Frazer’s goddamned Golden Bough

(This post brought to you by temporary internet access at ICFA, and a desire to use this rant before my passion for it fades.)

I’m sure that Geoff Ryman is a very nice man, and I like what I’ve read of his fiction. But his luncheon speech the other day included a throwaway line that had me wanting to spit nails: something in the vein of “fantasy fiction, another means of turning away from the future.”

I am so sick of this notion.

The idea, as espoused by way too many people for my taste, is that fantasy is nostalgic for the past, that it turns away from the future. (Generally coupled with an implication that science fiction is therefore better, since it isn’t trying to hide its head in the sand.) Given: yes, some fantasy is nostalgic. (I’d argue that some SF is, too, but this is a rant, not a comparative textual survey.) Not all fantasy is nostalgic. I wouldn’t even say the balance of the genre is nostalgic. Yet this image persists, and I think I have put my finger on why.

Sir James Frazer had an idea — I’m pretty sure it was him, though I’m not at home right now to check my copy of The Golden Bough — that went something like this: when you’re primitive you have magic; when you’re more advanced, you have religion instead; and when you’re truly civilized, you have science. And you know what? One of the common (though not universal) differences between fantasy and science fiction involves exactly those three things. The future, as often seen in SF, means more technology, less religion, less magic. Therefore, since fantasy often involves less technology, more religion, more magic, it must be anti-future. QED.

It’s warmed-over nineteenth century unilinear cultural evolutionary theory. It’s shit we debunked a century ago. And it’s alive and well in the minds of a lot of people out there.

There was a recent discussion on Toby Buckell’s blog about the prevalence of religious plots in Battlestar Galactica and other stories. I don’t mean plots that use religious imagery, or that deal with religious themes; I mean plots that involve active religious belief and/or divine action in the story. How much future-oriented SF out there (as opposed to, say, alternate history) includes religion as a part of the daily lives of the characters? How much of it involves religion for the protagonists, instead of the aliens or Those People Over There? Some, but the prevailing idea seems to be that we’ll have gotten over the religion thing by then. Like it’s something we’re going to leave behind as we get more “civilized” — read, more technological.

Progressive views of time, of history, of human change, and if we’re not going forward (toward more technology, barring apocalypse of course), then we’re going backward, and that’s a Bad Thing. Fantasy =/= Technology. (With exceptions.) Therefore, Fantasy =/= Future. Therefore, Fantasy = Past. Therefore, Fantasy = Bad, Shameful, Pathetic, Whatever.


Obviously fantasy, science fiction, horror, mysteries, romances, and your hard-core mainstream fiction “three generations of women . . .” dynastic sagas are all, in one way or another, about the present, because they reflect our present ideas and feelings and concerns. But they can also be about the past, and about the future, because they’re about ways human beings live or have lived or can live. It’s sloppy reductionism to say science fiction as a whole is intended to predict the future, and it’s even sloppier reduction to say fantasy as a whole is nostalgic about the past.

And the next person who suggests that in my presence may find themselves with a faceful of nails, and me clearing my mouth to deliver this rant in person.

0 Responses to “Frazer’s goddamned Golden Bough”

  1. occultatio

    This isn’t strictly related, but since I’ve been writing about it for a week now and you made me think of it again:

    How would you classify Speaker for the Dead on the Fantasy/Sci Fi scale? One of the things I’m actually about to argue is that it deliberately subverts a lot of the fundamental expectations of a work of science fiction, but I can see the argument that would say it isn’t really, then, science fiction at all.

    (Yeah… the bit about religion in the future was the mental cue here.)

    • chibicharibdys

      In my humble opinion, science-fiction and fantasy are different names for the same thing.

      • mindstalk

        I’ve seen arguments that ScF is a subset of fantasy, and I can buy that as logically consistent, if not how the words are actually used by most. But the same thing? Lord of the Rings is not science fiction, though it might use some similar worldbuilding interests. Hero and the Crown is not science fiction even in the worldbuilding, as McKinley was happy to tell me. Lud in the Mist is not science fiction. At least, I sure wouldn’t call it such, and what would we gain by calling it science fiction?

