Genre Definition Revisited: Thoughts on Science Fantasy

It’s occurred to me that my current WIP, The Heart of Elebfar, might be labeled as ‘science fantasy’. Since the entire story takes place on one exotic world, it technically also fits the definition of a ‘planetary romance’ — although it’s certainly not ‘space opera’! But ‘science fantasy’, like many subgenre classifications, can be a bit nebulous, as it essentially just means something that combines elements of both science fiction and fantasy.

Some say science fantasy is fantasy ‘dressed up’ as science fiction, while others say it’s science fiction that includes fantastic elements that are not explained via science. But I think that brings up the question of how much of the science in science fiction is truly explained. It seems that, even in a lot of hard SF, the essence of it is about speculating that a certain premise might be scientifically plausible — either in the future or on another world — more than it is about trying to explain just how it might be plausible.

And if we’re talking about social science fiction, it’s accepted that future technologies or alternate biological conditions may be an essential part of the foundation of the story, but no one expects the author to spend time exploring how those things might actually come about. What’s important is how they would affect human society and the lives of individual humans in that society (as discussed in my previous post about the definition of SF).

One book often named as an example of science fantasy is Gene Wolfe‘s Book of the New Sun. Wolfe incorporates a staggering array of concepts into his works, including many that are never explained and that might seem ‘magical’, and the medieval aspects of the setting and culture of New Sun do lend themselves to a fantasy classification. But as you experience the depth of the world and find references to it being a far-in-the-future earth, the SF elements become more and more apparent. And to me, Wolfe’s other brilliant four-volume novel, The Book of the Long Sun, has far more of science fiction about it than fantasy; I’d say it has a distinctly SF ‘flavor’.

Yes, in Long Sun there’s a character who seems to be a ghost, and another who’s a kind of alien vampire. But I’m left with a strong feeling that just because these things are not explained, it doesn’t mean there isn’t an explanation. What’s more, the books take place on a generation starship, and the androids, vehicles, weapons, etc., (not to mention the way the uneducated people see the figures appearing through some kind of computer monitors as gods) all scream SF to me. So I would argue that this is SF that may contain fantasy elements — and the things that seem fantastical might not be what they seem.

And when I think about Heart of Elebfar — both the story and the world it’s set in — it seems logical enough to simply call it science fiction. There’s no magic, and I see nothing that happens in the book as truly supernatural. Nevertheless, what some might consider ‘fantastic’ are several elements that venture into the realm of the ‘New-Agey’: Reiki-type healing, the idea that gemstones (‘crystals’) could hold and/or help focus energy, and the occurrence of a life-form made from a kind of volcanic stone rather than organic material. There’s also one character who seems to have some kind of psychic abilities — he has visions of things happening in another place or time. But again, although I don’t make any attempt to explain these things, I feel that on this world there is a scientific explanation for them.

Now I suppose we could follow this to the conclusion that on any world in which magic is real, the laws of nature and physics could be different there, so the magic becomes scientifically possible — and is therefore no longer ‘magic’. But I think an important part of what makes a story fantasy has to do with that ‘flavor’, as well as to intent: when it comes to pure fantasy, it’s the author’s intent and the reader’s wish that there be no explanation other than one word: magic. And they would no more want to question that than a child would want to question how Santa Claus can actually get all those presents down the chimney.

One might speculate that Gene Wolfe, being Catholic, subscribes to the belief that there are some very important things that we can’t see or ‘prove’, and that perspective might color his world-building. My own perspective is different since I was raised on science, but I believe one of the best things I gained from that upbringing is an understanding of the importance of keeping an open mind. That includes being open to the idea that there could be real things we have no concept of — and if we saw them, we might interpret them as impossible and ‘magical’, just as our ancestors would have viewed jets and DVD players. So it’s a bit like reaching the same place by taking a different road; rather than having faith in things that can’t be proven, it’s understanding that there may always be something that hasn’t been proven — or discovered — yet. These things might be possible either through unanticipated advances in technology, or through finding other worlds where what we assumed were scientific ‘laws’ are a bit different than they are on this little planet. How can we know otherwise?

And we mustn’t forget that some of the science we were taught as children has since been revised. (Though I have a hard time getting used to the idea that Pluto isn’t a planet, I love knowing dinosaurs were close relatives of birds, and I affectionately call my pet chickens and ducks velociraptors and hadrosaurs.:)) New ideas surface all the time — that’s the nature of science. I’ve seen several programs addressing string theory, though not one of them explained anything beyond a very abstract image of interconnected vibrations, and some confusing conclusions about numbers of dimensions. But some serious physicists have been expending a lot of time and energy exploring this theory, even if others might consider it downright silly.

While I’ll readily admit that much of the talk about crystals having healing energies and such sounds pretty silly, this is an indisputable fact: what looks like a perfectly ordinary rock can be so poisonous that touching it can be fatal. (And, as I understand it, you can even touch that rock and then go touch someone else and make them ill, too.) If something that sounds so fantastic is true, perhaps there could be rocks and minerals in the universe that contain elements with properties we don’t know about yet. So why couldn’t they hold or conduct different kinds of energies, or perhaps even form a different kind of life?

Indeed, these things may be more plausible than Mr. Wolfe’s ‘ghosts’ and ‘vampires’. And since I still think The Book of the Long Sun is better described as SF than fantasy, there seems no good reason to say The Heart of Elebfar isn’t SF, too. Surely the fact that in T.H.O.E. the planet orbits an eclipsing binary star, which results in there being different kinds of daylight depending on the position of the two stars, is an SF premise concerning astrophysics? And doesn’t the fact that I’m exploring the idea that there could be a non-organic life form mean I’m speculating about biology, chemistry, and geology?

So let’s say that we can argue that two of the elements in the story that might seem mystical are actually scientific speculations about the properties of rocks and minerals. And although I’m not aware of any study that has proven that tangible energy can be transferred from one person to another, no one with bona fide medical knowledge would deny that the mind plays an enormous role in the well-being of the body, and the psychological impact of shared physical contact is certainly proven.

That only leaves Farro, the ‘seer’ character. And to me, that unexplained aspect of his character is like one of my favorite things in Le Guin’s The Telling, a book I’m certain qualifies as straight-up social SF. There’s a little mystery that’s referred to in the very last line: “Footsteps on the air.” It’s never explained. But it doesn’t need to be. We can let it stand as a reminder that we should always keep an open mind — in science, in art, and in life.

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