It's Magic, Jim, But Not As We Know It.

It's Magic, Jim, 
But Not As We Know It.

By Bob Billing
SF Moderator

©2001, Bob Billing 

The difference between Fantasy and science fiction has been defined as "Can you get there from here?" Science fiction is supposed to confine itself strictly to real possibilities, things that could happen if the right discoveries were made. Fantasy, on the other hand, is allowed to play with spells and elves and get involved with things that couldn't happen in our world.

But is the distinction really that clear? Might both kinds of speculative fiction be trying to do the same thing in different ways? And might the same disciplines apply to the authors of both?

In both cases the author faces one important constraint - what the reader will take on board. What authors are trying to do is invite the reader to play the game, to suspend disbelief and join in with the story. And that means being believable rather than being right. It's at this point that the roads diverge. The SF author will point out that they've put a lot of effort into getting the physics, chemistry and biology correct, and that after all that work they jolly well ought to be believed. The fantasy author will reply that they've poured heart and soul into describing the most terrifying dragon ever; the other details don't matter and the author's craft is what carries the reader along.

I'm going to disagree with both camps.

To my mind, the thing which most helps the reader suspend disbelief is consistency, both internal and external. Internal consistency is easy enough to achieve - the imagined objects simply have to behave in more or less the same way all the time. External consistency is a little more difficult: somehow we have to make the imagined world fit in with what the reader knows is possible.

So how does an author set about making a world in which magic works and dragons lurking around every corner seems possible?

The answer is that, however we build the imagined world, we still have to carry a lot of baggage with us from what we call reality. We need air and water, food to eat and ground to walk on. And these things will be more or less the same in the imagined world. But when we get to the imagined world and open our suitcases, we find we've brought a lot of things we never intended to pack. For a start, the laws of physics can't change that much if we are to recognise the other world at all. If a dragon is going to share our world, breathe the same air and feel the same gravity, it must wear a body which is at least similar to some of the animals we know.

In that case, how can magic happen at all? Where can we find a crack in the mundane world into which we can squeeze the fabulous?

We can change the laws a physics just a little bit if we want. There is some room for the yet undiscovered force or effect, something inanimate but powerful. Call it magic and you have fantasy; call the same thing hyperspace and it's SF. But in either case it's just a force: it can be controlled or get out of control, it can be used for good or evil and it can be bought and sold. But it won't respond to being talked to.  Words of power have no power over it. It has no motives, it doesn't want anything, and there's nothing that frightens it.

An alternative approach is to give some part of the universe intelligence. If it's the spirit of a tree, it's fantasy; if it's aliens who live in a wormhole, it's SF. Now the rules are different. An intelligence can be talked to, prayed to, cajoled and threatened. But at the same time it has its own agenda - an intelligence wants some things and is frightened of others. And it might not be telling the truth. A really clever intelligence might pretend to be a force for its own reasons.

Let's say that in the depths of a trackless forest there grows an ancient oak tree. A wandering child comes upon it and tries an old spell that has been passed down in his family. He walks three times around the tree reciting "Fruitbat, Wombat, Dingbat!" And as if by magic a crack opens in the tree. The child steps inside and finds something nice, say a block of chocolate. A week later he's told his friends that the spell works every time and they all crowd in.

The tree snaps shut and digests them at its leisure. The words of power don't make the tree do anything - the tree chooses when it will open up and give chocolate, and it's playing a game with its prey.

A third approach is to give a few of the characters godlike powers. In a sense they can cheat, they can step out of the universe for a few seconds, fiddle with the settings and step back in. Once again they have their own intentions - they have things they want to achieve with their powers.

Magic isn't the only thing that's magical. There are a lot of things in what we call reality that are very wonderful. A scientific education does nothing to diminish that sense of wonder; in fact it adds to the list of wonderful things in the world. Look up on a starry night at the thousands of points of light that fill the sky. It's beautiful; it's awe-inspiring. But if you know a little astronomy, it comes alive. You can feel the perfect step-dance of the planets across the sky. That faint band becomes a majestic spiral arm of the galaxy, curving through thousands of light years of space from the cold, from empty rim to the heat and jostle of the core.

This is where the two divergent roads meet again. The purpose of both fantasy and SF is not only to entertain, but to take the reader by the hand and lead them into strange and marvelous places. And in those places something wonderful can happen. Stripped of the comforting illusion we call reality, we can discover our true selves. It doesn't matter how the author does it, or what mechanism is used to escape the mundane - the fact of escape is what matters. The reader who rides on the shoulder of a space pilot travelling the galaxy and the reader sharing a knight's horse as he follows a quest though Elfland participate in the same experience. For both, the layers of social convention fall away, and the stark realities of good and evil, honour and courage, truth and falsehood break through. The more unreal the setting, the more real the situation becomes.

That's why I'm not sure the distinction between fantasy and SF is as well-defined as we think. Both, in their separate ways, achieve the same ends of breaking free from the reader's preconceptions and asking deeper questions.

Of course, there is always another way of writing speculative fiction. What if the technology of virtual reality became so good that it could be mistaken for real life? Someone with access to the controlling computers could work miracles under those conditions. And what if someone found abandoned alien technology so different from ours that its effects appeared magical?

That's another story. And I've started writing it.