Discussion in 'Science Fiction & Fantasy' started by DarthTom, Oct 9, 2012.
Often it's just a matter of terminology. They're both storytelling tropes, but how you characterize them depends on what kind of story you're telling. A lot of the things in Harry Potter could've been done almost identically in a near-future SF setting -- things like animated photographs in newspapers or the Marauder's Map are only a few years away in real life (and frankly I feel a little sorry for Rowling because the next generation of kids reading these books is going to wonder what's so magical about a lot of this stuff that's just like what they see around them in reality). But Rowling chose to cast them in the context of magic because that's the kind of story and setting she chose.
Still, I guess the deeper difference is in the assumptions being made about the underlying source of the phenomena. Stories about magic generally assume that the source is supernatural or divine and is fundamentally unknowable or inexplicable -- or at least, in universes like Potter or Duane's Young Wizards where the sorcery is systematized and formalized like a science, that it's something special and set apart from the mundane world, something only certain individuals are able to perceive or tap into while most normal folks are excluded. Either way, it's treated as something intrinsically separate from the normal, natural world. Whereas in science fiction, the assumption is that no matter how extraordinary the power is, it's nonetheless rooted in the normal laws of the universe and can be achieved by anyone with sufficiently advanced technology or sufficiently evolved mental ability. True, in a lot of stories, that difference is just in the background and doesn't bear on the events of the story, so in those cases they're effectively interchangeable; but there is a difference in the underlying assumptions about the type of world you're depicting.
In the TNG episode True Q, Q to test Amanda Rogers causes a warp core breach.
When the staff attempts to analyze what happened, LaForge comments that, "the laws of the universe simply weren't functioning properly."
Q pops in
and comments, "why shouldn't they - they're so inconvenient."
So, the Q seem to be able to modify universal constants.
Q also suggests changing the gravitational constant of the universe in Deja Q, as if that's what he would have done if he had had his powers.
Wait, wait, I've got it. I know perfect example of magicians appearing in an s.f. story. It's totally plausible within the confines of that universe and it doesn't violate any underlying assumptions about how that universe works.
Spoiler: in Babylon Five
the appearance of Penn and Teller.
First, people like John W. Campbell really did believe, at least for a while (then maybe were too stubborn to retreat) there could be a real science/tech of "psionics." In this kind of thinking, "psychics" were naturally gifted but later everyone would be able to buy psychic abilities at a Radio Shack or Lowe's. The difference between that kind of psychic and a wizard is not just the clothing.
Second, although many stories are adventure stories and wish fulfilment, where the difference between SF and fantasy modes is purely stylistic, there are in fact SF stories which do depend upon the speculations in a way that is incompatible with fantasy. Olaf Stapledon can't be rewritten as a fantasy, Jules Verne can't be rewritten as a fantasy and H.G. Wells can't be rewritten as a fantasy.
The Sliders episode Dragonslide. The world they slide into has everything from real wizards to magical potions and even dragons.
Pretty much everything in Star Trek for a start.
Eh, its not that simple. Star Trek is science fiction, partially because it says it is. None of it's "miracles" are attributed to magic.
Oh, I don't know about that.
While The Land Ironclads might lose some of its essential sobering predictive power, were it transposed into a Middle-earth setting, such a rewrite would be both feasible and straightforward, for example by replacing the war Oliphaunts from Harad with land ironclads.
But moreover, The Time Machine is a ripe candidate for being transposed into a work more on the fantasy side of the spectrum. Again, the transposition could be accomplished straightforwardly, for example by replacing the machine with a magic artifact, say one discovered in a secret archaeological dig with accompanying hieroglyphs describing the incantations needed to activate it.
Like the Orb of Time?
Yes, yes exactly like that!
I don't think The Time Machine really works as an example there, because the time machine itself was not the only science-fictional element. The book was intended as a speculative extrapolation about the future evolution of human society, a social commentary about the dangers of class divisions taken to extremes, with the machine merely a means to propel the allegory and speculative futurism. So the SF wasn't just about the time machine, it was about the whole conjectural portrayal of the future of humanity, even the death of the Earth once humanity was long gone. Changing the nature of the machine wouldn't change the fundamentally science-fictional mindset of the novel.
In a fantasy setting the ironclads would just be Evil coming at you, doomed to fail, instead of the Future coming at you, fated to win, I think.
Also, a fantasy work where the person of the narrator is so beside the point he is never even named? Not impossible but definitely much more Flan O'Brien or Kafka than anything meant by the vast majority of fantasy fans.
Now you could change the Martians in War of the Worlds into gnomes or something, and you could still write a version of the scenes. But it sure wouldn't feel the same.
Sure it is. This topic is asking for examples of magic in science fiction, but magic has never been defined. Is magic wearing funny hats, robes, and casting magic missile? Is Marvel's Thor magic or science fiction? How about Superman? The Force? Vampires? Zombies?
Unless someone comes up with a clear definition for magic I will be using my definition which is "crazy shit". Star Trek has liberal amounts of "crazy shit", so it's clearly a show about magic and Scotty is a wizard.
