A few days ago, I had an brief exchange with Frank Wu on the topic of explanations and how they differ between genres. The comment that started it was anent my own story in Talebones, but the part I found myself in disagreement with was a broader issue than the instance in question:
We had some interesting discussions at Radcon about science fiction and fantasy; one idea that fell out was that in science fiction, things are explained (perhaps poorly, but at least there is an attempt), and in fantasy, we just accept the hand-waving (oh, it’s magic).
I’d like to expand on the thoughts I started in the comments over there.
To my way of thinking, explanations in science fiction generally showcase two qualities. One is that they are explicit: the author comes out and explains, in exposition or dialogue or whatever fashion, what is happening and why. In Golden Age SF, this used to be very blatant, down to the level of “As you know, Bob.” (It’s a tangent, but I want to mention that I don’t think such explanations were necessarily intended as a suggestion that the reader was too dumb to figure it out; instead, it was more like an inventor displaying his latest innovation for the audience. See what I have created? Look what it can do!) This explicitness, I feel, is seen as a virtue in SF.
The other quality I see in SF explanations is hard to describe without language that could be read as value-laden. To toss out a few adjectives, I think it is logical, rational, and fact-based. Can I get away with saying that I don’t mean to attach values to those words, one way or another? I think most of you will have a sense of what I’m trying to signify, here.
Fantasy, by contrast, operates on a different level. I would argue that there are explanations, but the reasoning they’re based on is more often symbolic and metaphorical. As I said to Frank in comments, there is an explanation for what happens in my story; it grows out of various folkloric ideas about faeries and mortals and what the metaphysical differences between them are. And you could try to draw parallels between that and, say, the way the Three Laws of Robotics govern the nature of robots in Asimov’s work, but one admits of fuzziness and the other does not. Perhaps what I’m really getting at here is my earlier idea about how to distinguish magic and science: the personal can intrude here, in ways that it cannot in science fiction.
But even if I can’t nail down the rational/symbolic contrast, I can nail down the next one: I think that in fantasy, the best explanations are often implicit. I highly value the numinous in my fantasy, the sense of otherworldliness, the moment when events make sense on a level my conscious mind doesn’t control. And if you stop and explain to me why the magic worked that way, the numinous tends to deflate on the spot. To repeat my metaphor from the comments thread, I’d rather see the butterfly perch briefly on a twig than be pinned to a card. (The price of the genre, then, is that occasionally I’m left staring at the butterfly wondering what the hell it’s supposed to signify. Not all symbols work for all people.)
I think I jumped on his comment because it seems a cousin of a more pernicious doctrine, that SF is for the hardcore and fantasy is for the weak, because in fantasy you can just make shit up and wave your hands. Even if you leave aside the ridiculous amount of stuff fantasy authors sometimes have to learn just to create their worlds, even just looking at the magic alone, I disagree. You can wave your hands in fantasy (just as you can reverse the polarity and ionize the whatever in sf), but that doesn’t mean what you create will be good. Fantasy has its explanations, too. The fact that they are implicit and talking to your subconscious doesn’t make them any less present.