Cross-genre experimentation often produces interesting failures, less often brilliant chimeras. The novelty seems to open up possibilities. Steampunk has been one of the most successful in recent years, but it seems to be wearing thin as too much of it tends to be old-fashioned occult or mystery, rather Sherlockian (or more Wilkie Collins) in essence with a thread of SFnal gadget-geekery running throughout. Often it’s just a new suit of clothes disguising an old set of bones.
One of the things that has rarely been successful but is perhaps the oldest of these mix-and-match tropes is the attempt to blend science fiction and fantasy. Try as we might, it usually ends up being demonstrably one or the other merely borrowing the trappings of its often unwilling partner. Roger Zelazny was perhaps the most sucessful at it, but he managed it by bravura sleight-of-hand, or wordcraft, rather than through genuine alchemical mergers. What we generally find are stories that set the fantasy conceits at odds with science, in a kind of battleground plot where one or the other must prove superior or “right” in some epistemological sense. Poul Anderson wrote one called Operation Chaos (and a few sequels) that attempted it by a clever deployment of magical “universes” as essentially parallel universes of higher or lower energy states, but in the end it was science fiction in the way it treated the conceits. The thematic utility of fantasy was sublimated to the SFnal conceptualizing.
The problem is that fantasy, dealing as it does with physical propositions of how the universe operates which run counter to our understanding of the same concepts, develops thematic conceits which have very little if anything to do with the concerns found in science fiction. They are, at base, about different things. Attempting to assert that those two worlds (never mind world views) can plausibly coexist and have anything to say together which cannot be said better by one or the other usually ends up as special pleading or simply a fashion statement.
(Example? The big one is Star Wars, despite Lucas’s belated attempt to shoehorn any kind of science fictional justifications into Episodes 1,2, and 3, which is a full court quest fantasy dressed up like science fiction. The machinery, the technology, the science never avails against magic, which is portrayed as both physically superior and in fact the true moral battleground. It’s a fantasy, not a blending of the two.)
All that said, it was only a matter of time before a genuinely successful hybrid would appear. Artists keep working at something long enough, eventually that which one generation says cannot be done, will be done.
Quite happily, I discovered this success in a thoroughly enjoyable novel by Charlie Jane Anders , All The Birds In The Sky .
Briefly, Laurence and Patricia are outcasts. Their parents, who are shown as polar opposites of each other, fail to “get” them, and their attempts to “correct” what they see as bad trends or unhealthy characteristics in their children end badly around. Likewise at school, where they meet and become friends out of desperation (they’ll actually talk to each other), their lives are untenable because their peers also do not understand them. It becomes, at one point, life-threatening for them to hang out together.
Added to this is the appearance of a trained assassin from a secret society who has identified them as the nexus of eventual social collapse and global catastrophe. His Order does not permit the killing of minors, though, so he is limited to ruining their lives and attempting to keep them apart.
What is special about them is…
Patricia is an emergent witch. She discovers early on that she can speak to animals, but it may be an hallucination (it’s not). Her older sister, who spies on her, makes matters worse by secretly recording Patricia in some of her more extreme attempts at revisiting her chance discovery of “powers” and releasing it on social media.
Laurence is an emergent technical genius who sets about building a self-aware AI in the closet of his room. His parents, who are in most ways failures, see his obsession with staying indoors, reading obsessively, and attempting to gain admission to a science school as unhealthy and insist on outdoors programs and forced social interaction. They have no clue that everything is against this.
Patricia and Laurence are eventually driven apart and grow up to make lives in their separate spheres, both successfully. They re-encounter each other and fall into an alliance to save the Earth, which is in the late stages of environmental collapse. Each in their own way must address this problem and here is where it gets interesting.
As if all the rest isn’t already interesting enough. Anders has painted fulsome portraits of the outsiders we all knew (or, in some instances, were) with sympathy and understanding that avoids pity and makes for satisfying character study. Laurence and Patricia could easily have become archetypes, and certainly in some ways they are, but here they are simply people we may well know, and even wish to know. And the relationship she builds between them is complex and resonant in surprising ways. In a novel already repleat with strengths, this is a major achievement.
How she makes the merger of magic and science work is also by way of character. Laurence and Patricia are both in dialogue with the universe. They use different languages, elicit different responses, but in the end it turns out to be the same universe. Anders suggests that we still don’t have a firm grasp of how manifold and multifaceted that universe is, but in the end it is all a conversation. Multilingual, to be sure, and compiled of palimpsests sometimes hard to identify. What is required is an appreciation of the wider concept.
What makes this a successful blending—merging, really—of usually antipathetic concepts is that dialogue and the acknowledgment in the end that both views make for a greater understanding. The solutions—if any are to be found—come from the combined strengths of the divergent views. Laurence and Patricia, depending on each other, coming to know that here there is genuine friendship, love, acceptance, and a willingness to understand the other side, make for better answers than they do apart.
I do not wish to spoil the myriad of dialectical twists and turns salted throughout. Anders has not given us a set solutions, but as series of antiphonal arguments leading to a place where a wider view may be achieved. Throughout she plays with the tropes, the themes, the assumptions, connects them to human concerns, and manages something greater than the sum of its traditionally antagonistic parts.
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