Science Fiction, Fantasy, and the Pursuit of Taxonomy

There are some discussions about literary forms which are of use primarily to the academic, the author, and the dedicated taxonimist obsessed with lists and categories and the minutiae that separate one column from another. For the average reader—including deep readers, serious in their immersions into literature—most of this is beside the point, sometimes just a distraction, and occasionally a serious annoyance. Most simply do not care “what” something is—where it slots in on any spreadsheet of literary types—as long as the book at hand works and provides the pleasures they seek.

For the former group, though, these things can matter quite a lot. Tracing the lineage of a form or where a given writer drew inspiration or the cross-referencing of varied texts is a species of archaeology that can enrich understandings of the evolution of literature. Movements, iconoclasts, even the politics of certain writers and groups of writers, the impact specific works have had on whole fields…all this is both real and fascinating for a particular area of study. It should be there for those inclined to ask the kinds of questions addressed. For the writer, such distinctions are relevant for a variety of reasons, starting with the kind of work to be done and how to do it and going on to considerations of market and further to the sorts of broad conversations engaged across published texts. Knowing the deep roots of what one writes can solve problems, make the work itself richer, and give direction to later work.

As for the taxonomist…this kind of thing is part and parcel of bibliographic study. As our archives grow, this becomes more important, lest things are lost. Or misunderstood.

But as I say, for the general reader, all that matters is that the book provides what it has promised. In the main, the obligation of the writer is to provide entertainment, an experience that satisfies whatever requirements the reader may seek to fulfill. As far as the reader is concerned, as long as what is found on the page serves that goal, what goes into creating that page is irrelevant. And like a good magic act, it should not intrude. Granted, there are some readers who enjoy deciphering texts to see how they work, those who feel good about being able to perceive the scaffolding, trace the connections, and catch all the well-incorporated quotes, references, sources, and links. (And too many lit classes based on the assumption that this is the important part of reading.)

Achieving that seemingly effortless immersion, though, is far from simple and work well done requires a knowledge of those behind-the-scenes apparatuses. The architect has to know the skeleton of the building that supports the surface that everyone then sees and uses.

There is interest for the lay reader as well. Not all readers are disinterested. The how of things has an appeal. But for the most part, understanding how something works and what it is intended to accomplish and the way it achieves its goals is primarily in service to the ongoing endeavor to continue to create works that do certain things.

So let me state up front that distinctions between forms and what makes them distinct will make no difference in the case of a given work if people enjoy it. Regarding this current essay, what makes science fiction science fiction will matter little to readers who are loving what they are reading. The ride is all. The play of ideas, the novelty of landscape, the exoticism of the distortions within the story that produce a pleasurable experience are all that count. If you have no interest in how the centipede walks, this is perhaps not worth your time.

As well, most of us have been tortured by lit classes in which the examination, over-directed and flensed of the joy a given text is intended to supply, becomes a kind of reductio ad absurdum in the hands of amateur taxonomists who seem to think the only value to be found in a story is its derivation from and relationship to deep-rooted myths and symbolic board-gaming. “What do you think the author intended/meant by this?” Such questions are certainly valid. I do not suggest they have no place in the creation and reception of a story, only that they are questions that form anchors between the actual creation of the work and, at the other end, the analysis of such creations by those fascinated in all the inner structures that make it a culturally-relevant artifact. For those between the anchors, the resonance of an insider’s familiarity can add a special frisson to the experience, but if the work is done well it is the least important quality.

To be done well, though, would seem to require at least a passing familiarity with those structures. When watching a magician work, the point is to be fascinated and entertained by the effect. Knowing how a trick is done may add an extra layer, but the fact remains that for the purposes of the performance, only the magician needs to know. For it to work well, the magician needs to not only know but fully understand what all that backstage apparatus does. The degree of such understanding can determine the quality of the performance.

So we come to this question of, essentially, genre distinctions. Few other forms seem to have such spill-over for the audience as does science fiction and fantasy. (In music, I can think of debates over distinctions, or at least points of departure—is rock’n’roll blues or was there a split at some point allowing them to be distinct modes? Broadway musicals and opera share certain commonalities, but they are not the same things. Is Ragtime jazz? Valid questions, all of which can be dismissed in the face of “I don’t care, I like it.” But for the creators, such distinctions are much more relevant.)

