Science Fiction Is Fantasy

Why do people like fantasy novels? One obvious explanation is that “magic” relaxes the usual constraints on the stories one can tell. Story-tellers can either use this freedom to explore a wider range of possible worlds, and so feed reader hungers for variety and strangeness, or they can focus repeatedly on particular story settings that seem ideal places for telling engaging stories, settings that are just not feasible without magic.

It is widely acknowledged that science fiction is by far the closest literary genre to fantasy. One plausible explanation for this is that future technology serves the same function in science fiction that magic serves in fantasy: it can be an “anything goes” sauce to escape the usual story constraints. So future tech can either let story tellers explore a wider space of strangeness, or return repeatedly to settings that feel particularly attractive, and are infeasible without future tech.

Of course it might be that some readers actually care about the real future, and want to hear stories set in that real future. But the overwhelming levels of implausible unrealism I find in almost all science fiction (and fantasy) suggest that this is a negligible fraction of readers, a faction writers rarely specialize in targeting. Oh writers will try to add a gloss of realism to the extent that it doesn’t cost them much in terms of other key story criteria. But when there are conflicts, other criteria win.

My forthcoming book The Age of Em, tries to describe a realistic future setting in great detail. I expect some of those who use science fiction in order to consume strange variety will enjoy the strangeness of my scenario, at least if they can get over the fact that it doesn’t come packaged with plot and characters. But they are unlikely to want to return to that setting repeatedly, as it just can’t compete with places designed to be especially compelling for stories. My setting is designed to be realistic, and I’ll just have to see how many readers I can attract to that unusual feature.

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  • http://GeorgeDonnelly.com/ George Donnelly

    I hope it’ll be available for Kindle at $9 or less. Sounds quite interesting indeed!

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      The price will likely be considerably higher than $9.

      • sflicht

        As an economist, you may be well-placed to ask your publisher for data on the price-elasticity of e-book demand, and depending on what the data looks like, to argue for a price other than what they suggest. AFAIK the revenue structure of Amazon and the way royalties work is such that the utility-maximizing price point is the same for you, your publisher, and Amazon, which is why I found the whole Hachette Books brouhaha somewhat mystifying. (Well, OK, it’s not that mystifying since publishers seem to think that some number of people who are unwilling to buy an e-book for $14.99 might just possibly be willing to buy a hardcover copy for $24.99. But I find that line of reasoning to be uncompelling.)

      • g

        Merely for information: I have bought many books at prices above $25 that I would not be willing to buy in ebook form for $15. How many other people are like me in this respect, I have no idea.

      • urstoff

        I’m definitely like that for non-fiction books. It’s so much easier to use the index, jump around, and cross-reference things using a physical book than an ebook.

      • sflicht

        That’s just because Amazon’s software is crappy. You’re basically saying you think physically flipping through the book is “easier” than clicking a hyperlink, which would certainly be false if the interface were designed properly. When reading on a Kindle I spend way too much time trying to click tiny footnote links with my fat fingers. But this doesn’t seem like an impossible problem to solve.

      • urstoff

        I think it’s a hardware limitation, too. I can turn pages and skim rather quickly on a physical book. On an e-ink reader, the page turning / scrolling speed is limited by the hardware. Maybe at some point I will be able to simply scroll through an ebook on an e-ink reader at a fast rate, but that’s not possible right now no matter whose hardware it is.

      • urstoff

        It’s an academic press, which in general seem to be about as oblivious to price elasticities or the general concept of price discrimination as humanly possible.

      • http://GeorgeDonnelly.com/ George Donnelly

        It’s beyond my budget then. I don’t pay more than $9 for ebooks.

  • Kith Pendragon

    An important distinction between SF and Fantasy is that in SF the
    “magic” is always, however briefly, explained in a way that is
    consistent with (if not coincident with) technology discovered/invented using the scientific method. Not so with a pure Fantasy.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      “always” is way too strong here.

      • Kith Pendragon

        Sounds like we are in disagreement on the exact boundary of SF. If you had to provide a hard definition to distinguish SF as a subset of Fantasy, what would it be?

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Science fiction promotes the suspension of disbelief. Fantasy seems to invite disbelief.

    • Daniel Carrier

      Star Wars has the Force, which is as fantastic as it gets. Tons of fantasy involves magic that’s implied to be designed using principles that were discovered empirically. Full Metal Alchemist and My Little Pony even have main characters that are powerful magic users, but consider themselves scientists and don’t believe in what they call supernatural.

      • Kith Pendragon

        It sounds like you are trying to demonstrate a blurry distinction between SF & F, but I’m confused by your examples. The Star Wars universe contains a great deal of explanation for everything from blasters and lightsabers to the force in canonical sources. I’m afraid FMA is still on my watch-this-someday list, but I can’t recall MLP treating magic as anything other than something mystical. Twilight is seen to do research, but it is always as a historian. She does lots of school-style practice, but never any controlled experimentation on the nature of magic itself.
        A universe that presents more difficulty might be the “Dealing with Dragons” series by Patricia C. Wrede. She uses a more traditionally Fantasy setting, but pushes the book into SF by employing characters who treat magic as something that can be studied and understood (compare with Twilight who studies magic for mastery, not comprehension; by rote, not controlled experimentation). Wrede’s series is nearly always filed as Fantasy because that is the label that most likely groups her books with others that the same readers will enjoy. When discussing the difference academically, though, we need a hard and easy rule to help us state what is “in” and what is “out” of the set. The “attempts a scientific explanation” rule seems the best in my experience for this purpose. Perhaps somebody has a better rule?

