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.

The Esteemed Guild of Plagiarists

I was reading about this recent scandal in the world of pen-and-paper adventures The short version is video game company Bethesda released material as part of a promotion for The Elder Scrolls Online. Unfortunately, said material was clearly a find-replace job on previous published Dungeons and Dragons adventure. The examples in this article show how clumsy the plagiarism was.

Put another way, the plagiarism was not just wrong morally but also an offence against the fine arts of intellectual property theft. I can’t help imagine some more experienced plagiarist shaking their heads and wondering what was wrong with people these days. Which also made me think of the oft used tropes of Assassin Guilds or Thieves Guilds or societies of pickpockets or burglars etc. The idea being that these people may be murderers or thieves and utterly lacking in decent morals but somehow still have professional standards.

So why not a secret order of plagiarists? A society dedicated to maintaining tight professional standards of plagiarism. A guild that would have taken the unfortunate involved in the example above and maybe pointed out to them that if they really, really had to steal something maybe steal something a lot more obscure and while they are at it maybe move a few sentences around or at the very least get the plagiarised text to a point were it at least looked liked somebody made an effort.

Of course the problem with such a guild lies in the very nature of the crime. The finest, most skilled practitioners of the fine art of plagiarism could take a text and using their highly trained skills generate a text that even a dedicated scholar of the original would not be able to spot that the new text was plagiarised from the first. Having reached such a level of skill at plagiarism, these elite plagiarists would have actually transcended the very nature of their crime. Their theft would no longer be theft and their art would, by definition, no longer be plagiarism — for once plagiarism is done so well that it is undetectable then it is no longer plagiarism. It is a offence that vanishes when it is done sufficiently well.

Potato Crisp Magic System

I do like an over elaborate fantasy magic system where powers (and the characters of the people deploying them) are tied to some other phenomenon or system of classification. Of course elements and colours and everything has been done but what about…potato crisp (aka chip) flavours? No, I thought not.

I’ve found many articles on crisps and crisp flavours but not a good one that is simple timeline of the classic UK flavours of potato crisps specifically (i.e. not including flavours of other related snack foods like pickled onion monster munch). The emphasis is either the early history or on novelty flavours.

In the UK the colour coding of packet to flavour is an issue also. There are canonical colours but infamously one of the biggest manufacturers of crisps in the UK, Walkers, use non-standard colours. The colours in Australia are different as well and in some cases I can no longer remember.

So I’m going off my shaky recall of what I think is canon circa late 1970s England.

Salted (or to be precise “Ready Salted”) is the ur-flavour and the basis of all other variants. Historically, the flavour approach had an immediate schism. Cheese & Onion was devised by Taytos in Ireland and Smiths responded with Salt & Vinegar. The names indicate the two approaches to crisp flavours (and related snacks in general:

  • Condiment themed: the flavour is named after a substance, sauce or ingredient that you might add to cooked potatoes. The name should be read literally. “Salt & Vinegar” are crisps with salt & vinegar added to their surface.
  • Meal themed: the flavour is named after some other food that is typically eaten as a core part of a meal or is the actual name of a dish. The progenitor “cheese & onion” implies a sandwich filling. The more exotic “prawn cocktail” is a specific dish.

Beef flavour and BBQ flavour represent a subset of flavours that include other variants such as “Oxo” and “Bovril” flavours. The core flavour is pretty much the same but it crosses the condiment/meal boundary and hence is more ecumenical in this scheme.

What powers go with which?

  • Meal themed powers relate to powers of illusion, deception and control. There is an emphasis on controlling farm animals (hence chicken) or even wild animals (such as the long running hedgehog flavour crisps)
  • Condiment themed powers relate to elemental and alchemic actions. There is an emphasis on single or paired core flavours that are stated directly. Heat (chillies, pepper), acid (lime, vinegar), mineral (salt) are key elemental aspects.
  • Liminal flavours cross boundaries. The BBQ/Beef subset is a clear one but “sour cream” style flavours present a similar taste to cheese & onion but are closer in theme to adding condiments.

