Mar 16 2010 12:06pm

In Sheep’s Clothing: Why Fantasy and SF might be disguised as each other

It used to be quite common for books that were fantasy, but not standard quest fantasy, to be published in the thinnest of SF disguises. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern began life in Analog. Telepathic teleporting time-travelling dragons are pretty fantastical, but it’s hinted all along that this is a lost colony and it’s all explained in Dragonsdawn. There are plenty of other examples, like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover (which also has a prequel explanation of how things got weird, Darkover Landfall) and Andre Norton’s Witchworld. There’s magic, but we’ll call it psionics. It feels like fantasy, but there’s a veneer of a science fictional explanation.

Another example is C.J. Cherryh’s Chronicles of Morgaine, which I’m reading right now and will be writing about soon. In these books there’s a beautiful perilous woman with a magic sword who is going around closing gates between worlds—gates that are abused by the elflike quhal to extend their lives by moving their consciousness to another body. Each volume comes with a preface explaining the science fictional background—but within the stories it’s all honour and betrayal and oaths stronger than virtue.

You may see books like this as a charming blend of genres, or you may be horrified to find fantasy cooties what you might reasonably have thought was SF. It’s perfectly obvious why people used to do this—all these series are quite old, from the time either before there was much genre fantasy published or from when the genre fantasy niche was quite specific. They might have wanted to write something that crossed genres—Bradley in particular used the culture clash. But one definite reason they cloaked the books as SF was because SF would sell, and fantasy wouldn’t.

What led me to think about this was reading Charlie Stross’s long essay on his blog about his Merchant Princes series. The thing is that these do it backwards. Instead of trying to make fantasy respectable with a few mentions of orbits and genetic engineering of dragons, they try to make science fiction fantastical by not explaining how things work.

I could begin writing in the back-story behind the Clan’s world-walking capability. In the first three books it was presented as a black box, implicitly magical; by book six it should be fairly obvious that the series is SF in fantasy drag, and as the series expands the breakdown and decay of fantasy tropes continues.

The reason for selling them as fantasy was economic and contractual. Ace had an option on Stross’s science fiction novels, and he wanted to sell something quickly. His agent said:

On the other hand, if you really want to write for a living, can you do something that isn’t specifically SF, so we can sell without breach of contract? Like, say, a big fat fantasy series?

So the series began looking like fantasy, and got to look more and more like SF as it went on, and as his contractual obligations changed. How did the readers feel about the SF cooties in their fantasy? I thought the geeky way the worldwalking was dealt with from the first thirty seconds in the first book was refreshingly nifty for fantasy, and this general attitude did mean that the reader wasn’t betrayed when the underpinnings showed up later. But I may not be typical here, I prefer SF anyway.

Another series that feels like this to me is Bujold’s Sharing Knife books. They’re on an odd intersection of genres anyway, having distinct elements of Western and Romance. They’re also post-apocalyptic fantasy—there was a big fantasy evil, way in the past, and it was only sort of defeated. So there are little evils—malices—showing up all over. This is fantasy, but the way it works, the way the malices moult and change is solid and logical and scientific. There’s magic, but the way they work with it is just as geeky and experimental as the way Stross treats worldwalking in The Family Trade. There’s a way in which what makes this come down firmly as fantasy is the covers, the marketing. If it was 1975, the covers would have said SF, and nothing else would be changed.

Finally, there’s Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series. These start off looking exactly like fantasy, standard medievaloid world, wizards, inns, barbarians. The annoying thing is that it’s a spoiler even to mention them in this context—consider yourself slightly spoiled. As the story goes on you find out slowly that this is science fiction, that a lot of the magic has to do with terraforming. In these books the slow process of revelation of what’s really going on—which I haven’t spoiled—is a large part of the joy of reading. This isn’t a case of "it has to look like X so it will sell" it’s an absolute requirement of the story that it be in the world it is in and the world be the way it is.

For most books, this is a labelling issue. You can slant things a little one way and call it SF, or the other way and call it fantasy. The writers are doing what will sell. Does anyone else care? Do you feel betrayed or delighted when you find out what’s under the sheep’s clothing?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Jason 1110
1. Jason 1110
Schroeder's Ventus is set up like that: medievaloid with apparent fantasy components. Turns out to be wide-screen hard SF.

Note: it's available as a free ebook, too!
Gary Schaper
2. Garyfury
The one that I always think of in this context is Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away and related stories, which are explicitly a conservation parable, and in which necromancy and deicide are treated as an engineering problem. I think in some cases this transgenre effect derives from the skill set and inclination of the writer. Same with Stross' Merchant Princes series: I never really felt like the fantasy there was more than skin deep in any case -- the first book left me slightly wrongfooted, but I very quickly figured out what to expect.

