Hard Fantasy

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

I think it’s been about two years since the Internet spawned a new iteration of an old debate (like it tends to do), in this case the notion of “hard fantasy.” These thoughts coalesced in my head then, but what with one thing and another I was too busy to ever post them, so here I am: well and truly behind the bandwagon. And I’ve lost all my links from that old debate to boot. But it’s a notion I happen to like, so let me toss in my two cents’ worth, however late they may be.

The term has been around for a while without anybody ever achieving consensus on what it refers to, which may mean it’s missed its window of opportunity for ever being useful. I’m not necessarily expecting to convert anyone here. I do think, though, that there is a way to apply this label that produces something worthwhile.

I’ve seen one argument for hard fantasy being fantasy that bases itself on primary sources, but I find that approach problematical from a number of angles. To start with, being a folklorist means I’m hyper-aware of the morass represented by that word “primary.” Folklore is all about borrowing and adapting and recontextualizing, and it’s terribly easy to fall into some romanticized notion of “pure” folklore, and then to sneer at works that are too many degrees of separation removed from Sleeping Beauty/the Odyssey/Njáls saga/Kevin Bacon in the eye of the beholder.

But you don’t need to be a folklorist to spot another problem with that definition, which is that it makes a poor analogy to hard SF. Now, not everybody agrees on a definition for that either, but if I try to imagine what the equivalent for “primary sources” would be in hard SF, I find . . . what? Richard Feynman? More like the laws of physics — but equating fundamental principles of nature to creative cultural works seems askew to me. And if we’re going to talk about hard fantasy, I think it should bear analogous relationship to hard SF.

We get that in the closest thing we have to an official definition — in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy — where John Clute says it “might refer to fantasy stories equivalent to the form of hard sf known as the ’scientific problem’ story, where the hero must logically solve a problematic magical situation.” That seems awfully limited to me, though, especially since it analogizes only to one type of SF story. More broadly, it’s any story that treats magic like science — but frankly, real-world notions of magic don’t often map that well to science, and defining hard fantasy as fantasy that behaves like SF doesn’t sit right with me. So let’s keep going.

And then I had an epiphany, boiling it down to five words that work for both sides of the genre: hard fantasy and hard SF alike are concerned with how stuff works, and why.

In science fiction, that can mean physics, computing, biochemistry, etc. A hard SF story is one that takes the known facts of those sciences and extrapolates them, rigorously exploring the mechanisms by which they operate, and how they might be made to operate in new, expanded ways. The equivalent in fantasy, then, is the type of work I’ve often labeled “anthropologically rigorous” — concerned with history, religion, politics, systems of magic, etc. What happens if you set your world conditions like this? Just as in SF, a given novel may devote scads of attention to one topic while ignoring others; finely-tuned interstellar travel matched with nonsensical alien biology is paralleled by, say, Tolkien, who thought through his cosmology and linguistics like whoa but didn’t seem much concerned with where anybody outside of the Shire got their food. It’s hard linguistic fantasy, hard cosmological fantasy, but politics and economics fall by the wayside.

How stuff works, and why. George R. R. Martin treats his politics with all the attention and rigor you could hope for. Jacqueline Carey extrapolates an alternate Europe where Christianity never homogenized Western culture. To a hard SF writer, these may not look like much; human culture and behavior are inescapably fuzzy, and do not lend themselves to replicable laboratory experiments, much less testable thought-experiments. But a hundred years of social science research has produced some pretty good models for understanding how people live, and I think it’s possible to devote in-depth attention to those aspects just as one can with the natural sciences.

The result is hard fantasy. And I don’t know about you, but I am a sucker for authors who write it.