        A lot of what’s called science fiction is fairly described as fantasy with technological props, but the roots of the genre, and a consistent if somewhat overwhelmed strand, is in scientific extrapolation, possibility within our universe, and mechanistic underpinnings as understood if not spelled out. It’s there in the early work and early definitions, and lots of readers can still pick it out; why blur the distinction?

        • kniedzw

          why blur the distinction?…because, as I mention elsewhere in this post, once the genre boundaries are erected, people begin staking claims and making assertions about how worthwhile a genre is. Once you delineate something as a group, you make it that much easier to paint every member of that group with the same brush. It’s the reason that Bryn was complaining about the statement that fantasy turns away from the future.

          From an objective viewpoint, there’s nothing wrong with sticking genre labels on something. It’s a useful shorthand for readers who are seeking a particular type of reading material. If that’s all those distinctions and definitions were used for, that would be fine by me, but it’s not. Genres are self-perpetuating; if you have something that doesn’t fit easily into an existing genre, you end up in the remainder bin (or not getting published in the first place).

      • Marie Brennan

        With all due respect to my fiance and the points he has made about the misuse of genre labels, I don’t think it’s generally a good idea to lump the two together in their entirety. It’s like anthropology and sociology: they’re extremely close intellectual cousins, and sometimes taught as one department, but to say they’re the same thing erases interesting distinctions in their histories, their subject matters, their methods, and more. We create categories so we can compare things, and if sometimes the comparisons are detestable (see: the provocation of this rant), sometimes they’re also deeply useful.

  2. moonandserpent

    It might be simpler just to beat them with a China Mievelle book.

    I agree 100%.

    Although I also think that most science fiction is fantasy written by someone who read an issue of Popular Science. Not that that’s a bad thing. And given how much SF yearns back to a retro construction of the future, it’s a whole lot of glass houses and stone throwing.

    • Marie Brennan

      Although I also think that most science fiction is fantasy written by someone who read an issue of Popular Science.

      My problem with this statement is that, unless you clarify what you mean by “fantasy,” it ends up sounding like a derogatory statement on fantasy. Which isn’t what you meant, I’m sure, but I’ve heard it used that way far too often.

      how much SF yearns back to a retro construction of the future

      Which is what I meant about SF being nostalgic. There’s a lot of SF that’s nostalgic for the idea that technology would solve all our problems, that human history is an inexorable march upward.

      • mindstalk

        Maybe the wording is tricky to get right, but I think some derogation is intended and even called for. Not for fantasy, but for the works calling themselves science fiction when they’re about as scientific as Wizard of Oz. The attack is on mislabelling, not on fantasy per se.

        Well, depending on who’s doing the attacking! But that’s how I’d use it, as someone drawn to outright fantasy or hard SF, but put off by back covers burbling about psionic space opera. And it doesn’t have to be an attack, even, just an observation that something like Star Wars is “SF” only because of the trappings, not because of any scientifically minded worldbuilding.

  3. lillornyn

    How much future-oriented SF out there (as opposed to, say, alternate history) includes religion as a part of the daily lives of the characters? How much of it involves religion for the protagonists, instead of the aliens or Those People Over There?

    Hmmm. Star Wars. Babylon 5. Battlestar Galactica. Orson Scott Card. Heinlein. Clarke. And that’s just off the top of my head at 8:30 in the morning while doped up on cold medication.

    • kniedzw

      I’d argue that Star Wars, as a space opera, isn’t really future-oriented. I’ll grant you Bab5 (maybe, though it skirts the “aliens” and “Those People Over There” line) and BSG. Card, Heinlein, and Clarke … well … I suppose I can grant you those as well, though each is grudging, and each is iffy. Generally, when they’re future-oriented, they’re not really about religion, and while Card does both, Card is frickin’ crazy.

