Could you rewrite the Lord of the Rings as a techno-thriller?

Despite my attempt to resolve forever the difference between fantasy and science-fiction, apparently, my typography-based typology has yet to catch on and the never-ending discourse continues.

I have mentioned before that while we make conscious attempts to define categories by sharp rules, our brains do weird things with them. One model (disputed) for the underlying cognitive process for classifying things is prototype theory. The idea is that for some things, we have a mental model of a specific example of a member of the category which we use to judge other possible examples. Does that work for genres? Maybe but I suspect that “science fiction” may be too varied to have a prototype sufficiently common between people as to make sense (maybe Star Trek or confusingly, maybe Star Wars).

Fantasy though…it’s a broad genre, in reality perhaps broader than science fiction and some people make a credible argument that it actually contains science fiction. And yet…The Lord of the Rings has a gravity to it that is hard to deny despite coming from a long tradition of books with similar aesthetics and tropes.

If The Lord of the Rings is a common subconscious prototype for fantasy for many people it would help explain some of the confusion we have with classifying the genre. Star Wars is a lot more like LotR than Star Trek but also Star Wars is a lot more like LotR than Dune and yet the epic historical fantasy aspects of Dune are clear.

Part of the issue is that much of what makes LotR a compelling story, are not the things that make it genre distinctive. Attempts to make a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy can founder when we consider how LotR would change if it had to conform to proposed rules about science fiction. If, as the thought experiment goes, Tolkein’s elves were aliens, would the story now be sci-fi? The role of magic in fantasy versus materialist explanations in science fiction has also been offered. However, LotR has an odd take on magic. Much of the overt magic we see is attached to made objects (the Ring obviously, but also the palantir, the doors of Moria, Sting, the vial of light gifted to Frodo by Galadriel, or delving deeper into the mythos, the Silmarils themselves). We don’t know how those things work (magic!) but of course we don’t know how phasers, tractor beams, replicators or warp drives work either. To quote the overused quote from Arthur C. Clarke “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Clarke was making a point about technology rather than genre distinctions but the insight works almost symmetrically. We could add a rider that magic is only indistinguishable from technology if it doesn’t violate broader rules of physics but firstly it isn’t clear that the magic we actually see in LotR does that (you can’t build a perpetual motion machine with the One Ring) whereas the technology in an awful lot of science fiction does (the poor old speed of light gets no abuse in Lord of the Rings but is routinely broken in Star Trek).

A recent non-serif-related resurgence of the debate on the genres was provoked by a distinction that originated with Ted Chiang (the broader fuss is covered here https://file770.com/pixel-scroll-9-20-22-crisis-of-infinite-credentials-the-anti-timothy-rises/ in item 7). Chiang’s thoughts were from 2021 and you can read them here https://chqdaily.com/2021/07/celebrated-author-ted-chiang-shares-how-literature-of-change-shapes-idea-of-future/ They are unsurprisingly thoughtful and complex and don’t resolve anything. However, the recent discussion of them focused on just one of the distinctions he made:

“The availability of technology, Chiang said, is a major difference between science fiction and fantasy. He said that some people claim that the only difference between the two genres is cosmetic: they say that if The Lord of The Rings had aliens instead of elves, then it would be called science fiction.  Chiang disagrees. He then gave two stories: one where gold could be created for cheap by anyone and another where only a few people had the ability.

The difference between the two examples is the importance of the practitioner. The second example — found in the genre of fantasy — depends on the individual, with the universe choosing a particular person for a particular reason. The person may have an innate gift, or a purified soul,  for example. Reasons could also include good intentions, hard work, intense concentration or personal sacrifice. The first, which he said is more reminiscent of science fiction, requires none of these.

“None of these things are true of scientific phenomena,” Chiang said. “When you pass a magnet through a coil of wire, electric currents flow, no matter who your parents are, whether your intentions are good or bad. You don’t have to concentrate power or offer a sacrifice in order for a light bulb to turn on. Electricity doesn’t care.” In fiction, magic typically requires individuals and responds differently to each one. 

“Magic is evidence that the universe knows that you’re a person,” Chiang said. “Magic is an indication that the universe recognizes that people are different from things and that you are an individual who is different from other people. Science fiction, in many ways, does the opposite.”

https://chqdaily.com/2021/07/celebrated-author-ted-chiang-shares-how-literature-of-change-shapes-idea-of-future/

That sounds really plausible as a distinction! Yet…does it really work even for something like Lord of the Rings? OK, we have actual overt dialogue where Gandalf states a thesis not unlike Chiang’s. Gandalf suggests to Frodo that the apparent happenstance that has place Sauron’s ring in the hands of the humble hobbit shows that a higher, benevolent power is at work. The universe (or Eru-Iluvitar) knows about Frodo and cares about hobbits etc.

