explanations, seen and unseen

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.

0 Responses to “explanations, seen and unseen”

  1. dsgood

    1) There’s “As you know, Bob” dialog in fantasy. There’s some at the beginning of the first Harry Potter book, quite a bit in P. C. Hodgell’s books, to begin with.

    2) There’s a lot of handwaving in science fiction.

    And a lot of what I consider to be magic in science fiction. John W. Campbell used to call it psi. These days, it’s often called nanotechnology.

    • mindstalk

      I don’t associate “As you know, Bob” with exposition in general but with exposition between characters who already know the information. Gareth Wilson’s “As you know, Bob, we’re both androids, and we have to recharge every four hours or we’ll die.” Babylon-5 had at least one moment with Sinclair telling Garibaldi about beacons in Earth Force ships.

      Whereas I’m thinking Potter and Hodgell are more sensible (whether or not well-done) infodumps: “As you *don’t* know, Harry/Dally/Jame,…”

  2. buymeaclue

    Huh. I kind of figure the mark of hand-waving is that it doesn’t make any sense. It’s an attempt at explanation that doesn’t work.

    Which is, ah, a very different thing than internal consistency that isn’t made explicit.

    • buymeaclue

      Er. That should have been a ‘yah’ in place of the ‘ah.’

    • Marie Brennan

      I think that’s part of what I’m trying to get at here, yeah — that a) an explanation which doesn’t make sense, b) an explanation which isn’t up front, and c) no explanation at all, are all different things.

        • frankwu

          Hey – I did re-read your story. I think I understood it better the second time around, and I liked your comment above that “it grows out of various folkloric ideas about faeries and mortals and what the metaphysical differences between them are.” The story is well-written and tightly structured, it’s just not my preferred subject matter – which isn’t your fault at all. It’s more my own limitation.

          I think my situation is that I’m not really familiar with the folkloric ideas/backgrounds – perhaps I need to read more stories involving fairies. Which was part of my point in my post today on my blog – it’s not that a judgment on stories involving magic or fairies, but more about my unfamiliarity with the subgenre and discomfort in attempting to write in it.

          On a different note, and this is also something that you touch on above, I think the thing that works against my view of the universe in fantasy is that the effectiveness of magic (a potion or spell, or example), depends on the “worthiness” or other spiritual characteristic of the hero. In science fiction, the laser will shoot out, no matter who pulls the trigger. Though, sometimes, for dramatic tension, the gun will work for the villain, but jams when the hero tries to use it – so he has to think of a different solution. (Heros crash their spaceships all the time – when was the last time you saw a villain crash his?) In a way, they are opposites then – often the thing works only for the good people in fantasy, but only for the bad people in science fiction (wherein the villains often have the more interesting devices). Of course, these are massive generalizations full of exceptions.

          • Marie Brennan

            I applaud your dedication, sir. <g>

            If you follow the other link in my post, you’ll find that what you’re talking about is exactly what I think distinguishes magic from technology: the inclusion of a personal element (which could be worthiness, will, bloodline, or a variety of other things). And I can see how that would be off-putting to some people, though I happen to like it. I also think it would count as a separate thing from dramatically-appropriate functions/malfunctions (though an SF author who overuses it might blur that line — for example, the tendency in Star Wars for the bad guys to have crappy aim and the good guys to succeed with every shot).

            I’m not sure I would agree with “often the thing works only for the good people in fantasy, but only for the bad people in science fiction” — but first, I don’t read nearly as much SF as fantasy, so I don’t have a large pool to generalize from, and second, that touches on a post that’s still composting in my head, where I’m going to propose that one of the identifying qualities of science fiction is a disinterested universe. (As opposed to fantasy, where the universe is benevolent, and horror, where it is malevolent.)

Comments are closed.