Yes Virginia, there is Sci-Fi

Okay, down at the Castalia House blog, there’s something of a brouhaha going down.

One where I’m something of a devil’s advocate.

Before I start this, I want to make clear, as I always do: I have great respect for Jeffro Johnson, Daddy Warpig, and all of the Castalia House people. They’re smart guys who make good arguments. They’ve done a great job making their case and provoking discussion. I agree with them far more often than not.

But I think it’s time I start taking the discussion off-site, and talk about where I DON’T agree.

Let me start off with this:

There is a difference between science fiction and fantasy.

And furthermore, everyone knows it, including DW and Jeffro.

Not only that, seeing this distinction is crucial to their argument. It’s critical. If this distinction does not exist, then the arguments DW and Jeffro are making fall flat on their face immediately. They fail miserably.

Let’s start here:

There’s a sickness in SF, it’s very nearly terminal, and Doctor Warpig is in the house to diagnose the disease and prescribe a cure.

Some of you may be in denial: “Science Fiction is NOT a ghetto! It’s not struggling. It’s just as popular as anything else!”

Let’s put it to a test. Take these three books:

The Three Musketeers. Alice in Wonderland. Treasure Island.

You’ve probably heard of them. And movies and TV shows based on them. And allusions to them. EVERYBODY has.

Now name some post-Pulp prose SF works of equal or greater stature in popular culture. Spoiler alert: You can’t.

From the Silver Age? Nothing. In the Bronze Age? Nothing. And the Iron Age? Nothing. Then the Clay Age? Nothing. (The Golden Age? Tarzan, Batman, and Conan, for starters.)

Okay, fine. Except…

The Three Musketeers is not sci-fi or fantasy.

Treasure Island is not Sci-fi or fantasy.

Tarzan is not sci-fi or fantasy (if you want to count the later books, maybe, but the Tarzan of popular culture is a character of adventure fiction, not sci-fi or fantasy).

But wait! The genre distinctions are artificial, you say! Indeed, that is exactly the claim used to make the case:

Fantasy & Science Fiction is one genre, separate and indivisible*. Some stories have technology and aliens, others magic and nonhumans, others technology and magic, and so on and so forth.

People who try to disavow 95% of the genre are free to do so. If I need to speak their language to make my point understood, fine. But I don’t have to accept the validity of their mistaken beliefs, or cater to them.

Cool, fine. And yet…

Superhero comics had a huge impact on culture, for reasons I may go into because they bear directly on the discussion (and directly support my thesis). But they’re not SF, even though they too borrow props, scenery, and costumes from SF.

So to be clear here…

“The Three Musketeers”, which features no magic and no speculative science, apparently is applicable to a discussion about fantasy and sci-fi.

“Spider-Man”, a story about somebody bitten by a radioactive spider and as a result having his genetic code altered so as to take on some of said spider’s abilities – that doesn’t count.

Tell me this: If I point out those two books to you and say “Which one of those is fantasy or sci-fi? Which one is an adventure story?”…what is your answer going to be?

Right. We all know what you’re going to answer, right?

And here is the reason the distinction needs to be made:

If the distinction is not made, it is impossible to identify what needs to be fixed.

If sci-fi needs to be fixed, then sci-fi needs to be fixed! Fantasy is selling well, as Harry Potter proves. Adventure fiction seems to be selling well, if we put thrillers in that category. But they’re not sci-fi, which is why we say sci-fi isn’t doing well. We can’t have it both ways.

What we need to do is not eliminate the differences between fantasy and science fiction, or eliminate genre distinctions. The problem is not that, but what Josh Young pointed out – we’ve lost something higher. We’ve lost something bigger, more important.

Is it the fault of the Campbellians? I’m sure at least partially, though I’m suspicious that his influence might be being overrated. Is it the fault of the New Wave guys? Actually, possibly even more so.

But none of that is the point.

The problem isn’t the splitting off of sci-fi and fantasy.

The problem is not the loss of blurred genre categorizations.

It is the loss of heroism. It is the loss of love, and philosophy. It is the loss of courage. It is the loss of the transcendant – a loss that can be seen in hard and soft sci-fi, in fantasy and science fantasy.

In short, it is the loss of the superversive.

  • Daddy Warpig

    “The Three Musketeers. Alice in Wonderland. Treasure Island.”

    “You’ve probably heard of them. And movies and TV shows based on them. And allusions to them. EVERYBODY has.”

    They’re examples of landmark works. That’s it.

    They’re applicable because the assertion is “Written SF has generated no landmark works in the last 80 years.”

    “Well, what’s a ‘landmark work’, DW?” “Well, Hypothetical Questioner Guy, here’s three examples.”

    Similarly, the rest of your objections aren’t so much disagreement, as misunderstanding the point being made.

    More, the argument you’re making is mostly irrelevant to the thesis of the series. You’re missing the forest for the leaves on one single tree.

    • Bellomy

      Okay, but even then that’s really only true if you disqualify superhero stories, which you did.

