Tag Archive | literature

Old authors yell at clouds again—or, I thought sf/f was supposed to be about progress

Old man yells are cloud, "I will not succumb to the cultural devolution you call progress!"

Since I’m doing NaNoWriMo this month, I don’t have a lot of time for blogging. But a particular kerfuffle has resurfaced in sf/f fandom and I had a lot of thoughts. I don’t want to go into all the details, other than it involves one older author writing both in a published column and then on his blog about how certain people (and oddly enough most examples he gives is sf/f written by women of color) are ruining things because they’re getting awards for writing stuff that isn’t good, proper, serious, hard science-filled science fiction.

Fortunately, other people have written things that are a bit more organized that I would likely be in a quick blog post.

First up, the following essay was actually written and sold to Uncanny Magazine some time before the old guy’s recent angry rant, but it just so happens to be a great take on the underlying topic: The Science, Fiction, and Fantasy of Genre. Just this metaphor alone is worth the read:

“It’s been said that whoever writes in the field of science fiction stands on the shoulders of giants, the towering titans of yesteryear. Their hard work built the playground; we just play in it.

“At the risk of thoroughly mixing those two metaphors, it occurs to me that even if we allow for the existence of giants, a playground in which we have to stand on top of each other can’t be very large, can it? And even the best playground could use some new equipment from time to time.”

But my favorite parts are in the middle—and too big to excerpt and still give justice—where she looks at famous works by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, and Isaac Asimov and points out that none of them were about hard proper science, but actually about history, psychology, and sociology. It’s a really good read! You should check it out.

And then there is this incredibly wonderful bit of sarcastic artistry: Science Fiction vs. Fantasy: The Choice Is Clear.

“Science fiction provides its readers with iron-hard, fact-based possibility…

“Where but science fiction could we find stories like Pohl and Williamson’s Reefs of Space series, which explores the possibility that the Oort Cloud could be filled by an ecosystem powered by biological fusion and that a few lucky humans might someday enjoy mind-melds with intelligent stars? And where but in science fiction could we entertain the quite reasonable possibility that someday a young woman with whichever psionic powers the plot of the week requires might have to contend with invisible cats? Who but science fiction writers will remind us of the very real possibility that one day starships might be propelled at superluminal velocities by the power of women’s orgasms?”

That last sentence is particularly relevant. Because the old author yelling about how modern science fiction has been ruined by all this fantasy? He’s the one who wrote about starships powered by women’s orgasms. And it wasn’t a parody—he insisted that it was serious sci fi at the time. Also, that is unfortunately not the creepiest sexual non sequitur he ever shoehorned into a supposed science fiction tale.

So, yeah, the angry man who wrote that stuff? He doesn’t get to lecture other people on not being serious enough in their science fiction and fantasy.

Struggle against the darkness… or, an opening phrase isn’t the same as an opening sentence

Cover of the 1984 paperback "A Snoopy Special Snoopy and It was a Dark" by Charles M. Schultz.

This, alas, is not my copy of this book. I don’t know what happened to my copy. I moved several times during my 20s and early 30s, and I think the book disappeared in one of the moves.

So I’ve seen this one post on Tumblr many times where people are just outraged, really outraged, that the Bulwer-Lytton contest exists. And I keep refraining from chiming in to explain that they don’t understand, because 1) I am afraid it will just come across as Mansplaining, and 2) if they really don’t understand, they will never understand the truth. So I’m going to explain it on my blog. And since my blog cross-posts to tumblr, if any of them connect the dots, I can just block their comments on my blog.

So, first, the misunderstanding. They are all upset because “It was a dark and stormy night” seems to be a good opening line to any story. And you know what?

They are right.

Those 7 words are a great opening line. Edgar Allan Poe and Madeleine L’Engle both used the same seven words as openings to stories that went on to acclaim.

So what’s the problem?

There are a lot of contests out there where people are challenged to compose a horrible opening sentence to a fictitious novel, and those contests are named after Edward Bulwer-Lytton, first Baron Lytton, because of a horrible opening sentence he wrote for a novel called Paul Clifford published way back in 1830. The problem is that Baron Lytton didn’t put a period after night… his actual opening sentence went on for a whopping 58 words total.

Fifty-eight words! With at least two parenthetical clauses (depending on how you count, it can be four or five!)!

Full disclosure: I once won a Bulwer-Lytton contest for an opening line to a fictitious sci-fi novel, and I am personally acquainted with two other people who won such contests.

So, let’s look at the actual opening sentence, shall we?

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

If Lytton had just allowed his editor to change that semi-colon to a period… except he would have had to re-word the following phrases a bit, too, and he refused. So that’s the real problem. He wouldn’t concede that his opening sentence should have been both 1) multiple sentences, and 2) re-worded.

The most egregious sin in the sentence that Bulwer-Lytton insisted on, in my opinion, is that “(for it is in London that our scene lies)” because it breaks the fourth wall (which no other part of the novel does). Plus there were much more elegant ways (and with fewer words!) to convey the information. For example, consider this as an opening:

It was a dark and stormy night.

Rain fell in torrents—interrupted at intervals by violent gusts of winds. The winds swept up the London streets and rattled the housetops—fiercely agitating the scanty flames of the lamps that struggled against the darkness

I’m not the greatest editor in the world, but my first attempt at cleaning up the fifty-eight word run-on sentence to three sentences totalling forty-four words. And not one single nuance was lost with that reduction in word count!

My rewrite represents a reduction of words to about 76% of the original. And my primary skill set is developmental editor. I suspect a grammatical editor could reduce the word count by at least another 25% without losing a single instance of meaning.

And that is the point of the Bulwer-Lytton contests: quite often succinct is far superior to verbose. And a lot of people mistake elaborate vocabularies as being superior to concision.

I mean, knowing lots of words is cool, and sometimes elaboration is better than minimalism. So I get it. But no one is saying “It was a dark and stormy night” is a bad opening line. On the contrary, we’re saying that Bulwer-Lytton should have stuck with that and moved on.

Finally, for full disclosure, this is the sentence with which I once won a Bulwer-Lytton contest:

Lance Lace, skulking in the shadow of a spaceport warehouse, checked the charge on his blaster and wondered—for not the first time that night—what all of this had to do with the pair of pliers and water-soaked lace panties found in the pockets of the murdered Rigellian.

Hard Times reap hard lessons, or when did cyberpunk really begin?

If you search the web for the history and definition of cyberpunk, most places will tell you it is a dystopian sub-genre of science fiction which came into being in 1983 when Bruce Bethke published a short story by the name. Most definitions of the subgenre focus on a society controlled by computers and cybernetic technology. But I think a better definition is stories in which the main characters are marginalized and/or alienated, living on the edge of a generally dystopic society, where daily life has been transformed in invasive and sometimes grotesque ways by rapid technological change—a world where everyone’s access to information is controlled (usually by moneyed interests who in turn don’t realize the information and technology are controlling them) and information about individuals is used against them. These are the themes common across works that most people agree are cyberpunk.

