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Magic and Science and How Twins are Different People

Something that in my experience drives many (identical) twins crazy is how many people assume they look alike physically so they must be just alike in other ways.  Interests, hobbies, sexuality, gender, religion, whatever.  Twins may look the same superficially, but underneath they are as different as any two other people.  Or any non-twin siblings if you want to be pedantic about nature and nurture.

Fantasy and Science Fiction are like the Twins of Literature.  Whenever someone tries to talk about genre lines or the difference between science and magic, the same old shit gets trotted out.  Clarke’s Law and all that.  Someone recently left a comment on this very blog saying magic is just a stand-in for science.  My friend!  Boy do we have a lot to talk about today.  While it’s certainly true that magic can serve many of the same functions as science (or technology) in a story, the two are fundamentally different in both themselves and the uses to which they are most often put.  Sure they’re both blonde, but technology like red-heads, and magic is more into undercuts.

 

First, not to keep pushing the lie that science is cold and emotionless, but a prime use of science (not technology!) in literature is to influence the world through knowledge of the world’s own inner workings.  (Technology does not require knowledge in its use, often, but rather only in its construction.)  One of the major differences is that most (but not all) magic in stories requires knowledge to use it.  You have to know how the magic works, or what the secret words are.  Whereas tech is like flipping the light switch.  A great writer once said what makes it science fiction is that you can make the gadget and pass it to the average joe across the engineering bay and he can use it just fine, but magic requires a particular person.  I can pass out a million flame-throwers to the troops, but I can’t just pass you a fireball and expect you not to get burned.  That’s one aspect to look at, although these days, magitech and enchanted objects can certainly play the role of mundane technology fairly well.

Second, magic is about taking our inner workings and thought processes and imposing them on top of the universe’s own rule.  From this angle, what makes magic distinct from technology is that a magic conflict is about the inner struggle and the themes of the narrative and how they can be used to shape the world.  Certainly tech can play this role, twin to how magic can be made to act like tech.  But it’s much less common out in the real world of literature.

 

There are two kinds of magic system:  One is the explicit explanation of how the magic works according to the word of god(the author), and the other is a system that the characters inside the world, with their incomplete knowledge impose on top of the word of god system.  So this group uses gestures to cast spells, and this group reads a spellbook, but they are both manifestations of the same basic energy.

So magic is the power to impose our will on the world whereas science/technology is powerful through its understanding of the uncaring laws of the universe.

Then, of course, are the differences in terms of how authors use them in the narrative.  Magic has a closer connection, in my opinion, to the theme aspect of literature.  It can itself be a realization of the theme of a story.  Love conquers all as in Lily Potter protecting her infant son from the dark lord at the cost of her life.  Passion reflected in the powers of the fire mage.  Elemental magic gives a great example.  Look at the various associations popular between elementalists’ characters and the element they wield.  Cold and impersonal ice mages, loving and hippy-ish earth mages.  This analogical connection is much more difficult to achieve with technology.

 

There’s a lot of debate these days about “scientific” magic versus numinous magic, and whether or not magic must have rules or a system.  But even systematically designed magic is not the same as technology, though it can be made to play similar roles, such as solving a plot puzzle.  But think:  The tricks to magic puzzles are thematic or linguistic.  The Witch-king of Angmar is said to be undefeatable by any man.  The trick to his invulnerability is the ambiguity of the words of the prophecy.  One could argue that a woman is not a man, and therefore not restricted by the prophecy.  We have no idea how the “magic” behind the protection works on a theoretical basis.  Does it somehow check for Y-chromosomes?  But that’s not the point.  The thematic significance of the semantic ambiguity is more important.  In science fiction, it’s the underlying workings that matter.  Even if we don’t explain warp drive, there’s no theme or ambiguity involved.  It gets you there in such and such time and that’s it.  Or, in an STL universe, lightspeed is the limit and there’s no trick to get around it.

You can’t use science or technology the same way as Tolkien did with that prophecy nearly as easily.  Imagine magic is hammer, and science is a sword.  Sure I can put a nail in with the sword, but it’s a bitch and a half compared to just using a hammer.  Just because I can put in that nail with that sword, it doesn’t mean that sword is really a hammer.  Just because I can have magic that appears to follow a few discoverable and consistent rules to achieve varying but predictable effects doesn’t mean it’s the same thing as real-world science.  Maybe the moon always turns Allen into a werewolf on the 1st of the month, but I’ll be codgled if you can do the same thing with science.