Mind, my tastes in reading fall on both sides of this imagined divide, so I wasn't particularly annoyed in either case. It just took a bit to figure out which particular set of reading skills to put in play.
Ashe Armstrong
3. AsheSaoirse
My opinion on this is my opinion on most questions of this nature: As long as the story's good, I'm happy. As long as I'm enjoying myself, who cares if genres are crossed.

I tend to like genre crossing anyways. Gives ya more room to play.
Christopher Key
4. Artanian
It's funny, growing up in the 70s and 80s, I read almost exclusively SF, with only a small smattering of Fantasy. And I pretty much stayed that way until the cyberpunk era hit, as I found most of that very unappealing. Along with this, my favorite authors either stopped producing much, or started dying off. At that point I ended up switching to Fantasy, and spending the next few years devouring the back-catalogs of a bunch of authors. It was easy to select - if you were a fantasy author, and you had books in print that were several years old, I'd try you out by reading your very first work. If that was moderately acceptable I'd read the later ones, figuring that they would normally be better.

For the next 15 years or so I pretty much read only Fantasy, and only afterwards have I gone back to SF, filling in what I missed in the interim. And now with Fantasy having switched to mostly Urban Fantasy, I'm pretty much done with it until the next revolution.
David Levinson
5. DemetriosX
I've always liked both genres anyway, so I've never had a problem with the bait and switch, as long as it is handled reasonably well (as is the case with the examples you've presented). Every now and then you'll get a rather ham-handed treatment, though none spring to mind at the moment.

This sort of thing also goes way, way back. A lot of older stories, especially back in the pulp days, would dance back and forth across the line. Often it was an easy way to make a sale to Weird Tales. Fritz Leiber did it a few times; C.L. Moore did it a lot (Jirel of Jory is very much the grandmother of Cherryh's Morgaine).

Also, it was either Larry Niven or David Brin who said that Pern is provably science fiction, because when they learn about democracy, they adopt it.
Jason 1110
6. Darren A. Jones
Andre Norton was great at doing this - the story would start out fantasy, but end up SF.
Jason 1110
7. Ken St. Andre
I am reminded of Clarke's law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Personally, I think SF is all fantasy anyway. IMHO, there is a bigger difference in the way men write vs. the way women write, than there is between sf and fantasy.
Ken Walton
8. carandol
I never really saw the Merchant Princes books as fantasy - but then I read the first one as an ebook, so I didn't really get to judge it by it's cover. I started reading it with no expectations at all, so when it became obvious it was alternate worlds fiction, I knew it was SF, because alternate worlds just *are*, aren't they? Except Amber, maybe.

Then there's that Janny Wurts novel (Stormwarden, was it?) which I threw at the wall because it did the switch so badly. If you're describing a fantasy world through the eyes of its inhabitants, you can't suddenly start describing a spaceship in modern technological terms. You can describe it in ways the characters would understand but which the reader can understand otherwise, but using SF terminology just jolts the reader out of their suspension of disbelief. (Well, it did me, anyway -- it's the only time I've ever thrown a book!)
Ken Walton
9. carandol
@Ken St. Andre: "IMHO, there is a bigger difference in the way men write vs. the way women write, than there is between sf and fantasy."

You mean all that hard-SF interstellar war stuff that C.J. Cherryh writes, as opposed to the mushy romantic fantasies of Robert Jordan? :-)
Jason 1110
10. Alfvaen
It never really bothered me one way or the other. My rule for years was "magic = fantasy, psionics = SF". Of course, then you get Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series, where they call it magic...but I was originally introduced to it via a Dragon Magazine issue devoted to psionics in D&D.

You could also mention Sheri S. Tepper's True Game series, which is another SF-masquerading-as-fantasy, the origin of the "magic" being revealed over the course of the series. She's done a number of books with characters in backward, low-tech societies in an SF framework.

Niven & Gerrold played it for laughs in "The Flying Sorcerer", which is obviously SF, with its character from a high-tech society stranded on the primitive planet, but we see the whole book through the eyes of the pre-technological narrator. Clarke's Law, etc.