Because cyberpunk was identified as a sub-genre in the 1980s, computers and their possible misuse figured prominently in early works. As computers became more ubiquitous in the real world, later works have tended to focus on the products of all the information technology. The hallmark of cyberpunk is stories which show that despite technological advances, the quality of life has degraded precipitously. Cyberpunk protagonists face off against the dehumanizing forces of technology, trying to reassert the worth of human imagination and connections.

Neuromancer by William Gibson (published in 1984) is said to be the first cyberpunk novel. Although other people have argued that Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a contender for the first cyberpunk novel, even though it was written years before the term cyberpunk was coined. And clearly since one of the themes of that book is that we must understand how technology encroaches on life in order to understand what technology is, and that is a very cyberpunk notion. There is certainly no doubt that the movie based on Dick’s novel, Blade Runner is cyberpunk, which could be another argument in its favor.

I am quite happy to include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? within the sub-genre of cyberpunk, but I don’t believe it was the first cyberpunk novel. The first cyberpunk novel was written 114 years earlier than Dick’s novel, and 130 years before Gibson’s. The first cyberpunk novel was published in 1854, written by none other than Charles Dickens. It was a novel called Hard Times — For Our Times. I recognize that this seems an extraordinary claim, but bear with me.

Hard Times is not one of Dickens’ most famous works. It is one of the shortest novels he wrote. And unlike many of his more well-known novels, not a single sub-plot has any humor in it. Some characters get happier endings that others, but no one gets a classic happy ending.

The book is set in the fictitious industrial town of Coketown. The story opens with one of the villains of the piece, Mr. Gradgrind, a school board superintendent, quizzing a young woman (Cecilia Jupe) at the school about the definition of a horse. When Ceclilia describes it as a magnificent creature, he berates her for not knowing the zoological definition. Gradgrind is convinced that all education should be facts, only facts. Gradgrind lays out his belief that all of life can be understood if you simply know the facts and averages, and that things such as art, music, or imagination are wastes of time. Later in the book we will learn that Gradgrind has named one of us one children after Rev. Thomas Malthus (famous for writing about overpopulation problems and tangling his mathematics with his moral philosophy), which I think is telling.

Another important player in the book is Mr. Bounderby, a wealthy mill owner who is the employer of many of the other characters in the novel. Bounderby and Gradgrind are friends and business associates. Bounderby wants to marry Gradgrind’s daughter, Louisa, even though she is more than 30 younger than he. Bounderby is also big on numbers and calculations—he makes all his decisions—both business and person—based on cold facts and numbers. We also learn that Bounderby is the sole shareholder of the only bank in Coketown. As the plot of the novel develops, it turns out the Bounderby has financial ties to just about everyone in the city.

Much of the plot concerns itself with the toll that factory work takes on workers and their families, which we mostly see through the eyes of Stephen Blackpool, one of the workers. Dickens portrays the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, particularly when the same people who own the means of production also control both the flow of capital and information. He also has a subplot about an attempt by the mill workers to unionize. Unfortunately this is the weakest subplot of the novel, because Dickens didn’t seem to understand how unions work.

A driving force of many of the subplots is Bounderby’s network of spies. He uses his financial power over people to force them to spy on their neighbors, families, and co-workers, and report to Bounderby so that, for instance, he can prevent the workers unionizing.

So, how does this map to my definition of cyberpunk?

All the sympathetic characters (Louisa, Cecilia, Stephen) are marginalized in various ways, either because of the economic status or because their lives are under the control of others because of their gender of familial dependent status. Coketown is definitely a dystopia, and many aspects of the various social and economic forces he describes are worse than actually existed at the time of writing, so it can be argued it is a near-future dystopia, at that. Many of the difficulties and challenges the sympathetic characters face are because of the invasive way the industrial revolutions has disrupted social norms. The quality of life has degraded significantly, and many characters remember relatively recent times when things were better. Between them, Bounderby and Gradgrind control what information most of the inhabitants of the town have access to. Bounderby actively uses information he gathers through is spies to blackmail or otherwise harm characters who don’t do as he wishes.

In short, the protagonists face off against the dehumanizing forces of technology, and at the end, only those who have been able to reconnect with human connections, emotions, and imagination get a sort-of happy ending.

Dickens doesn’t explicitly say that the tale is set in the near future, even though I argue that was his intent. He’s clearly trying to show where the utilitarian philosophy that was becoming prevalent among the movers and shakers of his time will lead. But if that isn’t enough to make you think of this as, at least, proto-science fiction, there is also Bounderby’s obsession with numbers and calculations. What Bounderby is talking about when he says he makes life decisions based on numbers and calculations sounds an awful lot like an algorithm. And what are computer programs but algorithms? The way he explains his philosophy to Gradgrind at one point would not sound out of place coming from a character in one of Isaac Asimov’s stories involving psychohistory (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation, et cetera).

The dehumanizing aspects of technological advance is a theme that shows up in later works by Dickens. His last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend similarly warned against the loss of humanity to the cold demands of industrialization.

The way we think of genre now wasn’t how writers, readers, or publishers thought of stories in Dickens’ time. Dickens didn’t think of his Christmas ghost stories, for instance, as being a different kind of writing than his less fantastical ones. I know I’m making a stretch, here, but I think it is useful to try to look at stories—new ones we love today, and those that came before—from new angles. Cyberpunk’s core is the negative impacts of technology on individuals and society—cyberpunk is always about a dystopia. Whereas steampunk, despite having a similar name, at its core is optimistic.

Given that contrast, this particular novel, and several others Dickens wrote after, falls more clearly on the ancestral tree of works such as Neuromancer and Blade Runner than Boneshaker or Morlock Night. Maybe what Dickens wrote wasn’t cyberpunk, but I feel quite safe calling him one of the grandparents of cyberpunk.

Most writing advice is free, but the value varies

“Writing Advice 5¢ - the Expert is In”

We’re all experts…

I made my first professional sale to a science fiction ‘zine (Worlds of If) forty-four years ago. And I was ecstatic, because I had only been submitting to professional ‘zines for two years, and I had already made a sale! I was on my way, right?!? Except I didn’t make another sale until thirteen years later. So maybe I didn’t quite know what I was doing, just yet. And for the next ten-ish years, I only managed to sell stories to fanzines and semi-prozines. Which seemed like more proof that I wasn’t quite a pro.