    • Marie Brennan

      You know my immediate answer to this one: exceptions don’t make the pattern invalid. B5 and BSG are talked about as exceptions (and often, in the eyes of the people talking about them as such, not good ones; I’ve heard plenty of bitching about the religious plots). Star Wars has the Force, but unless it’s presented differently in EU materials, it’s a philosophical tradition followed by the Jedi and maybe paid lip service by a few others, without a widespread following of active participation (in the forms of rituals, festivals, and other such things that even Buddhism generally has). So I’d be hesitant to call it a religion.

      I haven’t read Heinlein, so I’m operating off what other people have said when I brought him up, but how often did he include religion in a story? Stranger in a Strange Land, but where else? How often did he include religion in a story when it wasn’t the focal point of the story? Card does it, but again, he gets talked about as an exception. Most SF I know isn’t like that.

      • mindstalk

        More exceptions: Sarah Zettel, with Muslim protagonists. Bujold, with a light touch of Christianity for Cordelia and Barrayaran ancestor-something for Miles. Dune (maybe Those People Over There). Ken MacLeod had Epicureanism and Stoicism as live philosophies in the Second Sphere worlds. Brin’s had religious elements in Earth and Uplift, though I don’t know if those would be considered good treatments, and there was more Those People Over There With The Big Guns. Also Banks, in various novels.

        OTOH, Pern seemed amazingly non-religious for its social level; not sure about Darkover. (Conversely, Cherryh’s Rider at the Gate, with priests as narrow-minded bad guys.) I know Bujold listees (a surprising number of whom are religious, considering SF fan demographics) have complained about Barrayar seeming lacking in organized religion, even if it were settled by atheist Europeans.

        But yes, there’s a lot of “the future will be better, which for me includes less religion.” Or maybe authors not being religious and not feeling confident about writing religious protagonists. Or not wanting to scare off readers.

        • Marie Brennan

          I posited once in a panel (and had the august Teresa Nielsen Hayden nodding in agreement) that just as you can see, for example, Tolkien’s Catholicism shaping what he wrote, you can see a lot of authors’ lack of religious feeling shaping what they write. Even in fantasy, religion is either a) a quick road to “look! Evil bad guys!” or b) window dressing, so the characters have something to swear by. I also don’t think it’s coincidence that a large percentage of the non-evil fantasy religion that characters actually seem to believe in looks a lot like Wicca/neopaganism — but I’d need to conduct a survey of authorial religious belief to know if these patterns are there in truth.

          • Marie Brennan

            Er, that should be: “Even in fantasy, religion is often either a)” — certainly there are authors who break this mold.

          • mindstalk

            Yeah, it seems natural for non-religious SF authors to write SF with little to no religion. I’m surprised by your perception of fantasy religion though, even with your correction; without thinking of examples, I’d have guessed that “D&D style” religion, with obviously real but limited (with more lightning bolts, less numinousness) gods, was pretty common. Which I wouldn’t call neopaganism, more like old style paganism, done over.

            Lovecraft: lesser gods of Earth, who might be belief powered, and the Outer Gods, more on the cosmic forces scale. Not so much religion as such, at least by protagonists.

            Brust: gods. Comes out of RPGs, though.
            Pratchett: gods.
            Moorcock: Lords of Order and Chaos
            Tolkien: God and Valar.
            McKinley: Damar has priests but they seem to exist mostly to bore Aerin during ceremonies. Sunshine breaks my brain. I don’t remember the Outlaws of Sherwood actually worrying much about their Christianity, even with a priest among them.
            Bujold: a rather novel religion of her own in Chalion. Some form of Christianity in Spirit Ring. Which leads also to MacAvoy and Kurtz, using Christianity.
            Jo Walton: gods real, and we even see actual rituals being important in the characters’ lives.
            Asprin: no gods.
            Cherryh: no gods, sometimes nasty priests.
            Hodgell: monotheist without the cuddly bits, plus polytheism. The Kencyrath has priests but they’re more conduits of power than social glue. Tai-Tastigon’s priests are more normal, with lots of ritual and a bit of miracle working.
            Glen Cook, Black Company: occasional mention of gods as in powerful entities, but the North has no visible religion. The South might have.
            Zelazny: only humans pretending to be gods.
            Saberhagen, Swords: (Greek) gods real.

