Science Fiction or Fantasy, Anyone? by Elizabeth Kay

Although I had a Science Fiction play broadcast on Radio 4 many years ago, I’ve not really ventured there since. I’m so much more at home in fantasy – problem with the plot? Invent something magical to circumvent it. For one of the Divide books, the US politically correct police objected to Agrimony, a teenage female elf, going off for the day with Squill, a middle-aged male pixie, so I had to invent something – and quickly! This is what I came up with:

“Well,” said Squill, “I came to Tiratattle for an interview, and I’m delighted to say that I am now in charge of an advertising department. I’ve been looking for a face to launch our latest products, and Agrimony fits admirably. She’ll be famous, and she’ll earn a lot of money.”
Agrimony had gone quite dewy-eyed.
“She’ll need to be kitted out differently, of course – jade is the green of the moment in Tiratattle, and I can just see her – jade tunic, jade trousers – maybe even a touch of lime here and there.”
Tansy scowled. “Is this some sort of practical joke?”
“No,” said Squill. “I never mix business with practical jokes.”
“What do I need to do?” asked Agrimony.
“Simply come with me,” said Squill. He glanced at Tansy. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll return her this evening. Where are you staying?”
“Dozover,” said Agrimony, making a face.
Squill smiled. “Here,” he said to Tansy, “take my business card. Give her to me for the day, and we’ll talk again this evening.”
Tansy scrutinised the card. It was a state-of-the-art magical one, and showed where the owner was at any given moment. Squill was based at the conference centre, she’d be able to find him with no difficulty. And dragging a reluctant Agrimony round Tiratattle was slowing her down. “All right,” she said.

What’s vaguely amusing about that extract is that it was written thirteen years ago, when electronic tagging and SatNavs were largely unfamiliar. A card with little images running across it seems far more plausible now, when we can have our car depicted as an aeroplane flying along the M25 as we negotiate the M25.
The trouble with science fiction is that it’s much harder to do things like that. Despite Arthur C. Clarks’ contention that: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, it has to sound realistic. People can catch you out if you’ve got something fairly basic wrong, on which everything else is predicated. And although I’m usually up to speed on the natural sciences, when it comes to physics and chemistry I’m totally at sea. I’m currently trying to write a children’s SF story, and I’m finding it hard going. Every time I come across a problem I have to resolve it echoes back into everything I’ve written so far. Therefore, I’m constantly going right back to the beginning and altering whatever it was that had to be changed. I’ll suddenly think – how do these aliens communicate? Or – I’ve just made them sexually dimorphic. I now need to check the gender of every one, and make sure they look appropriately male or female. And just as I reach the point at which I can start writing the next part, I spot something else…
            I read most of my science fiction as a teenager, and veered toward the John Wyndham flavour rather than Frank Herbert. I loved the way Wyndham created such ordinary settings on Earth that you were totally convinced by the invention/discovery of triffids/women carrying alien babies/a lichen that prolonged life. Space travel is much more of a problem. You think you’ve invented something clever, only to be told by someone better read than you that it’s been done before, and these are all the problems associated with it.

            We can’t imagine anything that hasn’t come to us via our senses, only recombine things in what we hope is a new way. I was far more confident about writing SF when I was younger, and didn’t know how much I didn’t know. I did have some short stories published in various places, and no one ever came back at me and accused me of being an ignorant chancer.  But I realise now that I was. I remember writing a story about a miniscule spaceship that landed in a school playground, which needed some initial velocity to take off again. School bully to the rescue, thinking it was a ball that belonged to the class wimp who had boasted about it being magic. The bully picked it up and threw it, and instead of landing on the other side of the asphalt it just kept going until it disappeared into the blue. Wimp is credited with special powers, and bullied no longer. But the physics behind the ship’s propulsion was something that never entered my head.
            So which do I prefer – SF or fantasy? Fantasy is easier, I’m quite sure of that. But it does feel like an easy way out. There have been some wonderful Science Fiction writers, who have predicted things that have come to pass and warned us about things yet to happen. SF is more of a responsibility, maybe, despite Brian Aldiss’s comment that: ‘Science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts.’
The Oxford Companion to Literature defines it as follows:
Science fiction is the current name for a class of prose narrative which assumes an imaginary technological or scientific advance, or depends upon an imaginary and spectacular change in the human environment. Although examples exist from the time of Lucien, and Swift’s Gullivers Travels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race are unmistakable precursors, it was not until the end of the 19th century that that the form emerged as we know it today…
A good definition of Fantasy can be found in Wikipedia:

…a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three, all of which are subgenres of speculative fiction.

            So back to the children’s book… whoops. Just realised that terra-forming may have other consequences from the ones I want…rather swampy ones...


Wendy H. Jones said…
I know little about science fiction or fantasy so this has been fascinating. Thank you.
Susan Price said…
I don't know that Fantasy is easier to write than Science Fiction. Your fantasy has to be internally logical, whether you're putting magic into this world or creating an imaginary world.

I suspect you're being tongue in cheek when you say that you can get round difficulties in fantasy by inventing another bit of magic. I know that you would never do that unless your 'bit of magic' worked as a logical continuance of what you'd already established.
Nick Green said…
There is something called the Moh's scale of SF hardness, where 1 doesn't even wonder how (say) time travel works, while higher numbers explain in increasing detail, with 10 including nothing not yet scientifically accepted. Ironically, 1-rated stories are often proved credible by later advances in science. Take the Hitchhikers Guide books. Our current internet is more impressive than the marvellous Guide ever was.
Both! I think there's a very fine line between them. Science fiction usually has a firm basis in science, but so does much fantasy when you look closely. And Sue Price is right about fantasy not really being any easier to write... magic is a set of (invented) rules, and because you have to invent them and make sure they work in the context of your plot, that can actually take quite a bit longer than simply looking them up! Same with a purely fantasy world... you have to make it up, you can't just steal the real world (though of course fantasy writers do steal parts of the real world to use in their fantasy worlds). I think our definition of fantasy might be broader than most people's, since we write in the genre - a lot of readers seem to think it's just swords and sorcery, elves and stuff like that:-)
Lydia Bennet said…
Interesting blog, I've been through SciFi periods before as a reader but often find them not scientific enough and too much a product of their own culture - not enough effort to imagine other worlds (eg on another planet way in the future with all sorts of gadgets but women are still 1950s housewives, common in SciFi written in the erm, 50s, and sadly far beyond). Fantasy too has to follow the rules just as crime does and all other genres, even if you've made up the rules and they are totally out there.

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