It may have been Ursula Le Guin who said that once you have hard and fast rules for how magic behaves, and how your magic system works, then it starts becoming science. Sometime it feels that way in Robert Jordan's series, where their use of the One Power is fairly technological, except that not everyone can do it; there are even flashbacks to a distant past where it is treated more like technology. There are other magical things happening which are less hard and fast (softer and slower?), though.
Joshua Evans
11. JoshuaEvans
I remmeber reading C.S. Friedman's "When True Night Falls" during my teens and loved the book(s). I picked it up a probably a year ago or so thinking I was go through it again and was completely shocked to find out it was an SF book. It was firmly stuck in my mind that this had been a fantasy book from my teen years. I don't know how I managed to ignore that. Selective memory I would guess.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Jason: I did think of Ventus but it only seems medieval and fantasyish for the first thirty seconds -- it isn't a disguise so much as an angle of attack. Terrific book.
Joshua Evans
13. JoshuaEvans
Meant Black Sun Rising... That was the first book in that series.
Jason 1110
14. peachy
@10 - That's kind of my approach. If the 'magic' is presented in such a way that it's essentially an undiscovered scientific discipline (Jordan and Kurtz are both good examples of this), then it's not so very different from SF that relies on massive technological advances. The dividing line, then, isn't so much the nature of the material as how that material is handled.
Fake Name
15. ThePendragon
As you can probably tell, I'm a huge fan of the Coldfire Trilogy by C. S. Friedman. I love the sci-fi fantasy mix there. One place where sci-fi and fantasy mixed horribly though was the Darksword trilogy. Of course there, the Magic was magic, no sci-fi explanations or anything, but the first two books were so awesome, and ruined by the introduction of sci-fi elements in the third book.
Jason 1110
16. DavidA
A relatively early example of a cross-genre book is Zelazny's "Lord of Light." As I recall, Jo disliked this book in general and disliked the blurring of genre lines in particular, but as a young reader when it first came out, I found the slow revelation of the science-fictional explanation behind the fantasy/romance style exciting. The end doesn't really work, but it is still a favorite of mine.

I think there were other examples even earlier that I cannot now recall, but mostly in shorter fiction.
Gray Woodland
17. Greyhame
I like my wolves to act like wolves, and my sheep to act like sheep, and if a wolf is going to pop suddenly out of the sheep-fell I want to cry admiringly, "So that's why Larry the Lamb never came back!" It's the eureka moment by which suddenly everything makes sense on a newer and deeper level. The Steerswoman books are an excellent example of the continuous version.

The enemy-opposite of this is the 'explain away' trick, which cheapens everything that went before. A lavishly imagined F->SF version of this which doesn't quite work for me is Tanith Lee's The Birthgrave. (Lee is, at her best, exceptionally good at saturating the gleaming lines of SF with fantastic-poetic sensibilities.) SF->F describes every lousy contemporary/ near-future scenario where it turns out that OH NOES OUR VAUNTED TECHNOLOGY IS BUT A VENEER ON FAIRY ATLANTEANS MESSING ABOUT!, or the like. If I'm not being very specific, it's because anything that strikes me that way tends to rocket back off my hands and onto the shelf unless it's wickedly original or funny.

I like the psi tradition in F/SF almost as much as I detest the belief in real life. It offers a fine tone control as useful as it is abusable. Dragonflight, for instance, always read to me like wildly fantastic SF. They have an interplanetary fungus problem of about Lovecraftian credibility, but I still never worried for one moment that Kylara was going to learn witchery from long-lost grimoires or F'nor was going to get eaten by Yog-Sothoth. The weakening of the later Pern books to me is entirely a dilution of mood: nothing happens that vitiates the initially conveyed nature of the universe, as far as I've read them. It's a rational place, not a mystical one.

Some likeness with fusion in music: lots of the best and the worst there, and not something to embark on inattentively.
Jason 1110
18. Story Cottage
Handled properly, reveals are great. I have only read the fantasy-now-sf direction though. Has anyone taken a SF story and turned it into fantasy?

As has been mentioned previously, magical systems can operate as a type of science. This can result in stories that end up walking the line between the two. The first four books of David Farland's Runelord series feel like fantasy, but the subsequent books have brought the story into more of the SF feeling realm for me at least.

Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, Elantris and Warbreaker all have well defined and described magic systems. None of them have an explanation for the source of the fantastical elements and they could each swing from magic to mutations/psionics/etc. if Sanderson wanted to provide more clues or explanations - and I enjoy his stories.
Jason 1110
19. Alfvaen
Bottom line is, does it matter? As Niven pointed out, time travel is fantasy, but it's an SF staple. Psychic powers are only SF because of the briefly-credible Rhine experiments, aren't they? If one in-story explanation (even an implicit one) for something is revealed to be wrong, then that reveal can be done well or poorly. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter whether it's "this magic is really done using alien technology" or "this commoner is actually the legitimate firstborn son of the previous king" or "this politician is really a robot".

