Sorry that this is a day late! Instead of cleaning up the rough draft of this last night, I worked on my fiction. Which only goes to show that I have my priorities straight, right?
Last week’s post on defining science fantasy (and the subsequent discussion) had me pondering more on the differences between science fiction and fantasy. This week, I want to focus on one aspect of those differences–the language and vocabulary of the two genres.
Fantasy is rooted in the past, and often draws inspiration from historical Earth cultures and societies. The literary traditions in fantasy novels often take the form of mythology, religious and prophetic texts, epic poetry, and song.
The vocabulary of science fiction, on the other hand, is drawn from the modern age, reflecting the huge leaps in technological and scientific progress. It’s unlikely that you’ll find epic poetry in science fiction; instead, you’ll find lines of code, snippets from scientific lectures and academic texts, extracts from instruction manuals, and transcripts of video and audio recordings.
So, even if science fiction and fantasy concern themselves with the same themes, they’ll use different language to do so. Take, for example, encounters with non-human sentient races. Fantasy draws its races from mythology and folklore, populating the world with elves, dwarves, dragon and sea monsters. Their origins are explained through myth and folklore. Science fiction has its aliens, but these are described in terms of their evolution and adaptation to their natural habitats.
Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I’m currently reading Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future, and his predicted technology looks an awful lot like magic. While the effects of technology and magic might be similar, fantasy and science fiction employ different vocabulary to describe their use. Fantasy’s mages are science fiction’s genius physicists. Witches and wizards create portals between worlds, while space ships cross interstellar distances using FTL drives, hyperspace, and wormholes. The magically gifted might mind-speak to each other across fantasy continents; ordinary people take advantage of advanced communications to do the same in science fiction.
The processes of magic and technology also differ. A wizard’s workshop is often at the top of his lonely tower, and he makes magic by using arcane language and ritualistic gestures, maybe aided by mysterious bronze instruments and jars of dragon liver pickled at the dark of the moon. A scientist, though, is one cog in an industrial-military machine. Her lab is of steel and glass and plastic. Robotic arms and computer screens are the way she interacts with what she’s attempting to change. The end results may be the same–say, creating a whole new species–but the vocabulary used is not.
What happens when the terminology and processes of one genre creeps into the other? A mage might manipulate matter by knowing the True Names of objects or seeing a pattern of living energy. But when a mage manipulates matter by moving subatomic particles around with her mind, as in Jo Anderton’s Veiled Worlds trilogy, your fantasy just got a little bit more science-fictional.
Similarly, when you use a mystical, unmeasurable energy like the Force in your spaceships-and-guns science fiction universe (and follow that up with swords, robes, and prophecies) you’re dangling your feet in the shallows of fantasy.
This crossover of language between science fiction and fantasy is what leads me to characterize some of my work as science fantasy. I have no problem with science and magic running parallel through my worlds. Ward magic exists alongside reality-altering radioactive elements. New species are created through a hybrid process that uses magic and genetic engineering. And I like being able to use precise technical language even in my heavily fantasy-skewed worlds. I like calling an atom an atom.
Do you find the language of science fiction and fantasy to be different? What about sub-genres like steampunk and urban fantasy? Do they fit right into the middle of the spectrum where the lines between science fiction and fantasy blur?