Whether magic or science or both are most suited to your story or the other way around depends on your goals for that individual story.  Do you need magic or fantasy elements to really drive home your theme?  Do you need technology to get to the alien colony three stars down?  Magic can evaporate all the water in a six mile radius without frying every living thing around.  Science sure as hell can’t.  Not even far-future science that we can conceive of currently.  They can both dry a cup, although we’re wondering why you’re wasting your cosmic talents when you could just use a damn paper towel.

Science can dress up as magic and fool your third-grade substitute teacher, and science can dress up as magic and fool the local yokels in 13th century Germany.  But even if you put a wedding dress on a horse, it’s still a horse, and throwing hard science trappings onto a magic system doesn’t change it’s nature.

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Fairytale Fiction

Sub-genre of the Week: Fairytale Fantasy

Last week, I discussed Near-future SF.  This week, I’m going to talk about a newly re-popularized genre of fantasy: fairytale re-tellings.

Definition:

Fairytale fiction is a sub-genre of speculative that revolves around re-tellings of fairytales in new settings, with new characters, or from the perspective of a previously non-perspective character, and also fairytale style stories.

History

Fairytale retellings have been around for as long as there have been fairytales, but in the past decade or so, they’ve come together as a commercial genre.

Common Tropes and Conventions

The same as those for fairytales: secret royal birth, HEA endings, marriage into a royal family, something dangerous in the nearby woods, etc.

Genre Crossover

Fairytale fiction is unique among fantasy genres for generally having very little crossover.  The specifics of the stories usually preclude it.  It’s certainly possible to create high or epic fantasy out of fairytales, but people usually file off the serial numbers if they do so.

Media

Robin Hood has always been popular in film, and Snow White has just recently received multiple adaptions.  No doubt there will be more in the future.

Future Forecast

Fairytale fiction will no doubt continue to be popular for the near-future.  Although the most popular stories now have four or five major retellings, there are plenty of lesser known stories still awaiting a re-imagining.

Recommendations

1.  Enchanted series by Gail Carson Levine

2.  Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer

3.  Beastly by Alex Flinn

4.  Princess series by Jim C. Hines

5.  Rapunzel’s Revenge series by Shannon Hale

6.  Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

7.  Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

8.  Five Hundred Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey

9.  Beauty by Robin McKinley

10.  The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

Goodreads list of Fairytale Fantasy

Next week: Cyberpunk

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Near-future SF

Sub-genre of the Week: Near-future SF

Last week, I talked about Portal Fantasy.  This week, I’m going to tackle another tough to categorize genre.

Definition:

Near-future SF is a sub-genre of SF dealing with science fiction stories and concepts just the other side of contemporary.  I’ll limit it to the next fifty years for the purposes of this post.

History

There can be no true history of the genre, since what qualifies changes as time passes.  But the concept originated as a sub-genre in the 90s and grew to its present size and description in the late 2000s.

Common Tropes and Conventions

Besides the fifty-year time frame, there are few major tropes and conventions.  There’s a tendency towards exploration of the solar system, biological advances, punk themes, climate change, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, occasionally fusion reactors and green energy.

Genre Crossover

Near-future SF crosses over with dystopian fiction, Mundane SF, and social science fiction.  It may also share traits with some hard sf.

Media

Near-future SF rarely gets attention in video media, due to its often lack of flashy technology.  It does come up now and again in anime and manga.  Otherwise, it’s mostly a print genre.

Future Forecast

By definition we’re going to have more of this.  The popularity of near-future SF and its related genres has gone up quite a bit since the post-cyberpunk movement and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon.

Recommendations

1.  Dagmar series by Walter John Williams

2.  Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

3.  Halting State by Charles Stross

4.  The Wind-up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

5.  Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

6.  Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

7.  Air: or Have Not Have by Geoff Ryman

8.  India 2047 series by Ian McDonald

9.  Anime: Planetes

10.  Anime: Dennou Coil

Goodreads list of Near-future SF

Check in next time for a discussion of Fairytale Fiction.

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Dystopian

Sub-genre of the Week: Dystopian

Last week, I talked about Epic Fantasy.  This week I’ll be discussing one of everyone’s favorite genres: Dystopian (Science) Fiction.  It also happens to be one of the most commonly misunderstood.  Hopefully I can clear things up a bit.

Definition:

Dystopian fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction that involves a societal structure argued to be a utopia by its administrators, which in fact suffers from some fatal flaw, such as authoritarianism or over-surveillance.