My own sentiment is that science fiction and fantasy are distinct. There’s overlap of form, motif, and occasionally aesthetic effect, but functionally they are concerned with different things. That it took a good part of the 20th Century to sort this all out, with a great deal of hybrid work being produced that tended to confuse the two (science fantasy? Really? I know what it’s supposed to me, but personally the concept, if not specific works, offends me) but by now, with the actual manifestation of the worlds being proposed in so much of that literature providing ample real world bases by which to assess the function of the two forms, it should be clear that the science fiction discourse has followed a different path than fantasy. At the end of the day, they are not different versions of the same thing.

This is often obscured by examples of the actual work.

My working assumption of science fiction (hereafter simply SF) is that, first and foremost, it is what I call epistemological fiction. This is what grounds it in science. The accuracy of the science in a given story, while certainly desirable, is not critical. Rather, it is the philosophical framework that science comes out of that matters.

The philosophy of science, according to the Oxford Guide to Philosophy, “can be divided into two broad areas: the epistemology of science and the metaphysics of science. The epistemology of science discusses the justifications and objectivity of scientific knowledge. The metaphysics of science discusses philosophically puzzling aspects of the reality uncovered by science.” SF has, generally speaking, indulged the metaphysical aspect for effect, but structurally, as essentially problem-solving fiction, it is the epistemology that has provided the framework. It is the struggle of character to come to terms with a reality understood or amendable to understanding by the tools and criteria of science that underlies the SF endeavor. Characters seeking justifications—explanations—for the problems set for them by the world they move through drive the thematic and plot concerns of SF. The assumption that the world, in such instances, is in fact knowable, manipulable, and therefore “real” in the sense understood by science gives SF the unique effect readers seek.

The broadest distinction that can be made, therefore, from fantasy is simple: fantasy is not at all concerned with such understanding.

No one cares how Gandalf taps into whatever powers he may wield. No one cares how the rings of power work or how Sauron survived death. No one, frankly, cares why that tree blossomed just because a particular man allowed himself to be crowned king. (This is straight out of Arthurian myth, that the health of the country is dependent on the health of the king. Again, no one cares how that mechanism functions.) No one cares about the material justifications of the fantasy milieu because that is not the concern of such stories. Fantasy has other interests.

It is legitimate to ask why such understanding is even important, important enough to draw such broad distinctions between the two genres.

One of the principle benefits of fiction is its utility in permitting the empathetic connection with other lives through vicarious immersion—in character, in landscape, in intellectual and emotional play through alternate scenarios. The mental and emotional scope of the fictive experience allows for a kind of acclimation to situations and intimate experiences with people we will never otherwise encounter.

Until, sometimes, we do.

This is, of course, a byproduct of the primary utility of fiction, which is to entertain. The degree to which one is entertained, however, depends on an ability to empathize and subsume our self into the fictive experience, and this ability increases with exposure. And with that increase, the byproduct becomes more and more central—not by displacing the primary function but by merging with it, so that such increase becomes one with our apprehension of “entertainment.” (Which is why we become bored, over time, with work that once fascinated and delighted when we grow out of it.) At some point we enter a realm of discernment in which the critical understanding of those underlying structures may become important to our pleasure in a given text. At such points certain forms may fade in interest while others become more important, providing the sought-after effects. Distinctions come into play in new and significant ways.

Realizing this may prompt one to ask why.

