 PM on March 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


mygothlaundry - where do you put Mieville?
Because, swear to God, finding his stuff in a used book store is a tortuous thing. And I don't know why, but it always seems to happen the same way. It's like a bad dream.
The process is awful in the worst way.

"Hi, can I help you find anything?"
"Yeah, I'm looking for any books by China Mieville."
"Books about China? Travel section is..."
"No, no, I'm sorry. That's the author's name. China Mee-aye-ville. I think."
*squints at you*
"He writes some mystery books. Maybe. Also a book about... uh, maybe science fiction?"
"Never heard of her. China? Is that the first name?"

Then they inevitably shuffle out from behind the desk to help you look.
But I'm always burning up at this point, thinking, "God, how can you not have heard of this guy? People love to hate him! Especially book people! Maybe this is a trick, or something. Oh, god, why did I ask again? Look, there's a funny little book about freemasons. Let's just buy that."
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:44 PM on March 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


where do you put Mieville?

That's an easy one. Embassytown is science fiction, rest are fantasy. But since most stores shelves fantasy and SF together they'd all be together anyway.
posted by Justinian at 2:01 PM on March 26, 2013


Justinian - what about The City and The City (my favorite of his)? I think it's a detective novel, really. A mystery.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 2:09 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


The City and The City is Fantasy? (well, sure, but). Surely it would be in the Mystery section.
posted by bonehead at 2:09 PM on March 26, 2013


jinx!
posted by bonehead at 2:10 PM on March 26, 2013


So does this mean we can start calling SF Frisco?
posted by dhartung at 2:13 PM on March 26, 2013


So does this mean we can start calling SF Frisco?

Yes, as long as you're role-playing Mark Twain.
posted by GuyZero at 2:20 PM on March 26, 2013


I used to think of Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels as scifi dressed up as fantasy, till I realized they were romance novels dressed up as fantasy novels and then stuck on a dragon-having planet because why the fuck not.
posted by emjaybee at 2:28 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


You're wrong. The Pern novels are science fiction as fuck, even if dressed up in fantasy tropes. By the second book the dragonriders are actively rediscovering or researching new technology and science in an attempt to understand their world.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:41 PM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Just read The City and the City, and I'm going to go with the genre of metaphysical noir.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 2:46 PM on March 26, 2013


I've seen The Yiddish Policeman's Union all over the bookstore, FWIW: "literature", mystery, sf and fantasy.
posted by bonehead at 2:57 PM on March 26, 2013


Reality and unreality: neither make any sense to me, and anything that hews to strict definitions is probably 'generic' in the pejorative sense. Give me Mieville and Moorcock and Wolfe and M John Harrison, who don't care a whit for those distinctions. Or do like cstross and use Clarke's Law to create fantasias.

The sad thing is that generic sword and sorcery and high fantasy hews closer to boring physical reality than any sci-fi. D&D magic is magic for engineers.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:57 PM on March 26, 2013


If it reads as well now as it did 50+ years ago, it's almost certainly a fantasy.

And the better it reads now, the more fantastic it is.

LOTR was published in 1954.

Here are some Hugo winners and contenders from back then:
1953 Alfred Bester* Demolished Man
1955 Mark Clifton and Frank Riley They'd Rather Be Right (also known as The Forever Machine)
1956 Robert A. Heinlein* Double Star
1958 Fritz Leiber The Big Time
1959 James Blish* A Case of Conscience
1959 Poul Anderson We Have Fed Our Sea (also known as The Enemy Stars)
1959 Algis Budrys Who?
1959 Robert A. Heinlein Have Space Suit — Will Travel
1959 Robert Sheckley Time Killer (also known as Immortality, Inc.)
posted by jamjam at 3:41 PM on March 26, 2013


So Clarke's A Fall of Moondust is fantasy?
posted by localroger at 3:56 PM on March 26, 2013


And then there's the vampire thing. They don't go in science fiction . . .but they don't go in Fantasy either . . .

Dude. Gothic Horror.

Before you bring up the allegedly attractive aspects, the answer is, "that's what makes 'em gothic".
posted by Herodios at 4:11 PM on March 26, 2013


Hey, shut up, The Big Time was a pretty good book, although not necessarily easy to follow. It honestly read more like a play to me.

Although yes, it's basically fantasy. It's only Science Fiction in that it admits the existence of technological change. Otherwise, yeah, Dr Who-esque fantasy.
posted by GuyZero at 4:11 PM on March 26, 2013


I think a lot of this may be because basic science has barely moved in fifty years. The Universe, as it turns out, is an exceedingly difficult, dangerous, and expensive place for humans to try to go see. No miraculous new energy sources have shown up, no miraculous new theories have repealed the speed of light limitation, and the conservation of mass and energy remains in force.

