A Tube Map of SF&F Genres

As with any London Tube style map, distance on the map has no connection with distance in reality. Position is about how to make everything fit. I feel like it needs more stops on the big pink Fantasy circle line. Green stops allow you to change services to mainstream rail lines. Purple stops allow you to change to the horror tram services.

There is a foot tunnel between Cyber Punk and Steam Punk.

How to fly

In the previous entry in this very irregular series of how to fictionally do a thing, I suggested that invisibility was one of the oldest of these fantastical ideas. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me that flight was just as old and just as fantastical. After all the myth of Icarus is far more famous than Plato’s Ring of Gyges, if we are talking about Ancient Greek sources. The difference is that we’ve stopped thinking of flight as being fantastical and think of it as more of a chore involving cramped seats and humiliating security checks.

Flight is still fantastical though. The superhero genre in particular indulges in essentially magical flight for a plethora of superheroes but we also have Harry Potter’s broomsticks and a in science fiction a host of machines that just casually hover about without the aid of great big blades chopping the air. So this is how to get airborne.

  • Be lighter than air. Proven technology! Anything less dense than air will be buoyant in air and float upwards. How to do that?
    • Use hot air and have a hot air balloon (or dirigible).
    • Use a gas that is lighter than air such as helium or burst-into-flames gas aka hydrogen.
    • Have some super light but amazingly rigid material contain a space that is tautologically full of vacuum.
    • You know that thing that Ant Man does where he goes really big rather than really small? If we assume he stays the same mass then his overall density should drop and he should float.*
    • Somehow make all the air really heavy so you float. I suspect this might also stop everybody’s lungs from working properly so you die. I suspect all I’ve done is invent swimming in water.
  • Push the air around really fast.
    • One way is to go really fast in general but have fixed wings that push the air down i.e. a plane.
    • Or do exactly the same thing but use Bernoulli’s principle to explain why it helps you fly.
    • Use a massive rocket to explode gases and push those out downwards. If you are feeling scatological do this using a superhero’s bottom an intestinal gas.
    • Have articulated wings beat the air in a pattern that generates lift, like a bird and/or be a bird. You may need hollow bones.
    • Have big blades that spin around really fast and push the air downwards to generate lift i.e. a helicopter.
    • Use a mix of all these things for a really complex flying machine.
  • Mess with gravity. OK but what if you don’t have to go downwards?
    • Anti-gravity. Magnetic forces attract and repel, so just figure out a way to make gravity repel. Ideally have it like a switch you can turn on or off. Yes, this does imply you can make some sort of perpetual motion machine but we can let the accountants take care of that.
    • Gravity blocker aka Cavorite. Slightly different concept to anti-gravity. Here you negate or shield an object from the force of gravity. There still needs to be some force to move the object upwards but only enough to deal with inertia.
    • Distort space-time geometries. See my previous discussion of faster than light travel.
  • Be in space. Either get far enough away from any planetary masses or be in orbit around them and you can float about as much as you like. Perhaps more than you like if your bones start suffering from it.
  • Use some other force. Gravity sucks. It’s seriously weak. A fridge magnet can defy the combined gravity of the mass of a planet.
    • Some sort of hand wave about electro-magnetism.
    • Less of a hand wave about superconducting materials and electro-magnetism.
    • Definitely magnets somehow.
    • The Strong Force is over a hundred times stronger than electromagnetism! So that’s very strong. Surely that can help! [reads fine print: “At the range of 10−15 m “. Hmm OK maybe not a viable distance.]
    • The Weak Force doesn’t sound so great and also I have really no idea what it does and the explanations seriously don’t help. The good news is very few people know enough about it to contradict any vague claims you might make about it. So claim that using a clever material that helps you fly because of the weak nuclear force and you will annoy some physicists but seriously, how many physicists are there in the world anyhow? Not many.
  • Magic and or psychic powers. Yes, that is a non-explanation but you can point to forces that are stronger than gravity such as love, hate, believing in one’s self, nature and rainbows.
  • Be immaterial. I think this coincides with several of the other things listed above but it deserves its own entry. If you don’t actually have any substance because you are a ghost, spirit or astral projection then there is nothing stopping you flying. Simple.
  • Be virtual. If you exist in a virtual environment as a computer simulation then gravity is also simulated. By hacking the system or somehow by becoming “The One” you should be able to fly. Hints that you might be “The One” is if your name is an anagram of “One”. If Brian Eno starts flying unaided that may indicate we are all in a simulation.
  • Take lots of drugs. You won’t actually fly and you should not attempt to fly.