However, that is not so much fantasy or magic but rather Tolkein expressing Catholic theology in his work. It is also not something we SEE in Lord of the Rings but a belief (an expression of faith) asserted by a character. True, that character is Gandalf who is semi-divine and not just the local Catholic priest of Hobbiton but I don’t think it is remotely an accident that Tolkein includes this idea in a way that is expressed as a statement of faith. Why does that matter? Because, that’s not genre related. If Tolkein had been writing in other genres, he could have still had a character make the same claim and possibly would have because Gandalf is expressing a belief that Tolkein in general also held about the actual real world.

Putting that theological intrusion aside, is the magic within Lord of the Rings specifically personal in the sense that Chiang suggests as a criteria? Maybe, sort of, not really, ish. OK, the one ring itself is explicitly tied to the person of Sauron but it is also a thing. The other rings are things and all of the rings have powers that work for other people (to some degree). I actually really like Chiang’s idea that magic should have something fundamentally subjective about it and that is something I dislike about overly mechanistic magic systems. Yet that distinction is weaker in Lord of the Rings than in something less prototypical fantasy such as the X-men comics or the superhero genre in general. It’s not that there are zero aspects of the person/individual in Tolkein’s magic but that it is generally a light touch. The strongest example is Aragorn, who isn’t that overtly magical. Contrast that with Paul Atreides in Dune, a character who combines elements of both Frodo and Aragorn, who has powers that are both vast and deeply tied to him as a person and his ancestry.

Put another way. I don’t have an issue with a criterion that puts Dune in the camp of Fantasy rather than Science Fiction or does the same for Star Wars. Yet, I think if we were to apply that subjectivity of magic consistently, we would end up with a heuristic that classifies Dune and Star Wars as being MORE fantasy than Lord of the Rings. In other words, that’s a heuristic that would categorise some books in an interesting way but it would end up not matching our established intuitive ideas of which camp is which.

Consider a different thought experiment. Put aside elves being aliens, in the end, they are all people. The question becomes how changed/damaged would Lord of the Rings become if the magic was totally impersonal in it? If the magic was more like how Chiang describes the indifference of electricity?

Can we go even further? Could Lord of the Rings be re-cast as something other than sci-fi or fantasy? Maybe or at least something different but adjacent to both.

Consider what drives the plot of Lord of the Rings. It is a special object that is desired by multiple powerful people. It is a MacGuffin and while it has distinct qualities that make it more distinct than say the Maltese Falcon, it isn’t so very different from that particular bird. The One Ring has powers and is desired because of those powers. Tolkein adds a deeper thematic element that the power of the ring is also literally corrupting but that corrupting element of desire needn’t be supernatural (e.g. consider The Treasure of Sierra Madre while I consider why I keep making Humphrey Bogart references).

The Lord of the Rings has substantial elements of a MacGuffin-driven thriller plot. That’s part of the fun of it. I doubt Alfred Hitchcock would have made a movie adaptation of the book with Jimmy Stewart as Frodo but there is a kind of sense to that idea.

OK but the One Ring needs some power. I’ll grant that but how about a techno-thriller version?

We have a small tech company in the West of England, maybe not far from Bristol. The founder of the company (Bill) has been running the company as a cyber-security consultancy for many years and is due to retire. His protege, Fred, will take over the company. Yet there remains a cloud of mystery around Bill. Back in the crazy days of the early 1990s, Bill was rumoured to have been part of a hacker collective who had got up to some crazy shit. That crazy shit involved the legendary hacker/phreaker known by the handle grey_wizard001 aka mythRando aka 010-r1n aka ganDALɸ.

What Fred knows but most people don’t, is that Bill owns the mysterious “dongle-of-doom”, an ageing peripheral which allows Bill to access almost any computer network (including the internet) unobserved. Bill has the ability to essentially turn invisible online. One huge cyber-heist in the 1990s was Bill’s only overtly criminal act but the money he made from that is what led to his good fortune now.

Bill’s departure at the end of his retirement party leads to the arrival of the ageing hippy grey_wizard001 into Fred’s life. He comes with a dire warning: there’s more to Bill’s ancient bit of tech than meets the eye. It’s not just a handy tool for internet privacy but in the right hands, the back door to almost any computer system in the world. What’s worse, the man who made it has discovered that it wasn’t destroyed in the 1990s…

So begins Fred’s journey to London. Pursued by black leather-clad assassins on motorbikes, helped by assorted techno-anarchists, and caught up in a conflict between organised crime and UK intelligence agencies, Fred and his friends must journey to the heart of Docklands to destroy the dongle before the tech billionaire gains monopolistic control of the world’s data. From his executive suite at the top of Canary Wharf, S.R.Ron has a plan for ultimate power and only Fred can stop him.