This is nonsense of the highest order. Even in the realm of astronomy, which your painfully rigid definition seems to fetishize, it's nonsense. One word: Exoplanets. In the early 90s, the world knew of exactly 1 planetary system in the whole universe. Now there are close to a thousand known, with hints of thousands or even tens of thousands more.

Hell, we have a PICTURE of one, something Clarke basically considered impossible, based on 3001.
posted by absalom at 4:12 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Martin, don't get me wrong, I loved them, but the science was always pretty handwavey. I did enjoy that one novel where they destroyed the powerful carnivorous slugs with sound waves, and the heroine had earlier been abducted by the slugs and mutilated, and the dude who put her back together also gave her a nose job, and Suddenly She Was Beautiful.

And in the end she gets the handsome and slightly dominating dude.

I think it was pretty brilliant the way McCaffrey brought in women's genre tropes to her stuff. Men brought in space cowboys and space knights, no reason not to have space romance too.
posted by emjaybee at 4:14 PM on March 26, 2013


That it ever read well is certainly a fantasy, anyway.
posted by jamjam at 4:21 PM on March 26, 2013


It honestly read more like a play to me.

That's because it was written as one.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:23 PM on March 26, 2013


mygothlaundry - where do you put Mieville? Usually in my cubby to buy at next payday.

No, he goes in Science Fiction because we just made a call - and he never comes in and never sticks around for more than a day or two anyway. Nobody sells faster than Mieville except possibly Terry Pratchett. Who goes in Fantasy.
posted by mygothlaundry at 4:28 PM on March 26, 2013


Why would Mieville go in Science Fiction when his only clearly SFnal work is Embassytown, which was published more than 10 years after the novel that made his name, Perdido Street Station?
posted by Justinian at 4:38 PM on March 26, 2013


My rule of thumb separating SF and fantasy is rather simple.

SF: The future (occasionally the now) of what could happen. You can take a SF story and, working backwards, get to this modern day of (as I write) 2013. It may take some imagination, but you can get there. A unicorn in a SF story is genetically engineered.

Fantasy: It just is. Origins (usually) don't play a part. The world just is the way it is. It is (usually) not the Earth/universe we know. It may be a parallel Earth/universe, but that's when you veer off into SF. Origin in fantasy is incidental, at least in relation to the real world. The conventions of fantasy usually place the storylines in medieval times, but that's not terribly important. A unicorn in a fantasy story is just a unicorn.

This origin vs no origin is mixed and played with by various authors; Gene Wolfe's New Sun series comes to mind, and reads mostly as a fantasy, but is bookended with back extrapolation to our present day.
posted by zardoz at 5:24 PM on March 26, 2013


There's scientific elements in all of Mieville's work, or at least a vaneer of it. But that's my point: science, reality, culture - it's all slippery. A novel about an Australia with ubiquitous guns would be science fiction; the same setting in America would be realistic. Lord of the Rings pays tedious attention to travel time and physical fatigue and botany and a thousand other world building details that much sci-fi handwaves away. There are few fantasy weapons as powerful as the atomic bomb. It's all a mishmash, which is great.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:27 PM on March 26, 2013


Reliably, broad declarations about science fiction very consistently fail to do anything more than reveal the prejudices of the declarant.

Science fiction minimizes implausibility. Fantasy has no such limitations.

By this criterion, almost everything that has ever been sold as science fiction, including most of its beloved masterpieces, doesn't qualify *and* didn't qualify at the time it was published. It is quite correct that selling something as science fiction doesn't make it so, but the more important point is that the overwhelming majority of things people agree belong to science fiction dont pass this test. There should be zero question, in my mind, that Buck Rogers is a work of science fiction, as are Star Trek and Star Wars, but each of these violate the above rule in various ways. Very few works of science fiction are genuinely plausible in their particulars; instead, most merely precent a thin facade of plausibility that is just compelling enough to permit the story to unfold without choking on the premise. In other words, "We know it's not really possible, but imagine for a moment if it were!"

Science fiction fetishizes the future. Fantasy fetishizes the past. That's about it.

While this describes many published works, it's also very easy to disprove by contradiction. A lot of science fiction is grimly pessimistic about the future, and about what's going to happen in it. "Fetishize" is a clever word in this respect (since it can contort to accomodate both erotic and thanatoic urges, subsuming both rosy utopianism and grimdark nihilism), but it takes pretty substantial blinders to ignore how much fiction isn't accommodated by either category.

Any even casual review of the stories available, especially today, reveals more exceptions than strict adherents to these delineations, and attempts to rigidly define discrete categories seems doomed to leakage (what about the bleedover into horror and literary fiction?). If you insist on rigid categorical rules, you're welcome to them, but you'll never convince people that your way of chopping up fiction is better than someone else's slightly different set of cuts. That is why doing so says more about you than it does about what people have written in the last 150 years. Its defining feature is where you think the cuts should be.