            So, I’m not a random sample or anything, but most of what I can think of isn’t either “bad guys” or “window dressing”. Bunch of non-existents, and there’s some but not much where religion as a practice is particularly important. Arguably this is all just the same thing in a different manifestation: the author, not being religion but wanting to include something like one, comes up with something which makes sense (which religions often don’t, to nonbelievers), e.g. an undeniably extant god, often a clear reason for the god to care about worshippers (such as feeding off of belief), and not much religion for the sake of religion.

            Bujold had a different style but it’s still basically rationalist: the Five Gods are caring and compassionate, and quite clever, but rather limited in what they can do. It’s a good job, though; I liked Walton’s gods as well.

            The Kencyrath seems closest to the mysteries of real religion, i.e. a supposedly very powerful god who has chosen his people in the fight against Evil but who isn’t pulling his alleged weight and why does he need a chosen people anyway? My response to all that was of course to try to rationalize it…

  4. unforth

    I was thinking about something related to this recently, actually, though more in the religion and science fiction aspect. I’ve recently been watching a great deal of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and also a fair amount of Babylon 5. Whether or not DS9 is just a B5 rip off aside, I was thinking about how both of these feature deeply spiritual races who are integral to the plot (in ever episode, and whose religions play a big part in the events that take place). What interested me most while I was considering this is that in both shows, while the humans take an aloof, we-don’t-need-you’re-silly-religious-nonsense sort of attitude, the religions of the aliens in question are true and actually work. Like, the Bajoran religion and Mimbari religion both have evidence stack up through out the series that these aren’t just “religions,” but they really work and the things that they propound (deities, etc.) are real. And I found myself considering why it was that alien’s religion is fine, but human religion isn’t, and why it is that humans are so disdainful of faith, and why we think religion is “primitive” and bad.

    It’s not entirely in line with what you are talking about, but it’s related. 🙂 It’s one of the things I was pondering on the drive back from the East.

    Anyway, I agree that it’s completely ridiculous to lump entire genre’s of fiction under labels like “advanced” and “primitive” (future oriented and past oriented); I always get pissed off when any one tries to suggest seriously that one genre is better than another (I’m so sick of people ragging on Romance novels, it’s not even funny – no, they might not be any high form of entertainment, but they’re fun and they’re harmless and they bring a lot of people pleasure, and since that’s what they’re designed to do, I’d say they’re pretty darn good in that regard. 🙂 ) – I’ve watched so many friends interested in writing science fiction and fantasy have to battle the establishment…

    • kniedzw

      My issue with most attempts to portray religion in science fiction is that they eliminate the numinous from the equation by presenting rational explanations for the religions, firmly putting them in the category of “scientifically explainable phenomena.” There are few (with the possible exception of BSG, which I haven’t watched all of yet) that actually present religion as an ultimately valid approach to the universe. …and I don’t really think that DS9 or B5 really get a pass on this criticism, given that most of their religions serve more as plot points than as valid constructions of belief that stand alone in their stories independent of a scientific framework.

    • mindstalk

      DS9 also gives us the Dominion, which also has a ‘true’ religion: the Jem’hadar and Vorta worship the changelings, who exist, and also violate physics as we know it. The wormhole aliens/Prophets of the Bajorans are more blatant about it, but the changelings violate thermodynamics, which actually might be more upsetting to a physicist.

      But that religion was ‘bad’, while the Bajorans got some respect.

      I’m not sure about this ‘truth’, though. The Prophets exist, but I think aren’t what the Bajorans think they are. But I never watched all of DS9, or any in years. The Minbari, um, what *were* their deities? They seemed more of an organized spirituality, like Buddhism, down to the reincarnation. Which turned out to somewhat suspect: the Triluminary soul detector might have been a DNA detector, or even a Sinclair detector; IIRC it wasn’t built by the Minbari, so plenty of room for fakery. The globes of the soul hunters might have had trapped soul essences — and the existence of a life force machine would be consistent with that — but might just have been personality copies; JMS played it coy.