For the purposes of this essay, the question clarified for me over repeated encounters with the proposition that SF and Fantasy are the same thing. Except in the most superficial ways, they are not, and their differences have to do with the nature of the aforementioned concerns over epistemology. That both forms may utilize the same archetypes from time to time does not alter the fact that those archetypes are used differently because they are based on different assumptions regarding their place in their primary milieus. (Correlation is not Causation.) For one example, the Scientist (as archetype) is not the same as the Wizard (as another archetype). While they are often apprehended as variations of the same thing, their grounding in very different philosophical assumptions could not be more foreign to each other. The world that finds the Scientist plausible, useful, and affective is not the same world in which the Wizard is an essential icon. The Scientist is the lens through which the world may be brought into focus; the Wizard is the conduit of raw power by which the world is maintained. The Scientist is representative of potential change, progress, and understanding; the Wizard is representative of stasis and the infantilization of entire civilizations that are not permitted to evolve beyond him. The Scientist represents expanding knowledge and the capacity to live with it because she understands that knowledge is infinite and nonexclusive; the Wizard perceives knowledge as a finite resource that must be preserved, tended, and kept out of the hands of those not fated to understand it (as he is). The Scientist is a liberator (knowledge wants to be free); the Wizard is a custodian (there are some things man is not meant to know).

We could go on. Both deal with arcana, but the Scientist sees it as part of her work to demystify, while the Wizard seeks a “worthy” apprentice who can be trusted to guard the secret wisdom. I simplify, of course, because both archetypes, to be useful in fiction, must still be human, and humans are polymorphous. My point, though, is that our starting assumptions determine deployment.

(The Wizard generally has no place in our world other than as a point of chaos which must be dealt with. Interestingly, one could put a Scientist in the Wizard’s world to completely different effect, but in both instances, the Wizard would lose relevance.)

Inasmuch as some critics argue that SF is Fantasy (or, less frequently, that Fantasy is SF), it seems the point of departure concerns myths and those aforementioned archetypes.

The archetype in SF is primarily the Scientist, a form nascent throughout history but not truly realized until the 18th Century, and certainly not much featured in our major stories even then. Certainly there is Daedalus and in very rough outline Odysseus is a kind of scientist. A handful scattered here and there, but usually cast in warnings to Not Go There. Faust is the last of the great warnings against science, or at least the “dabbling in things best left alone” motif of science. The difficulty is that for a good deal of that time science was conflated with magic by way of alchemy and as such confined to the secret society mode wherein knowledge was not to be shared and used only at great peril. This aspect attached to the first genuine scientist to be depicted in a major work of fiction, Frankenstein, even as most other elements involved in the story are recognizably material science. It took the rest of the 19th Century for the Scientist to emerge unfettered as a positive archetype and with the 20th Century took his/her place as one of the dominant archetypes of our evolving cultural mythos.

However, with the spread of science and its apprehension as a communal endeavor, one which benefited from greater and greater general participation, the whole embodied mythos began to split off from what had been the dominant form of cultural mythic reservoirs. Science, at base, is democratic.

When I claim that the Scientist is the central archetype in SF, I do not mean that a Ph.D. lab-coated grandee working in a study on arcane problems is the model. I am saying the Scientist as a very human mode of a particular kind of exploration and understanding of the world. A three-year-old playing with blocks is being a scientist. In SF, any character that progresses through a story with the basic assumption that the universe can be understood through the power of intellectual examination is being a scientist, be that character a soldier, a merchant, a pilot, or any of the myriad other forms present in SF (and in most other literature).

Of course other archetypes are present in SF, but more and more they must conform to the presence of the Scientist.

What gave birth to this, as in much else in the modern world, was the Enlightenment. In essence, the Enlightenment declared tradition a quaint holdover from eras wherein most people lived as if nothing would ever change. The components of transformational progress had been assembling for a long time. With the Enlightenment they had reached sufficient complexity, valence, and momentum to dispel the general assumptions of the past and send civilization forward on the wavefront of fundamental discovery that proved far more than mere novelty.

Which gives us the cultural assumption on which SF is based—change is the only constant.

But with change comes a multitude of problematic consequences which have resulted in a world in continual churn in ways it had never experienced before. In both scale and sentiment, what followed the Enlightenment was unprecedented. While change had always attended the ruling precincts throughout history, rarely had it affected the general population in so fundamental a way. (If there is an American story that records this sense of displacement among the general population perfectly, it would be Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, one of the first stories of note to exemplify cognitive dissonance, which would become another primary ingredient of SF.)