      • Daniel Carrier

        In Star Wars, they always talk about being guided by the force, as if it’s some kind of conscious entity.

        In My Little Pony, Twilight dismisses the idea of Zecora cursing them based on it being supernatural, and that there’s no such thing as the supernatural. She also goes crazy trying to understand the Pinkie Sense, and when she goes back in time, her past self claims that her future self is impossible.

        Twilight doesn’t seem to do very good science, but the same could be said about a lot of fictional scientists. She’s not any more fantastic than what you’d expect from science fiction. It’s mostly just because MLP isn’t rationalist fiction.

        I think the difference between sci-fi and fantasy is more setting then genre. If the setting is inspired by folklore, it’s fantasy. If it’s inspired by newer stuff, it’s science fiction. If it’s not inspired by either, like the Cthulhu mythos is, it’s speculative fiction that isn’t clearly science fiction or fantasy.

      • Ant

        Continuing the StarWars example, making it a fantasy film is as simple as changing the set: replace spaceship by dragons, robots by golem and planets by kingdom and you have a classic fantasy book.

  • lump1

    Most successful settings for fiction leave a lot of room for individuals to affect important outcomes. If you consider the most popular role-playing settings, they all include some kind of wild frontier that doesn’t narrow the range of decisions open to the characters. Nobody thinks the life of the gunslinger or sword-swinger is better than the life of the accountant, but nobody wants to role-play an accountant character. In stories, magic and technology both play the role of character autonomy amplifiers, and readers like that because they want to vicariously enjoy that amped up autonomy.

    If you ask me to imagine a setting in which there is almost none of the autonomy that we like for our fictional characters, I think the Em future is it. This is a world of people whose mere survival requires their endless toil in whatever best pays for their CPU cycles. Collectively, what they do may be fascinating and amazing, but it would take some creativity to write a character-driven story set there.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I think you should read the book before you draw strong conclusions about em’s typical degree of autonomy.

  • Joshua Brulé

    For fun, I like ranking sci-fi on the “Mohs scale of science fiction hardness”: a 1 is the literary genre of science fiction, but basically raw fantasy. 6 is real life. And 5 is “speculative science” where the author attempts to reasonably extrapolate the future based on current trends. (I think the one good example a high 5 that was quite popular is “The Martian”.)

    The Age of Em is probably a *very* high 5 on the scale, and very little popular science fiction resides there.

  • http://informationtransfereconomics.blogspot.com/ Jason

    I like lump1’s take: magic and technology do grant power to individuals who are not heads of organizations (governments, armies, etc).

    But I always thought a lot of good sci-fi used strange devices and ‘magical’ powers to run philosophical thought experiments with human behavior (like the trolley problem, but weirder).

    Sci-fi also gave great cover to writing social commentary that might not have otherwise been heard by a mass audience.

  • Daniel Carrier

    I’d say the reason they’re so close is that they’re basically the same thing. Most stories are things that could plausibly happen in the world as we know it. They do often have things that are physically impossible, but they’re things that people don’t realize are impossible.

    Science fiction and fantasy are when there are significant deviations from the world as we know it. The really hard science fiction sometimes follows the laws of physics and only changes how advanced our technology is, but that’s basically an obscure sub-genre.

    Science fiction is inspired by new things we’re figuring out, and Fantasy is based on old folklore. If it’s based on neither, like the Cthulhu mythos, then it doesn’t really fit neatly into either category.

    Hard science fiction is when it’s built on consistent rules that the reader understands. Hard fantasy exists as well, based on the same criteria.

    The only real difference is if you look at the hardest of the hard science fiction, where it’s not just loosely inspired by scientific theories, but actually based on physics as we know it. This is unarguably science fiction. It’s also very rare.

  • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

    No, SciFi is not fantasy. There is a pretty stark difference.

    Fantasy novels depict a world where reality is responsive to human concerns and interests. Successfully casting a spell requires focus, mental preparation and the kind of ritual that speaks to us at an emotional level. Yes, there are arcane secrets and hidden facets of reality but ultimately REALITY IS RESPONSIVE TO PEOPLE, their emotions, strength of will, wisdom or scholarly habits determine how reality responds.

    SciFi depicts a world, like ours, in which technology may do wonderful things but it operates on principles that are emotionally alien and individuals need societal and technological support to powerfully alter reality.

    A fantasy novel speaks to the desire in all of us to reach out with our desires and bring them about. A SciFi novel speaks to our conviction that the universe is ultimately unconcerned with us and doesn’t bother responding to our pitiful tantrums.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      The excellence of some science fiction is widely recognized. (Such work is apt to be called “literary.”) Is there anything comparable for fantasy (which I perceive as an escapist genre)? Tolkien? Harry Potter? I don’t see it.