I realize that there are people who would stop reading a book if they thought it was SF and it turned out to be fantasy, or vice versa. But there are probably more who would throw it across the room at a hamhanded plot twist.
Jessica Reisman
20. jwynne
I like both SF and fantasy, depending entirely on the book, but while I rather love the Morgaine books, and like Stross's SF that never pretended to be fantasy, when I read the first Merchant Princes book (and reviewed it), I really didn't like it. And it was precisely the fact that he clearly doesn't like fantasy that made me dislike the book. Stross's sensawunda comes through in his SF beautifully, but his "fantasy" as you quote him saying above, is all about breaking down fantasy tropes, seeing them as decayed. Sense of wonder can be found in both SF and fantasy, but the writer has to actually have some love of those tropes to begin with. For Stross, fantasy is flat and corrupt, which is only one, very limited view of it.
Jason 1110
21. C12VT
I love books that play with the genres this way. I especially love it when it is ambiguous whether a work is "supposed to" be read as fantasy or sf - the most fun is to mentally switch goggles and be able to see it either way, or (wonderfully mentally disorienting) both. I found Mieville's "The City and the City" to provide this sort of joy (with an added possible reading of it not being sf or fantasy).

Another example of sf as fantasy that I've enjoyed but no one has mentioned yet is Wen Spencer's Tinker books.

I like sf, I like fantasy, having both in one gives the author twice as much room to play, sometimes with results that are greater than the sum of the parts.
Jason 1110
22. Foxessa
" ... or you may be horrified to find fantasy cooties what you might reasonably have thought was SF."

Or, as in my case, horrified to find sf polluting my f!

That's a joke, really, as a really good tale is a really good tale.

Love, C.
Chris Meadows
23. Robotech_Master
It doesn't bother me—except when it's done poorly.

Take Peter A. David's Darkness of the Light, which was one of those titles Tor gave away for a while as an e-book. (I review it here.)

It starts out after earth has been invaded by all these alien races who look suspiciously like mythological creatures, complete with magical powers. It looks kind of like fantasy, but it's all treated as science-fiction. Aha, you think, it's really SF in drag, not really fantasy after all—any sufficiently-advanced technology and all that.

Then at the very end of the book, right before ending in a "this is actually part of a longer book published in chunks" cliffhanger, with much metaphorical screeching of tires, it throws in something right out of the fantasy playbook: the mysterious hyperdimensional power cells that power all the aliens' technology turn out to run on…well, I won't give it away, but it was every bit as jarring as if Star Trek suddenly revealed that the Enterprise's warp engines were actually powered by moon beams and fairy dust.

Come on, PAD, you can do better than that. :P
Andrew Mason
24. AnotherAndrew
Alfvaen: whether you take psychic powers to be SF depends on what your conception of SF is. If you think that SF ought to be consistent with real-world science, an enormous amount of iconic material is excluded - time travel and psychic powers are not consistent with real world science, but then neither are psychohistory and positronic robots. I prefer to see the distinction in terms of whether the basis of the story is presented within the work as scientific (that is, I guess, as the sort of thing that can be studied by a scientific method).

C12VT; could you say more (in ROT-13 if you like) about the different readings of The City and the City? I can only see one reading, and gung vf vaqrrq arvgure snagnfl abg FS - hayrff creuncf gur 'fpvrapr' va dhrfgvba vf cflpubybtl.
Clark Myers
25. ClarkEMyers
Last I knew time travel is consistent with real world science when Robert Forward uses it - though I think the short analysis - and long treatment in End of Eternity - from Niven that if the past can be changed it will converge quickly to a time line that doesn't makes good sense.

Science is too big for any of us to know and to stay current with. And something that the average reader would lack any information on can be most fantastic. In Dr. Pournelle's early books as by Wade Curtis - Red Heroin and Red Dragon he footnotes the science but peddles the notion of cheap but good affordable housing in the Seattle U-District out of whole cloth for IMHO the most fantastic notion in all of his writing.

I've seen an argument that a neutron star would never allow a build up to a big quake but after any first period of collapse would lack any faults to resolve (effectively total collapse - entropy no gravitational potential left over) and any faults left or arising would be so small and resolve so quickly that major quakes would be forestalled. When I asked him, Dr. Forward assured me once - circa 1990 - that the book was good science as of the then current date. Has the time travel been overtaken by current thinking? Or test?

I like fantastic elements - faster than light travel - to have some cloak of real science like Dr. Pournelle's Alderson Drive which is not ruled out by current knowledge however unlikely it be - and sustained by some faith - as Dr. Pournelle has in reality - that a benevolent power (such as gave us beer - Ben Franklin) will give us the possibility of FTL.

I'm very fond of Zelazny mostly ( I had hoped that in Madwand he would reverse himself and give the hard sciences supremacy over magical powers of the mind as in the short story (Limiting Factor?) where the psi-powered space ship is overtaken by a little man with big science) but I do wonder who or what magics away the sewage in Amber - by the terms of the story they surely aren't dumping sewage and garbage at sea and the sides of Kolvir should be running with rivers of brown. Now that's fantasy.
Jason 1110
26. OtterB
There are a couple of others that I enjoyed that fall in the in-between spaces. I notice as I list them that all fall into a subgenre of detection-using-magic-or-advanced-technology. Perhaps the logical basis of deduction gives a scientific flavor to the magical underpinning?