    • mindstalk

      I was trying to remember if the Minbari worshipped the Vorlons at all, as opposed to the Grey Council doing whatever they said, and I finally remembered the Vorlons appearing as angels to various races. But we know they were faking it, so… what’s odder is Delenn, who told us that the Vorlons were billion year old aliens, but also demanded to see Kosh in his angelic form before going into her chrysalis.

      B-5 had other religions which didn’t get the rationalist treatment, though: the Centauri, maybe the Narn (who had, gasp, *multiple religions*) and the aliens who killed their son after he had surgery. Though this might be back to “religion is what those people over there do”.

      I’m not sure if Kyle’s being rhetorical or not, but I’d say that if we lumped everything into speculative fiction (and why separate that from fiction?) (and bookstores SF/F like that anyway, minus most horror) that some of us would immediately be drawing new lines based on the type of speculation. Blindsight and Beauty, Diaspora and Deerskin, are not the same kinds of books, or doing the same kind of thing. I like all four, but I know a lot of people who don’t. China Mieville and Hope Mirrlees — both good, but rather different. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and At the Mountains of Madness, ditto.

      Maybe the existing lines aren’t well drawn (though of course we have multiple categories: space opera, hard ScF, urban fantasy, alternate history) but I don’t think lines are useless…

      Most of the superiority complex comes from ScF fans. Most of the “what’s the difference?” seems to come from fantasy fans.

      • kniedzw

        I’m not actually being rhetorical here. Or rather, I’m somewhat sick of hearing people make useless generalizations about books because of the genres that they had ascribed to those books. There is utility to categorizing things, but in this case, I’ve seen so much argument about what is science fiction and what is fantasy that I’m ready to just say, “Well, I don’t care,” and move on from there.

        If you want to read more, I recommend reading about Slipstream and Interstitial speculative fiction. The Interstitial Arts folks might be able to point you in a different direction. Either way, I’m just sick of people poo-poohing something because fantasy/science fiction/horror “is not their thing.”

        Ultimately, any useful genre categories are going to be co-opted by people in order to denigrate one or the other genre. I’d prefer a broader brush, so that the lines are blurred and people aren’t as likely to jump to conclusions.

        • anima_mecanique

          The problem is that genre labels that are supposed to be descriptive of the content end up getting attached to things that have nothing to do with content at all.

          See Margaret Atwood and Terry Goodkind’s ridiculous claims to not write sci-fi/fantasy respectively for an example of this. The fact that Terry Goodkind can write a story about a dragon-riding hero with a magic sword fighting an evil overlord with his wizard friend, claim he’s not writing fantasy, and have people actually take him seriously means that clearly the label ‘fantasy’ means something very, very different to a lot of people than just ‘books with magic in’. I’ve heard people argue ad nauseum over whether or not Star Wars is science fiction or fantasy or whatever, when really, why does it MATTER? The story isn’t going to have a different effect if it’s labeled differently.

          Genres are useful designations to a certain extent, but I think people put far too much stock in them.

          • kniedzw

            Hear, hear! What she said. 🙂

          • Marie Brennan

            As a counterpoint to what I said above, while I don’t think it’s generally useful to lump SF and fantasy together, I also don’t think it’s useful to get one’s knickers in a twist trying to decide whether Star Wars is science fiction or fantasy. It’s the broad outlines that matter, not the individual labeling. No thing belongs inherently in one category or another, since all our categories are constructed. The point is what we get out of doing the constructing — how that helps us think.

          • anima_mecanique

            I think the problem becomes when people start attaching values to genre labels, like the guy you quoted. Whether Star Wars is scifi or fantasy might be interesting to discuss, but you get people who think that something about the series is invalidated if it’s put in one category or the other.

