Ramifications & SF v F

There was a recent discussion at File770 on the distinction between science-fiction and fantasy. It was interesting and inconclusive as always and I only had silly things to contribute. However, there was something that I wanted to say but couldn’t formulate. Interestingly Hampus brought the idea back into focus in a recent comment here about blowing up the Death Star.

Star Wars has clones. It has a whole film with “clones” in the title. Huge numbers of people seen on screen in the 10 canonical Star Wars movies are supposed to be clones. Yet, there’s almost zero ramification in Star Wars aside from the one plot point that the Republic built an army from clones of Jango Fett. Clones are a fantastical/speculative element that is very tightly limited in its impact on the wider world-building.

In the Harry Potter books and films there was a similar issue with Hermione Granger having access to a ‘time turner’: a magical device that offered some limited but still powerful control over time. The device serves a limited plot purpose but goes no further. It could hardly be otherwise because time-travel notoriously disrupts narrative fiction and is not something you can integrate into wider world building without turning your whole story into time-travel fiction.

Likewise, we can take a step back from Star Wars and see that cloning technology only appears because “clone wars” was a cool bit of science dialogue thrown into A New Hope that only later needed an explanation. The actual Star Wars universe is not a set of narratives about clones & cloning any more than Harry Potter is a time-travel narrative.

Science Fiction and Fantasy are similar and different in multiple ways: settings, language, styles of story arcs, tropes and book covers. However one similarity/distinction we can make is to point at speculative/fantastical elements in the setting. The presence of such things as faster than light drives or magical swords mark out SFF from other genres even though they can appear in other genres (such as in high-tech spy thrillers or horror).

The argument about what is SF versus F can often rest on the ambiguity of those elements. Is ESP speculative or magical? How about superpowers? It’s a fun debate but not where I’m going right now.

I’m more interested in the difference between where that speculative/fantastical element has broad ramifications and where it has tightly circumscribed ramifications. For example the orogene’s powers in NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy are bake deep into everything. The societal impact of those powers is explored throughout the books. The power of invisibility in The Lord of the Rings has very limited ramifications. Sure, the one ring itself and its whole history is a big deal but the actual power of being invisible is fairly limited. We can’t say The Lord of the Rings as a set of books explores what a world would be like where some people could be invisible but we can say it is a set of books where the question of the corrupting nature of massive power is explored.

The ramifications of speculative/fantastical elements is another aspect of the genres that needs to be considered. There isn’t a helpful dividing line here between the two, notable works of both SF and F have some elements with broad ramifications and some elements which are more circumscribed. What I would suggest though, is that when a science fiction story introduces an element that should have broad ramifications but then doesn’t, it is more harmful to the story than with fantasy.

Why? Well quite simply it is easier to believe that a magical element may be local and arbitrary than a science or technological element. Further, drawing on existing traditions from folklore and mythology, there is an expectation of magic and the fantastical as an intrusion into a more mundane world and hence being essentially limited in its broader impact.

One of the things I liked about the two Avatar cartoons (Ang’s and Korra’s) was the way the magical elements have that social ramification aspect. In the Legend of Korra it is taken further, showing the elemental powers as shaping historical trends and technological development. I’m not saying that these aren’t examples of fantasy but I see that broad ramification aspect as being more of a science fictional sensibility. Specifically, where the ramifications go beyond the base world building established and begin to show social, political or technological change and/or show how that change occurred in the past.

But wait…Star Trek really doesn’t show any social or historical change at all. Sure stuff happens and there are technological advances between different iterations but it is basically a static society we are presented with. All true if we take the perspective of characters within the show but it is also explicitly presented as a society that is within our (the viewers) future. The promise is that technological change in our world will bring a better future and even when that technology is purely fanciful the promise is still that a better world is there if only we can invent it.

Conversely Babylon 5 often dealt in fantasy elements or tropes (telepathy, quasi-magical beings, rangers!) but was quite deeply committed to such elements creating broader changes. That following through of consequences in terms of things other than characters and character choices again is closer to science fiction than what we often see in fantasy. I’d argue that when fantasy stories attempt to explore these ramifications further they begin to feel more science-fictional (yes, even Harry Potter).