Except…

My primary source of income since 1988 has been writing. Most of that has been technical writing (and related jobs) in the software industry, but I find it really hard to discount the fact that the word “writer” has been part of my official job description for a bit over 31 years. So my day job and my hobby job for more than three decades has been “writer” — so maybe I have some idea of how to put words together? Plus, for more than two decades I was the editor of a semi-prozine that produced at least three issues a year for those two decades. Which were offered for sale and purchased in sufficient quantities to cover the cost of printing.

So maybe, just maybe, I have some correct notions about what it takes for a story to appeal to an audience, right?

But here’s something I am absolutely certain of: I can’t teach you how to write. I can tell you how I do it (the parts I understand—there’s a whole lot going on in everyone’s subconscious that remains ineffable). I can tell you techniques that work for me. But only you can figure out how you can write.

And that’s true of everyone. No one, no matter how accomplished, can tell you how to write. I love reading or hearing about how other people go about writing. I like attending panels and seminars and the occasional online class from other writers. So I’m not saying don’t take anyone’s advice or class, just remember that in the end you are the person who is telling your stories. So only you can figure out which things people suggest work for you, and which don’t.

A lot of advice gets repeated regularly, and it seems sound. When you’re feeling anxious about writing, it can be comforting to have these rules to fall back on. But these pieces of advice can be stumbling blocks or worse. For example, one frequently repeated piece of advice is to cut out the adverbs. “Search for words ending in ‘ly’ and delete them!” So take out things like terribly and gently and carefully and slowly. Supposedly this makes your writing clearer. It also makes your writing duller. Some adverbs are superfluous. But like every other kind of word (nouns, verbs, adjectives), sometimes they are exactly right.

Then there is that tired old chestnut, “Show, don’t tell.” I’ve written before about how that advice is more wrong than it is right. In a nutshell: the extreme version of the advice leads you to remove all exposition from your story and exclude people who don’t share all your (unconscious) cultural assumptions. For a writer of science fiction or fantasy, that makes it impossible to put the reader into a world that is different than our own. Better advice is to paint pictures with your words. Anton Chekov said it thusly: “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” So use exposition when necessary, but make sure it isn’t flat and boring.

Said is a perfectly good verb. So is snarled, whispered, replied, asked, shouted, demanded, muttered and retorted. So that advice about never using any verb other than said as a dialog tag is another one that is well-meaning, but not completely right. Now, it is true that a writer can go overboard with the dialog tags. I was cringing mightily during a recent audio book where the author seemed to take the flip side of the advice and never used said at all. Among the horrible tags he did use were: extrapolated, polled, nodded, puffed, interrogated, and the absolute worst: all-caps-ed. This is another one where the truth is somewhere in between. Don’t go bananas with the synonyms for said and asked, but don’t stick to only those two, either.

Also, sometimes you don’t have to use dialog tags at all. You can describe what the character is doing: He pursed his lips. “Do you want my honest opinion?” Or if you are telling the story from a particular character’s point of you, you can describe their thoughts or feelings: Sarah wanted to hug him. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that today!” But again, you need to figure out what works for you. I have a bad habit in first drafts of putting a she/he/they nodded on about half the dialog entries. I think it’s because I nod when people talk to me (which is hilarious when I do it on conference calls!). But when I read the draft later—especially aloud to my writer’s group—it sounds like everyone in my story is constantly bobbing their heads wildly and can really distract from the scene!

Some people insist that you absolutely must write every day on your project or you aren’t a real writer. Bull. Yeah, some people write like that. And if that works for you, great. But some of us need to take days off. My day job involves writing and editing, so some days when I get home my brain is burned out, and I don’t get much if any writing done. And don’t tell me to get up super early and write before I go to work. I’m not a morning person, and frankly if I tried I have no doubt that some days I would be much less than good at my job. And I like my work. Work pays the bills! And I like eating. If writing every single day works for you, great, do it. But don’t feel like a failure if some days you just have to do something else to recharge the mental batteries.

There are two very common bits of writing advice that I do fully endorse:

  • A writer writes. You can skip days, but you can’t skip writing altogether. If you feel stuck, force yourself to write a single word. Just one. Then, look at it, and decide what the next one is. If that’s what it takes, just make yourself put one word after another until you have a sentence, and then another and another.
  • A writer reads. Read other people’s work regularly. Read things you love. Every now and then, read stuff from a genre you don’t like. Or a style of writing that you usually don’t take to. Not all the time, but make sure you are expanding your reading horizons, regularly.

Other than that, I just have to ask: why are you still reading this post! Go! Write something! The world needs your story. And no one can tell your story except you.

That’s not a plothole…

Plot hole. I do not think it means what you think it means.

A classic…

Frequently when people are trying to explain why they don’t like a particular movie, series episode, or book, they will refer to a plothole. They will express great frustration about this problem in the story. And they will get angry at you if you don’t agree with them that this plothole was a horrible mistake that made the whole story worthless. I get it. When I really dislike a movie or book I find it hard to believe that other people—particularly my friends who have common interests—find any redeeming qualities in it. Now there is an entire other essay’s worth of discussion about how different people feel that different parts of a story are important than others; that’s not what I want to talk about today.

A lot of people use the term plothole incorrectly. And the people who are most likely to use it incorrectly are also the people that believe that a plothole trumps every other aspect of the story. So, what is a plot hole?

Plothole A gap, inconsistency, or contradiction in a storyline that breaks the flow of logic established by the story’s plot.

As a writer, plotholes are the bane of my existence. When I find a contradiction in my story, it sometimes makes me want to tear my hair out. Sometimes a plothole isn’t very difficult to fix, once you find it. But others do indeed make the entire story fall apart. The existence of that latter type is why some people think that anything labeled plothole completely invalidates the story.

There are many other kinds of gaps which people confuse with plotholes. Those include:

  1. things an individual reader/viewer wish didn’t happen,
  2. character actions that contradict the version of the character the individual reader/viewer has constructed outside canon,
  3. things that contradict the political/moral preferences of the individual reader/viewer,
  4. things the author(s) intentionally plant to foreshadow something that will explain everything in a future chapter/episode/sequel,
  5. things the author(s) didn’t think they needed to explicitly explain because they thought you had critical thinking skills,

Let’s tackle these:

Things you wish didn’t happen. I have great sympathy for this issue. There are almost always things that I wish didn’t happen in any story I read or watch. Characters you wished to live are killed, or characters you thought should get together don’t, or a villain you thought should suffer more doesn’t. It can be very upsetting when a part of the story you care about doesn’t go the way you want. But that isn’t the same thing as an actual plot contradiction. And if it makes you feel any better, often the author is just as upset about the direction a story goes as you are. Seriously. When I was writing the first draft of one of my books, there was one scene where I was bawling my eye out while typing, because I didn’t want that character to die, sacrificing himself so his daughters could be saved, but everything in his story had led to that moment, so that’s what I wrote.