OK, that’s stupid but the broader point is that magic isn’t really the issue here. The techno-thriller version of LotR could have an isomorphic plot and we could hand wave magic as IT jargon but we wouldn’t have a story that was as charming, moving or as scary as the original. The Black Riders could be lethal ninjas on bikes but they wouldn’t carry the raw terror of the Nazgul. Gondor could somehow map to the Tower of London (juxtaposed neatly near Canary Wharf). I could work in a nice walk in the Cotswolds for the cyber-hobbits but the bucolic scenery still wouldn’t be the same as the Shire even if they looked the same. I’ve got rid of the wrong magic.

You knew at the start that I wasn’t going to have a decent concluding paragraph to this post. There is no neat rule or even vague rule to distinguish science fiction and fantasy but we knew that at the start.

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49 responses to “Could you rewrite the Lord of the Rings as a techno-thriller?”

  1. Like so many good things, your technothriller example relies on a bit of cheating or at least sleight of hand or at least selective emphasis, because (IMO) a major story element in LotR is that the Ring doesn’t just have powers over the world— it also has a direct corrupting effect on the personality of anyone who uses it (except Sauron I guess). There’s no such mechanism available for the “dongle of doom” unless you set it in a much more SFnal world where computer networks are literally indistinguishable from people’s minds because we’re full of implants, or some such… or, if you just treat it as a psychological metaphor where people are corrupted by the unfair advantages that the dongle gives them, but I think in that case you’re definitely not hitting anything like equivalent story or character beats to LotR.

    So I think Chiang’s point about magic involving an acknowledgment of personhood still applies there. Like all statements about fiction, I don’t think there’s any way to make Chiang’s point into a really reliable rule; fiction, at least when it’s being written by human beings, is inseparable from human concerns and habits of mind, and humans 1. like to figure out objects and use tools, and 2. value their subjective experience and are constantly coming up with ideas about spirits and souls. In creative work (as opposed to a technical manual) it’d be unlikely for any story to focus exclusively on one of those areas. But it makes sense to think of them as different drives that can be more strongly or weakly represented, and “does the universe know I’m a person” is a fair attempt to describe the second.

    And while I don’t ultimately care much about sorting books in this way, I do think it’s interesting to see writers trying to reconcile those drives within genres that have traditionally put a high value on sorting. For instance, Campbell’s promotion of “psionics” as a core SF ingredient could be seen as a way to get some magic in— not so much magic in the sense of “violates physics even more than FTL does”, but in Chiang’s sense; it gives consciousness a place at the table in the natural order. Arguably an opposite example is the way Charles Stross treats the idea of demonic possession in the Laundry Files books: he wants to have traditional horror-fantasy elements like minds being taken over by a cursed object, but to keep that in a SF/technothriller frame he has to emphasize the technical aspect in ways that don’t privilege personhood (like, possession is a process where a huge number of beings from another universe analyze your nervous system and figure out how to hack it, which they can do seemingly instantly because time goes much faster for them).

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    • And stuff like psionics has been deeply embedded in SF for almost as long as it’s been a named genre. There’s certainly plenty of SF that doesn’t involve that, but the presence of magical elements (in Chiang’s sense) certainly did not stop people from feeling that Campbell-style stuff was in the same ballpark. I guess what I’m getting at with my Campbell example is that there was a semi-conscious feeling that there should be some kind of distinction— that “impersonal tool-using” and “personal magic” are two different storytelling drives and that SF is supposed to be about the first— and yet they are both very powerful drives, so one inevitably ends up getting smuggled in under cover of the other.

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    • //because (IMO) a major story element in LotR is that the Ring doesn’t just have powers over the world— it also has a direct corrupting effect on the personality of anyone who uses it//

      You are right but the idea of treasure psychologically being inherently corrupting rather than magically isn’t new and that nearly does the same thing. In some ways the manifest corruption of the ring, simplifies the story in LotR – it makes it easier for the smart people to choose to destroy it rather than using it for “good”

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      • Well, that’s why I hedged with “selective emphasis” and “IMO”, because it really depends on what you consider to be the major story elements in LotR. I feel fairly strongly that a big part of the distinctive identity of that work is the idea of Frodo being on a mission to destroy a powerful thing that, simply by being in proximity to it for the length of time it’ll take to get this done, he will inevitably become a ruined person who can’t give up the thing. If this is translated into something mundane like “I have to accompany this treasure on a journey where I’m supposed to destroy it, but because it’s a valuable treasure, I’m tempted to keep it”… to me, that just doesn’t work in the same way. Being tempted by money is too close to universal personal experience, and doesn’t have the same weight of “you will literally turn into something else”, and doesn’t explain why Sam for instance wouldn’t suffer the same fate. I feel this is analogous to how vampire stories clearly include a theme of addiction, which is a real human experience, but that doesn’t mean every vampire story could be directly translated to a heroin story.