33 thoughts on “Ramifications & SF v F

  1. Well said. If Niven’s “Flash Crowd” had explicitly described the teleport booths as being magic, but had retained the same deep thought about the consequences on society of the ability to teleport, the story would still be science-fictional (and have predictive power related to the internet version of “Flash Crowds” (the “Slashdot effect”)) – because what makes the story science fictional is the examination of the consequences of the McGuffin, not the nature of the McGuffin.

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  2. ” I’m not saying that these aren’t examples of fantasy but I see that broad ramification aspect as being more of a science fictional sensibility”

    I quite often say a similar thing – e.g. about the Broken Earth trilogy – but I wonder if I’m doing fantasy a disservice? While very few fantasy books go looking in detail at the ramifications of what they’re portraying, neither does your average space opera.

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      1. While space opera is fantastic, I suspect the authors wouldn’t be pleased to be on the other side of the divide.
        (P.S. I missed the original debate. Is there a link?)

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  3. There is a LitRPG-series called System Apocalypse where Earth is turned into a Dungeon World, most of the population dies, and the rest get an internal system interface with levels, classes, skills, abilities and whatnot.

    In the first book, it is mostly introduction, the standard irritating main character and a bit of power fantasy. But in later books, we start to see what the implications of having levels means. Those with fighting classes get Xp, invest in skills and characteristics. Those that are artisans or accountants stagnate. How do police force work where those who fight much get enormously powerful compared to those that don’t and also are those that bring in meat and resources from monsters? How do you stop abuse? How do you try to organize society when Xp is a necessity to career advancement? Bring artisans into fighting teams? And so on.

    There’s a lot of other discussions too about how bad MMORPG-strategies are when your goal is to not only win, but to survive. How you can’t afford Min-Maxing or specialising as you have to survive a monster with sneak attack, have to be able to handle a ranged enemy and so on. How the whole Murder-Hobo mentality makes you have to think very much different about advancements.

    It is the one LitRPG-series that really started to grow on me.

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    1. As an examination of “stock” d&d that’s pretty amusing, but certainly in the hacked up version my gaming group okay we’ve reasoned that artisans etc *must* be able to gain in abilities from plying their trade, otherwise how do you get really good blacksmiths etc? Therefore they must be allowed to get xp from doing non-adventurous things, and so on.

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      1. True! And the book had this part too. Quests was one way and you could get Xp for advanced stuff. Problem again was that the resources they needed for that came from monsters. So they were again dependent on those who killed. And the progress was slower.

        This apart from not being able to stop a fighting class from taking stuff or forcing them to do others. Add ordinary labourers to that… At later books, unionizing and breaking guild monopolies to dungeons takes a broader role and their is also talk about forced serfdom.

        Worldbuilding was much more thought through than I had expected from the start

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  4. I remember getting a bizarre feeling when reading Glenn cooks instrumentalities of the night series, the premise is essentially that the crusades happen in a fantasy world where there are vampires and werewolves and other supernatural creatures, yet they happen pretty much as they did in our world and the supernatural creatures don’t seem to have much of an impact on the course of history which I thought was very odd.
    Surely if vampires and werewolves actually exist in your world they would have more of an impact in societies mythos and beliefs and political alliances just in terms of how incredibly powerful they are compared to human beings.

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    1. I had the same reaction to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The world’s greatest wizard is on the English side, there’s no-one to match him on Napoleon’s side, yet the Napoleonic Wars proceed as they did in our world right up to Waterloo. More likely, once Napoleon escaped Elba, France would just send him back (“We can’t win. Go away.”). It made me appreciate the Temeraire books for actually thinking about the effects of dragons in the war.
      While you have a point about approaches in the two genres, I wouldn’t count it as a dividing line between them.

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      1. You see that didn’t bother me at all about JSMN. So maybe I’m getting at different stances I take with different books. You are right, Strange & Norrell amount to a history-changing advantage to Britain in the Napoleonic era but sort of aren’t even though the setting is explicitly an alternate history to our own (i.e. English history in the book has the whole legacy of the Raven King)

        Ian Tregellis’s Milkweed trilogy on the other hand, has British magicians providing a tactical advantage to the UK during WW2 and the books are nothing BUT ramifications in a giant timey-wimey knot of consequences and I absolutely love that.

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      2. I think JS&MN is not exactly ignoring the ramifications as deliberately being cheeky and making an unusual decision about what magic means. From the characters’ point of view, it’s completely obvious that magic was the deciding factor in the war. How could it not be? But a reader who knows the history can see that it made essentially no difference. Similarly, the fact that half of England was ruled by an immortal sorcerer for hundreds of years has had surprisingly little impact on the subsequent political course of the UK. That’s of course incredibly unlikely, and to me the only possible conclusions are 1. Clarke gave this absolutely no thought at all and had never read any alternate-history fiction, or 2. magic in this story isn’t what the characters think it is, and cannot (or refuses to) accomplish what they think it will, but they’ll never know. I think the second is more likely, and certainly more interesting.

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      3. The Raven King is another glaring alternate history glitch. I find it much more plausible Clarke just blew it (YMMV obviously). Of course I’m not as big a fan of the book as a lot of people — the endgame stretch was dull as ditch water to me.
        Philip Roth did too. Plot Against America assumes that even with Charles Lindbergh winning the White House in 1940 and refusing to get into WW II, things eventually return to “normal” — there’s a tossed off reference that shows Bobby Kennedy died just as he did in our timeline.

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      4. I thought the effect Strange and Norrell was going for was an increasingly strange world opening underneath what initially seemed to be our world with magic in the interstices. Hence the dripfeed about the strangeness of history alongside the unsettling portrayal of magic.

        (This fits better a few posts down in the discussion, but I couldn’t seem to reply there.)

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      5. “I find it much more plausible Clarke just blew it”

        I don’t want to belabor this, but… if it had only been the medieval history part, I might be able to see your point. But the rest involved Clarke researching the battles of the Napoleonic Wars and constructing scenarios in which the dramatic use of magic leads to exactly the same outcome (or near enough to make no difference) and then having the characters talk about how magic obviously won the war. I don’t see how that can be anything but a deliberate choice. It may not be a choice that interests you of course, but to conclude that she “just blew it” seems to me like saying that if a basketball player stood at the 3-point line, took a shot, and put the ball not through the hoop but straight into a tiny wastebasket that was concealed in the shadows at the back of the court, that was a careless error.

        (I think my reading is also pretty well in line with a major theme that runs throughout the novel: Norrell is the guy who views magic very logically in terms of cause and effect, and wants the government to use magic like any other technology to steer history a certain way, and Norrell is wrong about nearly everything.)

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      6. Well if Clarke said that’s how she was playing it, obviously I’m wrong in my interpretation. I don’t think her doing it that way worked, but that’s a separate issue.

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      7. My comment was based on how the novel reads to me, and the nature of the work that would necessarily be required to write what she wrote. I never said that Clarke said anything about it.

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  5. I’m going to argue that this kind of ad hoc invention–where the author fails to see that the existence of such a thing makes nonsense of the plot or setting–is common enough in SF that it’s not useful as a tool to distinguish SF from fantasy.

    As an example, Paolo Bacigalupi writes great SF stories, but he’s really bad about introducing ad hoc technologies and utterly failing to see how they’d have broad impact on the worlds he puts them in.

    I’ll give two examples: first, the urine filters in his Windup Universe. These are devices that can filter drinkable water from urine, and they’re so cheap everyone has one. Second, in the same universe, the molecular-spring energy-storage devices. You can wind these up and they’ll efficiently store huge amounts of energy as a fraction of their weight.

    Now this is a dystopia, where everyone lives in crushing poverty except a few elites, and lack of clean water and lack of energy make the cities a living hell. Yet that urine filter, at industrial scale, should allow the cities to recycle nearly all their water. And those storage devices should let solar panels and windmills generate ample reliable power much more cheaply than anything we have today. Those two technologies alone (together with things that already exist in our world) should have made this new world a paradise, not a nightmare.

    I actually confronted the author about this, and he admitted he didn’t think that part through. He told me he included those to illustrate his belief that big companies can’t solve big problems; they only offer small-scale solutions that they can sell to individuals. But he admitted it’s hard to believe no one would have scaled those up.

    I see similar problems all the time in short SF, usually (I think) because the author had a cool idea and threw it in just to sound cool but without realizing that the existence of that technology meant the protagonist could have resolved the plot in short order.

    Accordingly, I don’t think this helps distinguish SF from Fantasy.

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    1. I take your point. We (the readers) would have to assess whether it was the author’s intention to extrapolate but that he had made an error in doing so to decide whether a work was SF or not, and that is probably too subjective to help.

      The story you tell about Windup Girl reminds me of my reaction to Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock, which takes place in a post-global warming America where electricity is not at all common (the President may have it, but not many other people), but still has bauxite being mined (bauxite is useless without the availability of electricity to refine it into aluminum (unless I’m mistaken)).

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  6. Someone recently reminded me of The Intuitionist and I think it’s an interesting edge case in this context. It’s an alternate-history novel where all the differences from our world are related to an important piece of technology. The technology is elevators. However, elevators in the novel are exactly the same as elevators in our world—it’s only their ramifications that are different (they are a major factor in politics). The story isn’t about how this came to be, but otherwise it’s an unusual case of using cues that genre readers are trained to read in one way (tech + alternate history = this is definitely SF) and not going that way at all. The only other thing I can think of offhand that somewhat behaves that way is The City & The City.

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  7. @Frasersherman:

    “Philip Roth did too. Plot Against America assumes that even with Charles Lindbergh winning the White House in 1940 and refusing to get into WW II, things eventually return to “normal” — there’s a tossed off reference that shows Bobby Kennedy died just as he did in our timeline.”

    Baxter’s Chronospace does similar silly things – a change that aborts the European theatre of WWII, but the same people are still born into the 1960s at least, and “Star Wars” still exists, which seems ridiculous.

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    1. It’s one of the things in alt.history that always annoys me when I encounter it. Though my biggest annoyance is when some character sits around thinking (for example), “I wonder what it would be like if Oswald had succeeded in killing JFK?” and then exactly imagines how our history turns out (I love Man in the High Castle for having speculation about “What if the Axis lost?” get everything wrong).

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    2. Well, at any rate, the Star Wars that exists in that alternate reality would have to base its space battles on something other than The Dam Busters and similar war movies.

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  8. Whenever I’ve seen people trying to separate science fiction and fantasy, it’s usually been either to claim that one is lesser than the other or used as some kind of purity test, and to me it doesn’t particularly make a difference if its technobabble or Fantasy jiggery-pokery that makes the plot happen.
    For example, in our current understandings of the laws of physics, faster than light travel is essentially fantasy but many sci-fi plots rely on it because without it, it would take an awful long time to get anywhere.
    I don’t think failing to see ramification is unique to fantasy and many Fantasy books now are all about looking at the impact on society of magic and indeed technology as well.

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  9. Yeah, I think that’s just a stylistic and structural preference you have about types of SF stories, CF, whereas for fantasy, you don’t care. But numerous types of SF stories use limited ramifications — alternate history SF is entirely built on them — for story purposes. Because not all SF stories are predictive, or hard science that must center on the ramifications of scientific discoveries and theories. Humorous SF, space opera/adventure SF, SF mystery, etc. are just some sub-categories where science is usually the backdrop, not the point of the piece.

    Thrillers and horror that use unreal elements are part of science fiction and fantasy genres. They aren’t separate from it. All you need is unreal elements. And then you need a rationale for why the unreal elements exist. If it’s a natural, science-based rationale, then it’s science fiction. If it’s an unnatural rationale — magical/supernatural/divine — then it’s fantasy. So if you have aliens with ESP, it’s science fiction. If you have wizards with ESP spells, it’s fantasy. If you have cops using ESP by genetically constructed predictors to solve crime, it’s science fiction. If you have fighter pilots who acquired a magical amulet and then find out they have ESP from it, it’s fantasy.

    For us, science fiction is an extension/projection of our natural, reality-based world. It may be highly improbable and largely lacking in detail, but if the author explains the existence of the unreal elements as coming from scientific, natural laws (including ones the author makes up as scientific, natural laws,) then the author is using the natural universe and our concept of it as a tool, ramifications or no. And so science fiction stories can happen in the past, present and future. They aren’t even limited to our known, real universe, since you can have a naturally explained, scientifically declared multiverse. All the author has to do is say that nothing beyond our natural universe is occurring in the story world. There is a rational, scientific explanation for why it exists (even if it is likely impossible that this could be the case.) And it is communicated to the reader that it exists even if the inhabitants of the story think it’s magic or divine happenstance.

    But in fantasy stories, even ones with unreal, scientifically explained elements (SF elements,) there are also non-natural, unreal elements that go beyond the natural world into the unnatural/supernatural. There are unreal elements that are not given natural, scientific rationales for existing. They may be given rationales that are quite structured and are perfectly normal for the inhabitants of the story world for whom the unnatural is as real as the natural, but the author does not give readers a scientific, natural rationale for those elements’ existence. And so you have magical, supernatural, mystic and divine magical elements. The natural world is added on to in fantasy fiction with unnatural aspects that are within the story unnaturally-based.

    So Star Wars is very hokey, very silly space opera SF. Lucas presented the Force as energy in the universe — a natural, quantum rationale, and then midi-chlorians — a natural rationale. The Jedi may have temples but they craft their light sabers out of natural elements as a natural weapon and they have ESP by genetically being able to tap into the energy/alien energy of the Force. The clones exist for natural, science reasons. The aliens are natural aliens, etc. That it looks like “magic” sometimes doesn’t make it magic, unnatural, because Lucas, the author, says it’s scientific, natural based and so that is how the story universe WORKS.

    This is how we regularly sort science fiction and fantasy stories. But I’ve found that, despite this, the fact that this is how we do it — that it is a story-telling choice and that it is just that slight a difference — really bothers a lot of people. It’s a very religious sort of demand that there must be more mystery to it and that it can’t be the author who controls how things exist in the story and how those things are presented to the reader. Even authors may say that they have no idea what they wrote sometimes, even though they chose to put the explanations into the stories for readers to read. And yet we still understand the difference between Anne McCaffrey’s scientifically engineered dragons and a magical dragon compelled to hoard gold. One has been declared natural — and so is natural — and the other exists unnaturally.

    Are creatures aliens (natural) or angels (supernaturally divine)? Which explanation we get makes it SF or fantasy. We know this, we do it over and over again. And yet, because the two, along with horror which is 90% fantasy or science fiction horror, have had many publishers and magazines in common, when it comes to definitions, we’re terribly unsure about committing to it without something much more elaborate as a system. Perhaps it is because we have uncertainties about the world around us in terms of the concepts of natural and unnatural. Or just that the two types of fiction have so much history together and connections and authors who do both. And then there is confusion because SFF television shows will occasionally throw in a story using the other genre for an episode, which is why we gave up and called them sci-fi. But we do still sort these two types of fiction that way, irrespective of real world science, which is how they existed in the first place as terms.

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  10. Slightly OT, but in “The Ancient Engineers” L. Sprague deCamp discusses why so many ancient inventions, well ahead of their time, never had any impact. His conclusion is that the projects were done for royal or noble patrons — the economy to sell or replicate them n a wide scale didn’t exist.
    There’s definitely a story idea in that, though I never came up with it.

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