At the end of this, I realise I don’t know what the in-universe explanation of how Superman can fly is. I get that he gets his powers from being a Kryptonian living on Earth with its yellow sun that fuels his powers but what makes him fly? Answers on a postcard please.

*[As this doesn’t happen, we have to infer that his mass changes when he gets big or small. However, if you are imagining some amazing ability to shrink or grow large then I think the density thing is actually way more interesting.

Fantasy versus Science Fiction

There are some excellent pieces available this week on the distinction between fantasy and science fiction…or rather on how vainglorious attempting to make that distinction is particularly when aimed at proving that science fiction is intrinsically better.

James Davis Nicoll has this delightfully sarcastic essay at Tor.com https://www.tor.com/2019/11/06/science-fiction-vs-fantasy-the-choice-is-clear/

“Science fiction provides its readers with iron-hard, fact-based possibility. For example, Frank Herbert’s Dune played with the possibility that the right combination of eugenics and hallucinogenic drugs (taken from enormous alien worms) might allow messianic figures to draw on the memories of their ancestors. Well, how else would it work?”

And it just gets better from there!

Meanwhile, one of my favourite writers/commentators on a whole range of things, Alexandra Erin has an equally good essay at Uncanny. https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-science-fiction-and-fantasy-of-genre/

“It’s been said that whoever writes in the field of science fiction stands on the shoulders of giants, the towering titans of yesteryear. Their hard work built the playground; we just play in it.  At the risk of thoroughly mixing those two metaphors, it occurs to me that even if we allow for the existence of giants, a playground in which we have to stand on top of each other can’t be very large, can it? And even the best playground could use some new equipment from time to time.”

Apparently she wrote the essay awhile ago but by the time it was published it was once again extra-topical because of the recent essay by Norman Spinrad (the most recent news of which is here http://file770.com/spinrad-learns-date-of-asimovs-column-and-responds/ )

Personally I love attempting to make distinction between the two genres precisely because it is so futile. So here is another distinction of great superficiality. Two (badly flawed) lists from Forbes. The first “The Best Fantasy Novels of All time” and the second “The Best Science Fiction Novels of All Time

Now if I was an AI* and I was trying training to spot the distinction between books in the two genres I think I’d go off one almost key feature based on that list:

Is the title in a serif font or a sans-serif font?

How well does it work based on those lists?

  • Lord of the Rings: Great epic serifs.
  • The Lies of Lock Lamora: Excellent serifs on all of those L’s.
  • The Last Unicorn: Some of the serifs are sprouting flowers.
  • Mistborn: More moderate serifs and Brandon Sanderson’s author name doesn’t get them.
  • Tigana: neatly serifed.
  • The Name of the Wind: Understated serifs but still very much there.
  • A Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones: Serifs adapted for prestige TV.
  • Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell: That ampersand is sprouting a giant serif.
  • The Darkness that Comes Before: Modest serifs but still there.
  • The First Law Trilogy: Damn you Joe Abercrombie! You’ve ruined my theory! OK exactly one of the example covers was sans-serif for fantasy
  • Ender’s Game: Sans.
  • Neuromancer: Sans.
  • Hyperion: Sans
  • Snow Crash: a fancy display font but…still sans.
  • Dune: Art deco sans.
  • The Fifth Season: lots of geologically unstable serifs! Ok but N.K.Jemisin says the book is fantasy, so…edge case.
  • The Expanse: sans.

Now before you all say it there are actually many, many counter-examples to sans=SF and serif=fantasy. All of the books cited have many covers and while I don’t think I can find a Lord of the Rings editions with a sans-serif cover, I can find past covers of Ender’s Game with serif font choices for the title. Also, book covers are as prone to fashion as shoes** and what we are seeing are some specific font choices by publishers currently.

Even so, the choices are illuminating. A search on Baen book covers (because they are publisher with bold covers ) shows I think more-or-less-with-exceptions-and-edge-cases the rule of thumb sort of works in as superficial a way as possible.

No but really there is a serious point! Honest! I am actually still talking about bicycles in fantasy.

Sans-serif fonts date at least as far back as the 18th century but they are visually and semioticaly associated with the idea of modern and modernity. Serif fonts can be modern looking or evoke the past but in general a sans-serif font suggests something connected with more modern times and, also, the future. Historical science fiction (i.e. either recent books set in the past or older books) are more likely to also have serifed fonts. This list of best SF from Penguin has many more exceptions to the rule (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/the-read-down/best-sci-fi-books ) but one obvious example is Connie Willis’s Doomsday book***.