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    • Mercedes Lackey has written about reading James Schmitz’ psionics stories and interpreting them as Magic But Based On Science. Which explains, I imagine, why many of her magical characters are telepaths.

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  2. The other cheat is that a physical dongle is in principle reproducible – Fred could destroy the original but retain a copy, or multiple copies could be made, whereas the Ring can not be copied.

    Note that so many SF-tinged MacGuffins are irreproducible, due to poor documentation (the Super-Soldier serum, etc.).

    P.S. Pat Cadigan converted “The Hobbit” into space opera, which worked pretty well.

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  3. It might be fun to approach the question in a way similar to how linguistics works: assume that the distinction between SF and Fantasy is real but is determined by how actual SF/F readers draw it. Then try to adduce rules that are consistent with what people actually do.

    Given a list of works, I think it’s remarkably easy for most readers to categorize 99% of them. Just a few seem hard to place. That was my experience classifying stories for Rocket Stack Rank, anyway.

    This makes it easier to defend very rough rules like “if it has elves, trees, arrows, etc.” then it’s fantasy. If it has rockets, electricity, scientists, etc. then it’s SF.” You can’t counter “well, what if I write a story about elves in space?” unless you can find an actual successful example of such a story. Otherwise it’s like a sentence that ends with “the.” Sure, you can write one, but native speakers won’t accept it. (We say “native speakers don’t license that.”)

    I feel pretty confident that nearly 100% of SF/F readers will categorize LotR as fantasy. Therefore, the challenge is to explain why in such a way that you can predict their reactions to works that haven’t been published yet. In that view, a rule that classes LotR as SF (or, worse, some other genre) is simply defective.

    Since I think the main value of genre definitions is helping guide readers to stories they’d like, I think this approach is the most likely to lead to useful definitions.

    But, of course, there’s always a place for amusing definitions too. 🙂

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    • Yes, I think this could be done with a sufficiently trained machine learning algorithm (heck my semi-serious font stuff would suggest ML could spot the difference most of the time just with covers alone)

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    • “You can’t counter “well, what if I write a story about elves in space?” unless you can find an actual successful example of such a story.”

      Patricia Kennealy-Morrison had a bestselling series with elves in space called The Keltiad in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Has about eight novels and a number of short stories. It’s a futuristic fantasy series. Futuristic fantasy is a large sub-genre of fantasy fiction.

      Fantasy stories can have SF elements because they just have to have some supernatural elements in them. SF stories stick to natural elements that are unreal. (See all my whinging below.) The distinction between SF and fantasy is real but it is real because that’s the way linguistically the vast majority of readers draw it/group it.

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      • Tim Zahn, Julian May, and David Brin have written works that have elves from space (sometimes with actual space ships)

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        • In the 1980’s and 1990’s, as well, urban fantasy (contemporary fantasy) was often referred to as “elves with computers” books in publishing. And then there was Terri Windling’s Borderland shared universe series written in that time period, which had elves on motorcycles. Elves are literally everywhere.

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          • P.S. I hope it’s clear I’m not disagreeing with you – just providing what I think of as interesting examples.

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            • Lol, I hope it’s clear I’m not trying to terrify people. Besides the “George Martin doesn’t actually owe us finishing A Song of Ice and Fire, much as we want it” argument, the “what’s the difference between SF and fantasy” debate is the perennial bugaboo I’ve most had to spend time on in fanish circles and elsewhere. While there are some debates over some titles about whether they are romance, mystery, etc., it’s really only the SFF genres where this becomes some sort of complicated, philosophical debate. I guess because science fiction and fantasy are so close as the non-mimetic genres and there are a lot of cultural ideas about both of them. That, and having a highly active fandom for both (and horror which is primarily SFF horror) that loves to debate and design new sub-genre descriptions for works. Linguistically, it’s fascinating. For clarity, it’s not always great.

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  4. “Elder Race” comes to mind, and how well Nyx’ technology maps to what would be called “magic” in another story – including a similarity to Chiang’s point about the universe “choosing” the magic-user, in that the techno-gadgets on the planets recognizes Nyx by the implants and therefore can be controlled by Nyx.

    (Also, it’s Tolkien, not Tolkein.)