The narrator is unnamed not because he's unimportant, but because the conceit of the story was that it was told to the author by a real person whom he chose to keep anonymous. A lot of literature from that era used a similar conceit; you'll often see stories referring to a "Mrs. M____" or "Mr. L____" or the like as a character.
Although I suppose it's true that Wells was using the narrator mainly as a vehicle for his social commentary and satire, so in that sense he was somewhat beside the point. But I'm sure you could've found fantasy literature from that period that did things a similar way.
But that's problematical, because it doesn't make sense to apply real-world definitions to a fictional world where the rules are different. It's not a fair standard. Something should only be called magic if it's magic according to the internal rules of the fictional universe, or at least perceived that way by the consensus of the characters within the work.
Well, I never saw the future in The Time Machine as being grounded in much actual science. The thrust seemed more towards making the class division allegory itself than in ensuring that it was actually scientifically plausible. The date, circa 800,000 A.D., was (as far as I know) a totally made up number, which makes the tale lean towards the fantasy column. On the other hand, I can certainly agree that this book provides an early, if not prototypical, example of the trope in science fiction of concocting an alien civilization by exaggerating and transposing certain features of our own civilization, evidently by comparison and contrast in order to say something about ourselves. But didn't Tolkien do this, too, after a fashion?
I can kinda go along with that. Although, it's worth pointing out that, in real life, infantry have fought back goddamn hard. IED's and RPG's worth thousands or less can neutralize tanks worth millions. Tanks have to be careful and cannot roam today's battlefield with impunity. That kinda puts reality in between that romantic optimism often found in fantasy and that fatalistic futility that permeates so much of science fiction.
That's beside the point. Science fiction is not just about facts and figures and technology. It's about the process of extrapolation and conjecture about possible futures, or about the consequences of progress or discovery. What makes something science fiction as opposed to another genre is as much about the mindset behind it as the trappings it contains or the accuracy of its science.
Actually you're wrong there. Remember, this was written before the concept of nuclear fusion existed, so people at the time didn't really know what the source of the Sun's heat was. Some thought it was just from gravitational contraction, the Sun's gases heated by the pressure increase as their own weight compressed them. Such a process, it was estimated, would not be able to last for more than a few million years. So given the scientific knowledge of the time, it was a reasonable conjecture.
More fundamentally, accuracy is not the core distinction between fantasy and SF. Not all SF is hard SF. SF is fiction that extrapolates possible consequences of hypothetical discoveries, innovations, or changes, regardless of whether they're rigorously plausible or more fanciful. What you're talking about is soft science fiction, not fantasy. Fantasy is something where the extraordinary events are explicitly the result of supernatural or mythical phenomena. Wells's SF was certainly softer and more allegorical than his contemporary Jules Verne's, but he still presented his ideas as scientific rather than magical, so yes, his work was science fiction.
The difference is that Tolkien was postulating an imaginary past, while Wells was offering a conjectural extrapolation into the future. Science fiction, like science, is about making deductions and extrapolations from observed knowledge. Positing a future society that's an outgrowth of a current trend extrapolated to its extreme is a fundamentally science-fictional trope, one of the most basic ones in the genre.
For the record, in The Time Machine, the world ends thirty million years in the future, while the Eloi and Morlocks live 800,000 years in the future.
Now, please, tell me again why I'm wrong that 800,000 AD seems to be a totally made up number, because I missed your chain of reasoning there, about why it was a more plausible choice than 400,000 AD or 1,600,000 AD.
What observed trend was Wells extrapolating? Is the labor class developing an aversion to sunlight or becoming cannibalistic? Is the upper class growing weak and listless? Or, more to the point, were such trends observed or hypothesized by scientists in his day? If so, then I'll concede that Wells was actually extrapolating something. Otherwise, the book read like he was applying a sense of poetic justice to invert social class structure for the purpose of debasing human dignity. From the point of view of debasement, the narrative of future human history isn't more profound than ashes to ashes, dust to dust: mankind evolved out of animals, and in the end he will devolve back towards a beast. But to call it actual extrapolation seems to take the conceit of the narrative too seriously.
Calling it conjecture is also problematic because there are multiple senses of that word. In contemporary usage, such as in mathematics, the word often has the sense that a conjecture is suspected of being true although there is no proof that it is and it is understood that it might very well be false. However, in the sense that in a world when certain hypotheses are taken for granted the conjecture would follow, without implication or suggestion as to how likely it is that those hypotheses hold, I would agree that conjecture is a fair way to describe it. Based on your remarks, it seems like you probably mean it in the latter sense, but I think this is a clarification worth making, given the contemporary usage of the word in technical contexts.
No, what I was talking about, really, was that The Time Machine wouldn't lose much, if anything, from being transposed into the fantasy genre. I know good and well that The Time Machine is science fiction.
Stripped of its scientific conceits, the bulk of the story remains. I was pointing out that there's a lot in the story that's really scientifically arbitrary to begin with. The conceits have little, if any, bearing on the actual structure of the conjectures. The future history of humanity makes just as much sense, if not more, when viewed as pure allegory than as actual future history.
Apologies for the multiple edits on this post. This is the final form of this particular post.
Separate names with a comma.