Monday, September 24, 2007

Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Janice Harayda, over at One-Minute Book Reviews posted (and linked) some comments Michael Crichton made three decades ago with regard to the state of science-fiction and fantasy literature. To quote:

“As a category, the borders of science fiction have always been poorly defined, and they are getting worse. The old distinction between science fiction and fantasy – that science fiction went from the known to the probable, and fantasy dealt with the impossible – is now wholly ignored. The new writing is heavily and unabashedly fantastical.

“The breakdown is also seen in the authors themselves, who now cross the border, back and forth, with impunity. At one time this was dangerous and heretical; the only person who could consistently get away with it was Ray Bradbury. Science fiction addicts politely looked the other way when he did books such as Dandelion Wine and the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick. It was assumed he needed the money.”

Michael Crichton “Slaughterhouse Five” in The Critic As Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970 With Some Preliminary Ruminations by H.L. Mencken (Liveright, 1972), edited by Gilbert A. Harrison


It's interesting to me that Crichton, thirty-five years ago, is making a complaint that still is voiced in the speculative fiction community to this day. Before commenting about whether his assertion that there exists a distinction between fantasy and science fiction is prima facie true, I think it is important to examine the definition of each he offers.

According to Michael Crichton useful definitions for fantasy and science fiction are:

SCIENCE FICTION -- fictional narratives about what is known or probable according to our current understanding of physics, history, etc.

FANTASY -- fictional narratives dealing with the impossible.


It seems to me that these definitions are simultaneously too narrow and too broad. His definition of science fiction, as presented in the quote above and my (possibly ill-conceived) restructuring of it, might lead itself to include a great deal of literary fiction I might not consider to be science fiction. This is even true if I add the word "speculative" prior to the word fiction, which may make for a more robust definition. I can imagine a whole array of speculative fiction about the known that might not be science fiction, though I think to do so I have to ignore an underlying a priori "common sense" understanding of science fiction. Examples of such stories might include Ludlum spy novels or Kathy Reich's forensic anthropology murder mysteries.

Similarly, the definition is too narrow because it leaves no room for the truly speculative story, the story which gets us to question our current understanding of science and inspires younger readers to question and refine that understanding later in life. An Example of this would include the Foundation Series. Think about it. Have we developed faster than light travel, psionics, "Psychohistory," or "PSYCHOLOGY?" Those of you who are familiar with the stories will know that "PSYCHOLOGY" is very different from modern Psychology. All of those things are not only not possible, but most are likely to be improbable.

One could make similar complaints regarding the Crichton definition of fantasy, which includes an underlying assumption that you and he agree regarding what is impossible. Having read Travels, I wonder at how narrow "the possible" is in Crichton's mind.

All of this leads me to what I think is the problem with rigid distinctions, as opposed to "marketing" distinctions, when it comes to defining boundaries for literary genres which deal with the imagined or "speculated." I won't be so bold as to offer definitions that I think distinguish the two, but I will say that I believe that science fiction is a sub-genre of fantasy. This largely stems from my belief that both deal, at some level, with the imagined. Thus the "weird tale" and "horror" story, among others, also fall into sub-genre of fantasy. Needless to say, my understanding of fantasy is extraordinarily broad, possibly too broad. But I don't think so. I think that the fantastic is where the human mind creates some of the most interesting stories. I also think that the science in some science fiction is so far beyond our current ken that it is analogous to magic. Hmm...isn't that Clarke's third law?

My opinion in this regard is heavily shaped by what I read and enjoy. Looking at the origins of science fiction, one finds it's publishing history inexorably merged with the publishing history of fantasy. I have a great love of the pulps and this leaves me wondering where various characters/stories I enjoy would be placed. Is John Carter of Mars a science fiction or fantasy character? What about Carson Napier who has similar adventures, but with a more scientific origin? What about the world of the "Moon Maid" which was in origin an allegory discussing the world under Bolshevik rule? Where does Starship Troopers fall? (Giant Bugs? Wouldn't the exoskeleton's collape?) John Scalzi's Old Man's War? (Sadly not on the shelf of my local B&N, likely one reason why I shop at the Mystery and Imagination bookstore.) HP Lovecraft's stories of "alien terror?"

Stories that blur the distinction between fantasy and science fiction are as old as the genre themselves, smartly Crichton notes this, so is it useful to have a distinction?

I think there is, but I don't know exactly where to place that distinction except to say that science fiction stories attempt a scientific (even if it is an imaginarily scientific) description of the fantastic things they describe. But where does that leave the Harold Shea stories? D'oh.

What are your thoughts on the subject?
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