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    • In Tchaikovsky’s recent space opera Shards of Earth a key character has essentially hyperspace powers which are very much tied to who he is as a person. So by Chiang’s principle, he is a fantasy character whereas the other characters are sci-fi ones.

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  5. I’m always long winded but this is something I’ve been long winded about for decades. So:

    1) Genre is not about rules and neat divisions, especially between SF and fantasy. There are no neat and tidy rules to genres because no one designed them in entirety (proposed them sometimes, yes; designed them as an imposed command, no, ) and there are no SFF police to enforce any sort of rules. Instead, people collectively and in general grouped stories together according to general content elements that seemed similar. This creates vague and overlapping edges because you can’t get 100% of people to agree that the same sort of elements are there all of the time on titles.

    But the central axis by which people sort SF and fantasy has remained consistent over many, many years — both genres have unreal elements that don’t exist (or at least are not definitely known to exist) in our current world and so are seen by most as distinct from mimetic fiction. Stories get grouped as science fiction if those unreal elements are given a natural world rationale for existing in the world of the story. Stories get grouped as fantasy if some of those unreal elements are given a supernatural rationale, beyond understanding of the natural world, for existing in the world of the story.

    A fantasy story might have science fiction elements in it along with fantasy ones because it’s the use of supernatural elements that cause folk to group it as fantasy, not the inclusion of any natural elements. So you could have a story where there is a science fiction technological machine that uses quantum mechanics to travel from one dimension to another but in one of the dimensions journeyed to, magic (the supernatural) exists and has no natural world explanation. (This is what Piers Anthony essentially did in one of his series.) That’s grouped as a fantasy story, because science fiction is grouped by having unreal elements that only have a natural rationale for why they are there presented to the readers. Science fiction stories are ones that don’t have any supernatural rationales. Fantasy stories include the supernatural with the natural. That’s how people like to group them.

    2) Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote was about genres and is the most misquoted statement of all time in SF. Clarke was responding to complaints that SF stories like Star Wars and Dune weren’t “real SF” because the science/natural rationale for the unreal elements was bad, implausible science. And his point was that you don’t know that they are bad, implausible science. Maybe it seems magical (fantasy-like) to you because the tech (natural world rationale) is so far advanced you can’t make sense of it as science but it still might be scientifically natural and is presented that way in the story. Essentially, Clarke, who was obsessed with the idea of omnipotent and mysterious aliens, was rejecting science fiction purity tests — attempts to lay strict rules on how people group stories as science fiction. He was not saying that science fiction stories should be seen as fantasy stories with magic (the supernatural) or that all fantasy stories are really science fiction.

    And that is the main problem. Some people assume that the scientific natural rationales for the unreal elements in SF stories must be good, plausible science that is preferably explained in detail if the story is to be seen as SF. But none of those have ever been “rules” that most people have collectively used to group stories as SF. It doesn’t have to be good, plausible natural science rationales for people to group a story as SF. Are Star Wars’ quantum energy Force field or later its midi-chlorians accessing the Force field good and plausible science? No. Is it a natural world rationale for the abilities of the Sith and the Jedi? Yes. So most people see Star Wars as SF and see Dune’s alien sandworms and psionic abilities from an alien substance as SF, even though there’s not a really well worked out, plausible scientific explanation for how it works. Sword and planet lizard-riding empires, FTL drives, telekinesis — none of those are good, plausible science. All have been regularly used in SF stories and all have been given a natural world rationale for existing. And so people grouped them and called them SF.

    3) Chiang’s attempt to give fantasy an inherent nature (a soul) of structure versus SF supposedly having a different inherent nature of structure, as you note does not work because that’s not how people collectively group the stories. He’s not the first to propose the particular idea. And it comes from a reluctance by many SF authors and fans to see SF stories as close to fantasy stories in any way because they think it cheapens or dilutes SF. Call it supernatural cooties. But SF stories that have bad, implausible science don’t have supernatural cooties. They just aren’t hard SF stories and are wilder, improbable speculation about what the natural world could include, for the sake of the story the authors want to do. Many SF stories are highly symbolic and metaphorical, using scientific natural speculation as a simple tool for theme or as a background. That doesn’t cause people to group them as fantasy stories. Many fantasy stories have very few supernatural elements in them because they are also using the supernatural elements as a tool to explore a theme rather than having the supernatural elements be central to the story. That doesn’t cause people to group them as science fiction.

    4) So why the unreal elements are there always strikes most people more in grouping stories into one of the genres than what precisely the elements are (besides being unreal). And so yes, if you made the races in LOTR alien species and switched the supernatural rationales for things to scientific ones, it would become a SF story in most people’s minds. Or your delightful cyberpunk version. (You might enjoy the SF novel There and Back Again by Pat Murphy, writing as Max Merriwell, which turns The Hobbit into a space opera story.)

