This is another set of posts which acts as a backdrop to one of the panels I am scheduled to be on at Westercon this year. In this case the panel is Science & Technology versus Magic: what makes this such a compelling trope? In part it draws on a very old post, 37. Fantasy, Whatever that is.
It has been a grand ride.
Since I started reading science fiction and fantasy in the late fifties, I have seen the rise of Amber, Witch World, the Dorsai, the Lensmen, LeGuin, Zelazny, Ellison, Varley, Ballard, and hundred of others. I was there for the Tolkien revival and the revival of other fantasy writers under Ballantine.
Through the years, avid readers waged war on one another over the most trivial of notions — just like any other family. It used to be that, if you called science fiction “sci fi” (never mind SyFy) you were being disrespectful. You had to call the genre science fiction, or maybe SF.
However, if you called it SF, then you had to argue whether that stood for science fiction of speculative fiction or . . . I’ve forgotten what the lesser contenders were.
Mimeographs and postage stamps were the internet of the early sixties. Whole forests went to the pulp mills to make paper to support arguments about what was or was not science fiction, whether fantasy was worth considering, and where one ended and the other began. Then Heinlein published Glory Road and sent shock waves through the SF community by landing with one foot squarely in each camp.
I mention all this because, although my publications so far have been science fiction, I have spent more time and taken more satisfaction writing fantasy.
Things have changed — somewhat. Today, everything goes, but you still have to declare yourself. I recently dealt with a publisher who required that you shoehorn your submission into one of about forty SF/fantasy sub-categories. Let’s call this generating chaos through an excessive allegiance to order.
All of this is probably subsumed under Clarke’s Third Law. Or, look at it this way: the Creation as given in Genesis is fact, allegory, or fantasy depending on whether you are a fundamentalist, a religious liberal, or an atheist.
Put still another way, if it tastes like fantasy, it is (for you) and if it tastes like science fiction, it is (for you).
But maybe not for the rest of us.
Clarke’s third law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
Heinlein on technology:
I try never to get a machine sore at me. There’s no theory for that but every engineer knows it.
“The car won’t start unless you hold your mouth just right.”
folk wisdom known to all owners of elderly automobiles
So what do we mean by science and technology, and what do we mean by magic?
Does anybody care?
I think the general answer is, “No”. Most readers just want a fun ride, whether with ray guns or magic wands. You, on the other hand, did sign up for Science & Technology vs. Magic, so I’m going to assume you do care. Before we go any further, let’s try to answer the question. It may prove difficult — especially if there really isn’t any difference — but let’s try.
Science is a rigorous and careful attempt to discover the nature of the universe by observation and experimentation. Okay, that seems reasonable. I think we can be provisionally satisfied with that, and move on.
Technology is a little trickier. A computer is technology, sure. But so is a flaked stone spear point. That spear point didn’t flake itself. But what about the stick that a chimp picks up and uses to get ants out of an anthill?
Nothing is ever easy, is it? Let’s just file technology as a sub-set of science and move on, or we we’ll never get to the fun stuff.
Magic is harder to define. We’ll tackle that next Tuesday, because on Monday I have to devote a post to things that are happening with Sprit Deer, over on the Serial side of the website.
Very cool history lesson in sci-fi, I mean science fiction. Thanks for sharing!
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My very great pleasure. SL
Another nice post. I think the difference between science and magic is this: one is explained, the other isn’t. Science fiction then is fiction where the workings of what gives the hero his power is examined and explained, and in fact, this usually is the focus of the work. Fantasy does not explain the hero’s power other that to tell is its there, the work is an examination of the hero and her character. Thus Star War was fantasy when first released, since we were never told where the force came from or how it works, it just was there. Lucas tried to science-ify his work by adding the midichloreans, but I think Disney is basically ignoring that and going back to the franchise’s fantasy roots. So, yes, I think both genres have their worth. It’s all about what you are trying to examine, society or individual character. Lit does both and we don’t complain about it or degrade one half over the other.
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