What I propose is that, as a rule of thumb, what these various kinds of fiction begin with is a "What if...?" proposition. So already, we have departed from the True. In general, science fiction then proceeds to propose counterfactuals about technology, scientific discovery, or societal upheaval, whereas fantasy tends to propose counterfactuals about magic, supernatural beings, or divinity. It's very easy for these to be blurred (much of Lovecraft's writing, for example, indulges both varieties of counterfactual simultaneously; even more so for Di Filippo), and a great deal of compelling work has arisen from doing so deliberately.
posted by belarius at 5:30 PM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


Hell with it. Why don't we call the whole mishmash "Anything But Boring-Ass Reality"? Because that's what I go for anyway. Not "science fiction," not "fantasy," but anything where far more awesome shit can and will happen than does in boring real life.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:55 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Malor is following in the tradition of Gharlane of Eddore who beat that dead horse for years on Usenet

You had to remind me. The times I argued with him. Sigh.

I miss him.

I miss RASSF.

I miss USENET.

People tell me how amazing the 'net is now, and I can't agree. All of this was predicted by dystopian SF. The wonder of those days, though?

I miss those.
posted by eriko at 8:19 PM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


But even though I didn't like A Fall of Moondust, localroger (and perhaps don't remember it well enough to give your point its due), now that you bring Clarke up, I'd have to admit a couple of his other novels are better counterexamples to my argument than anything I was able to think of on my own: Childhood's End and The City and the Stars, and the latter is actually pretty hard and has lasted surprisingly well.
posted by jamjam at 9:28 PM on March 26, 2013


What I propose is that, as a rule of thumb...

So part of the question is why we even need to label novel with a genre. And the reason, of course, is that reader want genre labels. Readers have tastes. And they need a way to identify novels that will meet their tastes without having to read the book first. (basically, everyone wants a cover to judge the book by).

So the way we slice things up is arbitrary and mostly empirical for lack of a better word. We didn't start with a concept of what "science fiction" is or is not and then write a bunch of novels. We start with a pile of novels and then we classify them, crudely.

A different analogy of science fiction vs fantasy might be like vegetables vs fruits. You sort of know one when you see one and sometimes you get tomatoes which are structurally one thing but get classified as the other thing.

At any rate any simple dividing line will be wrong at least some times which just goes to show how arbitrary and illogical these classifications are.
posted by GuyZero at 9:37 PM on March 26, 2013


I miss USENET.

I remember mocking someone who claimed Usenet would be made obsolete, replaced by some sort of hybrid of the web and Usenet discussions. As if we weren't all sick of people trying to put hyperlinks and other such garbage in their Usenet posts.

It's been ten years since I had Usenet access, and I've spent most of that time on MetaFilter.

FLEOEVDETYHOEUPROEONREWMEILECSOFMOERSGTIRVAENRGEEARDSTVHIESBIITBTLHEEPSRIACYK
posted by straight at 10:55 PM on March 26, 2013


followups: alt.dev.null
posted by Justinian at 11:31 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


GuyZero, it's not too hard to envision a Pandora/Last.fm for books - readers (or publishers?) contribute snippets of DNA to describe the tropes and themes of each book, allowing us to have personalised genres mediated by computer. If that could happen, we be rid of existing genres completely, rid of the lowest-common-denominator broad strokes that blind you to good books as much as they help you find them.
posted by forgetful snow at 12:29 AM on March 27, 2013


Yeah I was going to write something earlier about how some mediums seem to be described in ever more exact and specific genres and sub genres and sub sub genres (e.g. electronic dance music, metal), whereas others seem to stick to broader genres (e.g. rom com films, science fiction novels) and how that was interesting, but I had to go to work.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 3:17 AM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think you are a very very very bad man for trolling quite that hard.

Sorry, what can I say? Station Lord Ibenix Flames-Over-Moonrise is one of my favorite characters and I tend to mimic her SubScroll communication style when online.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:12 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


My problem with genre is that it's categorical. You just tend to assume that if a story tries to do both genres, it's "blurring the line," or it's the rope in a tug of war between the scientists and the wizards. Sufficiently advanced aliens and sufficiently analyzed magic get stuck on the continuum with the rest of them, wherever the hell your sorting algorithm dictates. If I want to search your bookshelves for the one about research design and interdepartmental politics in Hogwarts, I need to know your algorithm and its inputs, and I probably can't get the dude behind the counter to be as candid about it as mygothlaundry.

It's not really my problem since I use Goodreads for this stuff anyway. Tag clouds and text searches are just better.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:22 AM on March 27, 2013


It's pretty simple to me. Science fiction takes place in a universe where scientific materialism is true. Fantasy takes place in a universe where there is magic.