    And this actually gets to something that has come up about Tolkien’s larger scope with The Hobbit, LOTR and the Silmarillion and other writings of Middle Earth he did, which we touched on in previous LOTR posts of yours. Tolkien’s universe was of a creator god who created the universe and has archangels and angels (Gandalf) and they created species — elves, dwarves, humans (possibly hobbits) and they gave them a planet to live on. And for awhile, the angels all lived there with them, but after some of the children species got rebellious, most of the angels left for another planet/dimension, though a few hang out on the planet to deal with rogue, bad angels and problems. And sometimes they take the elves and some others off planet with them. And they forge magical devices, etc.

    Some have speculated that maybe the creator god could be seen as a very powerful alien and the angels are aliens or genetically engineered servants of the powerful creator alien who also genetically engineer other species and put them on a planet. And when they go to another dimension, they do so through tech/wormhole travel. And the magical rings, etc., are just various forms of tech. They come up with scientific natural rationales for all the supernatural elements in LOTR’s universe, turning it into a SF story. People have been playing with this idea in stories based off of LOTR for quite awhile. (And that approach can make other people, mainly SF fans, uneasy.)

    That idea of shifting the rationales to natural SF ones (of what seems like magic turning out not to be,) especially in the creation of worlds/Earth, has been a popular idea in many SF stories. Gene Wolfe’s New Sun stories, David Brin’s Uplift stories, Parke Godwin’s Snake Oil duology, Clarke’s 2001, the Prometheus sequel of the Alien movie franchise, etc. Star Trek uses the idea that some entity possibly seeded the galaxy with very similar building blocks for why most of their aliens are similarly humanoid. The idea that our god myths were actually visiting aliens is one of the most popular SF ideas around — and a popular belief of many people about Earth. If the god turns out to be real but alien, is it fantasy? Most people won’t classify it as that because the supernatural/divine rationale turns out not to be the explanation for why the powerful being exists. Instead, there’s a natural rationale, so most people group it as science fiction.

    Again, many people, mostly SF fans who aren’t fond of fantasy, don’t like the idea that the distinction is that simple, that you can flip many stories back and forth by changing the rationales. They keep trying to come up with elaborate sorting rituals of structure, themes, tropes, etc., that will make the two less aligned. But genres come from people collectively agreeing to call stories by those names as a reference point and the reference point they use with SFF is: why is something that shouldn’t exist (unreal) there in the world of the story. And that can be a very slight distinction for many stories.

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    • Indeed, and we have things like Pern or modern LitRPGs were there is a token grounding of the magical world in science/technology but which is little more than a pretext for a fantasy story

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  6. As Kat says, Chiang’s thought isn’t new: Jim Butcher and Lisa Goldstein have made the same point (Goldstein puts it as “any idiot can flip a light switch” but that isn’t the same as a mage conjuring light).
    I think it’s a valid distinction though not a universal one. As for LOTR, the Palantir also have some of the ring’s corrupting nature, showing you stuff that will steer you down the wrong path. While it’s possible to conceive an AI doing the same, it wouldn’t be the same.
    2)CS Lewis (IIRC) once wrote that while having a Martian, a Native American or a Nazi draw a knife annd sneak up on a sleeping protagonist poses exactly the same level of suspense and danger, people don’t think they’re the same kind of story because each comes with a different worldview and setting. That’s a big part of it.
    3)In Jim Hines’ third Revisionary book the existence of magic becomes common knowledge. There’s a panel topic for one con discussing whether this means stories with magic should now be classed in mainstream fiction rather than specfic, and whether the quality of the story depends on the accurate portrayal of magic.

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  7. The whole discusion reminds me of the Bat Durstundiscusion and this one is from the 50’s. (And I read about it in a book from 2003)

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  8. “I think it’s a valid distinction though not a universal one.”

    It would be valid if it had anything to do with how people group science fiction and fantasy stories, but it really does not. Science fiction is filled with nearly as many Chosen Ones stories as fantasy is — the individual with abilities and powers well apart from the everyday person due to scientific rationales — hybrid aliens, cyborg warriors, intelligent androids (Murderbot,) the genetically enhanced, time travel loops that must be done by one specific person, space vampires, the Jedi. The Incredible Hulk has abilities others do not from a scientific accident — people consider it a science fiction story because it is a natural, scientific accident given as the rationale for the Hulk’s abilities, rather than a supernatural event.