Diane Duane's "Stealing the Elf-King's Roses," where our Earth and Faery are two of some finite number (11, maybe?) universes. The main character is a "forensic lanthanomancer," and her partner, from an alternate universe, is a highly intelligent (PhD from UCLA) white wolf-like investigator, and someone is killing elves...

Also, Matthew Hughes's Henghis Hapthorn series is technically far-future SF, but has a fantasy-of-manners feel. Similarly, the main character is a detective.
William S. Higgins
27. higgins
John W. Campbell edited Astounding Science Fiction for most of his life. For a brief time-- about four years, 1939 to 1943-- he began a fantasy magazine called Unknown.

Unknown attracted writers of science fiction, and many of its stories featured a rather science-fictional approach to fantasy. Magic had rules and logic, and its practitioners treated it something like engineering. Pratt and de Camp's Harold Shea stories, or Heinlein's "Magic, Inc.," are examples.

This is not exactly a crossover-- these stories are definitely fantasy and not SF-- but they're very different in tone from other fantasy of the time.

Even though the magazine died, the Unknown style lived on. A really good example written a couple of decades after its heyday is Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, where a modern engineer is catapulted into a fantasy world and finds that physics and chemistry help him deal with magical beings.

Once the fantasy boom got going, this kind of thing was assimilated, and it's pretty common these days.
Elizabeth Bear
28. matociquala
I think one of my favorites of these is Meredith Ann Pierce's THE DARKANGEL. I don't know if it's fantasy or SF or the child of both, but I love it to death.

Blake Ellis
29. galaxyexpressed
Fred Saberhagen's Book of Swords, Gene Wolfe's New Sun, Elizabeth Bear's Jacob's Ladder, say whaaaaaaaaattt
Brit Mandelo
30. BritMandelo
I always consider SFF... Well. SFF. Not just SF and not just F. I like both and so it never really bothers me when the genres seem mixed--they're both speculative fiction, after all. The settings are just a little different (generally).

Richard K Morgan's newest book, "The Steel Remains," treads that line. The fantasy strongly resembles science and one of the characters actually says something similar to the "the greatest science looks like magic" idea. It's still a fantasy novel to me but it contains hints of SF, too.
Jason 1110
31. j h woodyatt
I've been explicitly warned that subverting the genre is not recommended for aspiring fantasy writers because it only makes their manuscripts harder to sell, not easier.
Gray Woodland
32. Greyhame
j h woodyat - I suspect that people who don't have to subvert genre, shouldn't. If the tale or your promises require it, well now.

Subverting genre always sounds cool, and it's always hard to get right. If you are Pablo Picasso or Dizzy Gillespie, you ought to and probably must. If OTOH you are Arts Student #3749 who wants to subvert genre like the great modern masters, because that to you is greatness in Arts, the same rule doesn't apply, and maybe first acquiring multiple genre mastery the regular way will please everybody better.

But Student #3750, whose good workhorse talent lies in the no-land between jazz and Morris dancing, will curse hell out of me and your advisors later, if she was so unhappy as to have taken the above for gospel. The jazz influence is, for her, only capable of making her compositions easier to sell, not harder - because there is what makes them worthwhile.

In F/SF, Mr #3749 is probably not such a big nuisance as he can be elsewhere. But how would I know, not having read the slushpiles? There is mastery before rebellion, and there is keeping the reader's attention dancing on the wire without the safety-net of convention, and there is marketing something that seamlessly transcends genre. I'd like to know in what proportions the difficulties for fledgling writers fall there; but from my damp-quilled point of view, it's mainly the first two I could do something about.

And as a reader... I'd far rather put my pennies on a new writer who'll shoot straight and true for the Sun. Bringing it down is beyond all requirement.
Jason 1110
33. LizaLester
Sharon Shinn wrapped a thin coat of SF around her Samaria series, which is not very old- not McCaffrey's and Bradley's era. Rather than to fit genre expectations or improve sales, I think in this case she incorporated the SF back story to explain her use of Judeo-Christian place names and mythology. I always felt the story would have benefited from a less cursory effort at the SF elements.

C12VT, The City and the City might have been marketed as straight fiction if Mieville were not already a fantasy author. It reads more like the style of social allegory found in literary fiction than typical genre fantasy, don't you think? Like Kafka (but not so dark).
Michal Jakuszewski
34. Lfex
Yes, Meredith Ann Pierce Darkangel Trilogy is very good example. This one is really strange mix of science fiction with fairy tale. I regret I didn't remember to mention it in underestimated books thread.

