Is It Okay to Love Science Fiction but Not Fantasy?

I understand why the genre of science fiction is grouped with fantasy. And I think I understand why some people love both. But the coupling does not work for me. I am drawn to science fiction like a moth to a flame. When it comes to fantasy, I tend to fly straight by. Does that make me odd? Or are there many other SF fans who are polite to our fantasy-loving cousins, but struggle to share their passion?

Part of the problem is hardness. Nobody thinks it wrong that some tastes are harder than others. But if you prefer hard SF, then all fantasy, by definition, must be considered softer than the softest SF. And that discourages me from trying it.

In a way, the distinction is ridiculous. As Arthur Clarke pointed out, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So hard SF is problematic, because if it is both hard and advanced, it might as well be fantasy. And yet, despite that problem, we think we can distinguish SF from fantasy. How? I am not sure how. But somehow we know the difference. Maybe we trust our magical intuition.

I wonder if some of the divides in the SF&F community are really just about the differences between the SF and the other F. For example, I did not like any of last year’s Hugo short stories nominees. None of them were science fiction. Most of them were best categorized as fantasy-lite. As I like my science fiction to be hard and heavy, that left me wondering why there were not more nominations for that sort of story. Is it because the hard SF geeks were in a minority that year, or were there no good SF stories? Or are SF fans all surprisingly keen to read stories about singing dinosaurs?

I am not even sure what genre the Hugos are meant to cover. In some places they are described as the most prestigious awards in the field of science fiction. Elsewhere they are described as awards for the best science fiction or fantasy works. It hardly requires a logician to point out that these definitions are inconsistent. To be fair, the individual awards are usually defined as covering works which are science fiction or fantasy. Nevertheless, this seems to invite tension between fans who like one genre, but not the other. I wonder if some of the support for the Sad Puppies came from fans of harder SF, who were keen to promote stories that better suited their tastes.

One criticism I read somewhere recently (sadly, I forget where) was that fantasy tends to be prejudiced because most of it involves white guys wielding swords and talismans in a European medieval setting. This criticism of fantasy left me perplexed. Maybe lots of fantasy is awful, but what discourages me is not the bit about white guys. I am put off by the bit about European medieval history. If I am going to indulge my fantasies, I will always prefer spaceships and ray guns over horses and swords. To understand why, just imagine what would happen if somebody armed with the former battled somebody armed with the latter.

Meanwhile, science fiction has always had plenty of stories where the characters are not from Earth, or are not human. With all those aliens and robots, you might think SF must be exempt from the obsessions that fuel present-day culture wars, whilst fantasy deserves the ire of those pursuing political correctness. But nobody ever argues that.

I may generalize about genres, but outstanding works can be found in every genre. It is good to broaden a palette by sampling other tastes. I may not be a rap fan, but I own albums by Public Enemy and De La Soul. I am not keen on fantasy, but the stories of Jorge Luis Borges are so vivid that I often think of them. However, nobody says they like a genre because they liked its most outstanding examples. Liking a genre means taking pleasure from more meagre contributions to the cannon. It is worth taking a risk on a Borges short story. The 700-page opening installment of another epic saga seems more like a bad bet.

There is so much science fiction, we can easily avoid fantasy. There are enough SF books to occupy an entire lifetime of reading. And for when we are too tired to read, there is enough flop-on-the-sofa SF TV to fill most of a lifetime, if not all of it. There is so much that there is never a need to flick to Game of Thrones, so I never have. Even Doctor Who is too fantastical for my tastes. The screwdriver is a wand and ‘reverse the polarity’ is an incantation. The plot always begins like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, except we are to The Doctor what King Arthur was to Hank Morgan, a 19th century engineer. If you think The Doctor is using science to defeat his foes, you must have a very advanced understanding of science compared to most scientists.

Even comics lend themselves to a hierarchy. Using the hard SF scale, Iron Man is better than the Hulk, and the Hulk is better than Thor. Thor manages to come full circle on the issue of technology-as-magic, starting as a character who performs all sorts of magic and then pretending there is some fluffy scientific explanation for how he does it. At that rate, we might as well believe that Harry Potter is just a very talented quantum physicist.

To my mind, the best SF forces us to contemplate how individuals with recognizably human characteristics would react to situations that involve hypothetical technology. The fact that they are reacting to technology, and not magic, is important. This is because technology, as distinct from magic, allows for the possibility of a rational response, even if there is some uncertainty about how the technology works. In contrast, if I was confronted with the Wicked Witch of the West, I would never guess that I should throw a bucket of water over her.

Asimov’s robot stories were not driven by the amazing nature of the robots, but by the behavior of the people around them. Arthur Clarke’s stories tended towards more magical elements, but a novel like Rendezvous with Rama still revolves around the way people respond to an encounter with aliens, and their technology. Uncertainty leads to both curiosity and fear, but the uncertainty does not overwhelm them. Neither the technology, nor the aliens, are so different that the people investigating Rama lack any useful frame of reference. Whilst they never meet the Ramans, they find recognizable designs for uniforms, and the natural inference is that these would be worn by creatures not so dissimilar from us.

Or maybe the entirety of this argument is irrational nonsense. It is hard to tell, thanks to Clarke’s connection of magic with technology. But if the distinction is irrational, it is no less real. The more science-y the fiction, the more I tend to like it. And there is a need for the ‘and’ in science fiction and fantasy. Some treat the genres as happily married. In contrast, I could live the life of a singleton. Does that make me a cold, unloving sort? Or is it fair to argue that fantasy could usually be improved by adding some more science?!

