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[GUEST POST] Max Gladstone on The Science Fictioning of Fantasy and Vice Versa

Max Gladstone is the Campbell Award-nominated author of TWO SERPENTS RISE and THREE PARTS DEAD. He has taught in southern Anhui, wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat, and been thrown from a horse in Mongolia.

The Science Fictioning of Fantasy and Vice Versa

By Max Gladstone

I think reports of our world’s science fictionality have been exaggerated. Yes, we have computers, rockets, battleships, particle accelerators, and digital watches, but the way we have these things is very different from the way old-school science fiction expected us to have them.

One hallmark of old-school SF is that characters tend to know how stuff works. Stuck in an alien prison? Break out with basic physics. Landed on a giant ring? Learn how it was made. Planet’s been accelerated through time so for each day that passes on Earth’s surface a hundred thousand years pass in the space beyond? Figure out why, and stop it. Stuck on a barren world and hunted by a vicious lizard-man? Build a rudimentary shotgun out of diamonds, charcoal, saltpeter, and bamboo.

Old-school fantasy, by contrast, is a genre of the unknowable. Magic in Tolkien’s works is big and vast and ancient. His characters relate to that magic with awe, with fear, and occasionally with love. No one tries to hack the One Ring. Certainly no one tries to build a new one! People acquire the One Ring, or the Palantir, and use each within its limits.

But consider the smartphone I have in my pocket.

While my phone was built by a company staffed by humans, I defy you, dear reader, to identify one single human being who could, given the raw materials-and I mean really raw, silicon and rare earths and gold and crude oil and the like-build this phone from scratch. No single human being knows how to make this phone. I acquired the phone, and I use it. People who know more about the phone can tell it to do more things than I can, but they’re still bound by the limits of the hardware. A few communities are dedicated to modding and hacking phones like mine, yes, but for most people most of the time a smartphone is a portable magic mirror. We make mystic passes before the glass, address the indwelling spirit with suitably respectful tones, and LEARN THE FUTURE. (“Siri, what will the weather be like tomorrow?”) The same thought experiment works for many modern technologies.

That has weird consequences for the science fiction and fantasy genres. Since we project futures from our present, the futures and technologies we now describe in non-dystopian SF (for example, Hannu Rajaniemi’s THE QUANTUM THIEF, and even John Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR) tend to look like magic-powers bordering on the numinous, to which characters relate with awe, fear, and occasionally love.

Meanwhile, as we grow accustomed in our everyday lives to fantastic devices that obey fixed but hidden rules, we’ve come to expect the same of magic in our books. Magic systems offer a consistent user experience for the numinous. Few magic systems actually explain how magic works, the physics of intersubjectivity or action at a distance. The demand for a “magic system” in modern fantasy books is a demand for magic to work consistently and intuitively-a demand UX designers the world over will recognize. Click the x in the upper right corner and the window always closes. Some series-like the Wheel of Time-take a further step into magical R&D, while other works-like Elantris-revolve around magical troubleshooting. As science fiction becomes more fantastical, fantasy becomes more science fictional in the old-school sense, and that’s awesome, because both genres should hold up mirrors to our world in addition to providing a constant stream of crazy and cool and weird ideas.

My books TWO SERPENTS RISE (out today!) and THREE PARTS DEAD explore this theme from both directions. My characters’ world has a level of development similar to our own, with cities, skyscrapers, and mass production, though all that grows from soul-stealing, necromancy, and sacrifice rather than from industrial capitalism. (Tip of the hat to the guy out there in the Occupy shirt who just shouted, “Same thing!”) My characters use magical devices that provide the kind of semi-consistent user experience we’ve come to expect from modern tech. But that very consistent user experience involves blood and lost souls, and when you open up most of the technology in the Craft Sequence, you find demons inside.

THREE PARTS DEAD has gods with shareholder committees, and necromancers in pinstriped suits. TWO SERPENTS RISE features a water utility at war with local elementals. And my characters are stuck in the middle, desperately trying to figure out how to live in a world where change outpaces comprehension and praxis, a world of eroding boundaries between the everyday and the numinous.

A world, that is, a lot like our own. We are limned with magic, surrounded by grand forces to which we must surrender-or against which we must engage. And so we work, and so we fight, and so we grow, and build our futures, fantastical and science fictional as they may be.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

6 Comments on [GUEST POST] Max Gladstone on The Science Fictioning of Fantasy and Vice Versa

  1. Paul Weimer // October 29, 2013 at 10:36 am //

    >>I think reports of our world’s science fictionality have been exaggerated. Yes, we have computers, rockets, battleships, particle accelerators, and digital watches, but the way we have these things is very different from the way old-school science fiction expected us to have them.>>

    Heresy! 😉

    Seriously though, Happy Release Day.

    Also seriously–you have a point. Once technology became complex enough, it has become more the workings of magic than science.

    Consider a computer. If its malfunctioning,what does IT tell you to do? The ritual of rebooting, of course.

    • Thank you! And yes, that was at the forefront of my mind while writing. Also the old Nintendo consoles: prostrate yourself before the NES, remove the cartridge, blow in the cartridge, blow in the machine. Some rituals to Marduk were less well-regulated.

  2. A good article – I like “mixing up the genres” and my upcoming Hollow World does some of that as well. While clearly science fiction (time travel to a post-apocalyptic earth where people have moved underground) it also is a classic “heroes journey” and has what I would classify as a kind of “magic” in that a character can do things that most can’t and it is not enabled by technology. It even has aspects of a mystery-thriller as murder doesn’t occur in the future, but suddenly bodies are popping up.

    I think cross-genre books offer some challenges to publishers and bookstores as it’s difficult to determine what shelf to put them on – but luckily scifi and fantasy is usually combined.

    • I agree about the categorization issue—though I think since the books are shelved together it’s more of a question of the difficulty of expressing the idea of the new book to a reader who might be interested in it. If a book is “more x,” it’s easy. If it’s “new y,” (or even ‘more y, wait, you’ve never read y? Hmmmm…’) that’s where the fun starts!

  3. Nice article, Max. I hadn’t thought of the rules of magic being related to the rules/understanding of our advanced technologies. Good stuff.

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