Another interesting example is Melissa Scott's Silence Leigh trilogy - space opera with starships powered with something which clearly is magic.

As for The City and the City, I think it surely is fantasy or science fiction genre (as well as noir detective novel, of course) because gur cbjref bs gur Oernpu ner pyrneyl vzcbffvoyr va erny jbeyq.
Jason 1110
35. C12VT
More thoughts on The City and the City (in rot13):

V nterr gung Gur Pvgl naq gur Pvgl pna or ernq nf znvafgernz be nyyrtbevpny. Vg'f qrsvavgryl abg glcvpny traer fs be s. Ohg V guvax n fs be s ernqvat vf cbffvoyr: vs lbh nffhzr gung gur fcyvg orgjrra Orfmry/Hy Dbzn vf erny, gura vg unf gb unir n pnhfr, naq gung pnhfr pbhyq or rvgure zntvp (gur snagnfl ernqvat) be grpuabybtvpny (gur fs ernqvat). V nqzvg gur fs ernqvat vf zber bs n fgergpu, ohg gurer ner gur fgenatr grpu-ybbxvat negvsnpgf sbhaq va gur nepurbybtvpny qvtf juvpu pbhyq uvag ng guvf. Nyfb, Oernpu'f cbjref bs bofreingvba qb frrz bire gur gbc naq pbhyq or nggevohgrq va cneg gb zntvp be uvtu grpu - be whfg gb tbbq pheeragyl ninvynoyr grpu naq n cflpubybtvpnyyl znavchyngrq cbchynpr. Gur obbx arire tvirf lbh rabhtu qngn gb pbapyhqr. V guvax guvf jnf vagragvbany.

Bar guvat V yvxrq nobhg guvf obbx jnf gung ynpx bs rkcynangvba znqr gur frggvat zber erny - va n ybg bs fs be s frggvatf, gur cebgnt trgf gb qvfpbire gur frperg jnl gur jbeyq jbexf, ohg gur nirentr qravmra bs fnvq jbeyq jbhyq erznva vtabenag. Va Gur Pvgl naq gur Pvgl, jr'er yvivat guvf vtabenapr. Vg'f nyy dhrfgvbaf naq srj nafjref, juvpu vf obgu sehfgengvat naq serrvat.

V bayl erterg gung V'z abg snzvyvne rabhtu jvgu gur abve traer gb erpbtavmr jurer Zvrivyyr vf naq vfa'g fgvpxvat gb gubfr traer rkcrpgngvbaf.
René Walling
37. cybernetic_nomad
I think magic has to have rules, or it's too easy for the writer to pull a Deus Ex Machina (or should that be Deus Ex Magica?)

@5. Also, it was either Larry Niven or David Brin who said that Pern is provably science fiction, because when they learn about democracy, they adopt it.

I would say that that is a reason to provably classify it as fantasy.
Andrew Mason
38. AnotherAndrew
C12VT and seth e, re The City and the City:

V nterr jvgu Frgu R gung gur frcnengvba vf na vyyhfvba: ohg V guvax gung npghnyyl orpbzrf nccnerag orsber gur raq.

Gb fgneg jvgu V gubhtug gung gurer jnf fbzr xvaq bs fcnpr-gvzr nabznyl, fb gung gur gjb pvgvrf bpphcvrq qvssrerag fcnprf nygubhtu gurl jrer ng gur fnzr cbvag ba gur rnegu'f fhesnpr - naq gung, nf P12IG fnlf, pbhyq unir rvgure n fpvrapr-svpgvbany be n snagnfgvp rkcynangvba. Va gung pnfr cerfhznoyl bar bayl vf va qnatre bs frrvat crbcyr ba gur bgure fvqr, naq unf gb 'hafrr' gurz, va fcrpvny pnfrf jurer sbe fbzr ernfba gur qvivfvba jrnef guva.

Ohg nf lbh ernq ba gurer ner nyy fbegf bs guvatf gung qba'g svg gung ernqvat - gur genssvp nppvqragf, gur crbcyr va bar pvgl fgrccvat bire crbcyr va gur bgure va gur cnex, gur pbafvtazrag bs qehtf yrsg ol gur envyjnl genpxf - gur envyjnl orvat va obgu pvgvrf - gur pebffungpurq qvfgevpgf jurer ohvyqvatf va bar pvgl fgnaq fvqr-ol-fvqr jvgu (abg va rknpgyl gur fnzr fcbg nf) ohvyqvatf va gur bgure. (V guvax guvf orpnzr pyrne gb zr jura V ernq nobhg gur qvfgevpg gung vf abg pbeffungpurq ohg ybbxf nf vs vg jrer.) Fb va gur raq V qrpvqrq gung gur gjb pvgvrf bpphcl bar fcnpr, orvat ragjvarq jvgu bar nabgure, naq gur 'hafrrvat' vf tbvat ba nyy gur gvzr - naq bapr V fgnegrq ernqvat vg gung jnl rirelguvat sryy vagb cynpr. Pregnvayl vg orpbzrf zber nccnerag ng gur raq, jurer gur cebgntbavfg wbvaf Oernpu, ohg V guvax vg jnf nyjnlf gurer.