As can be seen from reality, the system allows for infinite variation without ever actually doing anything very different…just like lots of fantasy magic systems!

Gamergate is ever so concerned about internet mobs

I finally got around to reading Larry Correia’s take on the Amelia Zhao affair. For those not familiar with this kerfuffle, Zhao is an aspiring YA author whose debut fantasy book was due to be published in June ( ). The book received a substantially less than warm welcome within YA-social media. The core of the criticism was from people who had read the book but the wider antagonism against the book was more secondhand. Feeling besieged by claims of racism within the work and debatable plagiarism (as I understand it more like cases of cliches or being very derivative), Zhao withdrew the book. [That’s my potted version, corrections welcome]

There’s an important issue here on legitimate criticism of creative work versus collective bullying or bad-faith verbal attacks on authors. It is more than possible for a given situation to include all three. Unintentional bullying tactics (eg the classic internet comment section dogpile) where any one individual is just expressing a reasonable opinion but which adds to what appears to be the infamous/nebulous internet “mob”. I don’t know what the solution is to these issues but “nobody can criticise authors or there works” isn’t it.

So I’m parking that question of practical ethics for the moment. I’ve got my own code around internet arguments (always be more civil and more charitable to the person you are arguing with than the person you are arguing with) but that doesn’t address questions of unintended collective bullying.

Anyway, quicker than you can say “SJW” in a sneering tone, our old pal Larry Correia waded in to castigate all and sundry: (link for reference – you can probably guess the tone and overall message).

Several points spring to mind:

  • If you are an aspiring writer and ever doubt your capacity to put word to page, don’t forget that Larry Correia is a very successful writer commercially and makes a good living from his books. He himself has pointed out that having an entertaining story to tell is more important that your wordsmithing capability. Tell a fun story and don’t worry whether you are actually brilliant at putting sentences together: Larry isn’t and it hasn’t held him back and seriously, good for him.
  • That first point might be inspiring but it contains the seeds of author obnoxiousness and self-entitlement that keeps cropping up. Sure the Sad Pups were a particular political example but it’s not confined to the right. One reaction to the self-doubt that plagues anybody in a creative industry is to adopt a toxic quasi will-to-power mentality that treats any and all criticism as an attack that needs to be met with greater force. Authors that think they have to adopt Sean Connery’s dictum from The Untouchables is the flip side of toxicity within book communities. It’s same seed of rejecting criticism that makes Scientology attractive to actors. Success in creative domains has a degree of unpredictability that enables superstition.
  • Larry was and remains a vocal supporter of Gamergate. So when he talks about horrific bullying by internet mobs he knows what he’s talking about. Sure, it’s from a point at the very depths of hypocrisy given he endorsed one of the worst cases of mass internet bullying and intimidation but we can rest assured that any ignorance demonstrated in his piece is wilful rather than accidental.

Put another way, in attempting to make discussion within a genre-community less toxic, safer and less inclined towards bullying (intended or unintended) the rants of Larry is not what is needed.

Bird Box & the Attack of the Concept Monsters

I’m not sure where spoilers begin and end here, so a general warning: I’m discussing various monsters and what they do. Generally, these aren’t spoilers as the premise is often in trailers but to be on the safe side if you would rather watch A Quiet Place or Bird Box or almost any episode of Doctor Who written by Steven Moffat without any foreknowledge of what the monsters are like, then don’t go past the fold.

The spoiler monster can’t get you if you don’t click here

I don’t know how to make a phaser

Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a decent non-projectile based energy weapon side-arm that is vaguely gun shaped. They might blast, phase, zap, pew-pew, disrupt or disintegrate but they have to give auditory and visual clues that they are operating. A silent and invisible beam of death may work quite effectively in a book but on screen its going to just look weird in battle scene. I can imagine some future small arms manufacturer adding colour beams and sound effects to an energy weapon just because customers are creeped out by an otherwise apparently inanimate gun.