History

Dystopian fiction has a very distinguished history.  Samuel Butler first published Erewhon: or, Over the Range in 1872, detailing a country in which the sick are criminals while criminals are considered sick.  It could be argued to be a satirical utopia, as it comments on many aspects of Victorian society, and here we come across the first ambiguity of dystopian fiction.  However, whichever way it is categorized, it was certainly an influence on later works.

For example, it greatly influenced Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, where society is divided into five major castes, raised in creches and assigned their roles in life.  The novel is often considered a response to Huxley’s visit to Imperial Chemical Industries’ Brunner and Mond plant, and is an extension into the future of many of the principles of the Industrial Revolution, and represented many people’s fear of losing their individual identity.  A further influence on Huxley was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, written in response to the authors life in Imperial Russian in the early 20th century, which reflected on the mass collectivization of labor.

The next major dystopian novel was George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984, which represented the increased uncertainty with government surveillance, the rise of communism, and gave rise to the popular icon “Big Brother”.  Other famous dystopian novels include Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

More recently, we have Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a sickeningly accurate prediction of a more modern version of the Big Brother surveillance state.

And finally, we arrive at Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games series of novels, which spawned a vast tide of YA “dystopian” novels.  The Hunger Games recalls Koushun Takami’s 1999 nove, Battle Royale, the story of a class of Japanese teenagers iset on an island for a game of survival where only one can remain.  It remains to be seen whether this new wave of dystopian fiction can match up to the old giants of the genre.  So far, I’d say it hasn’t.

Common Tropes and Conventions

A “perfect: society with one major flaw, generally the rampant suppression of a group or social freedom we take for granted today.  Otherwise, not much else has to be in common.

Genre Crossover

Dystopian strongly crosses over with apocalyptic fiction, especially in the new wave coming out in the wake of The Hunger Games.  It can also cross over with near-future SF, such as in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl.

Media

Many dystopians, from Soylent Green to The Hunger Games have graced the big screen.  They’re also common in Japanese manga and anime, such as Deadman Wonderland, where a privatized prison has become the new Disney World.

Future Forecast

The new wave of YA dystopia is still going strong, and looks to keep on going for quite awhile.  Whether adult dystopias will make the same comeback is uncertain.  But the genre looks to be in no danger of slowing down.

Recommendations

1.  1984 by George Orwell

2.  Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

3.  Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

5.  The Giver Quartet series by Lois Lowry

6.  Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

7.  The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

8.  Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

9.  Movie: Soylent Green

10. Anime/Manga: Deadman Wonderland

Goodreads list of Dystopian fiction.

Check in next time for a discussion of Portal Fantasy.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Social Science Fiction

Sub-genre of the Week: Social Science Fiction

Last week I talked about Sword & Sorcery.  This week we have something of an odd duck.  Social Science Fiction is not a regularly accepted genre, but perhaps it should be.  It lacks common conventions and tropes, and yet the focus on society, sociology, and anthropology makes the books within it distinct from others they may share some genre classifications with.

Definition:

Social Science Fiction is a genre of SF revolving around the exploration of alternate societies, anthropology, and sociology.  It’s a rather broad umbrella.

History

There’s no real history to this genre, since it’s not an established sub-genre, but rather a collection of disparate works that often appeal to the same group of people.

Much of it was published around the New Wave in the 60s and 70s.  For example, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote most of her Hainish series during that period.

Common Tropes and Conventions

There are none, really, except that focus on the social sciences and possible future societies.

Genre Crossover

Pretty much any genre.  Space Opera for The Hainish Cycle, Military SF for Starship Troopers.  Near-future SF and Dystopia.  (I argue that Dystopia is worth considering separately.)

Media

There have been adaptions of many shorts stories and some novels, such as Flowers for Algernon and Starship Troopers, but otherwise firmly in the realm of print.

Future Forecast

Hard to say considering it’s not a cohesive body of work.  It’s certainly likely that more will be published in the future, as near-future SF is still pretty popular.

Recommendations

1.  The Hainish Cycle series by Ursula K. Le Guin

2.  Earthseed series by Octavia E. Butler

3.  Canopus in Argos series by Doris Lessing

4.  Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

5.  Blindness by Jose Saramago

6.  Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

7.  Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

8. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

9. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

10.  Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Goodreads list of Social Science Fiction.

(A lot of stuff on the Goodreads list is actually Dystopian, which I distinguish from Social SF.)