(Oh, and I agree it could have been sold as mainstream if the author weren't a well-known fantasy writer. I think there have been several works recently of which that is true. It's well-known that this happens the other way round, so seeing this is quite striking.)
Jason 1110
39. j h woodyatt
Subverting genre always sounds cool, and it's always hard to get right.

My point is that the reason it's hard to get "right" is that there are significant fractions of the SF/F genre audience that don't much care for one or the other flavors, and their enthusiasm for even the most masterful achievements in crossing the streams is diminished accordingly. This reduces the size of the potential audience for such works severely.

If you're one of those people, like me, who enjoys seeing attempts to challenge established convention on general principle, then you're probably in the minority. A lot of people aren't like that.
Gray Woodland
40. Greyhame
j h woodyatt @ 39: I wonder how severe it necessarily is?

Yes, I am like you in that way. My other internet persona is a goat, and I know that is an outlier type. It's fun! But I know how it feels to like convention done well, too, and I don't always like to see it smacked in the face with a gauntlet. There's challenge by defiance, and there's challenge by seduction.

Charlie, whose work kicked off this discussion, was smacking fantasy in the face with a gauntlet - he talks explicitly about rejecting its consolatory aspect, because he is a flaming liberal, and he objects to consoling people with idealized versions of power-relations he (and I) consider somewhere between stupid and evil. A traditional fantasy reading of the Merchant Princes is bound to feel shrunk-souled and abrasive in consequence - it takes me some active work to avoid it, and I don't read that series fast.

I like challenge by seduction. With F->SF, this means keeping the things people read trad fantasy for - consolation, rootedness, human scale, lyrical beauty and mystical awe - and carrying them all through to the SFnal vision of challenge, novelty, impersonal grandeur, rational ingenuity and clear-eyed Eureka. It means saying, at some gut level, "And these things are one." The psi trope is one imperfect but powerful aid to that.

Leigh Brackett, Eric Frank Russell in quieter moods, early Pern, Darkover, Lee & Miller's Liaden books, Tanith Lee's SFnal tone poems like Day by Night, Diane Duane's hyper-geeky wizardry, Mercedes Lackey's systematized and bureaucratized Talents, great swathes of Zelazny... Oh, it can be done, and done popularly. But even for a master, it's hard to accomplish any sort of marriage if there isn't honest love on both sides.

Which is why I respect Charlie's Merchant Princes stuff and will probably read all of it SFnally and eventually, but gobble down his Laundry spy-fantasies as fast as he can write them. They're in the fantasy subgenre where his gauntlet makes just the right clatter when it hits the ground.

Specifically, Lovecraftiana.
Jason 1110
41. seth e.
AnotherAndrew @38:

Pregnvayl gur fcyvg orgjrra pvgvrf frrzrq zhaqnar nyy nybat. Vg jnf fcrpvsvpnyyl gur Oernpu gung frrzrq gb zr gb or cbffvoyl snagnfgvpny evtug hagvy gur raq. V gubhtug Zvrivyyr znvagnvarq gung onynapr dhvgr jryy.

Va trareny, guvf jnf bar bs gur srj obbxf V'ir ernq erpragyl gung jnf znqr zber fngvfslvat ol gur pyvznk.
Jason 1110
42. shah8
Heh, this is timely for me since I'm reading Paolo Bacigulpi's The Windup Girl. I couldn't really take it seriously as science fiction because the world he depicts is flat out inhospitable to humans at all, as we'd all be dead from the setting. So I explicitly told myself to think of it as steampunk fantasy, which, really, is kind of what it is. Lots of baroque science and hero/villian "sparks" and it's easy to transpose the expectactions I have when I read Girl Genius to his novel.

I also found it interesting in the sense that so far (I'm at 2/3rd), it's roughly at the end of the spectrum past Richard Morgan and approaching Peter Watts and Octavia Butler in the "limits of human capability" pessimism. It's also extremely ambitious in assigning burdens of personal knowlege to the reader...I don't think there is a huge group of people who'd be able to appreciate the thai-ness of the narrative or why the economy would work as it does, or has read Amy Chua. Not to even approach the relatively extreme sophistication (for sf) that race is handled. At first I thought I had another McAuley's Quiet War, which pissed me off...

