Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Rationality" Sets Science Fiction Apart from Fantasy

In an article published in the journal CLCWeb:Comparative Litarature and Culture, Simone Caroti argues that "cognition" is what sets science fiction apart from fantasy, using Greg Bear's Blood Music
as an example:
The act of cognition, of rationally making sense of – and coming to terms with – the estranging elements, increases the sense of wonder inherent in [science fiction], whereas it destroys the pleasure of reading [fantasy]. Magic as represented by writers like Tolkien is best left unexplained, because it belongs to the realm of the irrational. Like a fairy, it is a fragile thing, and trying to rationalize it or explain it away will kill it. On the other hand, a rationally constructed estranging element thrives on cognition, as will readily become apparent when a typical example of the genre is examined. Greg Bear's Blood Music (1985) is set in our times, and at the beginning of the novel no difference from the world we know is offered. However, estrangement soon rears its head in the form of a biologist's development of a new strain of sentient bacteria. When the private lab he is working for cuts his funds and fires him, deeming his experiment illegal and dangerous, this modern-day Victor Frankenstein injects himself with he latest batch of his creations and goes away. In only a few days, these bacteria spread from their original host to contaminate half the population of the planet. As the novel nears its completion, the world has indeed become estranged from what the reader is used to, but this is nothing compared to the discovery lying in wait at the very end, when the true nature of this biological agent is revealed. Far from being just another outlandish example of malevolent disease (like the monstrous alien virus in John Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing), these bacteria have in fact evolved into a completely new life-form inhabiting an entirely different plane of existence, and have taken with them all the human beings who were thought dead. After finishing the last page, the sense of wonder is still with us, even stronger than before.
Caroti's conclusion - that plausible scientific revelations in science fiction are part of what makes the genre entertaining – is one I agree with. As he puts it:
The cognitive discovery of the new life-form's true nature implies a series of revelations regarding our understanding of reality and our place in the universe. Far from diminishing our sense of wonder, these revelations greatly increase it, first of all by grounding its presence within a plausible rational framework, and then by extending the implications of this framework far beyond what we had at first imagined.
I'm just not sure that "cognitive discovery"  universally separates science fiction from fantasy.

There are many science fiction novels in which the "cognitive discoveries" have little basis in real science, and sometimes are difficult to distinguish from magic. I haven't read that much fantasy, but it also rings false to me that magic is necessarily always "unexplained" and "irrational", at least in the context of the story.

I think there's a great gray area between Tolkien's fantasy and Bear's hard science fiction, which includes science fiction with a seemingly fantasy setting like the McCaffrey's Pern novels or Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, space operas that are focused on adventure and space battles, science fictional heroes with amazing mental or physical powers who seem to differ from wizards in name only, and stories with science fictional settings like Le Guin's The Dispossessed that explore political systems, rather than science or technology.

It's kind of fun to try to imagine the classics of fantasy rewritten as science fiction.  In the Lord of the Rings the One Ring could have been fabricated in a laboratory by a mad genius scientist, rather than forged in the heat of a volcano by a powerful wizard.  In the Harry Potter novels, the horcruxes would be computer devices for storing copies of Lord Voldemort's uploaded mind, rather than magical devices used to hide "a part of his soul for the purpose of attaining immortality".  But while the plot and characters might stay essentially the same in such a re-genred novel, that shift from magical devices to objects developed through science and technology represents a significant difference in world view.

What sets science fiction apart from fantasy is not just the tropes of the genre –  future or extraterrestrial setting, space travel, advanced technology or scientific discoveries.  It also the underlying assumption that the universe is controlled by natural mechanisms, rather than supernatural forces.  Even though a sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic,  such a technology must have been created through the application of scientific principals. And as speculative as that technology or the science it is based on might be, it's a feat that humans could hope to achieve. Magic, on the other hand, can exist only in the realm of fiction.

So I agree with Caroti that science fiction uses a "plausible rational framework" to support the speculative aspects of the story. Where I think we disagree is whether the "cognitive discovery" that's central to hard science fiction stories like Bear's Blood Music is also a necessary part of SF, or if the framework alone is enough to set the genre apart from fantasy.  I'd argue the latter.


Caroti, Simone. "Science Fiction, Forbidden Planet, and Shakespeare's The Tempest." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 6.1 (2004):


  1. Great post. I think your definition is the purest and clearest that I've seen yet, though it still opens up some cans of worms. Battlestar Reboot would really have to be fantasy... Star Wars is pretty much in the fantasy category but midichlorians instantly make it sf...

    Still, I like it a lot.

  2. I don't really understand the urge to draw a bright line between fantasy and science fiction, as if a story must be either one or the other.

    I think Ryan's post (no offense) is a clear example of the absurdity of this endeavor. Star Wars was fantasy when Lucas left the Force unexplained, but when he provided a line of risible technobabble, it suddenly became science fiction?

    Similarly, there's no reason why a work of complete fantasy could not provide a sense of "cognitive discovery". The "discovery" in Bear's novel is a realization about an entirely fictional phenomenon. It;s not a discovery about the nature of the universe (which can only be provided by science, not science fiction), but a plot twist. Perhaps it is a cognitively satisfying plot twist, but there is no reason that the same could be happen in a work of fantasy.

