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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2007-04-25 20:59
Subject: Fairy tales of future past
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
In an offline context, today I wrote:

"We tend to think of magic as part of history and technology as part of the future, but consider this: magic as projection of human desire, and technology as a projection of human will."

That got me thinking about the casual truism that fantasy is about the past, while science fiction is about the future. While I don't consider this a rigorously defensible proposition, this is sufficiently true that we want to sub-brand future fantasy as "science fantasy," for example, while past sf becomes "steampunk" or "retro."

I can draw other distinctions between the two genres -- for example my prior assertion that high fantasy virtually requires a moral axis, while Silver Age SF avoids the same --but I wonder if the temporal facing is the underlying appeal. I also find a lot more ambiguity in SF than in fantasy, which somewhat parallels the moral axis idea.

No real point here, just noodling. Feel free to noodle along in comments.
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Andrew Trembley
User: bovil
Date: 2007-04-26 04:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Fantasy" and "science fiction" are less and less about the setting and more and more about the mechanics.

There's a lot of SF that's far more technofantasy than science fiction. That's not to say steampunk isn't still in many cases technofantasy. L.E. Modesitt's novels, even the fantasy, are more science fiction.

Friend of mine who writes Doctor Who novels did a Masters in English analyzing SF as a genre. His take is that true SF is like a mystery, only instead of asking "whodunnit?" the real mystery is the the nature of the world in which the story is taking place.
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Nayad Monroe
User: nayad
Date: 2007-04-26 04:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
i enjoy the way charles de lint writes fantasy in a modern setting. it's like an alternate timeline, the way he shows a world that has developed with magical influences all along. i think that his stories incorporate magic as a continuation of history, but also as the projection of human desire, and i think that explains why i like them. :)
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2007-04-26 04:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
My noodling would far overflow a comment, so instead I'll just provide pointers: my take on what distinguishes magic from science, and a rant on the idea that fantasy is backward-looking. The former came about because Ted Chiang said something very intelligent at World Fantasy (well, more than one thing, but one in particular); the latter was sparked by something Geoff Ryman said at ICFA this year, that I did not find intelligent at all. I'm ranting more at the general idea, though, than at him in particular.
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squirrel_monkey
User: squirrel_monkey
Date: 2007-04-26 04:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I would argue that much of the golden age SF is not forward-looking at all, but as much of wish-fulfillment fantasy as any pseudomedieval trilogy. There's often the requirement of 'specialness' of the protag -- in fantasy, it is often based on birth; in much of SF, it's more of an illusion of merit (frex, the protag who is smart and shows them all eventually.)
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David Moles
User: scarypudding
Date: 2007-04-26 04:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I dunno, the BoingBoing ethos sure seems to be about technology as projection of human desire.
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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2007-04-26 08:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
While I think there's been a huge tendency for "high fantasy" to revolve around a moral axis - and often a very plain moral axis of blatantly good vs moustache-twirlingly evil - there are certainly exceptions to that, and I suspect that fantasy is still developing. It's arguably that part of the popularity of George R R Martin's current magnum opus is the lvels of moral ambiguity, the complex motivations of the characters that are NOT simply a matter of "good and evil". It may be that this is the meisterwerk that allows fantasy to expand beyond "oh look, an evil dark Lord must be opposed by a mismatched band of heroes (ideally led by someone who is a an orphan/messiah unaware of his true heritage blah blah blah)".

Perhaps because it is (in some respects) a "younger" genre, but more likely because it looks "backwards" not "forwards" as you describe, fantasy has yet to explore some of the options that SF has long since mined out. But I don't see any intrinsic reason that it can't.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2007-04-26 15:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
It may be that this is the meisterwerk that allows fantasy to expand beyond "oh look, an evil dark Lord must be opposed by a mismatched band of heroes (ideally led by someone who is a an orphan/messiah unaware of his true heritage blah blah blah)".

Fantasy has expanded beyond that, and it did so ages ago. Obviously that's still a powerful set of tropes, but it hasn't been the only game in town -- or even the only successful game in town -- for a long while.
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2007-04-26 10:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think it's very easy to get shackled by categories and their 'supposed' rules. Yes, I think High Fantasy works best with good vs evil, but it doesn't mean it always has to. That said many people who enjoy High Fantasy like it for the whole Good vs Evil morality, and why should an author change something that isn't broken and enjoyed by readers of the sub-genre? There's nothing stopping you from breaking the convention just as there's nothing stopping you from following it. Depends what the story demands.

Magic doesn't have to be a thing of the past.... the mystical is just the scientific we don't possess the intelligence to understand.

"Saying 'Hocus Pocus' sends brainwaves to that 90% of the brain I don't use, to cause the release of telekinetic energy which is amplified and directed by my 'Divining Stick'. Also the wearing of a big pointy hat with 'neural de-clogger nano technology' stops me turning Jay into a newt, when I really meant a frog."