      • urstoff

        Plenty before the 20th century (The Divine Comedy, Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels), but not much in the 20th century unless you grant magical realism as part of fantasy, in which case a boatload of fantasy is widely regarded as high art (e.g., Rushdie, Morrison, Borges, Marquez).

      • Ronfar

        Terry Pratchett.

  • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

    Also the “closeness” of scifi and fantasy may well simply be an effect of appealing to the same audience (which would bring them closer in other aspects).

    I think the explanation is that people who find themselves unhappy or different find it more pleasant to imagine a very different world. If you don’t have many friends and feel people don’t understand you reading about James Bond reminds you of the ways you wouldn’t be able to be smooth or confident and the familiar world is filled with your familiar unhappiness. While we might know intellectually that a very different world would still have it’s petty squabbles it’s much easier to ignore them.

    Frequently (maybe it’s different now) particularly intelligent, curious, and bookish children have found it very difficult to fit in before college. Until recently children’s activities focused on physical exertion, and being good at school breed resentment for the pet. So these people are inclined to withdraw into books and are looking for emotional comfort food.

    Both genre’s offer the escape and imaginative wonder. SciFi speaks to their curiosity and interest in (the actual) laws of nature. Fantasy speaks to their pent up anger and power fantasies.

    (ok not they… we)

  • Axa

    Science Fiction is a really big bucket where anything that is not romance, non-fiction or biographies is put inside. If you look at the books classified as SF, I’d bet 50+ % are just what Robin is describing, treating machines in the same way as an amulet.

    I can’t remember now the author of the following quote: “In SF the future is just an excuse to talk about the present, the robots are just used to explore the human condition”…..or something similar. So, a fraction of SF not even tries to explore the future. It deals with our present and past in a metaphorical way.

  • UnAficionadoElMasGrande

    Hey Robin,
    Long time reader, first time commentor. Just thought I’d pop in to say that I’m really looking forward to your book and think that your unusual but logical way of perceiving the world will make for a compelling read. Good luck finishing up the book!

    Regards,
    UnAficionadoElMasGrande

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Well of course the book is finished from my point of view, but it takes publishers a long time to turn my text into a publication.

  • Cambias

    Science fiction assumes a reality that is knowable, discoverable by humans (or examines the consequences if that isn’t so). A lot of fantasy’s power comes from the sense that there are things at work beyond what humans can explain.

    Also: fantasy has little dragons on the spine of the book below the ISBN; SF has Saturn.

    • Petr Hudeček

      That last line… so true 🙂

    • HammerOfThor

      I have another interpretation: Science fiction is about exploring issues relating to sociology, ethics, and morality, and especially how our technology influences and changes our ethics and morality. Works of science fiction may have different levels of plausibility or different levels of ‘future’-iness (in fact many are even set in the past) but they all have in common this trait that they deal with exploring the answers to how technology shapes human society and behaviour. This is true of all sci-fi that I know of, from H.G.Wells to to Asimov to Heinlein to Roddenberry.

      Fantasy, on the other hand, is more diffuse and spread-out. Some fantasy may deal with questions similar to what sci fi deals with, but not all of it does. You can think of sci-fi as a subset of fantasy that deals with issues relating to technology.

      Some sci-fi isn’t really sci-fi though. Most people seem to agree that Star Wars is really a fantasy genre, not a sci-fi genre, although most people who say that can’t explain why, it’s just an intuitive feeling to them. But in the context of what I’m saying, it makes perfect sense why Star Wars is a fantasy genre – technology doesn’t impact the story at all. You could replace light-sabers with sabers, space ships with ships, and planets with towns, and the story would still work perfectly.

  • Matt Arnold

    Will “The Age Of Em” be available in ebook format?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Yup.

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  • Ria

    Most of the fiction stories like novel are really far from the reality but so impressive to read.

  • Philip Goetz

    No; science fiction and fantasy have a large audience overlap, but they’re fundamentally opposed in ideology. Fans don’t realize this, but authors often do.

    The ideology of fantasy is that religion, tradition, and virtue ethics are correct. The universe has a rightful order which humans cannot understand or control, and which must be taken on faith, not determined by reason. Each person has a right set of virtues (or rules), and everything will work for the good if people follow those rules. That’s why a traditional fantasy has a moment, like when Frodo lets Gollum live, or when Luke switches off his targeting computer, where the protagonist does something virtuous but incredibly stupid, which turns out to be just the thing needed to save the day.

    Magic and God are both impossible, by definition. Electromagnetism and gravity are non-materialistic forces (or at least they were, as far as we knew, for a long time), yet nobody regarded them as magic. A graduate student who created our universe for his thesis is our God, by any reasonable definition, yet no religious person will agree. We only use the words “magic” and “God” for things whose existence is incompatible with reason, and therefore proves that humans must look to faith rather than reason or empirical observation.

    The ideology of science fiction is nearly the opposite. Consequentialist ethics are correct. Everything can be understood. Problems occur from lack of information.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      What explains the large audience overlap? If the two genres have opposed philosophies, yet the same individuals enjoy each, then agreement with the philosophy must not be a big reason for reading.