This implies that some works which look like fantasy are really science fiction and vice-versa (for example Avatar looks like fantasy but is science fiction because of the scientific explanation, no matter how bad) but I'm okay with that.

Star Wars is interesting, because it seemed like fantasy before George Lucas came up with midi-chlorians, at which point it retroactively became science fiction.
posted by callmejay at 7:37 AM on March 27, 2013


If it reads as well now as it did 50+ years ago, it's almost certainly a fantasy.

And the better it reads now, the more fantastic it is.

LOTR was published in 1954.

Here are some Hugo winners and contenders from back then:

1953 Alfred Bester* Demolished Man


So, is The Demolished Man fantasy? It's about telepathy, but I'd be quite surprised to find it while browsing the Fantasy section.
posted by ersatz at 7:59 AM on March 27, 2013


So Stephen King's It was SF. I'll buy that! Because I really don't care too much one way or t'other.
posted by Mister_A at 9:45 AM on March 27, 2013


Whoops I meant Tommyknockers. I think. The one where the lady finds a spaceship in her backyard.
posted by Mister_A at 9:46 AM on March 27, 2013


I would definitely class Tommyknockers as SF. And I think you could make a better case for The Dead Zone than for some of Alfred Bester's work.
posted by localroger at 9:57 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I still want to know why The Time Traveler's Wife wasn't shelved in either SF or fantasy. It it just because it's set in the present?
posted by GuyZero at 10:00 AM on March 27, 2013


because it seemed like fantasy before George Lucas came up with midi-chlorians

All that changed was that some people have an inborn talent for magic, which is expressed by a non-magical thing that can be measured. Even in the original Star Wars the Force was a pretty definite thing that had a source and limits and for which certain characters had natural talent.
posted by localroger at 10:02 AM on March 27, 2013


It it just because it's set in the present?

Often it's because of who wrote it. I doubt you'd find Oryx and Crake in the SF section either.
posted by localroger at 10:03 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Psychic stuff is grandfathered in to SF from Campbell, who was really big on it. He used to commision tons of stories that matched his beliefs there.
posted by Artw at 10:07 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


As there are neither space-squids nor rayguns in O&C, definitionally, it is not SF.
posted by bonehead at 12:50 PM on March 27, 2013


PLANET SIZED GROAN.
posted by Artw at 12:52 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I still want to know why The Time Traveler's Wife wasn't shelved in either SF or fantasy. It it just because it's set in the present?

There's a ton of recent "contemporary lit" that could plausibly be classified as science fiction. Off the top of my head: Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad; Michael Chabon, Chronic City; Jonathan Lethem, The Yiddish Policemen's Union; Rick Moody, The Four Fingers of Death; the Atwood titles already named; Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet; Richard Powers, Generosity (also his earlier books Galatea 2.0 and Plowing the Dark); David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas; Gary Schteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story; Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods...
posted by aught at 12:55 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


(...which means that the Vandermeers and perhaps Meville are the only true SF writers in the current day. A rather elite company, I would think.)
posted by bonehead at 12:55 PM on March 27, 2013


He used to commision tons of stories that matched his beliefs there.

The genre was impure from its very conception. Thank goodness.
posted by aught at 12:55 PM on March 27, 2013


If you go back to proto-SF it's all people taking rides to the moon in baskets pulled by birds to check out celestrial dynamics.
posted by Artw at 1:20 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wait, so is Verne actual SF or proto-SF?
posted by GuyZero at 1:23 PM on March 27, 2013


I think of proto-SF as various 17th century types, though I'm sure some people will argue like hell over that. By Wells, Verne and Shelly I think we are in the realm of SF proper, even of it wasn't named.
posted by Artw at 1:28 PM on March 27, 2013


Here's another post which might be of interest to anyone hasn't seen it yet, on how a science fiction writer goes about describing the near future:

The Forces Of The Next 30 Years
posted by homunculus at 3:01 PM on March 27, 2013


yea, i'm making my way thru daniel abraham's corpus and am looking forward to _the expanse_! the _dagger & coin_ strikes me as a cross between vance's lyonesse & simmons' hyperion so far, whereas i couldn't help but think there's no better programming metaphor than "binding the andat" in the _the long price quartet_ for narrative descriptions :P
posted by kliuless at 10:25 PM on March 27, 2013


I read Leviathan Wakes without knowing who Corey was. I knew there was no way it was purely somebody's first novel, and the voice was familiar, but it wasn't until I found out it was Abraham and Franck collaborating that things clicked.

Abraham is superb. Abraham and Franck together are great. I'd have to read something Franck writes by himself to have an opinion on his stuff.
posted by Justinian at 9:05 PM on March 29, 2013




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