The door to the tavern opens, spilling raucous noise into the muddy street. Under the soot-stained beams, a motley crowd of scarred heroes and villains hunch round worn tables, barely looking up from their cards or dice. Hooded mystery men sit in dark corners, while here and there a stocky dwarf or green-clad elf stands out from the crowd. A nervous enchanter tries to keep his arcane robes clean while bargaining with three members of a disreputable guild. A buxom barmaid smiles with unlikely enthusiasm, while the surly bartender grudgingly offers you a chipped flagon of frothing ale.
Any fantasy fan should recognise this archetypal place, and feel immediately comfortable in the world. There won’t be too many surprises here, but there is the strong whiff of adventure about the place (even over the stale beer) and you know you are in for a fun ride. Sometimes this is the sort of fantasy you want – cosy, familiar, with stock characters like old friends and stock settings you hardly need a map for.
Sometimes, however, you open a book and think, “Where the hell am I?”
There are books out there pushing the boundaries of Fantasy, and even the definition. Sure, we all love a cosy setting for a D&D campaign or an RPG, but after a while the tropes grow stale, the setting looks long in the tooth, and long for something that will blow your mind. And there are certainly books out there that will do that! Sometimes it brilliant characterisation or devilish plotting that sets a book apart, but I suppose the books I’m thinking of are the ones that blur the lines between fantasy and science fiction.
Now, we all know that genre is a spectrum anyway, and I’m not a great one for pigeonholing sub-genres with names, so I’ll try to avoid labels here*. However, some fantasy writers do seem to take a sci-fi approach to their storytelling, and I don’t just mean fantasy with futuristic elements (Star Wars, anyone?). I mean starting with a hypothesis and seeing where it takes them.
In support, I will throw in a convenient definition:
A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.
Robert A. Heinlein (via wikipedia)
And a famous quote:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clark
So, if you merely substitute ‘past’ or ‘alternate world’ for ‘future’, and magic for advanced technology, what really is the difference between the fantasy stories I’m thinking of and science fiction?
Let’s take two examples (briefly): Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire, and Robert J Bennett’s City of Stairs. Both are great books which I highly recommend, and both do a great job of exploring the consequences of central premises that set their world apart from ours.
In Mirror Empire, societies have different social practices, satellites impart magical power, and there is (no surprise) a parallel, mirror universe where things have gone very differently. Also, plants eat people. If this sounds ridiculously complex, well, it is, and the greatest part is that nothing is a throwaway. Everything plays a part in how the people, societies and nations of the world have evolved. After all, you couldn’t expect things to look just like Earth when the trees are the apex predators!
In City of Stairs, the premise is that the gods were real, physical presences in the world and played a huge part in shaping the lives of their followers. This has consequences not just for the people, but for the gods themselves and the very fabric of the world – especially when the gods disappear. Gods are a common element in fantasy, but this books is one of few true explorations of the effect living gods would have on religion and society. Too often fantasy religions are cheap copies of our own, unrealistically marginalised, or non-existent, but this book tackles the subject head-on, with spectacular results.
Just for fun, let’s look at one example of a fantasy series with an interesting central premise that DOESN’T seem to follow through on it at all: A Song of Ice and Fire. Now, we all know that ‘Winter is coming’, but I still don’t have a good idea what that means, or how the world deals with it. Years-long winter would surely have a devastating effect on society, and cultures would have to have evolved lots of mechanisms to deal with it. Where are the massive silos or storehouses? Where are the migrating hordes of every sort of animal? What happens to Blackwater Bay when the water level drops due to ice formation? The only consequence seems to be the White Walkers, and nobody seems to care about them.
Contrast this with the onset of Ice Age in Michael Scott Rohan’s Winter of the World, or the keeps built in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy that could so easily be a refuge from winter as from the Dark. Yes, the true premise of ASOIAF could be ‘what if there was a world where everyone were assholes?’, and it does a great job exploring that, but it seems to miss opportunities elsewhere. There are other examples of this, I’m sure.
I would argue that all of this is just good worldbuilding, and should be done in whatever book you are writing, fantasy, sci-fi or other. The handy thing about stock settings is that everything is already set up for you, and most consequences already anticipated. However, when a lazy author chucks one change into a stock world without following through, readers may notice. Take the simple and common addition of magic users to an otherwise western medieval society. Often books explore what problems this would create (distrust, fear, power-grabs, war) but don’t seem to spend time on the consequences magic might have outside the political or personal sphere.
Why hasn’t magic solved world hunger or improved sanitation, construction, manufacturing or transport? If it can cure diseases, what is the effect of excellent health on lifespan and population? If magic can create energy or transform objects, would this ruin the non-magical economy? Many books seem to mention magical birth-control, but when was the subsequent sexual revolution and women’s lib movement, now that half the population could stop living in fear of pregnancy (which, without magical healing, was often fatal)?
Ok, I’m sure you could come up with a few good answers here, and I don’t want to get into the ‘magic has to have rules and/or limits’ discussion. I suppose I revisit the theme of earlier screeds on history and wolrdbuilding – you shouldn’t take anything for granted.
And every once and a while, let a book blow your mind.
* Yeah, I think some people might call it ‘hard fantasy’, but I find the ‘hard/soft’ dichotomy too pejorative and problematic, even when applied to Sci-Fi.