    Likewise, numerous fantasy stories have magical landscapes, creatures, that everyday people are interacting with — a boy and his dragon stories are considered fantasy stories, while a boy and his alien stories are considered science fiction. A girl and her genetically engineered dragon from an alien life form on a post-apocalyptic colony planet is science fiction. And other fantasy stories use magic rings, stones, weapons that anybody can use to get powers, just like tech devices. There are fantasy stories where any ordinary person can do magic by finding a book of spells — in many fantasy stories, anyone can light a magical fire, not just a mage.

    So people group SF and fantasy according to why unreal elements exist in the world of the story. People have arguments as to what the why actually is for some SF or fantasy stories, but it’s still an argument by people over WHICH WHY is presented in the story, not some other factor. Other people don’t really like that it’s that simple or slight a distinction, one of approach and world building choices. So they keep trying to come up with an essence, a soul, a theme that supposedly every story in the genre has and is built around. But there isn’t one — you can always find numerous exceptions to whatever essence theory is proposed because SFF authors are not hive minds. They choose a reason for why they’ve put something in a story, how it got there, and based on what they present, people clump those common content choices together.

    So if I choose to have unreal elements and I give them a supernatural rationale for existing, like witches, I have a fantasy story. If I choose to set it in a historical period of Earth, like the Middle Ages, I have a historical fantasy story. If I then choose to change a lot of details and events from the historical period so that it recognizably doesn’t fit the factual historical record, I have an alternate historical fantasy story. People really just look at simple, basic content to group things into genres and sub-genres. Anything more complicated and you wouldn’t have millions of people all considering those stories to be in the same group.

    But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that some fans and authors take these genres very personally as their identities and they see the distinction as too reductionist of that identity, like a downgrade. It’s more common in SF because fantasy is often looked down on as juvenile, simplistic, etc., but it happens in both. They don’t like that you could, say, switch a story about elves into a story about aliens or a story about a robot into a story about a magical golem by just changing the rationales and people would put it in the other group. And so we get weighty treatises on the essential essences of SF or fantasy. They want things to be fuzzier. But the majority of other people don’t cooperate with them on that.

    And that’s not even getting into the mess of not-SF SF and not-fantasy Fantasy perceptions, which is what Hines’ satiric convention panel was partly referencing.

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    • There’s obviously more to be said about what count as ‘science’ and a ‘natural rationale’, in readers’ minds. Much of science fiction depends on a more or less vague gesturing to the latter, typically involving the hope/anticipation that some sort of device will be developed to overcome currently known prohibitions (e.g. the speed of light barrier imposed by relativity theory but also quantum mechanics’ internal block on hopping between ‘branches’ on the Many Worlds Interpretation’).

      On a personal note, that the genre so often relies on dodgy philosophy of science is one reason why I feel the need to cleanse my palate with a juicy crime novel!

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      • Yes, that’s where you get into arguments about whether a science fiction story is “sciency” enough to count as science fiction among readers — the “bad, implausible science doesn’t count” argument often used about properties like Star Wars or Dune. But readers still group stories with bad, implausible speculative science of the natural world as science fiction stories. Because it’s the natural rationale that is the core thing they’re counting. So essentially the “bad, implausible science” argument is not saying that natural world rationales aren’t key and important to make a story grouped as science fiction, just that some stories don’t make natural world rationales they feel are sufficient. It’s not a dismissal of the “why,” just an argument as to whether the why is sufficiently there in the story to count as in the genre. But collectively most readers don’t care about “sufficient;” they care about if it’s present.

        We see aliens as imaginary/unreal (at least as far as we know) but not as supernatural beings — they are seen as part of the natural world as we are, understandable by science. And we collectively call those stories with that content science fiction. We see elves as imaginary/unreal (at least as far as we know) and also as magical, supernatural beings, beyond the natural world with their existence beyond the understanding of science. And we collectively call those stories with that content fantasy. In between are many stories where the distinction is far fuzzier and there’s more dissent about whether content is presented as natural or supernatural, but that is still the distinction that people make.

        Likewise, they call stories crime novels — including SFF ones — crime novels because they are about a crime. It’s very, very basic.

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        • Indeed! Although I’m not so sure it is quite so basic – my point is, what counts as having a natural rationale may depend on the reader’s understanding of how science works and I suspect that’s typically rather poor. So, a story featuring a warp drive is accepted as SF, because the latter is taken by the reader to have some natural rationale, even though it actually doesn’t and can’t, on pain of gross violation of the causal order, just as is incurred by a magical wand! Hence the division between SF and Fantasy may depend on a view of science that is both flawed and fluid (insofar as our grasp of both the content of science and its methodology shifts over time).