The reaction to the Enlightenment—the Romantic Movement—gave credibility to the subsequent disdain for the kind of materialist focus which informed science. One can see it as the social oyster bed of modern Fantasy. It privileged the raw, unstructured encounter of the soul with nature, rebelling against intellectualism that demanded analysis and understanding of underlying principles in favor of a kind of naked immersion in reifying sensation. Wagner would eventually epitomize the primary focus of such sentiments, with the heavy reliance on myth and the idealized past, which would by mid-20th Century become the core aesthetic motif of Fantasy. (Even a work like C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy shows the continuum from SF to Fantasy book by book. While Out of the Silent Planet is largely if not wholly SF, by the time we arrive at That Hideous Strength we are wholly in the Fantasy mode, complete with a modern resurrection of Camelot in the form of Ransom-as-Arthur.)

Lewis’s work provides an example of one of the chief distinctions separating SF from Fantasy, one seldom remarked. In the final volume of his Space Trilogy, it becomes clear that this is a work thoroughly anti-bureaucratic. Not anti-bureaucratic in the specific, as in a critique and comparison of bureaucratic examples, but as an ideology opposed to bureaucracy in total.

(Certainly there are SF stories in which bureaucracy is cast as a Bad Thing, an enemy, and the hero’s quest is to block or destroy it, but for the most part even the hero in an SF story cannot function without benefit of the bureaucratic support structure that would have provided all the tools necessary for the hero to know how to fight a bureaucracy, and in the end a different bureaucracy arises, one which presumably works better.)

I have noted in the past that another, though dubious, distinction between Fantasy and SF is in the fact that when asked to name a primary text that more or less encompasses the genre, no such text seems to exist for SF, but there is one for Fantasy. I stipulate that other, older examples may serve as well if not better, but I suggest that The Lord of the Rings serves as a primary exemplar for Fantasy. In its epic sweep it gathered together and subsumed so much previous work and cast a shadow that reaches even to the present. Works are written either accepting this as the principle mode or in opposition to it, but this would appear to be the hallmark. No such work can be found in SF because it is not and has never been reducible to such a mode.

But the purposes of comparison, let us take as an example of SF Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I use that one for the expedient reason that both these works were on the same nomination ballet for Best Series in 1966, the only time till recently a Hugo Award was given for series. We can assume that at the time the nominations were made, an attempt to put forward broadly encompassing examples of what was considered best in SF was being made and Asimov’s was the work chosen. It won that award.

Firstly, the two works are nothing alike, which is to be expected. But the distinguishing features of the two are instructive. Starting with the aforementioned observation that Fantasy is anti-bureaucratic, consider that in LotR, it is the bureaucracies that are at the center of every calamity. Never mind the principle antagonists, take for example the Steward of Gondor, who is about as hide-bound a bureaucrat as one could want, and of course he has made a mess of things and has to go. Aragorn must take over, but in truth, what kind of preparation has he had for running things? He has spent most of the past several decades avoiding any kind of responsibility of an administrative nature and lived as a Ranger. This is an implicit virtue for him. Gandalf’s “order” is nowhere to be seen other than in the form of Saruman, who turns out to be basically an arms merchant. The elves, who might take some kind of lead in the struggle, have given it all up as a bad idea and are leaving, so whatever management skills they might have are about to be absent. The actual heroes of the tale are from the one place in Middle Earth that apparently has no government at all. This, in the great prose and sweep of the book, is put forward to be enough for everything to work fine in the aftermath of the war against Sauron, who is clearly a rather masterful politician (the rings he talked everyone into accepting, the alliances presumably built, etc) and administrator. Granted, he is loosely modeled on Hitler and his aggression reflective of Nazi Germany, which was seen then as the chief example of bureaucratic and technological overreach. At the end, there is only Aragorn, with no hint of an administrative machine. Quite intentionally, as the suggestion running throughout is the ability of peoples to manage themselves without such things.

Move to the Foundation stories and there is no instance in which bureaucracy is not only present but essential, and no one is arguing otherwise. The conflicts are over how things are to be administered, not whether or not they should be. The Empire, the Foundation, and the Second Foundation are each other variations on bureaucratic systems shown throughout the stories to be necessary to civilization. The crisis at the heart of the cycle is the collapse of the Empire, which leaves chaos in its wake. The solution is the expansion of the Foundation, which asserts new and more appropriate forms of administration. And the hidden Second Foundation, a collective of mathematicians, is concerned with the overall administration of the collapse-recovery. The one character that might be construed as anti-bureaucratic is the Mule, who has a singular gift and is shown ultimately as a incapable—a monarch against a collective.