            The logical extension of this sort of thinking is the people who tried to re-define Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” as not-fantasy, because they weren’t ‘fantasy readers’, and didn’t seem to be able to admit the book appealed to them unless they stripped it of the genre label. (Susannah Clarke, of course, was quick to correct them, which is one of the reasons I am so fond of her). That’s not helpful or interesting, it’s limiting and ultimately ridiculous — I mean, JSMN is about wizards and fairies. If a ‘non-fantasy reader’ can define THAT out of the fantasy genre, you’re left with a genre that essentially consists of ‘books non-fantasy-fans don’t like’.

    • anima_mecanique

      Actually, I’ve been reading a bit of Georgette Heyer, universally recognized as a romance genre novelist, and she’s damned good.

      There’s good stuff in EVERY genre. I think dividing things into “high” and “low” art is really, really retarded. This may be because I read a lot of Victorian novels, which started out as low art and have somehow migrated upwards.

  5. sarcastibich

    toss another log on your fire: the difference between science fiction and science fantasy.
    Science Fiction= fiction based upon potential and real scientific laws (Andromeda Strain, Heinlein, etc)
    Science Fantasy= fiction using fantastical technology that doesn’t have a solid or even possible basis in scientific laws (star wars, Stargate, etc)

    • kniedzw

      So the question I’d pose to you: why are we bothering to name and subdivide these genres? It’s a useful shorthand when talking to people who don’t know the material, but how does it serve us to actually make the distinction between Science Fiction and Science Fantasy?

      Why don’t we just lump in horror, call it all “speculative fiction,” and be done with it?

      On a related, though tangential, note, Orson Scott Card once said that he drew his dividing line between science fiction and fantasy by saying, “Does it have rivets? If so, it’s science fiction. Does it have trees? If so, it’s fantasy, unless, perhaps, it’s Le Guin, in which case it could be science fiction.” It’s sort of silly and reductive, but it phrases the question in an interesting light, at the least.

      • buzzermccain

        It is kind of interesting to me that almost all of the early SF writers, long held up as the exemplars of the “possible future based on fact” model of SF,have solid physics as understood at the time they were written, but have their life sciences and cultural stuff hideously, hideously, impossibly wrong. Who decides which branch of the study of reality is the important one to model correctly? Physicists, engineers, and mathematicians are not necessarily always the most well rounded and broadly read of individuals.

        Rivets, indeed. I can’t argue with the fact that his blanket statement often works- I just find it maddening that it should be so…though it does remind me why LeGuin remains one of my most favorite authors.


        • mindstalk

          Thing is, is there any similar fiction from the time, focusing on life and social sciences, that’s been ignored, or is it that all the early exemplars were better at physics than biology? And are things like Frankenstein or Moreau biologically wrong for their times?

          I’d agree there’s been a bias, with some people saying that hard SF is about hard sciences like physics (no one really cares about chemistry 🙂 ) rather than biology, but I think a lot of people disagree with that.

          • kniedzw

            There wasn’t a market for anything that smelled vaguely like science fiction yet talked about sociology, really.

            I think what Kendra was talking about is important primarily from a historical and cultural perspective. The cliché of science fiction is invariably “hard” science fiction, written by people who have a better handle on physics and mathematics than on biology, with some exceptions, like Nancy Kress. It’s another issue of one genre being “better” than another.

            Looked at from a different perspective, fantasy readers have often looked down on the (more commercially-viable) horror genre, dismissing it as “slasher fiction.” How is that different, really?

          • mindstalk

            Like I said, that’s certainly a common cliche. But, say, when I think of hard ScF written today, I think Greg Egan, Pater Watts, and Ted Chiang’s story on induced callagnosia (beauty-sense deadening). Lots of biology in there, neurological and not. I wouldn’t call Banks’s Culture anywhere near hard — but the constructed biology of the Culturniks is probably the hardest thing in the setting. Or Bujold’s uterine replicators and consequences thereof, and other biotech — again, the biology’s probably the hardest stuff there, apart from my skepticism that lifespans would be so short 1000 years from now.

            I had no idea fantasy types put down horror like that, but then I don’t have much to do with horror, apart from Lovecraft and Anne Rice and LK Hamilton (often in F/SF) and Sunshine.