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About Ray Blank

Ray Blank is one of several identities deployed by a confused cosmopolitan who splits his time between navigating the internet, wandering the countryside, and flying overseas to give talks about using the phone instead. The other identities are responsible for a book about flawed communications, a film about losing your mind in Arabia, and a website for professionals who worry about risk. The Ray Blank identity writes science fiction stories and ceaselessly toils to subjugate the others.
  • Anthony M

    This is well-written, but I don’t think I agree that the Puppies can be separated as a group who prefers hard sf. There’s plenty of fantasy in there:

    . Pale Realms of Shade

    . One Bright Star to Guide Them

    . The Parliament of Beasts and Birds

    . Skin Game

    . A Single Samurai

    . An episode of “Grimm”

    . There actually aren’t that many more sci-fi in the Puppies list. In fact, there might not be more at all – I’m looking at the list, but can’t remember which are Puppies and which aren’t.

    That said, I believe the Hugos were originally sci-fi only for a good while. I’d rather have seen a separate fantasy award form than fold fantasy with sci-fi. “Speculative fiction” doesn’t even really make sense for a lot of fantasy.

    • Hi Anthony, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you. If the puppies were solely a group of Hard SF fans, they wouldn’t have voted to nominate a slate like this. However, I’m reluctant to do what many pro- and anti-puppies have done, and to assert that voters who voted the same way must also share a single, common, unifying motive. So this is a speculation about whether the balance between SF and fantasy might have influenced some (but not all) puppy voters. And because a person might have multiple reasons to vote a certain way, the balance between SF and fantasy may not be an especially powerful or rational motivation, but for some individuals it may have made the difference between voting or not bothering to vote for the slate.

      At the front of my mind is the story Turncoat, by Steve Rzasa. Though it is quite a traditional and mainstream SF story, I wonder if a story like this could get nominated for the Hugo short story award without being associated with a slate. On the other hand, including it in the slate might encourage support for other stories on the slate.

      In a political election, the voters for a side may not share a lot in common with each other. A lot of the (unpleasant) debate around this year’s Hugos is based on divisions between Republicans and Democrats. It occurs to me that people who most think in terms of politics might not step back and look at other reasons why somebody might support a slate like that proposed by the Sad Puppies.

      When people vote for a ‘side’, they accept the need to compromise some of their ideals in order to contribute towards the success of a coalition of interests. Some puppy kickers want to pretend that the only reason to support a puppy slate would be because the voter belongs to the KKK, hates women etc. By painting the puppies as narrow extremists, they accidentally show how a broad range of reasons may lead different people to vote the same way, in the same way that two Republicans might be very different people, with contrasting goals. For example, religion may have motivated some of the puppies. Some of the pro-puppy arguments are couched in tradition. For myself, I can be quite old-fashioned in my tastes for short stories. So I wonder if some of the puppy support comes from people with more traditional SF tastes, who may also be responding to a shift in the balance between the volume of SF that is published and receives positive recognition, relative to the attention given to fantasy.

      I admit this is all speculation, and I have no data to back this speculation. However, there is no data to back other people’s speculations, and they may be presented as uncontested fact! I’d most like to encourage everyone to keep an open mind about why individuals vote the way they do. A popular vote for a book award should be a way of signaling demand for some kinds of stories over other kinds of stories, but this aspect of the Hugos has been brought into question because Worldcon members don’t claim to (or no longer claim to) represent fans in general.

      • Anthony M

        Believe it or not, I was quite impressed with the short story category this year, and thought all the stories strong. “Turncoat” included. “A Single Samurai” grows on me the more I think about it.

        I liked “Turncoat” enough that I actually invited Mr. Rzasa to work on a project with me and various other authors (so look out for that! I’ve been plugging it everywhere shamelessly).

        On topic…

        I agree with pretty much everything you’ve written here. I don’t agree with Vox on everything, perhaps not even most things (my views are always evolving), but I admire him for standing up to a group of people who I find to be far worse bullies than he ever was. I also admire him for finding a blueprint that has actually allowed him to make a dent in their world – no small thing.

        So I’m a supporter of both Puppies groups, though they were originally working towards different end goals (one for for fixing the Hugos, one for ending them completely, though I’m aware that Vox has since come around), because they had the same enemy, which also happened to be my enemy.

        And the enemy of my enemy…

  • Joel McIntyre

    I’ve tried to come up with different splits at various times; my best so far is that good Fantasy is about people’s character, and good Science Fiction is about problem solving.

    Magic or ray guns or super powers can be fantasy, a quick way to give characters power and deal with character issues “power corrupts” or “oppose evil” without limiting the story to reality. Inventions and technology and alien problems are a quick way to explore problems and how to find solutions with similar lack of limitations, and the hardest SF tries to supply solutions to real problems like “living in the asteroids”.

    (I remember reading a “medieval European SF” novel years ago about the invention of the screw and the characters figuring out how they were better than nails and that changed possibilities for buildings and tools.)

    So I’d say even good fantasy won’t appeal when you want to read about problems solved, not character explored, and even good SF won’t appeal if solving the problem isn’t as interesting to you as the effect it has on the solver. Then as inclinations or moods change, so will tastes!

    (And there’s also targeting youth – invincibility! genius inventor! – and mature – limited strength! clever wisdom! – audiences, and everyone between the extremes.)

    (And that doesn’t even touch Romance novels and their very different focus and how they are sneaked into trappings of space or magic as if they were SF or F.)