Check in next time for a discussion of Epic Fantasy.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Mundane SF

Sub-genre of the Week: Mundane SF

Last week I discussed High Fantasy.  This week, I’ll be doing a bit of a 180 and investigating a new sub-genre of SF.  Not only is it lacking in the fantastic as found in High Fantasy and its SF counterpart: Space Opera, but it’s an artificially created genre, formed by a cabal of writers in response to the recent popularity of Spacer Opera in the mainstream.  And while it strives to be as realistic as possible and eschews some of the flashier trappings of speculative fiction, I still enjoy it, both for its strict adherence to its own rules, and for the creative space it opens up in genre literature.

Definition:

Mundane SF is a sub-genre of science fiction characterized by a belief in the implausibility of FTL travel and alien contact.  It avoids alternate realities, and treats the future as solar-system-centric and focused on humanity and its future on earth.  It strives for a lack of escapism absent from almost any other speculative genre.  It could be considered a sub-genre of Hard SF.

History

Mundane SF was founded in 2002 by a group of writers including Geoff Ryman.  In 2007, it had grown enough for INterzone magazine to devote an issue to it, and it continues to grow as new writers adopt the ethos, and old writers come into the middle of their careers.

Common Tropes and Conventions

Mundane SF is characterized by a solar-system-focused future.  It lacks such common and unlikely tropes as FTL and universal translation.  It lacks tropes of extra-terrestrial life and alien encounters.

Genre Crossover

Mundane SF, by virtue of its limits, rarely crosses genre boundaries.  It could be argued to cross-over with Hard SF, assuming you view it as a separate genre.  It does also have some cross-over with near-future SF.

Media

As new as it is, there have been few examples of Mundane SF in non-print media.  It could be argued that the anime Planetes falls under the Mundane SF umbrella, but it could just as easily be bog-standard near-future SF.

Future Forecast

No doubt Mundane SF will continue to grow, albeit slowly, as SF writers become aware of it, and some few of its readers become writers.  I don’t see any omens of fantastic growth of a glutted market any time soon.

Recommendations
I’m afraid I can’t give you an recs for this one, as there aren’t really any 100% clearly Mundane SF novels.  The goodreads page is mostly books re-classified as Mundane SF that were written before the publishing the of Manifesto that sparked the movement.  Do check out Interzone #216 for some short story examples, though.

Goodreads list of Mundane SF

Next time: Sword and Sorcery

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: New Weird

Sub-genre of the Week: New Weird

Last week, I talked about Space Opera.  This week, I’m discussing one of my favorite genres.  It’s relatively new, and still with plenty of room for growth, and some of the best writers in speculative fiction today have tried their hand at it.

Definition:

New Weird is a sub-genre of speculative fiction with elements from all three major categories, including horror, fantasy, and science fiction.  According to Jeff and Ann VanderMeer in their anthology of New Weird, “it is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy.”  That quote emphasizes the importance of setting to the genre.  I personally like to think of it as being dark, complex, and a little bit squishy.

History

New Weird has its origins in the “weird fiction” of the early 20th century, including such examples as H.P Lovecraft and the pulp magazine Weird Tales published from 1923 to 1954.  It became popular in the early to middle 2000s when The Etched City and Perdido Street Station were published, and has only grown since then with many new authors tackling the genre.

Common Tropes and Conventions

New Weird in its current form generally (but not always) involves a somewhat noir-inspired city, ranging from late medieval to early industrial in design and function.  There are generally horror-inspired non-human races.  Magic-as-technology in the sense of the pseudo-science of aether, as well as race-based genetic abilities are both common.  And of course, the forces of industrialism and politics are prime motivating factors for events.

Genre Crossover

New Weird often has a strong resemblance to slipstream fiction in that it crosses genre boundaries quite happily.  It resembles steampunk or early dieselpunk ala Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, and also shares many traits of urban fantasy in the old mode, before the influence of paranormal romance.  There may even be hints of next week’s Subgenre of the Week: Magical Realism.

Media

The vast majority of New Weird tends to be in text formats, however, there are some shared elements with movies and graphic novels such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy.

Future Forecast

So far, New Weird has experienced some popularity, and there’s a small but steady stream of new entries into the genre.  That said, I don’t see it really taking off any time soon.  The genre is too niche, and the spread of authors writing it is probably not wide enough to gain much mainstream attention.  On the bright side, not a lot of competition?

Recommendations

1.  New Crobuzon series by China Mieville

2.  Deepgate Codex series by Alan Campbell

3.  Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

4.  City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer

5.  The Etched City by K.J. Bishop

6.  Fourlands series by Steph Swainston

7.  The Book of All Hours by Hal Duncan

8. Viriconium omnibus by M. John Harrison

9. City series by Jay Lake

10. The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

Goodreads list of New Weird

Check in next time for a discussion of Magical Realism.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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