            I’d been having ideas about how science is in large part inherently discriminating, in a neutral to good sense — “wrong, wrong, not even wrong, okay” — and that science fiction inherits that — “you got some obscure details wrong”, “you don’t know what you’re talking about”, “you’re not even trying, are you? that’s okay, as long as you’re honest about it”, leading naturally to expelling (not enough) stuff as not science fiction, just as science expels things. Whereas the thing about it being “easy” to write fantasy — it’s not, as Bryn says, to get internally consistent and informed fantasy, but as far as I know no one tries to expel bad fantasy as being not-fantasy. At least, I’ve never noticed it on RASFW.

            Well, maybe some debate about where vampires and werewolves fall… perhaps I just tuned it out, and considered all that an obvious subset of fantasy, as opposed to Hannibal Lecter or Cujo.

          • Marie Brennan

            A lot of hard SF adherents don’t accept the idea of social sciences as being acceptable for their corner of the sandbox, thanks to the inherent fuzziness of them. (Heck, some of them still look dubiously at biology, preferring their nice clean physics.) Which makes me think, rather uncharitably, “I hope you’re looking forward to being a dying breed.” (And some of them are. There’s a certain pleasure in feeling persecuted and endangered.)

          • mindstalk

            “don’t accept the idea”

            Yeah, I acknowledged that. I just wanted to speak up for those of us who are more open-minded in our close-mindedness.

            Though there is a question of what to call something which is partially hard. Case 1: interstellar travel without FTL or weird physics, but crappy biology and economics.
            Caste 2: totally handwaved FTL drives, but really solid geology and biology speculation.

            I think I and others do have an instinctive sense of it as a hierarchy, not just a set of attributes, so that Case 1 is hard but flawed, while Case 2 is “hard with respect to geology/biology”. I don’t know if I should put much effort into trying to defend that. But I’d venture it needn’t be a belief that biology is unimportant, but that the physics is fundamental. It’s good to get both right, but if the physics isn’t hard that shadows the whole work (for the purposes of judging hard SFness, not quality.)

            Alternatively, there might be more understanding that someone could try to be hard overall but just screw up with a complex field like biology or sociology, whereas if you invoke FTL you’re openly not even trying to be hard.

          • Marie Brennan

            I’m willing to allow for “focused hardness.” I mean, Tolkien was a hard-core worldbuilder with respect to linguistics, mythology, and the like, but what the hell do the elves of Lothlorien eat? You can’t support a large sedentary community of hunter-gatherers unless you have a Pacific Coast handy, and they seem to be missing an ocean. Somebody else may have beautiful physics and laughable alien society, or vice versa.

          • mindstalk

            It is a little-known fact that one of the powers humans lost in the Fall was the ability to eat wood.

            🙂 I do wonder how many elves magically fertile fruit and nut trees could support. A much bigger problem, though, is that the rising of the Sun is a historically recorded event for elves and dwarves. What the heck were they eating before then? Or rather, how was their food growing?

            What’s odd is that he actually worried about this for Sauron’s armies, referring us to the unshadowed sunny fields of Nurn. And elves, well, they live outdoors, at least. But even after the Sun rose, what about dwarves? Trade even for their staple foods? And the Shire seems the only major agricultural center within a thousand miles. No wonder it’s rich.

      • Marie Brennan

        Why don’t we just lump in horror, call it all “speculative fiction,” and be done with it?

        Ask me privately about the framework I’ve come to like for distinguishing all three from one another. It will be a post eventually, but I’m not done chewing on it enough to make it public yet.

  6. Anonymous

    Well said. Remind me to lend you my copy of The Best of the Best SF, ed. by Dozois; it has a lot of highly unusual SF settings in it which I think you’d like.

    – Kaitlin, from another computer.

  7. sora_blue

    I would have asked “What about Battlestar Galatica?” and I imagine he would have said “oh, that’s a TV show.” Because someone who appears to be so narrow minded about genres is proabably the kind of person who disregards other mediums as well.