At one level beam weapons are well understood technology. People know how lasers work and the technology of using pulses of high energy particles as a weapon is something that arms manufacturers have been exploring for decades. A hand held version of such devices would be an engineering challenge beyond modern day capability but as a piece of speculative technology it’s not anything like as absurd as an FTL drive.

Even so, the kind of effects shown on movies for such weapons don’t really match what we might expect from real energy weapons. Aside from the noise and the visible pulses, on-screen energy weapons hit people and objects in ways that imply momentum. Han Solo’s blaster will knock back a stormtrooper or cause things to explode like they’ve been punched. Sci-fi weapons inherit the fictional aspects of real weapons (e.g. handguns in movies are often shown as throwing people around more than a bullet impact actually would) and then exaggerate them for reasons due to the aesthetics of battle scenes.

Meanwhile, the Star Trek phaser has to do all that Star Wars blaster does but also act as a cutting tool and have a handy-dandy stun setting. A stun weapon appears to act not unlike an electromagnetic-pulse weapon but on a person’s nervous system. I can see how such a weapon might have varying degrees of impact on a person (including both lethal and hopefully less than lethal settings) but it would be quite different in principle to the kind of energy beam device that the Star Trek phaser is at other times.

The sci-fi generic ray gun is a mix of devices:

  • A force field weapon. It actually makes sense if force fields exist in a sci-fi setting (ignoring how they might work) that the same technology could be weaponised. A narrow force field that projects outwards for a short period and then dissipates would be not just a weapon but a handy power tool. You could make a hammer out of it or maybe a screwdriver…
  • A regular energy beam weapon. Lasers have been around in reality for a long time and can zap energy from one spot to another and burn things. It needn’t be photons – it could be a beam of ionised particles (which might better explain all the light and sound effects, as the particles might cause gases in the air to glow or expand creating noise).
  • Some kind of EMP weapon that somehow (waves hand) effect nervous systems or something. In reality nothing would neatly stun a person without danger of death.

In truth they are all fantasies, controlled by aesthetic and plot considerations– weapons whose effects change to fit circumstance and which can be deadly when the story needs deadly or which can bloodlessly incapacitate somebody when the story needs that.

Telegraph time machine

This is a follow up to yesterday’s post about digital time travel, My initial thought as to why it wouldn’t actually work was that it violates the speed of light. However, I’m less sure of that and now think conservation of energy would be the more obvious problem. Obviously its all messed up as far as causality goes but that’s inherent in any time travel device.

To simplify matters, I’ve reduced the scenario to simply a backwards telegraph sending a single Morse code like ‘dash’ a short distance back in time to another telegraph station,

An act of insubordination to the laws of nature

The numbers show the sci-fi time travel sequence and left-to-right shows the normal passage of time.

  1. The operator uses the telegram key to send a ‘dash’ pulse.
  2. The time machine sends it backwards in time down the telegraph wires.
  3. The signal passes along the wires, covering the same distance in the same amount of elapsed time as a regular “dash”.
  4. The other telegraph signal “receives” the signal. However, to an observer, it will look like the  “dash” originated at the past telegram office and is being sent regularly down the wires. They key hasn’t moved but it will look like it made the dash.
  5. I’ve got the dash appearing on a ticker tape but that would only happen if the telegram office printed out the telegrams they SEND rather than just the ones they recieved.

Because the signal is traveling both backwards in time and backwards in space (so to speak), it actually looks physically conventional. The whole thing looks like a signal going from the past telegram officer to the future telegram office if we just look at the signal going down the wires.

The freaky bit is that the past telegram office appears to send a “dash”  without anybody pressing the key. The electricity appears from nowhere! Meanwhile, the future telegram office produces an electrical pulse that to a regular observer just disappears. Those no net gain in energy overall, so you couldn’t build a perpetual motion machine but there is a short term localized violation of the conservation of energy.