    As Peggy points out, some of the best science fiction does not even feature fancy gadgets or life forms, but explores the different possible ways of being human.

  3. No offense taken - I was shooting for absurdity all the way. ;)

    I generally don't get too hung up on the definitions - they really only matter when it comes to marketing or in certain awards that break things down by category. I still like Peggy's though. Just because Lucas's explanation is lame (actually, "risible technobabble" pretty much sums it up) doesn't disqualify it as science fiction for me. It just makes it bad science fiction. I've heard people want to reclassify Star Trek as fantasy for its own brand of risible technobabble...if Star Trek isn't science fiction, then I think the definition is failing. I do think it's much more about the approach then the execution.

    I also think people sometimes use this definition game to exclude things that they think are awful or embarrassing from the genre they like...i.e., hard sf fans tend to come up with definitions of sf that only include examples with the most rigorous science.

  4. A long debated issue which may remain unresolved for eons to come! :)
    Whatever it may be but a true sf must conform to the methods/methodology of science.

  5. Anonymous12:33 PM

    The best definition of science fiction that I can come up with is that science fiction is supposed to sound as if a real scientist would consider it to be plausible. Whether or not it meets this criterion depends largely on the scientific education of the target audience. Technobabble is fine as long as your audience can't distinguish it from actual science concepts. If you know that no one will find your technobabble to be believable, you're better off just calling it magic, unless your work is a parody. Thus, space operas are still science fiction because they are intended to sound science-y, and elaborate descriptions of consistent and understandable laws underlying supernatural phenomena are fantasies because they are not so intended.

  6. Excellent, yes. Your distinction is basically in line with one that I tried to formulate in my blog post HERE.

    Karen Burnham had another interesting take, which I discussed in a subsequent post HERE: I'd explain it as a notion of "authenticity". Things, people and places have powers in virtue of just being authentic, being what, who or where they are, instead of in virtue of their physical, replicable makeup.

    Of course, for this to be so, there must be some 'magic' at work, since that would break the very notion of (universal) physical law.

  7. Anonymous9:56 AM

    Fantasy is the branch of fiction that attempts to draw the reader into a world that is other than what she or he could encounter in real life, either first-hand or through the experiences of other people whose accounts she or he could hear or read. Science fiction is just one subset of fantasy, the one which tries to construct that other world based on whatever contemporary scientists consider possible. A fair amount of historical fiction, especially that about the sufficiently distant past, also shades over into fantasy. The type of magical fantasy in fairy tales is another obvious subset, superhero comics are another sort, etc. And a great number of individual authors, from Werfel to Kafka to Marquez to Ligotti, have written fantasy works, some on a one-off basis and others to the exclusion of almost anything else. People need fantasy, need a way to experience temporarily a world other than everything that they've been told exists and has existed. Science fiction is just one way of constructing that other world.

  8. @Ryan: "if Star Trek isn't science fiction, then I think the definition is failing."
    I agree completely. That's a good test for a "definition" of science fiction.
    More broadly, I agree that a poorly crafted explanation (e.g., "risible technobabble") doesn't disqualify something as science fiction, it just makes it bad science fiction. My point is that Star Wars was bad science fiction when the Force was a field that linked all living beings together, just as it was bad science fiction when the Force was generated by mini-chlorine pellets.

    Even nore generally, I don't think we can treat literary genres as Aristotelian categories, where some feature distinguishes them in a binary manner. It's better to think of them as akin to artistic schools. A painting could be both impressionistic and surreal, but the surrealism would not make it ~impressionist.

    Finally, @Arvind Mishra: It would be possible, I suppose, to write work of literature which took a systematic approach to understanding some phenomenon, testing hypotheses and generating explanatory theories. However, I can't think of a work of science fiction which would meet this criterion.

  9. "if Star Trek isn't science fiction, then I think the definition is failing."

    I agree with that as well. I think some people get hung up on whether Star Trek and similar shows are "real" science fiction, when they really mean they think it's "bad" science fiction, or science fiction with bad science. To me the important characteristic of Star Trek is that it comes from the point of view that the universe is explainable through science.

    Star Wars, on the other hand, is more fantasy with a science fictional setting.

    Alurin:Even more generally, I don't think we can treat literary genres as Aristotelian categories, where some feature distinguishes them in a binary manner. It's better to think of them as akin to artistic schools.

    I think that's a good way of thinking about the genres. Many novels don't fit neatly into just one category. It's not just science fiction or fantasy, but science fiction that is also crime fiction or a murder mystery, or military fiction, or romance.

  10. dougsmith: thanks for the links to your blog posts. I think we're pretty much in agreement.

  11. I agree about the distinction between fiction and fantasy, having recently completed 'The Cloud Connection'. I wrote it in parallel to a year of research and tracking trends in science and nanotechnology so a lot of the content is a stretch on current developments in technology, politics and climate change.
    As of now the books only available as an eBook from Smashwords.
    Here's the cut on it A world devastated by The Big Freeze. A 16 year old infected with nano-particles that enable him to link to anything with a microchip. Hacking systems to search for his mother makes him a priority target for MI5 and a ruthless military corporation. When militant cyber-activists offer to help find his missing mother, he soon finds himself heading towards a confrontation that could kill thousands.


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