Character doesn’t behave the way you think they ought. When a story grabs us, we usually find ourselves identifying with many of the characters. And we’ll imagine a version of the character based on what we see in the early stages of the story. When we don’t realize is that we are also basing the character on things that aren’t actually in the story, but that appeal to us. Sometimes we overlook hints of things in the character’s personality that are less pleasing to us. So when that particular aspect of the character’s personality become a major plot point, we yell “out of character!” and “that contradicts everything we know about them.” Sorry, no it contradicts things you imagined into the character, not what was actually in the story. A subset of this problem is that sometimes we forget that humans are impulsive and make decisions based on emotion and hunches. Humans make mistakes. No one in real life is 100 percent consistent, so we shouldn’t expect fictional characters to be, either.

Things that contradict your political/moral preferences. One of my favorite movies is a silly comedy released in 1991 called Soapdish. The story contains, among other things, a supporting character played by Carrie Fischer that is my favorite thing she’s ever done outside of Star Wars. I laugh myself to tears every time I watch it… except it has one problem. A major running sub-plot is resolved in a quite transphobic way. Even in 1991 I was a bit troubled by it. More recently, I have to brace myself for it, and I no longer recommend to movie to people without a content warning. But, despite that thing being problematic, it isn’t a plothole. It is perfectly consistent with the rest of the story. Do I wish it didn’t happen? Oh, yeah. Do I enjoy the movie less because of it, again, yes. In this case, I’m able to enjoy the rest of the movie despite this problematic bit. I understand perfectly if other people can’t. But, it isn’t a plothole. It’s a failing of the narrative and demonstrates that some of the characters are a bit less open-minded that I would like.

Things that the author plans to explain later. For example, in one of my works in progress, one of the protagonists is a shapeshifter. But they don’t advertise the fact. At different points in the story, their hair (color and other qualities) is described in different ways, because their hair changes slightly with their mood. It looks like an inconsistency early on, but it is eventually explained by the end of the book (and there is one big hint in the opening chapter). Other dangling unfinished bits you notice at the very end may be intended for a sequel. If the unfinished bit doesn’t invalidate the resolution of the main plot, then it isn’t a plothole.

The author thought your critical thinking skills would fill in the gap. Not everything has to be spelled out. For one thing, trying to do so would add hundred of thousands of words to any book. The author has to make some judgement calls about things the readers will figure out, and things that need to be explained. The author will never guess correctly for every single reader. If, when you explain your plothole to a friend, and they immediately say, “Oh, I just figured that Y happened because of X,” you’re probably dealing with something the author thought you would figure out on your own.

Any of these reasons, of course, are a valid reason for you to dislike a particular story, movie, show, or book. But it does not mean the authors left a big plothole in the middle of the narrative road. And it doesn’t mean that the story is inherently, objectively bad.

Pining for Commander WASP and his sidekick, Biff; or, your sf/f golden age not the only one

The May 14, 1921 cover of Argosy All-Story Weekly,  illustration by P. J. Monahan

The May 14, 1921 cover of Argosy All-Story Weekly, illustration by P. J. Monahan

Once again while I was merrily surfing to some of my favorite web sites (when I should have been writing), I came across a link to a ridiculous and judgmental comment on the state of science fiction. More specifically, it was intended as an indictment of the reading tastes of “fans these days” while nostalgically lamenting that the genre is no longer defined solely by Heinlein’s juvenile novels and Niven’s hard SF novels. This is a complaint that I’ve written about more than a few times, but these guys keep finding new ways to make their really bad arguments, and I just can’t sit idly by while the misrepresent both the genre that I love, and the people who love it. This particular person, unlike some of the folks who have inspired me to write on this topic before is not my age or older. He’s young enough that all of those Heinlein juveniles were written more than a decade before his birth, and the Niven books he thinks are definitive were written when he was in diapers and such.

I realize that this means he’s still old enough to look down his nose at fans in their 20s and dismiss them as clueless kids.

Anyway, I’m not linking to the diatribe for reasons. I do think that it is very telling that he cites Hidden Figures as an example of what’s wrong with modern sci fi (never mind that it is historical non-fiction). When I first saw the screen cap of what he said, I had to do some research to figure out who he was. I’d never heard of him. And in the course of doing that, I found that this is a topic he has ranted about many times. And in those longer rants, he asserts again and again not just that he thinks the writings of Heinlein and Niven are the best (which he is perfectly free to believe), but that they defined science fiction—and specifically that Heinlein is the origin of the genre.

Mary Shelly, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne (and others) may have a bone to pick with that assertion.

He also talks a lot about how the perfect protagonist for science fiction stories in Heinlein’s “competent man.”

I get it. I literally grew up on Heinlein. I’ve mentioned that my mom is one of the biggest fans of Heinlein’s stories from the 50s who as ever walked the earth. From the time I was an infant until I was old enough to read myself, Mom would read to me from whatever book she had checked out from the library or picked up at the used bookstore. I read every Heinlein book I could get my hands on during the late 60s, 70s, and into the 80s. And yeah, as a teen-ager in the 1970s, I started reading Larry Niven’s books—not as enthusiastically; I admit I was a bit more taken with Asimov, LeGuin, Pournelle, L’Engle, and Bradbury during those years. But I still liked Niven.

It’s true that Heinlein and Niven were very influential writers who inspired many fans to become writers themselves, and so on. But science fiction wasn’t just those two authors even at that time, and there was a lot of science fiction that existed before either of them wrote their first story.

Also, a lot of their stories haven’t aged particularly well. It happens. It’s called the passage of time. The text may be the same, but we, as people, change over time. Society changes. Our understanding of what certain things about society mean changes.

The image I included above is an illustration for a novel called The Blind Spot, written by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint. It was serialized in a number of issues of Argosy All-Story Weekly beginning in May of 1921. It was eventually published in book form in 1951 (it took so long because one of the authors died shortly after publication, and it just took a long time to sort out who had legal right to agree to a re-print), at which point the Forward was written by Forrest J Ackerman, who had been at one time the literary agent of such classic sci fi luminaries as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and A.E. Van Vogt. At the second ever Worldcon (Chicon I, 1940) at the very first Masquerade ever held at a Worldcon, the second place costume was a person dressed as one of the characters from The Blind Spot. As late as the 1950s, sci fi writers, editors, and reviewers were referring to The Blind Spot as one of the honored classics of science fiction.

By the 1990s, the opinion had changed considerably. The Blind Spot is available on Project Gutenberg. I gave it a whirl. I mean, all those famous sci fi writers of the 1940s and 50s said it was fabulous, right?