    I’ve been wondering for a while, what are your thoughts on the sci-fantasy genre? (Where technology and the paranormal tend to mix it up?) Does it work on a thematic level or is it purely escapist fun?

    • Marie Brennan

      Actually, the line came up during a speech whose first half focused heavily on BSG, with side digressions to Firefly and Aliens. He has plenty of interest in other media. But that’s the half of the rant I left out, since it’s kind of pointless if you weren’t there to hear him: he got a number of his facts flat-out wrong with Firefly and Aliens (I couldn’t fact-check him on BSG, as I haven’t seen many of the bits he was talking about), and also drew conclusions that are extremely faulty when seen in light of the things he failed to mention. So while I agree with the broad points he was trying to make, I had real issues with his specific analyses.

      As for your question, I’ll happily devour anything if it’s got a good enough story; I think Pitch Black is a fantastic movie even if the ecology makes no bloody sense. And I think technology and the paranormal can exist just fine — so long as the author has a firm answer in mind as to whether the universe is mechanistic or not. Basically, the kinds of things I was talking about when I described how I distinguish magic and science.

  8. dsgood

    What applies to one medium often doesn’t apply to another. The categories are different, to begin with. Example 1) Superhero comics aren’t considered by comics fans to be science fiction comics. Written superhero fiction is often considered sf. Example 2) Movie and TV sf don’t have any such category as hard sf.

    What can be done differs. It would be difficult to do a first-person movie. (Okay, a voice-over all through the movie would work — but it would get irritating.) And telepathic conversations would be tricky.

    What does get done differs. For example, it’s unlikely there will ever be a faithful visual adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”

  9. d_c_m

    For what it’s worth, I’ll help ya’ spit nails.

  10. diatryma

    Is it an artifact of saying science fiction and fantasy, rather than putting horror in there? We’re used to dichotomies. Men are strong, therefore women are weak. Women are nurturing, therefore men babysit their own kids. You are either a math and science or an arts and language person. Right brain, left brain. If you throw in the third side, it forces you to abandon the easy dichotomy.
    I agree with you on just about everything. And since not every genre can be reduced to forward- or backward-thinking, even in the three most smeared together (least diverged?), it’s silly to reduce two of them to that. Not useless, not always, but not the tool for every job.

    Which I know is a longabout way of saying yes, and I will provide nails for spitting.

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s why I’m also working on a post about a genre system that accounts for science fiction, fantasy, and (supernatural) horror from a single perspective, rather than needing to come up with different types of definition from each.

      • diatryma

        Horror complicates everything. I’ve seen it described as fiction which breaks the rules of the world, as opposed to SFF, which may not have the same rules as our world, but follows them. I’ve seen it described as scary, regardless of reason– slasher movies are horror. Urban fantasy… sort of. Vampires and other monsters are no longer enough to separate something as horror.
        I think I need to read more of it before I say much more. But once I like something, I’m likely to slot it into a category I already have.

  11. laurelwen

    You could always bring up the notion of “radical nostalgia” and the idea (expressed so well by Tolkien) that people often confuse the “Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter”. I really do despise the ongoing assertion that Progress and Science are inexorable and inherently good and necessarily improve upon everything that has gone before.

    But then, I tend to despise large portions of Academia because of problems like this.

  12. calico_reaction

    Hey, I just wanted to let you know I friended your journal. I’ve been meaning to for a while, but kept forgetting until I stumbled upon your comments in Ellen Kushner’s journal.

    The journal I’ve friended you under is my reading journal, where I “review” everything I’m reading. I’ve actually rambled about one of your books (I’ve got the second on my shelf, but I haven’t gotten around to it), so I hope you don’t mind. 🙂

    By the way, I love your thougts in this post. I remember seeing your comments at Toby’s journal and I just wanted to give you a BIG HUG for speaking up. 🙂

    Sorry for commenting on such an old post. Cheers!

    • Marie Brennan

      The post isn’t that old, and my dream is for it to be relevant and interesting to people, so I hardly object to comments. 🙂 But that reminds me that I meant to get it posted on my website as an essay, where people are more likely to come across it.

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