      But then you’re acknowledging distinctions in genres between sci-fi and fantasy and superhero stories and let’s go to adventure fiction as well.

      For the argument “sci-fi is terminal” to work, you need to establish that you mean *sci-fi*, but you keep conflating terms.

      • Robert Blume

        He just wants to have his cake and eat it too. You can’t blame Campbell if everything is fine.

    • Bellomy

      To be clear, I actually am agreeing with your general point. Where I disagree is that you’re trying to break down distinctions between genres while simultaneously acknowledging them when it’s useful to make a point.

      Sci-fi is terminal. Fantasy is not. Adventure fiction, if we classify thrillers in that category (I can see a case being made that they’re natural successors), is not.

      So either sci-fi is distinct from them or your argument fails.

      • Daddy Warpig

        “So either sci-fi is distinct from them or your argument fails.”

        Where to begin?

        Tarzan is, by the definitions the Hard SF crowd repeats, quite clearly SF. It has no other magic or supernatural elements, and only one speculative element: “What if a man was raised by a group of apes?”

        Batman, ala The Shadow, is quite clearly SF. One can posit that his mental powers are supernatural, to which I reply “Campbell and psionics” and the argument is over.

        Conan? Let’s remove him. To that sentence I add “The Time Machine”, “War of the Worlds”, and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”.

        So there’s FIVE examples. To which, 80 years of SF has very little to answer for it, the best counter-example being “Jurassic Park” (which I talked about previously).

        No, this is not now and never was a winning argument for Anthony. And even if he had been correct, it didn’t affect the larger thesis at all.

        • Bellomy

          (I am Anthony, so you’re aware. This was an old username I never bothered to change. I suppose I probably should for the purposes of these discussions, but eh.)

          I honestly don’t see how this comment has anything to do with what I said.

          Of course there are other examples besides “Jurassic Park”, IF we don’t distinguish between sci-fi and fantasy.

          Harry Potter.

          Dan Brown and his works.

          “The Hunger Games”


          Considering how his entire body of work has affected popular culture, we can go with Phillip K. Dick, probably.

          The entire Marvel canon of superheroes, pretty much.

          But you want to mark them as distinct from sci-fi while simultaneously loosening the definition to include things most people wouldn’t mark as a part of the genre in the first place.

          You need to distinguish sci-fi and fantasy *or the argument fails*. Sci-fi (literature, specifically) is not in trouble if sci-fi also encompasses fantasy and adventure fiction and – especially – superheroes. It’s only in trouble if we acknowledge that science fiction isn’t the same thing as fantasy.

          And it’s not.

          • Daddy Warpig

            Your entire claim for “mixing fantasy and SF” relies on one single word: Conan.

            Remove that word, and your objection evaporates. Without “Conan” there is no mixing. Everything you’re saying becomes moot.

            I did so, and added in the other cited clearly SF landmark works.

            There we are.

          • Bellomy

            Actually, you just made my point for me *perfectly*. Now that you’ve distinguished between sci-fi and other genres, your argument works. Which is what I said.

          • Bellomy

            I’m not missing the forest for the leaf, I said multiple times that I actually think you’ve made a ton of good points and your argument is a good one.

            I just said that for it to work you need to distinguish between sci-fi and other genres. You did that, and presto! It works.

            I was right.

  • MishaBurnett

    For me the question is not if there is any difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, but is that distinction a meaningful one.

    As a counter example, one could divide fiction into Daytime and Nighttime fiction, on the basis of what percentage of the action described in the story takes place during daylight and nighttime hours. One could count up the pages, and put some books in one pile and some in the other. One could make some generalizations, for example it would be likely that both Horror and Romance fiction would tend to have most of the action take place after dark. One could get into arguments about how to classify certain scenes–if the action takes place far underground would that be classified as night, even if the clock said it was noon? What about stories in space? Does the eclipse scene in “A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court” count as day or night, both or neither?

    That would be an objective means of classifying fiction. However, I doubt if you asked the average reader if she or he prefered Daytime or Nighttime fiction you would get a meaningful answer. It’s not something that people consider when choosing fiction.

    From what I have seen, genre distinctions based on superficial elements of setting and props make very little difference to most readers. Readers tend to like a particular kind of story featuring particular kinds of characters. Someone who is looking for a romantic story about tough men and gentle women is likely to enjoy that story no matter if it is set in 17th Century Jamaica, a modern Fae kingdom hidden in Manhattan, or a far future space colony. What matters is the people and how they interact.

    A spy thriller is a spy thriller–the technology will be different depending on whether it is set during the First World War or the First Interstellar War, but characteristic stranger with fast reflexes and nerves of steel remains the same. Someone who reads and enjoys Jerry Pournelle is more likely to enjoy a novel by Frederick Forsyth than one by Kate Wilhelm.

    • Bellomy

      Okay, but when folks say “I like fantasy/sci-fi” they appear to have more in mind than “I like fiction set in the day/night”. It’s a distinction that’s appreciated. I would, in fact, find a war story on Mars more interesting than a historical one.