The rule then is more that a sans-serif font implies a modern aspect to the book. That makes the choice for the Joe Abercrombie cover a bit more interesting – The Blade Itself has a classic fantasy setting but characters that are a lot more modern in style and motivation and moral ambiguity. Of course, the specific example is also somewhat atypical compared with other editions.

So here is yet a different way of attempting to draw a line in a futile exercise to divide the genre of the fantastical:

  • Books about the nature of the modern.
  • Books about the nature of the pre-modern.

The distinction is a terrible one as it packs even more concepts into the words “modern” and “pre-modern” and it also implies just as many edge cases as already exist just with our intuitive distinction between fantasy and science-fiction.

It does answer my question about bicycles though. Bicycles are symbolically modern and despite the many ways we could imagine them fitting into a fantasy setting they feel out of place as a consequence. Only in the edge-cases where fantasy worlds work in with industrial (and hence modern in one sense) do bicycles not feel out of place.

*[Which I might be.]

**[even my shoes because Doc Martins go in and out of fashion]

***[two interesting counterexamples are SF novels by Tad Williams and Stephen Donaldson – both more famous for their fantasy works]

How to…make something invisible

Of all science fiction objectives, invisibility is one of the oldest and most plausible. Plato’s fable of the Ring of Gyges in The Republic used the idea of invisibility to discuss ethics. H.G.Wells added the concept to the staples of science fiction with The Invisible Man. The plausible aspect is that many things in real life (such as air) are invisible and others are transparent (such as glass) or can become effectively invisible (such as putting glass in water).

Making a person or a random object invisible is a more substantial challenge and the idea of invisibility is as much a trope of fantasy (Bilbo’s ring, Harry Potter’s cloak) as science fiction (Romulan cloaking device).

Let’s consider the ways:

  • Darkness: stop or reduce the amount of light being reflected off you. At one level this is simply wearing dark clothes at night. At another level this is using materials and shape to reduce the amount of radio-waves from RADAR bouncing off a stealth fighter.
  • Camouflage: the second most basic idea is to match the appearance of the target (person or object) with the background.
  • True invisibility: here light passes through the target making them perfectly transparent. There are issues – specifically if you were perfectly transparent then you couldn’t see as the light wouldn’t be absorbed by your eyes. However, invisibility need not be 100% to be effective. In The Hobbit, Bilbo still casts a shadow in bright sunlight (and as we learn in Lord of the Rings, the ring wearer is visible in other ways…)*
  • Bend light around you: if light goes around you instead of through you then maybe an invisibility cloak would be possible! Talk of complex metamaterials abounds! On the other hand here’s a Canadian company doing something vaguely like it with a sheet that’s a lenticular lens: https://www.iflscience.com/technology/a-canadian-company-has-created-an-incredible-invisibility-shield/
  • Dynamic camouflage: make your front look like your background with electronics. At it’s simplest get a digital projector to project an image of what is behind you on to your front! Stepping a little further into technology that doesn’t quite exist yet, use nano-electronic materials that can detect incoming light from one direction and project it from another.
  • Neuro invisibility: maybe manipulating light is hard work. Perhaps it is easier to hack the brain. Your system of visual perception already does a lot of editing and interpolating – hack that (how? waves hands…somehow…) and your ‘eyes’ can no longer see the target object.
  • Psychic or psychological invisibility: you can’t see what your brain won’t let you see. By using magical mind control powers and suddenly nobody can see you. Beware though, this might not work against robots, dogs or bats.
  • Be very small: technically this is not invisibility but if you are very small your are very hard to see.
  • Don’t exist: if you are in some way immaterial (a ghost, a psychic projection, a being embodied in electromagnetic waves etc) then you are just naturally invisible. I guess ghosts have reverse psychic invisibility i.e. technically not there so actually invisible but people can see them because of spooky things.
  • Hide and misdirect: stage magic makes things invisible by hiding objects or getting people to look where the thing isn’t. This requires a lot of work and a controlled environment.

*[The thing about Bilbo’s shadow makes me think that the One Ring makes its user actually transparent but not 100% transparent i.e. it is a physical effect. However, most other aspects of the One Ring seem to be psychic effects, so possibly it is psychic invisibility as well and the shadow thing is a bug in how it messes with your perception.]