That book is probably too condensed, which is why it feels so much more like steampunk than scifi proper.
Jason 1110
43. arghc
fantasy vs SF in comic form

I remember a talk at a con decades ago, I think the speaker was Brin. He explained that the Dragonriders of Pern was SF because the people didn't feel that their world was idyllic except for the evil thing. They worked at advancing their science and embraced change and the tech they found.

The two books I always think of when contemplating of the SF/Fantasy divide are "Master of the Five Magics" where magic is treated with the rigor of science, and "The Deed of Paksenarrion" where the usual fantasy gloss over living conditions is substantially removed. The characters trudge on foot through a fairly realistic landscape and dig latrines when they make camp.
Avram Grumer
44. avram
It occurs to me now that Stross's choice to make the family's world-walking trigger look like a bit of Celtic knot-work might have been part of the fantasy drag. Had he chosen to make it, say, a part of the Mandelbrot fractal, it would've seemed even less fantasy-like.

And speaking of blurring the boundaries, I'm just now re-reading Delany's Nova, with it's galaxy-spanning 32nd-century cyborg civilization where everyone takes the Tarot seriously, except for a handful of old Earth people who stick to their millennium-old materialist superstitions.
Jason 1110
47. Shakatany
I recall reading my first novel by Sheri S. Tepper which was her "Raising the Stones"; liking it I went hunting for her other works and came across her "True Game" series which starts out seemingly as fantasy and then you realize it's a weird form of SF.

I'm not much a fan of fantasy but when I admire an author I'm willing to try whatever else they write and here the fantasy became SF which was very nice. One day I'd love to reread the series knowing from the getgo that it is SF and see how many early clues, if any, I overlooked.
Jason 1110
48. Dominiquex
Like many here, I don't see as big a difference between the genres as the hardliners would have exist. Anne McCaffrey's Pern was the first series I went all-in for, in either genre. I loved that we got fantastical things (dragons) with reasons for their existance (we genetically engineered them from a unique alien indigenous lifeform) along with compelling plot (a requisite for any good writing). I fell out of love with the later books in the series not because of the increasing SF elements, but because the writing got less compelling. I'm also one of those readers who's really tenaciously into worldbuilding. So if you present me a fantasy world, I want to know the rules, the species, the history. But at some point that seems to blur the lines between the genres, since fantasy would seem to be more about things (magic, races, events, etc) existing without underpinings to reality as we know it.

I guess there might be two different ways to look at the difference between the genres. One, that Fantasy deals with the things that are not possible and the SciFi deals with things that could be possible if extrapolated from our reality. But at what point do the things we don't know about science cross over into the unlikely-to-be-possible. I've spent the last few days on a Star Trek TNG/Voyager marathon and at some point the veneer of science starts to wear thin. At some point, any advanced technology presented without sufficient understanding becomes magic. How are we to say that warp drives, advanced alien societies, replicators, and even world peace are actually possible? Is this not fantasy - the impossible - parading as science? Is this not perhaps Alchemy? Now, I haven't read the SF paragon Asimov, but I have read Herbert. Seems pretty fantasy-like to me - the chosen young man, raised from hardship to rulership of the entirety of his society, haunted by the magics that lead him to power. It's just damn compelling writing done in a speculative world.

Or instead is the difference between the two genres Evolution vs Creationism? In this case, if the author tries to present a reasonable structure for how things got to be they way they are using scientiic principles if nothing else, then it's SciFi now matter how fantastical it gets (McCaffrey, Bradley, Herbert, Rodenberry). Whereas if they say it was just created then it's Fantasy (Tolkien, Pratchett). Obviously, either one can be done well or done poorly. Personally, all I really care about is compelling writing, and I do tend to enjoy speculative worlds more than our own.
Jason 1110
49. celvet
I really don't care if fantasy masquerades as SF, but find that most of
the books that I have read so far of this type are ones that I don't
like too much unless they are older. I do mind when romance novels
masquerade as SF. There is at least one person who does this
consistently and it is really irritating.

Rosemary Kirstein's books are wonderful and I loved reading them without the spoilers and figuring out on my own that they were really Sci Fi.

One thing that I find interesting is when a person who writes primarily
sci fi writes fantasy or vice versa (that is when someone writes and
atypical novel that is excellent). For instance, I think of Marta
Randall's Sword of Winter (She normally seems to write Sci Fi) and Patricia McKillip's Fool's Run (She normally writes Fantasy). I think
that both of these are gems. I love that they are stand alones. I also like Lightwing by Tara Harper who normally writes Fantasy.

Anyone run into more like these?
David Friedman
56. superdave
There is a sub-genre of science fiction where all these books are to be found: that is called science fantasy. All of Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars and Venus books fall into this category, as does the Darkover series by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

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