Writing styles have changed over the years, so part of why it is difficult to slog through it is just how slow the action is and how dense some parts of the prose are. But, first, it isn’t science fiction. The titular Blind Spot is a place where periodically a magic hole opens to another world. Now, a lot of science fiction does include portals or gateways that aren’t always explained, but the other side of the portal is a temple in this other world, and various people, some of them immortal, hang out in this temple because of prophecies about the opening of the temple and how people who go through it will ascend to god-like powers and so forth. The plot involves necromancy, spirit writing, an immortal queen, the transmutation of people into spirits, and a mystical intelligent flame that enforces the sacred law.

In the pulp era they didn’t have the same kind of rigid genre definitions we’re used to today, so a weird tale like this with elements of magic and psychic powers and a hint at Lovecraftian horror was common. But that’s the thing. This is a story that for several decades was held up as a defining example of the genre. Yet by the 1990s it was being described as a “beloved book devoid of all merit.”

Because we changed. What we are willing to suspend our disbelief for in 2019 is considerably different than the expectations of readers in 1921. Their are spots in the opening chapters of this book when many paragraphs are spent describing how a couple of characters take a train through San Francisco, cross the bay in a ferry, take another train in Oakland, then hire a cab. Modern readers expect if you’re spending that many paragraphs talking about transit that it will eventually figure into the plot, right?

I sincerely doubt that the guy who is upset that the sci fi field doesn’t look like the way he remembers those Heinlein juveniles would think that The Blind Spot is fabulous. Although, given some of his comments about what he perceives as being wrong in what modern fans like, he might like some of the casual racism.

Even in the 50s, science fiction protagonists weren’t confined solely to blond-haired, blue-eyed lantern-jawed Anglo-Saxon Protestant heroes who always beat the bad guys and got the girl. Certainly by the time Niven was writing his most famous books, the genre was more diverse than that.

It’s okay to have personal preferences, but science fiction is supposed to be about leaping into the future. You can’t do that if you have fossilized your brain in the past.

SF-adjacent: the inherent fuzziness of human enthusiasms

Astounding Science Fiction, March 1951 issue, cover art by Paul Orban.

Astounding Science Fiction, March 1951 issue, cover art by Paul Orban.

Camestros Felapton has been doing a fascinating series of posts reviewing sci-fi stories about dinosaurs—it started out specifically stories about dinosaurs that had been nominated for a Hugo, but he expanded as he realized that looking at stories that didn’t get nominated (and analyzing possible reasons why) is also a useful way to look at the science fiction/fantasy field.

In one of those posts he reviews a story that isn’t technically a sf/f story, though it is about the making of a sf/f film and is written by Ray Bradbury. And there was a fascinating conversation that occurred in the comments about edge cases, and the notion of sf-adjacent things. In the post he made a list of topics that sf-fans are sufficiently enthusiastic about that stories (even non-fiction ones) with that element might be considered part of the sf category:

  • Space travel
  • Rockets
  • Robots and Artificial Intelligence
  • Dinosaurs

I don’t, by the way, disagree with him at all in his definition of things that can be considered sf-adjacent. The list is great, as far as it goes. I would rephrase it a bit:

  • Manned space travel/astronomical phenomenon
  • Rockets and satellites and unmanned spacecraft
  • Robots and Artificial Intelligence (modern readers)
  • Dinosaurs and extinct mega-fauna

It could be argued that I’m just being pedantically specific with a couple of these. But, stay with me: I very seldom met a fellow dinosaur enthusiast who wasn’t also equally excited to talk about Mammoths, Smilodons, giant Sloths, Dire Wolves, giant Tortoises, and other extinct non-dinosaurs of the Pleistocene. A news blog I follow used to have a contributor who regularly posted stories about new fossil finds, paleontology, and such, with the tag “dinosaur news” and there would always be at least one comment from someone whenever the extinct animal in quest wasn’t actually a dinosaur. And they were usually of the “well actually” type of comment. So she started including a note to the effect that she knew this thing wasn’t a dinosaur, but that people who were interested in such paleontological news stories often found them with “dinosaur” as a search term.

And this gets to why I expanded the first two bullets to be more explicit: there is a significantly large fraction of science fiction fans who are almost pathologically pedantic. Such a person might insist that the term “space travel” should only refer to people moving through outer space, for instance. Of course, another person might object to rockets being a separate category. And anyone might ask why manned space travel is separate from rockets and satellites. To me, space travel is about the experience of traveling in space, while rockets is about the technological and engineering problems of the vehicles and such themselves. Similarly, things that we learn about distant objects in the universe through telescopes and other sensors are a different topic than the sensors themselves and how they are made.

I added the “modern reader” qualifier to the third bullet because I think for sf/f fans who were alive in the 50s and 60s and actively reading sf/f published at that time (so, maybe people born before 1948-ish) that the third category would have been “Robots and computers” which could be argued subsumed AI, but any computer topic seemed futuristic at the time, whereas just plain computers have been humdrum for a while. Further, I suspect that the Robots and AI section will morph again when the young children of today become active consumers of sf/f, because a lot of us have AIs on our pockets, now. And many of us have robots in our homes. Robots and AI are swiftly becoming mundane phenomena. I’m not sure what it will morph into, but it will morph.

In the essay in question, Cam clearly says that his list isn’t intended to be exhaustive. And since he wrote the list while in the middle of tracking down, reading, and reviewing stories published between 1952 and 1971, it makes sense that those are the topics that would first come to mind. I think a more exhaustive list could easily include topics from medical and biological sciences, for instance.

Not all science fiction fans are nerdily into engineering and hard science. Many of us are just as interested in the so-called soft sciences (dinosaurs!). For a lot of fans, the appeal is less about how technology works, and more about how technology changes us and society. Most people don’t know how smart phones work, for instance, but everyone has opinions about how our social habits and expectations have changed now that nearly everyone has a magic hunk of glass in their pockets that allows them to communicate with the world. And it’s not just luddites. During one of the panels at Locus Awards Weekend, a panelist commented that you have to keep telephones out of certain kinds of stories. Mary Robinette Kowal (current president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) agreed: “Right, they are just too dangerous to plots. Pfft! Letting people talk to each other?”

Speculating about what other inventions might change our behavior (collective and otherwise) is a component of sf which is just as importance as how those inventions work. And one of the ways we think about that is to look at how historical inventions and discoveries changed society. You don’t have to know who an automated loom works to be interested in how the cheap manufacture of textiles changed how we live and even how we think about clothes, for instance.

So there are probably fans who would ask why Mechanization isn’t on the list. I might point out that a mechanized loom is a type of robot, so maybe mechanization belonged on the list a few generations ago? Or am I just spinning out of control with all these fuzzy boudnaries?

Because now I’m wondering, if sf-fandom had existed in the early 19th century, before Sir Richard Owen first coined the word “dinosaur,” what might the list have looked like?

Maybe that’s a question for another day

Colorful, dramatic, and large-scale: riffing on several sf/f topics

Epics in Space!

