The Big Argument

Yes, friends, it’s here. Actually, it’s been here for quite some time, and no one has figured out how to get rid of it. Neither Black Flag nor borax has any effect.

The big argument is, of course: Where does science fiction end and fantasy begin?

I’ll grant you that this one will never be settled. There are both good and not-so-good reasons for that. But before we get really serious, let’s have a gander at the most serious problem an SF writer must face: whether and when to violate known physical laws.

If you enjoy science fiction (which I do), but have a good grasp of physical law (which I also do, having been educated as a physicist), it’s likely that you’ve entertained the occasional qualm about some of the more prominent SF technological motifs: superluminal (faster-than-light) travel; inertialess and reactionless space drives; psi powers; teleportation; and so forth. If you write SF (which I do), but would like to keep it on solid ground to the extent possible (which I do, being the sort who can never break completely free from his “upbringing”), you’ve probably had the sort of interior struggle that frequently afflicts me: How can I bring myself to use this idea, since I know it violates physical law?

For example: In writing Which Art In Hope, I fought with myself over just what violations of known physical law I’d indulge. I managed not to commit any in getting the Spoonerites to Hope, but immediately thereafter found myself obliged to ignore the physical properties of the human brain in crafting the major conflict of the story. The brain is a direct-current device of extremely low potentials and currents, and could under no circumstances harness or generate the sort of power required for the psionic feats demonstrated by Armand Morelon and Victoria Peterson throughout the novel.

This sort of finagle is just about unavoidable by a writer determined to write science fiction. It hardly matters whether he’s intent upon “hard” (technologically heavy) or “soft” (technologically light, sociologically oriented) SF. More important for our current topic, it lies along the border that separates — bear with me, please — what is recognizably SF from what is recognizably fantasy.

We have an inchoate sense that that which is not real is fantastic. It would seem to follow that SF is merely a variety of fantasy. This is a defensible proposition. However, the “other camp,” to which I belong, argues that there is a qualitative difference between SF and fantasy as they’re generally understood. It comes down to this:

The departures from current consensus on physical laws that mark a story as SF rather than fantasy are independent of identities. That is: No one has “special powers” or “special privileges” over physical laws; they’re the same for everyone.

Fantasy invariably involves individuals who have extra abilities — or, occasionally, extra burdens — simply because of what they are. It hardly matters whether we’re discussing “high” (magic-based medieval) fantasy, “urban” (contemporary) fantasy, or “horror” (monster-driven) fantasy; some of the characters will have special powers or aspects that other characters cannot replicate without being changed into something they aren’t.

The most interesting gray area arises from what the great Robert A. Heinlein, who understood the cleavage better than most, cited in his science-fantasy hybrid Glory Road:

I mean “magic.” How many times have savages concluded “magic” when a “civilized” man came along with something the savages couldn’t understand? How often is some tag, such as “television,” accepted by cultural savages (who nevertheless twist dials) when “magic” would be the honest word?

Still, Star never insisted on that word. She accepted it when I insisted on it.

But I would be disappointed if everything I saw turned out to be something Western Electric will build once Bell Labs works the bugs out. There ought to be some magic, somewhere, just for flavor.

If anyone can do it, given the right setting, knowledge, tools, and training, then it’s not magic as classically understood; it’s an aspect of natural law, however poorly understood. The gray area arises from the possibility that natural law, as we time-bound, matter-bound creatures understand it, actually flows from the will of supernatural Persons. James Blish made this distinction in his novel Black Easter.

That gray area is why the argument will never be conclusively settled. At least it gives us something to talk about over coffee and doughnuts.

Categories: Genre Writing.


  1. Profile photo of admin

    Hey Francis this is a really fun article, enjoyed it and know which side of the fence I am on though, so it didn’t change my pov but was very diplomatic and well written, so in reply to Heinliens Glory Road, can I quote Vonnegut from Sirens of Titan, “Rented a tent a tent a tent, rented a tent rented a tent rented a rented tent?!”

    Enjoyed it very much though.


  2. Profile photo of CN James

    Great article. I kind of see most sci-fi as techno-fantasy, where problems are solved by pushing buttons on gagets instead of waving magic wands. (More or less).

    • Mike43

      Except that the button must be grounded, somewhat, in the laws of physics. IE, at least plausible, in the physical realm.

      Using a flamethrower to start a fire, is different from using a wand.

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