Fantasy Bicycle

Of course MAGIC solves almost any problems we might have with a bicycle in a high fantasy setting. I think the secret is to not just use a little magic but to use a lot.

So here is my fantasy bicycle crafted by some kind of druidy/forest-magic peoples. The frame is wood from a magically tailored tree that grows bicycle frames.

The wheels are also wood but the tires are tough vines that sprout from the bicycle-tree plant and which are filled with a sap that helps maintain the whole bicycle.

I couldn’t quite manage to make a chain for the gears that looked right in the render but it would be some sort of thorny vine also.

The bikes only last a few months and then you have to bury them so a new bicycle-tree grows. However, a well watered orchard of bicycle trees maintained by the magical arborists will provide plenty of fresh bicycles for all who need one.

How far can a person travel in a day? My initial guesses

I was thinking about fantasy maps and how far people can travel. I’m guessing there’s probably excellent charts on this in some game source books but I couldn’t find a handy chart online so I made some guesses.

Feedback and correction would be welcome as these aren’t great guesses. I tried to split it into four levels of travel:

  • Saunter with breaks and distractions: the travellers are stopping off for various distractions, fights, visits to gift shops.
  • Non-distracted but not gruelling: the travellers are actively trying to get from A to B but at a reasonable pace for people who don’t want to arrive exhausted.
  • Marching/swift: The travellers are pushing themselves or on a fast service.
  • Extreme: Desperately fast or pushing the limits
Travel in a day
Saunter with breaks and distractions Non-distracted but not gruelling Marching/swift Extreme
Walking 10 km 20 km 30 km 40 km
Bicycle (good roads) 30 km 60 km 100 km
Bicycle (rougher roads) 15 km 30 km
Horse – single 30 km 60 km 100 km
Small company on horses
50 km 70 km 100 km
Large group with horses and wagons
30 km

Large sailing ship
220 km 450 km 660 km
Ox cart
10 km

Coach (with regular horse changes)
100 km

Train (Victorian – variable time spent on train) 200 km 600 km 1000 km

OK, so kilometres are annoying but I like them. Here’s the numbers above converted into miles. Looking at the miles I think I’ve been underestimating.

Saunter with breaks and distractions Non-distracted but not gruelling Marching/swift Extreme
Walking 6 miles 12 miles 19 miles 25 miles
Bicycle (good roads) 19 miles 37 miles 62 miles
Bicycle (rougher roads) 9 miles 19 miles

Horse – single 19 miles 37 miles 62 miles
Small company on horses
31 miles 44 miles 62 miles
Large group with horses and wagons
19 miles

Large sailing ship
137 miles 280 miles 410 miles
Ox cart
6 miles

Coach (with regular horse changes)
62 miles

Train (Victorian – variable time spent on train) 124 miles 373 miles 622 miles 932 miles

On reviews and not reviewing

I watched El Camino at the weekend, the Breaking Bad movie that follows the aftermath of the final episode by focussing on Jesse Pinkman after he escapes from the neo-Nazis. I enjoyed it but this isn’t a review of it.

If I review something I do one of two things:

  • Read other reviews first
  • Avoid reading other reviews first

Generally, I’ll read other reviews if I feel I don’t have a good grasp on the thing. I avoid reading other reviews when I think I’ve got a good sense of the thing and my reaction to it. Then sometimes I just read other reviews before hand because I feel like and I’m not the boss of me.

I didn’t feel like I had good sense of what to say about El Camino, so I did read other reviews. On review I thought was particularly pertinent was this one by Abigail Nussbaum http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2019/10/el-camino-a-breaking-bad-movie

Unfortunately, it was a bit too good i.e. I felt I had nothing to say afterwards. This is one reason why I’m always impressed by how people like Charles Payseur or Greg Hullender manage to review so many things, even if the reviews are short.

There are two things I find very difficult to review: things I had complex reactions to and things I didn’t have much reaction to at all. In both cases it is the issue of how to go about writing something that stops me. I know that I’m most comfortable writing things that in essence arguments i.e. have the structure of:

  1. I think this
  2. Here is a chain of facts and reasons
  3. See, I was right

But what I’m actually writing is more like:

  1. I felt this about a thing
  2. Here is what happened in the thing
  3. My feeling are now validated

And I’m not so sure about that and it makes me want to write reviews differently but I’m not sure how. And that is enough introspection for today!