A while ago I was chatting with an acquaintance online, who had asked me what kinds of science fiction I liked. I tried not to ramble too much, so I listed off some sub-genres along with a comment that I like a lot of different things. Though the person I was chatting with described themself as a sci fi fan, they had never heard the term “space opera” before, and asked me if it was a kind of sci fi musical. So I had to explain that the opera in space opera was related more to the type of stories that a lay person might associate with opera, and how the term was a derivative of the term “soap opera.” The stories are colorful, dramatic, often having sweeping epic feel to the plot (think pirates, or wars, or the succession of thrones), and where most of the action happens in space.

Turns out that this guy’s idea of science fiction was a bit different than most, because when I asked his favorites, he listed Game of Thrones, the Sookie Stackhouse books, and the Darkover series—which I think of as fantasy, rather than science fiction.

Clearly, as with any label, there is going to be some dispute about whether a particular work of art fits into the category, and whether the category itself makes sense. And sometimes part of the issue is like the confusion of this guy: the term “space opera” is more closely related to the old Latin meaning of “opera” as a plural of “opus” than the modern meaning of a type of musical performance. So a modern English speaker misunderstands the term. A similar kind of confusions is probably why there don’t seem to be any books being labeled “planetary romance” lately. For full explanation of this, take a look at this post by Cora Buhlert: The Gradual Vanishing of the Planetary Romance.

The term “romance” in this case refers to a literary term from the 17th century, which can be defined as: “a fictitious narrative depicting a setting and adventures remote from everyday life.” Which is why, by the way, a lot of what we would think of as science fiction of the late 19th Century and very early 20th Century was sometimes labeled “scientific romance.” It had nothing to do with two people falling in love, but rather an adventure with either circumstances, setting, or characters that no one would describe as mundane.

If you haven’t read Buhlert’s blog post (which you should do, because it’s good), let me quickly explain that a planetary romance is generally a science fiction adventure story set on a single world. And more specifically, where the culture, geography, and/or history of the world play a prominent role in the story. There is more than a bit of overlap between planetary romance and space opera, which Buhlert details better than I could.

Ambitious Ambiguity

Thinking about labels always sends me down multiple rabbit holes. I have very strong feelings about the difference between science fiction and fantasy, yet I once freaked out a friend at my strong insistence that Babylon Five was techno-fantasy, not science fiction. My argument was that just because it is using science fiction tropes, settings, and accessories, the fundamental world-building (the origins of the Vorlons and the Shadows, and more importantly the ancient races all the way back to the First Ones) were mythological, not scientific. It’s one thing is a story was written at a time when we didn’t know the age of the universe, and we were still trying to figure out evolutions. It Straczynski had written Babylon Five in the 19th Century rather than the late 20th, then yes, his world building would have been right in line with current scientific thought.

Now, I made that argument at a time in my life when I was feeling a particularly pedantic and was doing a much poorer job of repressing my inner asshole. I don’t begrudge anyone calling it science fiction, and there has never been a science fiction tale written that got every last bit of science right. More than one person has proposed a definition of science fiction thusly: “in which imaginary science is posited, and the subsequent story follows the imaginary science consistently.” Which is one way to avoid the critiques about faster-than-light travel, which appears ever more unlikely as our understanding of physics improves, for instance. But once we let the label get that flexible, we have to ask ourselves: just how much differently can the science in your imaginary world be?

Is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series science fiction? In that story, the world is an enormous disc balanced on four elephants standing on the back of a turtle that is flying through interstellar space, with a tiny satellite sun orbiting the whole turtle-elephant-disc assembly (and planets such as our, orbiting much larger stars, are simply eggs that will one day hatch into baby turtles with elephants and discs upon them). Pratchett sets up rules about how magic flows from the central spire of the mountains at the center of the disc, and other things that he then tries to stay consistent as he tells his tales. So, could it be argued as an edge case science fiction tale? Well, we can certainly argue about it, but I want to go a little further out there.

Spoiler Alert: From here on, I will be talking about plot points of Good Omens. Proceed at your own risk.

I posit that the novel Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is science fiction. It imagines that the entire universe (including the fossils that seem to be hundreds of millions of years old) was literally created a mere 6000 years ago, and that angels and demons are real, and that the creator has an ineffable plan for it all. It further imagines that at least some prophets really can see the future, and that the apocalypse described in the New Testament book of Revelations is a real thing that will happen once the anti-christ comes to power.

And everything that happens in the book tries to stay true to those assumptions. That being the case, one could argue that not only is it science fiction, but that is is a planetary romance. Why? Well:

  • It is set on only one world, Earth,
  • the central plot is driven by the fact that both the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale have become very fond of Earth, its the people and their cultural artifacts (food, fine wine, music),
  • and the forces that oppose them are the heaven vs hell apocalyptic stuff baked into the Earth at its creation

Planetary romance!

I recently wrote a review of the Good Omens mini-series, in which I confessed that I hadn’t read the book until earlier this year (and that I liked it so much that I read it again, then downloaded the BBC radio play version and listened to that). So I watched the mini-series the weekend it debuted, and this last week-end I rewatched the whole thing. There are lots of things I noticed the second time through that I missed the first, and I think it is definitely worth watching more than once!

Now, even though Neil Gaiman (who co-wrote with the late great Terry Pratchett the original novel published in 1990) wrote the script of the new series and served as the showrunner, I knew that there would be changes from the original. Some of those changes were necessary to update the story from 1990 (minor example: the home of the demon Crowley in the book is described in great detail, but the show’s version looks very different; the book’s version of the flat sounds very much like cutting-edge interior decorating of the late 1980s, while Crowley is always embracing the latest in cool, so his home decor will look very different in 2019, so the set designer changed it), others were to fill in gaps, or to even out emotional arcs that play differently on screen than on paper—those were all to be expected. Some of the differences fall into a different category.

Some of those differences jumped out at me during the re-watch, and I was trying to figure out how to put that type of change into words, when I found this blogpost on the Wisteria Lodge tumblr: Crowley & Aziraphale: Book vs. Miniseries. Before I jump into this, I want to steal a disclaimer from the Wisteria Lodge post:

(and just to be REALLY CLEAR, I love them both. But the differences are fascinating, since it’s the same author adapting his work after almost 30 years. And how often do you get to see *that*?)

How someone perceives the personalities of the characters in the series will vary from how they appear in the book if for no other reason than to see an actor embody the character, and infuse the character with their own understanding is going to be different than what any individual reader imagined while reading it, write? But as the author of the linked blog post points out (and you should go read the whole post yourself, it is really good!), the central characters of Crowley and Aziraphale are written differently.