The above example took 2 minutes so I know it's flawed, but hopefully it illustrates the point I'm trying to make. Feel free to disagree. And I don't really want to turn Jay into a Frog ;-)

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-26 13:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
:: ribbet ::
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jimvanpelt
User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2007-04-26 14:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting comments, Jay. I just finished a modern use of magic story that fulfills your "projection of human desire" definition. It's also my first blatant "issue" story.
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User: pauljessup
Date: 2007-04-26 14:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Funny you use the term "projection of the will" since some of the occultists I've talked to consider magic to be a projection of the will. I like how in an interview, Tim Powers (who heavily researched occultism and magic for his books) said that magic was a kind of science. What he meant by that (I think) was not in the literal sense (eg, magic and science are the same) but rather the complex rules of classical magic are scientific in aspect, and can have the same affect on plot, infodumping, etc in a fantasy story as science does in a science fiction story.

If you're talking about high fantasy- then yeah, all those tolkien clones have a strict moral axis. But I think things are changing- high fantasy is moving out of the limelight it had through the 80's and 90's. But then again, maybe that's just wish fulfillment on my part.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-26 15:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yah, there's a more complicated set of threads here than I made it sound. And GRRM is doing something different, though I think of him as writing narrative history rather than fantasy. Song of Fire and Ice compares more to Michener or Tuchman than it does to Tolkien or the post-Tolkien high fantasy landscape.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2007-04-26 15:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
I think of him as writing narrative history rather than fantasy

These kinds of statements frankly bug the hell out of me. I hear it with the LotR movies ("oh, they're not fantasy, we're making them as if they're real") or Terry Goodkind ("I don't write fantasy, I write books with Deep Human Themes") or various other examples, and they're about on par in my mind with "it's good, so it can't be science fiction." Well, if you define all those things as Not Fantasy, then fantasy will never be anything other that one thing it began as, and it will never be able to change.

Martin's writing fantasy. It's fantasy with its focus in different places than Tolkien put it, which is also different from de Lint, which is also different from Powers, but grouping him with an alternative genre misses out on a huge chance to stretch the face of fantasy (specifically high fantasy) in new and fruitful directions.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-26 15:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hey there, slick. I'm not Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy, trying to pretend this isn't what it is. I was making a comment on structure and narrative tropes.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2007-04-26 15:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
I'm not suggesting you're like them, no; I'd have to be pretty dumb to think you felt that way. But . . . eh, I'm in a prickly mood this morning, and your comment might not have rubbed me the wrong way on another morning, but I think I'd rather see it phrased as "this is high fantasy focusing on narrative history instead of moral duality" or some such approach. Something whose surface reading doesn't fall into the trap other people jump into deliberately.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-04-26 15:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This question is endlessly interesting to me, and endlessly insoluble...

We're good.
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Jonathan Wood
User: thexmedic
Date: 2007-04-26 16:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The more I think about the differences between sf and fantasy the more superficial they seem. While swan_tower's linked essay does an excellent job of making the distinction between these surface differences visible, on a deeper level I think they both serve the same purposes in a story:

1) They make it cool to us genre-junkies
2) They provide the tool with which fantasy/sf does its job: they are the rule-violation that allows the writer to deconstruct and examine the present day.

Now, (probably obviously) I think the 2nd function for science/magic is more important but that's my own personal take. Some authors/readers are more interested in the first function. Like most things, there's a continuum upon which a story lies where it concentrates more on one function or another, or maybe even balances them perfectly. Though I don't read much high fantasy any more, and I haven't read any of Mr Martin's work, I suspect that a lot of it concentrates on the first function over the second.

As for which you use - magic or science, I think that largely down to personal author/reader choice, the first purpose - making the story cool. Of course, sf is better at looking at some things (e.g. the consequences of current technological inventions) and magic at others (can't think of a good e.g. right now, but I'm going to assume it's because it's almost lunch and I'm hungry rather than the invalidity of my point, but who knows...) but I think in most cases an inventive author could come up with a way for either magic or science to look at the same issue in similar ways.

That's my $0.02 anyway.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2007-04-26 16:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
on a deeper level I think they both serve the same purposes in a story

Oh, absolutely. My essay was not meant to argue against that.

I think GRRM may be going interesting places with the second function, but I can't say for certain because the series isn't finished and I'm not yet sure where he's going with the Weird Stuff. I suspect that it will be Cool, but also Meaningful. Regardless, I do recommend his books; they do, as noted above, take a much different focus from most high fantasy: deeply flawed characters, non-binary morality, close attention to historical process, and so on.
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Josh English
User: joshenglish
Date: 2007-04-26 19:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
In an article I was reading about this sort of thing (and I wish I had the citation on me) I read "magic requires personal power, technology grants it." It's almost the opposite of what you're positing, but both make sense. I think the quote I have is referring to magic and technology as props in a story, not as metaphors.
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