Other significant features distinguishing the forms: The Scientist and the Wizard are completely on display for comparison—Hari Seldon and Gandalf. Seldon works with knowledge that, while difficult, requires no special powers to use, and which is open to all. Gandalf is a member of an arcane order of specially empowered custodians of knowledge kept secret. Gandalf recruits others to work with him, but does not (cannot) share his power, while Seldon recruits otherwise ordinary people to use what he freely offers. Seldon works within a system, Gandalf is above systems (or outside, which functionally within the story is the same thing). The universes depicted are quite different, based on distinct assumptions. There is no one achievement that solves the problems in the Foundation, but a series of adroit adaptations and situational responses collectively leading to less chaos, while in Middle Earth everything depends on Aragorn accepting his place as king (the flowering of the tree symbolizes exactly this) and the destruction of an artifact the purpose of which is to empower the ultimate in evil bureaucracy.

As noted, however, Foundation, while displaying the conditions and requirements of a science fiction work, is not in any way The Exemplary Text, but is only one example of myriad. This is because SF is not concerned with the kind of mythic reification which informs most Fantasy. SF has little use for myth, seeing it usually as a set of prejudices which require examination and, frankly, constraint. SF, as one aspect of the “science” intrinsic to the form, is constructed for the purpose of analyzing and understanding the world, rather than imposing preconceptions designed to validate illusions of destiny. Middle Earth only “works” when all the destiny-driven elements are in their proper place. If they fall out of harmony, things enter an entropic slide. In SF, there is no such condition of harmony.

I take it as stipulated that there are exceptions on both sides of the divide, but they are usually curiously clunky things the chief effect of which is a kind of off-balanced drunkard’s walk that is often accidentally appealing. I mentioned cognitive dissonance in relation to Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, which I regard as a prototypical Fantasy of the kind that recognizes the divide. In the story, Rip, harried by his wife, picks up his rifle to go hunting, encounters what are clearly elves (fairies, leprechauns, “little people”) who invite him to a game of Nine Pins. He is drawn into their party, he drinks too much, and falls asleep, to awaken 20 years later and find the world has changed. The place where he had slept is a kind of bubble attached to the “real” world wherein the rules of time are different. This is a Fantasy realm. As depicted, though, it is apart from and not of “this” world. It is not, in the story, somewhere Rip can return. Fast forward to the novel Little, Big by John Crowley and we see the same idea of an adjunct universe wherein the fading world of Faerie can be found, a bubble universe that keeps shrinking as the modern world encroaches. (Crowley has addressed the transition from the Old World of magic and alchemy to the New World of science and technology often, most especially in his excellent Aegypt Cycle.) The overlap between the two realms is inconsistent, fading, and clearly definitive. In a sense, such stories are a recognition of the changes that followed in the wake of the Enlightenment, and as such are profoundly nostalgic. (Nostalgia imbues subtext in much Fantasy; what else are the Gray Havens but a dream of nostalgia?)

I have taken time to delineate the differences between SF and Fantasy in response to what have become cyclic attempts to define them as somehow the Same Thing. On the surface, and by the most facile of definitional characteristics, they seem to share a great deal and therefore may appear essentially the same. But essentially, in their constructions and presumptions and primary concerns, they are not. They operate differently because their assumptions about the world are apposite—the world as a material realm as well as the structures humans build to operate in the world.

What distinguishes SF from other forms is the way in which the conceits of the setting—the world, if you will—necessitate an examination in order to fully enter into the fictive experience. The differences in that world set it apart from our own in specific ways, ways which permit a distinct reading experience. The way in which this is done sets up an expectation that everything encountered is accessible with the proper tools. In some cases, it is the world we believe we are moving into from the present. In other cases it is a world we might have inhabited given certain alternate choices in our past. But in either case it is a world comprehensible as a habitable place possible by virtue of the mechanisms derived from the philosophical stance called Science. Science itself does not have to be visible on the page, nor does it necessarily have to be science as we presently know it. It only has to be framed in such a way as to validate our present understanding of the universe available to us derived from the practice called Science.

Which brings us back to my initial criteria: SF is epistemological fiction. The narrative power is in the character’s encounter with that new world.

And what about myth? Fantasy is derived from our conception of myth as ur-story, a fundamental narrative that runs through everything. It takes as given that myth is wired into existence as experienced by sapient beings—us—and represents a reservoir of validation and reification that, properly encountered, gives us our identity. While the narrative frames of myth are powerful and SF can certainly utilize them for effect, myth in SF is simply another part of the world that is to be examined and understood. SF, like science, is not concerned with repeating the dictates of a distant shaping force—that is where notions of Destiny and Fate come from—but in putting them on the workbench and taking them apart to see how (and if) they work. (The first step in freeing ourselves from the expectations of unquestioned tradition.) The universe in which such forces are accepted as real outside social structures is not the universe of science or SF. In that way, SF is not about finding new myths for a modern age, but about constantly reevaluating the age and aggressively keeping our options open.

Which is why there is not and probably cannot be a primary SF text. Reassessment like that does not permit things to “settle” into the kind of stasis where one set of meanings above all others can emerge. SF, therefore, is an assertively destabilizing practice. Unlike Fantasy which constantly seeks equilibrium and, ideally, stasis. (Whether this is achieved is unimportant, only that this is the goal.)

Therefore, Science Fiction and Fantasy are distinct practices which overlap in certain aesthetic effects but in the end seek different literary goals and offer, for the careful reader, distinct pleasures.

4 thoughts on “Science Fiction, Fantasy, and the Pursuit of Taxonomy

  1. Exemplary text, not least since I agree entirely; your argument is, including sf as a form of literature grounded in the enlightenment, very similar to the one I’ve presented in my major book on the history of science fiction. (Which of course is only available in Swedish, sad to say.) I do have one minor quibble, though, concerning the Romantic literary movement, which was to a considerable degree split in its views. On the one hand, the conservative and anti-revolutionary authors, who also abhorred modernity and rationalism; on the other, the individualistic and pro-enlightenment romantics. The later, at least via Mary Shelley, certainly played a part in shaping sf (note that the “monster” in Frankenstein is an embodiment of the enlightenment view of man: born without any knowledge of the world, exploring it via his senses, moulded by his experiences and interpretations of them). Percy Shelley’s “Ode to Intellectual Beauty” or “Hellas” are hardly anti-enlightenment texts; I would claim that there is similarly an abyss between Walter Scott’s novels and those of Victor Hugo, who in no way romanticises the past he writes about, but on the contrary largely imbues his protagonists with the enlightenment liberalism of the French revolution.


    • I agree re Shelley et al. I intend the broad categorization to address the rise of modern Fantasy, not as a summation of the original movement. Although the divide is curious in the way in which Frankenstein is treated: in criticism, it is the proto-SF novel. In film, it is more often treated in the aesthetics of horror, along the lines of, say, Dracula and the wolfman.


      • I think this is due to the strong strain of dismissing sf in general literary academic discourse, possibly less in the US than in Europe, but still leading to as far as I have seen Frankenstein being viewed as primarily a gothic horror novel and interpreted as a warning of the dangers of scientific inquiries. The same blindness regarding the actual texts is common when Poe is concerned; he, too, is viewed a basically a romantic mystic who, as Wikipedia puts it, “based [his] writings on the supernatural/occult and human psychology”, whereas Poe in fact used virtually no supernatural ingredients in his stories, while instead incorporating a considerable respect for science. It was not by chance that the Goncourt brothers called his work “a new literary world pointing to the literature of the 20th Century. Scientific miracles, fables on the pattern A+ B, a clear-sighted, sickly literature. No more poetry but analytic fantasy.” (Of course I may be prejudiced; when I submitted my précis for a PhD dissertation to my professor at Stockholm University, on how five original themes of H.G. Wells had influenced later work but also been influenced by world events, my professor dismissed it, saying, “The student has misunderstood his subject. Science fiction is not literature.”)


  2. Pingback: AMAZING NEWS: 3/13/22 - Amazing Stories

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s