The author of the blog post lays out differences in the characters they saw. For me, the thing I noticed was the series!Crowley became more cynical and more angry over the centuries. Tempting Eve to take the apple was just a bit of fun, and he never expected that god would throw the humans out of the idyllic garden and into the harsh world because of it. Meanwhile, book!Crowley’s level of cynicism doesn’t ever overwhelm his baseline facade of cool detachment.

Similarly, book!Aziraphale isn’t all sweetness and light. Yes, he the softie who gave the flaming sword to Adam and Eve so that they could protect themself, but in the book he also has no compunction with using his powers to frighten away mobsters. And he’s also the one who suggests killing the 11-year-old anti-Christ. In the book it is Aziraphale who sincerely makes the argument that it is for the greater good. In the series, those arguments were given to the Archangel Gabriel. Series!Aziraphale has been trying to stick to the divine plan for the last 6,000 years, and remains convinced until rather late that heaven will listen to reason if only things are explained to them. While book!Aziraphale knows that that will never happen.

The novel was definitely about questioning authority and questioning the roles society assigns you and questioning the definitions of morality. There was also a lot of commentary about the nature of power structures, the nature of ignorance, and the power of denial. And all of that is still in the series, but the subtle shift, most evident in the slightly different characterizations of Aziraphale and Crowley, and how their arcs play out, shifts more of the emphasis onto not just questioning authority, but holding authority accountable. It’s not just questioning roles assigned to you, but asking why those roles never allow for vulnerability. And it doesn’t just question the definitions of morality, by the time the show is over it demonstrates that the traditional picture of the forces of heaven isn’t different in any important way from the forces of hell.

Love plays a much more overt role in the themes of the series than in the book. Adam’s love for the part of the country where he grew up, his love for his friends, his love of the idea of what his dog should be, and so forth all play a big role in averting the apocalypse. Then there is the mutual love and respect of Aziraphale and Crowley (and you can’t just call it friendship: Aziraphale threatens to never speak to him again if he doesn’t think of something, and Crowley stops time itself and then gives the 11-year-old anti-Christ the pep talk he needs to avert the apocalypse; that’s love). And of course, it’s Adam’s realization the importance of his earthly parents loving and caring for him, and how it trumps his Satanic heritage is the heart of the resolution.

Over all, I think while I still love the book immensely, the mini-series gives a more mature and nuanced take on the serious topics which are being tackled with all this silliness and cheek.

Dark barons and ultra-competent (conniving) wizards, or, more of why I love sf/f

My copy of the paperback of <em>The River of the Danciing Gods</em> by Jack L. Chalker.

My copy of the paperback of The River of the Danciing Gods by Jack L. Chalker.

Jack L. Chalker is probably most famous for the Well World Series, which consisted of ten novels written over the course of 17 years. And while it was through the first several novels of that series that I first began reading Jack L. Chalker, I didn’t become a squeeing fanboy of his work until I read a different series, beginning with The River of the Dancing Gods, either late in 1985 or early 1986. The book was published in ‘84, but I didn’t read it until a friend was going on and on about it, being surprised that I hadn’t read it, as it was the sort of thing he would expect me to love.

So I borrowed his copy of it and blew off homework one night to stay up all night reading the novel.

I really liked it.

The premise of all of the Dancing Gods books is that when god created the world as we know it, there was an unintentional echo. A parallel Earth, if you will, though it was a bit messed up. For whatever reason, the Creator let his messengers, the Angels, take control of this unintended echo universe, and they began trying to clean up its broken laws of physics and so forth. The Angels did this by writing down rules of how reality should work each time they encountered an anomaly. These rules eventually became a giant encyclopedia of rules, and mortals living in this parallel world who studied the rules could become wizards and perform magic. Unfortunately, at the same time, Demons were trying to subvert the Angels’ efforts, so the war between Heaven and Hell spread to a new battleground.

All this this is something that the reader learns during the middle of the book. This back story isn’t how things start. No, things start with a woman named Marge in our world, who has leapt from the car being driven by her abusive boyfriend, and finds herself walking along a long stretch of Texas highway. Then a truck driver named Joe stops to offer her a ride, but then there are both who confronted on an unfamiliar stretch of highway by a man who looks like Santa Claus dressed in a very elaborate Victorian suit. The man introduces himself as Throckmorton P. Ruddygore, wizard, and explains that in about 18 minutes Marge and Joe are going to die in a horrible accident. Unless they allow Ruddygore to transport them to his world, where they will become epic heroes and have the opportunity to thwart an Apocalypse.

Marge and Joe agree, and they are transported across the Sea of Dreams to the other world, were each of them begins a process of being transformed into a heroic archetype that can take on the evil which threatens the world.

The River of the Dancing Gods is a book that defies categories. Looked at from one angle, it is a portal fantasy (characters from our world go through a magical portal to a fantastical world), but from just a very slightly different angle it is a standard epic fantasy (story set in a world unlike our own where epic events that change that world forever occur). Except from a very slightly different perspective it is a parody of an epic fantasy. Or, if you tilt your head a little in a different direction, it looks like a deconstruction of each of those things.

Joe and Marge undergo a physical transformation when they cross into Ruddygore’s world. Then they spend some time being trained for their roles as Barbarian Warrior and Mysterious Sorceress respectively. And during the training is where we start to learn about all those rules written by the Angels. Most of the ones we learn are based on trope of epic fantasy and sword & sorcery stories (particularly of the pulp era), such as “All fair maidens must dress as scantily as the weather allows,” or “Magic swords for quests must be named” or “Barbarians must be tall, dark, and handsome, exotic in race but of no known nationality.”

The book is written comedically, but only occasionally crosses the line into parody. It is clear that Chalker loved high fantasy and sword & sorcery tales, but he also loved a good laugh. Most of the jokes in the story are aimed at the ridiculousness of those tropes, or finding ways to make the incongruities that come to mind when you examine those tropes carefully into twists in the story.

The quest of the story seems straightforward enough: a mysterious evil sorcerer called the Dark Baron has gathered an army of goblins and other monsters and so forth and is almost certainly aligned with the forces of Hell and is out to conquer the world. While the rules limit the number of full-fledged mages in the world to 12, and it seems certain that the Dark Baron is one of the other eleven mages, Ruddygore hasn’t been able to determine which one the Dark Baron is, which complicates things a bit.

I had enjoyed the book so much, I was frankly a little worried to re-read it years later. I didn’t want to find chockful of problematic material that was so cringe worthy I couldn’t enjoy it. Fortunately, it wasn’t bad on more recent re-read. Marge has a bit more autonomy than the usual Fair Maiden in sword & sorcery tales, and at some crucial points Joe manages to rise above the usual limits of a dude with a sword. But there are other ways in which the story fails to transcend the typical problems of the sub-genre or its period. It also shares one issue that most of Chalker’s books have: he has a strange fascination with physical transformation, sometimes slipping into body horror in what would otherwise be funny books, and other times completely glossing over the traumatic effects of such transformations. It isn’t exactly problematic here, but as I recall it gets weird in one of the later books.