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          • It’s not taken by the reader as having a natural rationale; it’s presented by the author to the readers as having a natural rationale in the world of the story. Most readers accept that rationale and the collective grouping of the story as science fiction as a description of its general type. Some SF fans may go, hey, that’s impossible, that there warp drive, the natural rationale is fake, Star Trek isn’t real science fiction because the science is bad. To them, it is not sufficiently well crafted science fiction. But the creators of Star Trek said it was natural and existed and so it is to the majority of people because the natural rationale is all that is required. It doesn’t have to be a good natural rationale. Science fiction doesn’t have to be well crafted to be science fiction. Science fiction doesn’t have to have good, plausible science to be science fiction. It is described as science fiction by people when an author chooses to put unreal things in the story and say that they are there for natural reasons, such as a human-built warp core drive.

            This is a big sticking point for many people on the SF side of fandom — that they can’t control the description, that it doesn’t deal with science in a way they think is necessary for the description. But the vast majority of readers deal with it simply as what did the author put in. The author/creators put in a spaceship that travels across the galaxy — that doesn’t exist and so the story is not mimetic. Why does it exist in the world of the story? Humans made it through science is the rationale given in the story. So it’s science fiction.

            As Alexandra Erin said in a Twitter thread on the subject today, since this topic is going around:

            “So the question is, how do we reconcile the definition when some people talk about science fiction and mean “when lasers go pew pew pew” and others mean “when scientific progress goes brrrr”?

            The answer is: why would we.

            Look around.

            Everything is like this.

            That’s language.”

            On the fantasy side of the fandom, many fans go by feels. If they feel it’s fantasy-like to them, they may claim it, whether or not supernatural rationales are given for anything. An author put a genetically engineered dragon in space in a SF story? No, dragons are only for fantasy for them personally so they declare it fantasy. But the vast majority use the description fantasy for stories where the author put in the supernatural rationale for at least some unreal elements. They call the genetically engineered dragon in space science fiction. They call a time travel story with a machine science fiction because the author told them the unreal time travel exists due to a human-built machine (natural). They describe a time travel story with a magic portal a fantasy story because the author told them the unreal time travel exists due to a magic portal.

            It’s not nuanced because millions and millions of people are not going to do nuance. It’s just a reference description of big, general types of stories. It’s not tied to science discoveries in the real world or methodology refinements. If the author says the unreal thing exists naturally in the world of the story, it does. If the author says that the unreal thing exists supernaturally in the world of the story, it does. An individual reader may not buy it for a story or be confused what the author is saying in the story (and the author may shrug and say they don’t care what interpretation folk have,) but we’re still going to be having big groupings going on as descriptions.

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            • Walter Jon Williams says that *Metropolitan* is fantasy – but readers keep trying to interpret it as SF.

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              • Yes, it’s futuristic fantasy. But because it’s very cyberpunky, many readers believe that Williams is doing a Gene Wolfe type of thing and that the magical plasma energy and the source of the Shield will turn out to be scientifically natural rather than supernatural as the inhabitants of the world treat it. That a character treats something as magic or divine doesn’t mean the readers see it as that if the author offers the readers a different explanation for its existence.

                In this case, even though Williams’ story across two novels is so far much more like Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, some readers decided that he is presenting a natural rationale for what’s happening. After all, he used the words plasma and energy. 🙂 For them, that codes it as natural, science fiction. The same thing happened to Mieville with Perdido Street Station — the first time I heard about the book, it was being called science fiction. Then it was being called fantasy (which it is). Then it was being called New Weird, which was Mieville trying to do a steampunk-like cross-speculative sub-genre/literary movement that combined Weird Fiction’s dark fantasy with New Wave SF style cultural ideas. That idea sort of stuck and sort of became a small lit movement.

                Essentially, Perdido Street Station is a steampunk secondary world dark fantasy novel. That’s the sort of sub-genre grouping debate that many fans will have for some titles because they interpret the rationales differently and the attributes of sub-genres differently. But it’s still an argument based on is it a natural rationale (science fiction) or a supernatural rationale (fantasy.) Each title gets assessed and may not have full consensus of readers but that root distinction is in general what people use to make their assessment — the two poles of unreality. Books that seem to sit more in the middle of those poles get more debate among readers, but it’s almost always debate about which pole is being presented.

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            • I’m not sure we’re in disagreement tbh! I just think there’s more to be said about what people, authors and readers alike, take to be a ‘natural rationale’ (some of which I’ve said myself in talks here in the U.K.). And when you start looking at that, the big groupings start to look as if they’re built on sand. Hence my antipathy toward so called ‘hard’ SF devotees who happily accept warp drives but scorn fantasy.

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              • It’s definitely a debate on natural rationale for many readers on various title. But that’s because the “genres” are just descriptions people use for quick reference. They can change, as words do, over time, though SF has managed to remain for the last 100 years or so.

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