This essay makes some curious distinctions between Science Fiction and Fantasy

I know I have a bad habit of both having zero regard for genre distinctions and constantly trying to make up new ones. I love categories but what I mainly love about them is making up new ones and breaking the ones I just made. In the taxonomic playground there is nothing quite so much fun as the distinction between science-fiction and fantasy. It is emblematic of the creative fun that comes from making then breaking distinctions. Once you come up with a brilliant system of classification, the gods of genre will throw out a counter-example or rather the distinction offers a challenge to writers to create something that straddles the distinction. In the end times God will sort humanity into sheeps and goats but will still struggle to shelve the fantasy books separate from the science-fiction. It is a world of ducks versus beavers which is actually populated by the offspring of a platypus.

So it is always with both pleasure and trepidation that I read essays about the distinction. Here is an essay by James Wallace Harris entitled “Why I see Fantasy and Science Fiction as Distinct Genres”. I’ve read it three times now and while he does state some reasons why he see the two things as distinct, I can’t make head nor tail of his examples. Here is one explanation he gives in the context of apocalyptic/disaster themed stories:

“Now here’s one difference between fantasy stories and science fiction. The threat in a fantasy story doesn’t have to have a real-world foundation. Something imaginary that’s scary is all that’s required. In science fictional after-the-collapse stories, science fiction writers take pains at providing a believable explanation.”

OK, that makes some sort of sense but think of a subset of such stories e.g. zombie stories. Zombies can be supernatural (making them fantasy) or viral (making them science fiction). We certainly can sort zombies in this way but we end up with some zombie stories in which the cause of undeadness is never explained. In either case, the basic tropes and themes of zombie apocalypse narratives are often the same and the underlying cause is a lesser aspect of the back story. Maybe zombies are a bad example though, as they bring in the third genre of horror.

I’ll focus now on three of several examples the writer gives. I’m picking on these three because they are each stories I’ve reviewed and thought about and discussed.

“The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander took historical incidents and turned them into a fantasy tale. However, I have to wonder why she just didn’t go for straight literary realism. It was the historical details that made this story stand out, not the fantasy add-ons.

“When We Were Starless” was a good science fiction story, but set too far in the future to be relevant about today’s problems. I still enjoy far-future science fiction, but I respond to SF about the near future better. The further in the future an SF story is set, the more it feels like a fantasy to me.

“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory has the kind of realism I like. It wasn’t completely realistic, but it had a grittiness that I appreciated. I also liked it because it spanned a life-time, of never giving up.

I think I understand the point he is making about “When We Were Starless”. The far future setting and the strange nature of the protagonists gives it an aura of fantasy. I don’t agree with the point about it not being ‘relevant about today’s problems’ but I assume he means the a direct relevance rather than thematic, emotional or metaphoric relevance.

But having made sense of that one I can’t make head nor tail of the other two. “The Only Harmless Great Thing” is about elephants, there’s no magical powers in it as such. There is an imagined elephant mythology/folk-wisdom and the ending is arguably fantastical but otherwise the setting is factually grounded all be it in an alternative history way. The issue of labour exploitation is manifestly a relevant one and the broader questions about intelligence and language are clear, as is the more practical issue of how to ensure future generations know to avoid a nuclear waste dump.

“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” makes use of a common science fiction trope of an alien invasion but the focus of the story is time and relationships and slow change. The invaders are never fully explained other than they are plant-like and landed like meteorites. There’s a metaphor there about climate change but it isn’t spelled out as such. If the alien plants appeared by magic and their apparent empathic/psychic powers were described as magical then the story would not be substantially different.

I’d say that there a fantasy and SF aspects to all three and clearly all three writers were drawing from the broader field as well as making use of wider literary genres (folk lore, magical realism etc). Of the three, the one which has the most embedded science-realism elements is “The Only Harmless Great Thing” by which I mean of the three it is the one that would be hardest to make purely technically fantasy using ‘magic’ as a criteria. More to the point I don’t see how having a clear genre distinction for any of them really sheds much light on them as stories. Put another way, where they sit on the boundary between genres provides very little critical insight to them as stories or sheds any light on the authors thinking.

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95 thoughts on “This essay makes some curious distinctions between Science Fiction and Fantasy

  1. You can argue that all alternate history is fantasy, although I personally draw a distinction between regular alternate history and alternate history fantasy. Heck, you can argue that time travel is fantasy, although I draw a distinction between how it’s accomplished.

    As I’ve probably mentioned before, for the past three or four years, I’ve been classing stories as one of: High Fantasy (secondary world), Low Fantasy (fantasy in the real world), Hard SF (focus on scientific/technical problems and methods), Soft SF (the plot isn’t about the tech), and Mixed (can’t make it fit anywhere). I find that I only put two or three percent of the stories into the “Mixed” category. I’ve worked out a rationalization for how I do it, but my instinct came first.

    I suspect most people, given a set of stories, will fairly easily classify them as fantasy vs. SF with just a handful falling into the “who knows?” category, even if they can’t articulate their reasons. I also suspect that although most stories will get the same classification from almost everyone, there will be a non-trivial number that are debatable. As we’re seen on Reddit, that debate never ends and never seems to convince anyone. 🙂

    The article in question is written by someone who professes to hate fantasy, so I’m not surprised his definition seems heavily influenced by whether he liked a story or not. Sean Wallace has pointed out (repeatedly) that you can find an argument for treating any work of fiction as a fantasy. While that’s true, I don’t think it’s particularly useful, but perhaps it goes a way to explain why these examples don’t really seem to work.

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  2. Charles deLint once suggested the difference between fantasy and SF readers is that fantasy readers who don’t like SF don’t read it; SF readers who don’t like fantasy don’t like it but they will go on at length about how they don’t like it because it’s such a bastardized hack version of the good stuff they do like. I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

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  3. Orson Scott Card wrote something about this in his “How to write SF/Fantasy Book”. While he emphasises the similarities he chucks in a humorous mention along the lines of “If it’s got swords its fantasy, if it’s got rivets its Sci-Fi”. Sometimes distinctions on plot elements are less obvious (e.g. Old Man’s War brain Pal Tech is pretty much indistinguishable from telepathy in a fantasy) but sometimes the setting makes it more obvious (Space Station or Castle?).

    Feeling it can be more important than rules. It’s like that humorous quote from a Judge trying to define pornography “It’s hard to define but you know it when you see it”.

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  4. This sort of thing drives me crazy. For example, the Broken Earth trilogy — clearly science fiction to me from the first book. Every time the Locus List came out, I would look at the SF novels and think, “How can Jemisin not be here? — Oh, yeah, everyone else thinks it’s fantasy.” And the opposite problem — Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. What the heck? There’s a giant flying bear in it! And a zillion other fantastical things with no logical explanation. Why is does this get labeled science fiction?

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    1. I was pretty much with you in book 1 of the Broken Earth. But then in book 2 she specifically started using the word “magic” — so I stopped resisting and got assimilated into the “fantasy” crowd.

      As for Borne — it’s weird, but it’s supposed to be all tech and genetics and so on. So it’s what I call “Third Law” sf.

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      1. I never actual worry about making a clear distinction. I just find it funny that I tend toward the opposite as others on edge cases. And it does make me crazy when someone insists there’s a definite split. I say science fiction is just a sub-genre of fantasy anyway. I was happy that the proposal to divide the Best Novel Hugo into SF and Fantasy didn’t go anywhere.

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      2. @Laura
        I think for most people there really is a definite split. If you asked someone to assign 1000 genre stories to either F, SF, or mixed, I think no more than 10 or 20 would end up labeled “mixed.” It’s only when you try to compare those results between people that you see how much bigger the gray area is. Even then, though, I think 700 to 800 would have 90+% agreement.

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      3. Yes, you’re right – if you stayed clear of subgenres (eg steampunk, superheroes) or related genres (horror) that may blend genres in other ways. Shiny tech=sci-fi, rusty swords=fantasy
        Nobody is confusing the genres of Game of Thrones or The Expanse.

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      4. Part of why I picked such a large number as 1,000 is that in the course of reading 1,000 stories, one encounters enough Steampunk, Alternate History, etc. to start forming rules for them.

        Time and place are usually the strongest clues for separating F from SF. Anything set in a secondary world is fantasy. Anything set on another planet is science-fiction. If it’s set on our world, anything set in the past is Fantasy. Anything set in the present or the future is science-fiction.

        Exceptions involve magic: regardless of the paragraph above, if the story contains magic or magical creatures, then it’s fantasy, not science-fiction. The biggest thing that distinguishes magic from science, I think, is whether it’s learned from ancient sources or determined by research. Even a hand-waving “scientific” explanation is enough to turn magic into physics.

        These rules are enough to classify nearly everything, and they agree almost 100% with my own, instinctive classifications. Whether they’re of any practical use is a different question. 🙂

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      5. @Greg
        I appreciate that you put a lot of thought into your taxonomy for Rocket Stack Rank to help people narrow things down and find stories they’ll enjoy. But personally I prefer less clear distinctions. I like it when authors aren’t afraid to play with all the genre toys.

        And an example like Cam is referring to in the post above gets my hackles up because it’s often dismissive. Similar to the old mainstream attitude of genre being no good — if it’s good, it isn’t genre.

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      6. @Greg
        Yes, I’m having fun here at least! Obviously The Expanse is space opera which is usually considered science fiction. Although something like Star Wars is certainly fantasy in space. But Levithan Wakes has enough horror in it that I almost didn’t continue. Glad I stuck with it though.

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      1. Did she? It was marketed as fantasy, but I remember something about being inspired by a class on science for fiction writers. At any rate she was certainly playing with tropes from both.

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      2. It seems to me that (rot13 for a major element) gur frevrf cybg pbapreavat gur zbba unf zber erfbanapr vs vg pna or gur nepurglcny Zbba lbh pna unir va snagnfl, engure guna gur ‘Rneguyvxr zbba guvf cnegvphyne cynarg unccraf gb unir’ qrznaqrq ol na FS ernqvat.

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  5. Chomsky has made a distinction between problems, which fall within our cognitive capacities, and mysteries, which do not. I’ve always liked the thought that scifi is about problems, and fantasy about mysteries.

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      1. Yes, but now that I think of it, Clarke book scales it back to a problem, as it explains the movie’s mysteries. For LotR the setting remark in my comment below applies.

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      2. Mysteries explained by revelation is still different to a problem orientated text. The focus of 2001 is mystery but LotR has a clearly defined problem with a solution.

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      3. Fully agreed. Part of definitions is semantics of terms, and how to apply them. Thinking some more about it, setting is crucial. Magic can’t be explained, alien technology can, something like that.

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    1. The fantasy novel I’m currently writing has dragons, magic items, sorcerers, shapeshifters, talking animals, and gods who get snitty and walk among the characters… and it is NOT about a mystery, it’s about a problem.

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      1. I guess it’s also setting related: your setting sounds mysterious. But indeed, that dichotomy is failed too. We’ll never get it to fit a binary definition, both genres are so vast. But if we take real Earth/space’s existence not to be a mystery, but a problem, and take setting into account, the idea at least has a bit of force to it.

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  6. I don’t think they can be considered entirely separate genres.

    We have stories that look like SF but with explicitly fantastic underpinnings – both The Broken Earth and The Machineries of Empire fall into this category.

    We also have stories that look like fantasy but with SF underpinnings, such as Lord of Light and the Pleistocene Exile series. And in both cases the SF underpinnings are SF because they are accepted tropes of SF, even though they are fantastic – at least by the standards of modern science.
    (Janny Wurts’ Cycle of Fire trilogy is an extreme example – it starts off as SF but as I remember it, quickly sidelines the SF underpinnings to the point where they can just be ignored for the rest of the trilogy)

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    1. @Paul —

      I’ll fight you — or at least debate you — about Machineries of Empire. That one’s sf, despite the weirdness of its science. Third Law sf.

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      1. “Yoon Ha Lee says it’s fantasy.”

        I’ve seen that claim before, but I’ve never seen an actual quote in which he says that. OTOH, I **have** seen an actual quote in which he calls the books space opera.

        “And ritual altering the laws of physics seems pretty fantastic to me.”

        Airplanes look fantastic to Amazonian tribesmen. Doesn’t mean they aren’t based on science.

        Something to think about: I’ve read the trilogy three times now. The last time through, I noticed more about how interlinked everyone is through their implants — linked both to each other and to computers, in a huge web. Everything they see, and everything they do, is filtered or altered or coordinated with computer imputs and outputs. Once you start thinking about the implications of that, all sorts of weird effects become more possible.

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      2. I think also people like the idea of deep markers for genre distinctions rather than superficial ones eg ‘Ninefox is fantasy because of how it focuses on ritual & powers that are like magic’ is looking for a deep marker whereas ‘Ninefox is sci fi because spaceships’ is superficial. However, I suspect superficial markers impact genre perceptions far more.
        For example if a fantasy writer wrote a story set in the late Bronze Age about a hero on a quest to discover a secret way of forging steel and there’s zero magic in it and a pile of speculative retroscience about blacksmithing and smelting iron ore, it’s still going to look like fantasy.

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      3. @Cam —

        “For example if a fantasy writer wrote a story set in the late Bronze Age about a hero on a quest to discover a secret way of forging steel and there’s zero magic in it and a pile of speculative retroscience about blacksmithing and smelting iron ore, it’s still going to look like fantasy.”

        Speaking of this point of view, Jennifer Fallon’s Second Sons books. Not a smidge of magic or magical creatures; the only obvious difference between that world and ours is that it’s got two suns. Yet the story is told in the language of fantasy, so most people think of it as fantasy.

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  7. I find personally the distinction doesn’t matter all that much *except* that the big Canadian bookstore chain (Indigo) has separate fantasy and science fiction sections. It drives me crazy, especially as I tend to like authors who either write in both genres or are hard to categorize. I end up having to look through both sections for authors like Elizabeth Bear, Charles Stross or Gene Wolfe.

    I have to confess that I’m a hypocrite, though, as a couple of years ago they combined the writing book section with the general reference and that makes it so much more difficult to find the damn writing books. The reference section is a bit of a mess to begin with–I seriously can’t tell if they’re sorting by title or by author.

    This is one of many reasons I mostly buy genre books from our local indie book store (Bakka Phoenix).

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    1. As a former bookstore clerk, you have my sympathy. Unfortunately there’s no perfect solution. Separating books can attract genre readers who just want to look for their thing, but as you say, it can divide up an author between categories. Orson Scott Card went in SF/Fantasy in our store (we didn’t separate) but he also wrote one horror novel. We put Nora Roberts’ “In Death” series (written under a pseudonym) in romance, but would they have attracted new fans in SF? Putting copies of books in both sections makes it harder to figure where they are if a customer asks.
      And so on.

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      1. I actually think In Death would fit better either under crime/thriller or SFF than under romance, especially since Nora Roberts’ established romance fans would look for the books anyway.

        BTW, I once was in a British bookshop which dumped all the SFF by women into romance (and had the romance section in the furthest corner of the store), because “it’s paranormal romance”, even though plenty of the books in question were not romance at all. I actually called out a bookstore employee about this and they said, “But the SFF readers complain about all that romance, so we had to shelve it elsewhere.”

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      2. Classifying SFF books which have girl cooties as romance or YA or, if one only reads SF, fantasy is a time-honoured technique that Joanna Russ already described in How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

        This doesn’t apply to Fraser Sherman and his bookstore BTW, because the In Death books really are science fiction and crime thrillers and romance and could go anywhere. Most German bookstores go with crime/thriller.

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      3. Yes, I was thinking of Joanna Russ too. And of course the same shuffling off to other sections happens with writers of color.

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      4. Not to mention a guarantee for very angry parents, when it turns out that their 13-year-old daughter accidentally bought an adult urban fantasy with lots of sex and swearing.

        I usually giggle at odd shelvings in bookstores, though you could make a case for shelving To Kill a Mockingbird in crime fiction and American War by Omar Al-Akkad could be mistaken for non-fiction. But I once one of J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood paranormal romances, which have a lot of sex, swearing, drug use and graphic violence, shelved in YA and informed a bookstore employee that this was not a good idea. Bookstore employee: “But it has vampires. Doesn’t that mean it’s YA?”

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      5. We frequently found illustrated sex books stuck in children’s. I suspect it’s because the store layout made it easier to hide what someone was reading over there than if they stood by the sex/relationships section.

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      6. Why is having an author in two genre verboten? Bookstore will file things in the oddest places rather than say, split mysteries and fantasy by the same author.
        Not snark–I’m honestly curious as to why splitting is worse than misfiling.

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  8. I always end up falling back on Jack Chalker’s observation: “All science fiction is fantasy, but not all fantasy is science fiction. And some science fiction becomes fantasy as our understanding of science changes over time.”

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  9. I put zombies in horror or supernatural, regardless of explanation. Never in fantasy (unless it is only a small element). All about the furniture for me. I do not agree that supernatural is a part of fantasy. I also see superheroes as a genre by itself.

    But I only use categories loosely. As soon as people start to try to define them instead of going by gut feel, I grow bored. It is enough for me if I can understand what someone else means.

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  10. A quick search doesn’t find a quote. However, it does see the novel Dragon Pearl being described as “Space Opera” even though the main character is a fox spirit. https://www.yoonhalee.com/?p=933

    But I still don’t see any plausible scientific explanation of how the Calendars could possibly work, or even a hint of one.

    I agree that it has surface markers that push it into the SF side, but that was the point. It is a mix, which goes against the idea that the genres are entirely separate.

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    1. “But I still don’t see any plausible scientific explanation of how the Calendars could possibly work, or even a hint of one.”

      1. Third Law again — airplanes don’t seem plausible to tribesmen (and telepathy isn’t plausible to most people, yet it’s a frequent component of sf). And there is no good scientific explanation for things like ansibles or ftl drives, either.

      2. Remember the computers and interfaces. When Cheris sees Jedao’s “shadow” or his “reflection” in her mirror, she’s actually seeing a projected image from her implants. Likewise when a person’s signifier is visible. And when Jedao “fights” the disembodied Kujen, think of it as digitized impulses in the vast interconnected computer networks they all share (like the “battle” Murderbot has in the third Murderbot novella). Now expand that idea: because of their extensive computer interfaces, the people’s beliefs literally create their perceived reality. Not because of magic, but because their perceived reality is dependent on the interactions between their organic brains and their wiring. Change one, and you change the other. And what’s a great way to affect perceptions? Extremely emotional experiences on a mass scale, like being forced to watch extreme tortures as a cohesive social unit. Cults and brainwashing, anyone? The calendars enforce mass cohesion, which enforces conformity in perception, which creates the uniformity of perceived reality.

      3. Another possibility that a couple of other people have brought up: it’s possible that EVERYTHING inside the trilogy is occurring inside a giant computer simulation. I don’t especially believe this one, but it could conveniently explain the weird effects.

      The biggest thing for me is that the author TREATS everything as having a scientific basis rather than a magical one. We may decide it’s bad or unconvincing science, but that doesn’t mean that the story’s a fantasy — refer back to telepathy, ansibles, and ftl.

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  11. “Speaking of this point of view, Jennifer Fallon’s Second Sons books. Not a smidge of magic or magical creatures; the only obvious difference between that world and ours is that it’s got two suns. Yet the story is told in the language of fantasy, so most people think of it as fantasy.”
    I hate books that are billed as fantasy but don’t actually have any magic, or where I can take out the magic and not affect the plot much. I feel I’ve been scammed.
    “I’d say how a person separates the genre says more about their thought process than It does literature.” For example, one 1990s SF anthology explained fantasy is mostly a woman’s genre because it has lots of girly stuff (princesses, unicorns, fairies) and doesn’t have SF’s tech and science because girls can’t get into that stuff.

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    1. frasersherman: For example, one 1990s SF anthology explained fantasy is mostly a woman’s genre because it has lots of girly stuff (princesses, unicorns, fairies) and doesn’t have SF’s tech and science because girls can’t get into that stuff.

      Oh, do tell, which one is that?

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      1. It was a Best Fantasy of the Year anthology, explaining why so many of the stories were by women. But I don’t remember the name — I don’t own a copy so I have no way to refresh my memory.

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      2. Huh, many of the annual anthologies from the 1990’s (and now) are science fiction focused with some “and fantasy”. The major series that gave fantasy first billing was Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s best fantasy and horror. I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t one of theirs. 😀

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    2. “I hate books that are billed as fantasy but don’t actually have any magic, or where I can take out the magic and not affect the plot much. I feel I’ve been scammed.”

      The Second Son books are actually quite good. Their central conceit is an ongoing battle between adherents of religion/magic (it’s fake magic) and adherents of science.

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      1. Oh, it’s not a question of quality, just personal taste. I’ve read some good books that were “just enough” magic to qualify as fantasy but I still didn’t care for them. It’s a very, very tough sell for me.

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  12. I am certainly not convinced by the “Clarke’s Third Law” idea because it is an assertion without any real support from the text.

    The idea that it is all due to implants doesn’t make sense either when we have things like FTL travel and the Threshold Winnowers around – and it would rely on the people – including all the experts, except Kujen – having virtually no understanding of what the implants could do . Nor is their any idea of how the rituals of the Calendar would so greatly affect the implants.

    I did think of the idea that it was all a simulation on reading the end of Ninefox Gambit, but nothing in the later books has borne that out.

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    1. I know I struggled at first trying to decide what was VR, AR, or physically happening. Then I just gave up and went with it.

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    2. @Paul —

      “I am certainly not convinced by the “Clarke’s Third Law” idea because it is an assertion without any real support from the text.”

      I don’t know what you mean by this.

      When I say something is “Third Law sf”, what I mean is that the science is so advanced that it looks like magic. And that is pretty obvious throughout Lee’s trilogy. We can’t understand what’s going on — it doesn’t look like any science we can understand — but that doesn’t mean it’s actually magic. It just means that it is beyond our understanding.

      “The idea that it is all due to implants doesn’t make sense either when we have things like FTL travel and the Threshold Winnowers around”

      Remember, ftl travel is endemic throughout sf. Its presence or absence in these particular books is therefore irrelevant to whether we classify them as sf or f, unless you want to classify every book with ftl as fantasy.

      And I didn’t mean that **every single effect** was due to implants; I’m very happy to leave some of the weirdness to that third law. I just think that being mindful of the ubiquity of those implants is a good way to explain a lot of the weirdness.

      ” – and it would rely on the people – including all the experts, except Kujen – having virtually no understanding of what the implants could do .”

      No, I think the characters are as aware as they need to be. It’s just that it’s so natural to them that they don’t give it any thought — it’s just part of their everyday lives. Like that saying that fish don’t think about the water they swim in.

      @Cam —

      “Yeah and ‘it’s all a simulation’ works for anything. All fiction becomes litRPG”

      Yeah, that’s one reason why I don’t particularly adhere to that theory. But it would be convenient!

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  13. @Contrarius

    I’m not convinced that it is intended to be advanced science because it is so weird – and not in the way that science is weird – and because there is no real hint of how it could work, not even Star Trek style technobabble.

    The FTL travel is explicitly a Calendrical effect, so I am not prepared to write it off as just part of the setting.

    The simulation theory is still better because there are analogies to hacking techniques which could at least be made to sound plausible. But it also suffers from having no textual support.

    And if the implants did any of it, there is no hint of anyone knowing that either.

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    1. @Paul —

      “I’m not convinced that it is intended to be advanced science because it is so weird – and not in the way that science is weird – and because there is no real hint of how it could work, not even Star Trek style technobabble.”

      Again, “weird” does not equal “non-science”. YOU think it’s weird, but they just think it’s everyday life.

      And of course it’s intended to be advanced science — it depends on math and computers.

      And it’s not explained to you because the characters don’t care whether you understand it or not. It’s natural to them.

      “The FTL travel is explicitly a Calendrical effect, so I am not prepared to write it off as just part of the setting.”

      My point about the ftl is that you don’t disqualify other stories with ftl from being sf, so you have no standing to use it as an excuse here either.

      “And if the implants did any of it, there is no hint of anyone knowing that either.”

      Of course they “know” it — they just don’t feel obligated to explain it to you. It’s sort of like you knowing how you produce speech — you know that your tongue and teeth and throat and lungs act in coordination with each other, but you don’t feel the need to explain it to someone else. It’s a ubiquitous and natural part of their existence — they don’t feel any need to talk about it. (Nonetheless, there IS a little discussion of it when Jedao gets his access cut off during one of the books, and it results in him not being able to use things like the variable layout of the spaceship he was in — I’m not going to go look it up right now, but that’s what started me thinking about it.)

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  14. @Contrarius

    Firstly I will point out that the mathematics is not sufficient to make it science rather than magic. Relationships between mathematics and magic go back at least as far as de Camp and Pratt’s Harold Shea stories. There are quite a few books which have magic as a substitute for technology, too, such as Heinlein’s Magic Inc.

    The effects are not all plausible science – not even remotely – nor is there any hint of a scientific – or even a pseudo-scientific – explanation in the text. The idea that it is science and technology is an assumption, and one that does not work well for me.

    You miss my point on the FTL. My point is that it is a Calendrical effect, an example of the Calendar changing the loca laws of physics.

    With regard to the implants, there is more than the lack of explanation. If anybody knows it they don’t make use of that knowledge on camera. Nobody suggests that the implants are required for Calendrical effects. There is a complete absence of textual evidence for the idea.

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    1. It’s a very mathsy perspective though — taking mathematical formalism and treating it as changing how the physics is rather than changing how the physics is described.

      One significant difference between the calendar powers and the usual fictional magic is that the story knows that the rules of physics have changed. That’s not normally how magic is depicted even though implicitly magic usually breaks physics.

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    2. @Paul —

      Sorry for my delayed response — I’ve been away from my laptop, and I haven’t felt like typing in a long response on my phone. When I’m back on the laptop, and after I get some sleep (got about 3 hours last night!), I promise to address your points!

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    3. @Paul —

      Okay, I’ve gotten some sleep, I’ve gotten some food, I’ve mostly caught up on morning news surfing and such, and I have my laptop, logically enough, on my lap. So let’s see what I can say about your most recent post.

      “Firstly I will point out that the mathematics is not sufficient to make it science rather than magic.”

      It occurs to me that you and I start from very different starting points in our analysis of what is sf and what is f.

      You seem to start out from the position that a story must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is sf, and if it fails that standard, it must therefore be f.

      I, on the other hand, start from the position that if a story is told in the language of and with the trappings of sf, then it is sf unless proven otherwise.

      It seems to me that your position ends up classifying many famous works of sf as f — for instance, the Zones of Thought books by Vinge. I mean, can YOU come up with a rational excuse for those zones? Also, as I mentioned before, all those sf stories that include telepathy. Are you ready to classify something like Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang as fantasy?

      Personally, I’d rather allow for some handwaving and assumption-making, while trying to respect the intent of the author and the overall flavor of the work.

      “With regard to the implants, there is more than the lack of explanation. If anybody knows it they don’t make use of that knowledge on camera.”

      Again — they don’t care whether you understand it or not. It’s a natural part of their lives. I don’t often see people in sf explaining where their food comes from, either, but that doesn’t mean food acquisition is magical. It’s just assumed that you already understand. And remember, I very specifically explained in a previous post that I’m not making a claim that ALL the effects we see are due to implants — I’m just using the implants as one explanation for some of the weirdness we see, and a way to start thinking of that weirdness as science-based.

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      1. @Contrarius

        I am afraid that you have badly mistaken my position. The reason that I require evidence that Calendrics is science is that it gives a very strong impression of being magic. It is not that I require proof absolute proof – it is that I am already going with the evidence as I understand it.

        The Zones of Thought, while unexplained, are not so clearly magical. There is nothing like torturing heretics (on the correct dates!) so that the FTL drives continue to work.

        Telepathy is an example of an SF trope that is generally accepted as SF, even if it is fantastic. As is FTL – it’s the rituals to keep the drives working that make it fantastic, not the drives themselves.

        The hand waving and assumption making is not unacceptable – if it comes from the author. But I don’t see why I should give any heed when it comes from someone with no special connection to the text.

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      2. @Paul —

        “The reason that I require evidence that Calendrics is science is that it gives a very strong impression of being magic.”

        But WHY?

        “Because it’s weird” isn’t an answer. Quarks and charm are weird. Irrational numbers are weird. Deep-sea anglerfish are weird.

        What evidence do you have that the characters in the book think it’s weird, or supernatural, or anything other than scientific? They work with math and computers to develop and implement it. Cheris is able to overthrow the previous calendar **because she is good at math and strategy**, not because she has arcane powers.

        You keep kvetching because neither the characters nor the author stopped to explain things to you. Well, too bad, so sad. They didn’t care whether you understood or not. In fact, one of the points of the series is that reality is created by our perceptions, so both your confusion and the lack of explanation can be seen as features — not bugs.

        ‘The Zones of Thought, while unexplained, are not so clearly magical.”

        Says who? You seem to be applying a double standard here — you *want* Vinge to be sf, so you see a ridiculously unscientific element of worldbuilding as science, but you don’t extend the same courtesy to Lee.

        “There is nothing like torturing heretics (on the correct dates!) so that the FTL drives continue to work.”

        But remember, it’s not the torture itself that does it — they’re not appeasing gods or calling up demons or releasing life forces or whatever. These torture sessions are called “observances” for a reason — EVERYONE is expected to watch them. It’s the collective OBSERVANCE that is important, not the sacrifice itself. Because — again — perception creates reality, and they are creating a massive cohesiveness in perception.

        “Telepathy is an example of an SF trope that is generally accepted as SF, even if it is fantastic.”

        Right — it’s **generally accepted**. There’s no scientific rationale behind it — it’s simply accepted because that is the consensus. You see? You are yourself creating reality through your perceptions, a perception created through an aggregated consensus. Just like Lee’s society does with mass observances on a larger scale.

        “But I don’t see why I should give any heed when it comes from someone with no special connection to the text.”

        Now you’re just getting offensive. That’s why literary analysis IS, isn’t it? Discussions amongst people who have “no special connection to the text”?

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      3. @Contrarius: It’s the collective OBSERVANCE that is important, not the sacrifice itself. Because — again — perception creates reality, and they are creating a massive cohesiveness in perception.
        My take on it is that you can interpret the trilogy as SF if it’s set in a universe with the quantum mechanical observer effect dialed up to about 15, so that it operates in the realm of ‘classical’ physics.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. @Phil —

        “My take on it is that you can interpret the trilogy as SF if it’s set in a universe with the quantum mechanical observer effect dialed up to about 15, so that it operates in the realm of ‘classical’ physics”

        Interesting idea!

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  15. @Contrarius

    I have already explained why I see it as magic. Rituals to alter the nature of reality – especially with the human sacrifice angle is as obviously magical as you can expect to get. It also isn’t at all how quantum mechanical observer effects work – sorry PhilRM.

    I am not kvetching about the lack of explanation. I am pointing out the lack of textual support for your view.

    You misrepresent my position on the Zones of Thought. There we do not have anything giving an appearance of magic – no ritual, no symbolism.

    Observance is an ordinary English language term for “a customary practice, rite, or ceremony” (the first definition in Merriam Webster – simply watching is the third). I note that observing – in the sense of watching – seems to be a substitute for participation, used for practical purposes.

    Your point regarding telepathy is one I made back in my original post to this argument. I shall simply point out that the use of ritual to affect reality is not generally accepted as an SF trope

    And quite frankly if you are offended by the idea that your “hand waving” – your term – is not accepted as valid literary analysis then I think you have a problem. The more so since I have far more valid grounds for taking offence. Since you have taken your lack of argument well past the point of civility – and certainly well past the point of productive discussion – I see nothing more worth saying.

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    1. @Paul —

      “I have already explained why I see it as magic. Rituals to alter the nature of reality”

      Really? Rituals are magic?

      To take a random example, just look at the launch of a spaceship. Every step, every person’s role, nearly every word uttered is formalized in the extreme. IOW, it’s a ritual. You think that’s magic, just because it’s ritualized?

      Or look at meditation and blood pressure — ritual again alters reality.

      “– especially with the human sacrifice angle”

      Again, it isn’t the sacrifices themselves that are important here — it’s the shared experience. And we all know that shared experiences affect group perception, right? Again, that isn’t magic.

      “I am pointing out the lack of textual support for your view.”

      You may be “pointing it out”, but that doesn’t mean there is actually no textual support. In fact, I’ve already given you examples of that support — you just don’t like them. After all, there is more to “textual support” than expositional infodumping or “as-you-know-Bob” dialoguing.

      “There we do not have anything giving an appearance of magic – no ritual, no symbolism.”

      Okay, now we may be getting somewhere. So it’s really just the ritual and “symbolism” that push you over the edge to a fantasy categorization?

      I’ve already pointed out how ritual is very often unmagical — so that doesn’t work here.

      And what do you mean by “symbolism”? Nobody here is calling on gods or arcane powers. Speaking of a complete lack of textual support. 😉 No, what they “call on” is mathematical equations and computers and alien lifeforms like the moth ships.

      I’ve asked you before for any “textual support”, anywhere in the book, that the characters themselves think of anything that’s happening as being magical, supernatural, religious, related to gods in any way, or anything other than scientific. Do you have any? Any at all?

      “Observance is an ordinary English language term for “a customary practice, rite, or ceremony””

      Ummmm….. so what?

      “I shall simply point out that the use of ritual to affect reality is not generally accepted as an SF trope”

      This is the second or third time you’ve tried to lean on the validity of a concept being based on its “general acceptance” — which seems really funny to me, given the genre we’re discussing. Isn’t sf in large part about stretching the concepts of “generally accepted” reality? As I’ve already pointed out, telepathy is only seen as a sf trope rather than a f trope because of consensus — not for any logical or scientific reason. And as I’ve also pointed out, ritual is a common component of many scientific activities, like launching spaceships — or scrubbing up for surgeries, or, heck, pipetting solutions in a lab. Again, “ritual” most definitely does NOT equal “non-scientific”.

      Since you were so interested in the dictionary definition of “observance”, here’s the dictionary definition for “ritual” — “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” Rituals are often religious, but they don’t have to be. Heck, tying your tie in the morning can be a ritual. And in Lee’s books, there is no hint of religion in those rituals — in fact, Lee repeatedly describes the matter-of-fact attitude of the torturers involved.

      “And quite frankly if you are offended by the idea that your “hand waving” – your term – is not accepted as valid literary analysis”

      Straw man.

      I was offended not by anything about handwaving, but by your claim that all of my ideas could be dismissed out of hand simply because I’m not the author. **That** is an offensive claim to make.

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    2. @Paul —

      I had another thought — annoying, I know. 😉

      You seem to think that the concept of perception altering reality is magical — in other words, non-scientific, non-realistic.

      Now let’s think of transgender people.

      Can you see the correlation?

      Transgender people appear to be one gender, but their self-perception says they are actually the other gender.

      Which wins? The appearance of reality, or their perception of reality?

      Lee did a lot of playing with appearance vs reality throughout these books, which I personally think makes them especially fascinating. But does that necessarily mean they are intended to be magical or fantastical? I don’t think so.

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  16. My earlier joking about Machineries of Empire being fantasy aside, I do generally see the series as science fiction because SPAAAACE! However, I’ve seen a fair number of people remark that they found it easier to look at the calendar system as magic. Certainly Lee is invoking the idea of religion with talk of beliefs and heretics even without any gods or demons behind it. And the remembrance days are more like religious ceremonies or magical rituals than they are like procedural protocols. I’ve also seen the series referred to as science fantasy.

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    1. @Laura —

      “However, I’ve seen a fair number of people remark that they found it easier to look at the calendar system as magic. Certainly Lee is invoking the idea of religion with talk of beliefs and heretics even without any gods or demons behind it.”

      I agree that the books have obvious elements that could easily be seen as magic by readers. But I don’t think that’s the way the **characters** see them.

      Forgive the following rambling. I get more and more fascinated by these books as I think about them more —

      I think what Lee is doing is asking us to look at things from a different perspective — and he’s using some Asian/Chinese/Korean ideas to do it. For instance, in the real world, the West tends to think that things like the “Chinese medicine” tradition is bunkum — pure superstition. Yet traditional Asians take it completely seriously, and recently we in the West are finding out more and more about the “scientific” effectiveness of things like acupuncture. Similarly, numerology is important in Asian cultures — those traditions see numbers as materially affecting the real world. *We* think it’s nonsense, but that’s not their perspective. Their “science” is sometimes very different from our “science”, and they see theirs as being just as real as we see ours to be.

      And you mention the talk of heretics. I see that coming out of the insistence on strict conformity in places like China — their history is rife with various purges of nonconformists/heretics, even in strictly non-religious regimes. Even now they’re doing the same sort of thing with those who refuse to conform, as with the current infamous Muslim “re-education” camps. That doesn’t require religion or anything supernatural, just an insistence that everyone must think the same way. Everyone must be forced to “see” the same reality — whether anyone in any other country “sees” that same reality or not. In places like China, their reality is materially different than ours — because of a forced conformity in their perspective.

      And then combine that with transgenderism. As I was asking Paul above: which reality is “real” — a person’s apparent gender, or that person’s self-perceived gender? The reality changes with perspective, and I do think that a lot of what Lee was doing with the story is relatable to the perception/realtiy dichotomy of transgenderism.

      Then also, Lee does a lot of playing with “person”ness:

      1. His main character is first a woman, then a woman with both a male mind and a female mind, then a melding of both those minds, all within the female body, then more-or-less the same main character is recreated in a male body;
      2. Another important character is a man in a “womanform” body;
      3. Other characters are sexless (or indeterminate) “alt” forms;
      4. Other characters who appear to be individuals are actually hive minds;
      5. Another character is born female, then surgically altered to male — not because he was trans, but just to serve as a double for another male character;
      6. Kujen does “psychic surgery” on several major and minor characters, possibly making them into almost entirely *different* characters even though they haven’t changed bodies;
      7. Servitors are nearly universally seen as essentially automatons, yet in reality (there’s that perception vs. reality again) their free will changes the course of the entire society;
      8. The moth ships are likewise seen and treated as mere machinery, yet again it turns out that they are sentient and their free will again changes the entire society;
      9. And on, and on, and on.

      Throughout the series, the relationships between perception and reality are confused and changing, and things are often not what they seem. And none of it requires that the characters believe in the supernatural or magic. Magic isn’t important, conformity is. Formation instinct for the Kel, Calendars for the society as a whole.

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      1. I agree that the characters themselves would not think of the calendar system as magic per se. But, as you said, Lee is showing us more Eastern non-dualistic perspectives here. So they wouldn’t necessarily being drawing a hard line between mystical and technical.

        In the end, I don’t have a problem with someone choosing to look at this as fantasy or science fiction or science fantasy. I like it when authors blur the distinctions.

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      2. @Laura —

        “In the end, I don’t have a problem with someone choosing to look at this as fantasy or science fiction or science fantasy. I like it when authors blur the distinctions.”

        Yeah, I don’t have much beef with anyone who wants to call it “science fantasy” — though to my mind it’s less fantasy than even something like Star Wars. In Star Wars the characters **know** they’re talking about mystical/supernatural forces — unlike here, where the characters are talking about math and computers and strategy.

        And yes, I like the stories that make you think!

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  17. @Contrarius

    Your point about procedures being ritualised utterly fails to address the issue. The procedures are effective in themselves and for well understood reasons. There is no equivalent in the Calendars, indeed your claims about observation themselves undermine the parallel.

    Your idea that the sacrifices aren’t important is belied by the text. Jedao’s desire to stop the sacrifices is a major point – and it can’t be got around because they are required.

    Your point about telepathy is one I have already made, as I have said several times. And I don’t really see that general acceptance of telepathy as SF is a bad reason to accept it as SF.

    As for perception I suggest that you work harder on how you perceive my arguments instead of taking offence at imagined claims and shouting “strawman” when corrected. Especially considering your own liberal use of strawmen

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    1. Now Paul, I thought you had flounced out of this discussion already, with that quip about “nothing more worth saying”? But don’t worry. Whether or not your latest post — flouncing back in? — counts as something “more worth saying”, I’ll be happy to address it. Not right now, though, as I’m away from my laptop again. So stay tuned!

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