Really, the biggest disappointment was realizing that the scene that made me laugh out loud so long and hard that my side literally ached and I had tears running down my face isn’t in this book at all. A little research in the sequels turned up the scene I recall, so it is there, just not in this book. Which I think is actually a good thing. Too many sequels don’t live up to the first part of a series. If the funniest bit is yet to come, that’s a good thing.

To sum up, the story of The River of the Dancing Gods was very funny, and engaging enough that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Chalker was clearly having a very good time writing the book, and I think the reader enjoys the ride exactly as much as the author did. Which is a trick some writers don’t pull off very well. Re-reading it, I see the book has influenced my writing in ways that I hadn’t quite realized. Of course, during my 20s I read a whole lot of Chalker’s work, so it shouldn’t surprise me that some of his themes and quirks have slipped into my own writing.

I am looking forward to re-reading more books in this series.

But what is it? Or, why we worry about sf/f, sub-genres, and fictional rules

“I'm not a science fiction writer. I've only written one book that's science fiction, and that's Fahrenheit 451.. All the others are fantasy.” —Ray Bradbury

(click to embiggen)

I was reading (and participating) in the comments on Camestros Felapton’s excellent review of one of the Hugo nominated stories, and found myself thinking a lot about how and why we humans like to classify everything in general, and stories/movies/et cetera in particular.

For instance, what is the difference between science fiction and fantasy? When I was much younger, I would have answered that fantasy was “just making any old thing up” while science fiction required an understanding of and adherence to science! (and was therefore superior). But as Thor observed that all words are made up, so too all stories are made up. The usual definition isn’t far from what younger me said (minus the hypocritical and judgmental bit): Science fiction deals with scenarios and technology that may be scientifically possible at the time written, while fantasy deals with supernatural and magical occurrences that have no basis in science.

Of course, that phrase “may be possible” includes a lot of hand-waving. Faster-than-light travel seems less and less likely to be possible as our understanding of physics has grown, yet everyone is quite happy to classify space opera as clearly part of science fiction.

It has been persuasively argued that what dictates that one novel is shelved in the science fiction section, while another is shelved with fantasy, and yet another shelved in horror all comes down to marketing. Not because marketers are trying to advance some sort of agenda, but because a lot of readers like having books offered in familiar categories. Unfortunately, the marketers (and associated persons in the publishing industry), being human, can make those distinctions on rather dubious criteria. One of my favorite authors, who writes books that cross over many genres (and has won at least one major fantasy award for a work of horror), often finds her books being reviewed as “Young Adult” simply because she’s a woman and the books tend to explore sf/f themes.

Of course, that opens up another can of worms. Who decided that “Young Adult” was a genre? It’s an age category, like Middle Grade and Early Reader, right?

It’s useful, sometimes, to talk about a specific work of fiction in reference to similar works of fiction. The aforementioned comment thread I was involved in included a discussion about why portal fantasies seem to be resurging lately, which is why I starting thinking about what portal fantasies are. I know several works that everyone agrees are portal fantasies. When I suggested that the Saturday morning live action children’s show Land of the Lost from the 1970s (I don’t want to talk about the more recent movie) might be a portal fantasy, someone else pronounced it portal science fiction.

The conventional definition of a portal fantasy is a story in which people from our mundane world enter into a different, fantastical world, through a portal of some kind. In Land of the Lost, the family on a rafting trip go through some kind of hole in space or time and land in a world where there are dinosaurs, some primates that might be precursors of genus homo, and humanoid reptileans. Sounds pretty fantastical to me! I mean the dinosaurs and primates may have overlapped a bit in Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, but none of those primates were the size of chimpanzees, nor had brains anywhere near the size of the critters in the show. So it isn’t a time warp they went through to an earlier part of Earth’s history.

So is it a portal fantasy with some sci fi trappings? Or are the sci fi elements enough to call it something other than a fantasy?

Let’s set that aside for a moment and talk about magic systems. Because one of the things that often distinguishes science fiction from pure fantasy is the presence of magic. But some fantasies involve very strictly defined magic, with laws that seem to be as rigid as physics, and logical ways one can deduce what is and isn’t possible to do with magic from those laws. Yet, how is that different than the fictional science that underpins many science fiction stories? The author is just positing a different set of discoveries of natural law.

I described my younger self’s definition of sci fi as hypocritical because I’ve found myself, for the last decade or so, far more interested in writing fantasy. I have a couple of sci fi tales still rattling around in my collection of works in progress, but fantasy has been where I keep finding myself. And while most of my fantasy stories involve magic, I’m not one of the authors who thinks it is necessary to work out very precisely how the magic works in my universes. I have rules of my own, and I write my stories within them, but I don’t think it particularly interesting to have one of my characters (no matter how much the Mathemagician, for instance, may love giving lectures) deliver an info dump about the limitations of magic in his world. When it is important to the plot, I work it in, so that the reader understands what is happening and what’s at stake, but otherwise, I leave it to things like: dragons can fly and breathe fire, sorcerers can hurl fireballs and ride flying carpets/magic brooms, priests can smite their enemies and their blessings can cure wounds, and all of these things have costs commiserate with the extent to which reality is being bent.

And I admit one reason I don’t like going into any more detail than that is because ever since my early days of roleplaying (late 1970s, before Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition existed), the people I liked playing with least were the ones who got into long tetchy arguments about the rules before and after every single dice roll. Your mileage may vary, so if you want to write down all the laws of magic for your stories, go right ahead.

But, the fact that most fantasy stories do have rules of how the magic/supernatural stuff works, and most fantasy authors try to follow those rules and keep them consistent, I still have trouble seeing how some people can so blithely draw a strict distinction between science fiction and fantasy. XKCD had a great cartoon not that long ago around the fact that you can describe the tiny nuclear power cells in the two Voyager spacecraft as “orbs of power!” Because they are balls of a very rare metal which, once assembled, simply radiate energy for many, many, many years. Not only that, if you touch them (without proper protection), you can die! It sure sounds like a cursed magical item, such as an Infinity Stone, doesn’t it?

To circle back to the Land of the Lost–the humanoid reptiles had some very sophisticated science fictional equipment, but it was all powered by mysterious little crystals. Put the right colored crystal in the right spot and voila! A portal opens and a healing beam of energy comes down or something. Again, is that science or magic? Because, seriously, crystals?

These sorts of questions are why the late, great Jack Chalker was fond of saying, “All science fiction is fantasy, but not all fantasy is science fiction. And some science fiction becomes fantasy as our understanding of science changes over time.”

%d bloggers like this: