Fantasy Vs. Science Fiction

The eternal questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there in truth no beauty? And what is the difference between science fiction and fantasy?

David Brin has weighed in on this last question. More than once... this time in response to an essay by Cat Valente. In his earlier essay, The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy?, he asks, "what is my definition of the separation?"
I think it is very basic, revolving around the notion of human improvability. "Do you believe it is possible for children to learn from the mistakes of their parents?" For all the courage and heroism shown by fantasy characters across 4000 years of great, compelling dramas -- NOTHING EVER CHANGES! Aragorn may be a better king than Sauron would have been. Hurray. Fine. But he's still a freaking king. And the palantir on his desk that lets him see faraway places and converse with viceroys across the realm is still reserved for the super elite. No way are we going to see mass-produced palantirs appearing on every peasant's tabletop from Rohan to the Shire.... Fantasy has its attractions. Something about feudalism resonates, deep inside us. We fantacize about being the king or wizard. Heck it's in our genes. We are all descended from the harems of the guys who succeeded at that goal. The core thing about fantasy tales is that, after the adventure is done and the bad guys are defeated... the social order stays the same.
Amanda, one of the commenters, "The difference between sci-fi and fantasy is... you think sci-fi is cooler. Personally I define 'fantasy' as 'stories based on old myths' and sci-fi as 'stories based on new inventions and the possibilities they have created.'" I actually like her definition better, but I'd like to think about Brin's questions, because they are interesting. I mean, obviously, he does think sf is cooler, but he's explained why. To be honest, I think that one reason many people prefer fantasy is because change is static; nostalgia, rather than anticipation, is the guiding motive.

But does it have to be this way? I think Brin conflates two issues. Why is fantasy overwhelmingly feudal? Does fantasy fetishize an unchanging past?

Castles and swords, knights and princesses... I love these things, and I've never been able to walk through an old castle without wanting to write a story about it. Legends and myths give me the same feeling. I want to bring these things back to life. I want to imagine myself into that world. One has to leave knowledge of the future behind in that world because people who lived during medieval times did not have a sense of progress. They had a sense of an unchanging world, or in some cases, of a deteriorating world. Tolkien definitely conveys this, especially in the Similirilion. The Golden Age is followed by the Brass Age followed by the Iron Age followed by the Age of Clay. This isn't a story of progress and advancement in his hands, but of moral and magical decay. For Tolkien, silicon and steel are not an improvement on gold.

It's also certainly true that fantasy often falls back on feudalism. This is not so strange if one is using a quasi-medieval pseudo-European (or even pseudo-Japanese or pseudo-Chinese or pseudo-Timbuktu) culture. I had an idea once for a story set in a pseudo-Tibetan setting, and what disturbed me most was that most readers wouldn't have been able to really tell it apart from a pseudo-French one from the same era: Monks, kings, peasants, horses, swords.

Yet even in Urban Fantasy, one often finds that the Secret Organization of Were-creatures, Vampires and Merfolk, or whatever it is, operates along quite feudal lines. Or perhaps like a mafia--which is similar enough. I guess this is understandable, since the creatures were born and reared during feudal times. I liked the episode of Being Human where the more modern vampires were like, "Why don't we go public and just start advertising?" Seriously, dudes. Modern organizations obsess over how to get publicity, not how to stay secret.

One of my secret goals has been to create some democratic fantasy. Now, I don't always succeed. Faearth (the world of my Unfinished Song series) has no emperors or kings because they are not "advanced" enough. They are not a democracy either. They have elements of both autocratic and democratic governance, in the way that many neolithic cultures did. The system differs from tribe to tribe, and also from year to year, but the basic system is that there are three councils or "societies": the Society of Matriarchs, the Society of Patriarchs, and the Society of Tavaedies (the warrior-dancers with magic).

These three groups make important decisions together by casting stones (on a mat or into jars), a kind of voting. No one else is allowed to vote, but in theory, everyone in the tribe can vote eventually, if they survive arrows of ordinary misfortune, since the only qualification for becoming a Matriarch or Patriarch is old age or a Shining Name. It's as if the voting age in our society were 60, except for athletes, veterans and movie stars. (It's much younger for them because they marry and die younger.)

There is no secret ballot, and obviously no televised debates. They debate the issues in meetings of the societies. During the casting of stones, each participant may speak to his or her reasons for placing the stone on one mat or another, or simply put it down in silence, but all can see where puts each of the others place their stones. This is how they hold trials; this is how they choose their War Chief.

The War Chief is called "War" Chief, rather than simply "Chief" because he is a not a king or ruler. In theory, he only leads the warriors during battle. He must maintain the goodwill of others with Shining Names, which he does by providing them with feasts (potlatches) and gifts. Also the War Chief of a tribe does not automatically command the loyalty of all the clans in that tribe. Clans may choose to declare their loyalty to him, or not.

However, in practice, a strong War Chief can gain considerable power; he can use terror to force clans and individuals to submit to his authority. The rise of the Bone Whistler exemplifies the way a cunning and ruthless War Chief can become a true tyrant.

Here's a scene from my upcoming book, Wing (Book 5 of The Unfinished Song), in which the largest tribe, Rainbow Labyrinth, choose their next War Chief, shortly after the fall of the Bone Whistler. (Warning: if you have not read The Unfinished Song: Initiate yet, this will contain spoilers. Go pick it up right now, while it's free.)
On the day to choose the War Chief, Vio broke with only one tradition; he retired to his own house during the Casting of Stones. “I will not see who casts which stone,” he told the Society of Societies, who assembled in the great, three-tiered kiva, with a smooth river stone in hand. “Do not fear my wrath if you wish to cast your stone in another’s jar. If you want me as War Chief, my spear will be strong for you. If you choose another, my spear will be strong for him.”
Vumo and Nangi arrived at their house to report the results. Vessia lowered the ladder to them from the balcony. Houses in the tribehold had neither doors nor windows on the first floor.
Vessia did not need to eat thoughts to surmise Nangi’s disgruntlement, which told Vessia which way the casting had gone.
“His little charade fooled no one,” Nangi grumbled. “The jars would have been full for Vumo, but Vio never would have bent his knee to his baby brother.”
Vumo looked uncertain. Listening to Nangi’s poison day and night had made him suspicious of his brother.
“If you don’t take Vio at his word, then test him,” Vessia said. “Tell him Vumo was selected, see what he does.”
“That’s not a good idea,” said Vumo. “He’ll kill me.”
“You owe him the chance to prove he is true.”
They climbed up one more ladder, to the third story rooftop, where Vio gazed out over the whole tribehold, to other rooftops where families lounged, also waiting for the news of whom the elders had chosen, and past that, to the hills where his enemies camped. He leaned on his spear like a walking stick, and his expression was impassive, but Vessia had learned to read the small ticks in his forehead and cheek that showed his extreme tension. He would not let himself ask how the casting went, but waited for his younger brother to speak.
“The elders acclaimed Vumo the One-Horned Aurochs as War Chief,” Nangi announced.

“Nangi!” complained Vumo.
All the blood drained from Vio’s face. He lifted his spear, and Vumo took a step back.
“Now, Vio, wait…” Vumo began.
Vio went down on one knee and placed his spear before Vumo. “You have my spear, my arm, my light. You are my Chief, and I, your warrior pledged. If I fail you by word or deed, let my spear be broken under your foot, let my life be spit in your mouth.”
Nangi plucked something from the air and tasted it. She heaved a sigh. “There is no deceit in him.”
On the other rooftops, men and women pointed at them. Their exclamations of surprise and outrage carried on the wind. Vumo’s face flamed. “Vio, stand up!”
“As you command, my Chief.” He stood.
“No! I am not your Chief. You should not kneel to me!” Vumo prostrated himself and laid his spear in front of Vio.
“Forgive my doubt. I only wanted to know if you would honor me. Of course they chose you, Vio. Of course they did.

“You have my spear, my arm, my light. You are my Chief, older brother, as you have been all my life, and I am your warrior pledged. If I fail you by word or deed, let my spear be broken under your foot and let my worthless life be spit in your mouth!”
Now cheers and yells carried from the onlookers on other roofs. Within a few days, the tale had spread, that Nangi and Vumo had tested Vio’s honor and he had proven true, and the esteem in which he was held rose. Yet there were those who had first rejoiced at the thought that a Morvae, not an Imorvae, would be War Chief, whose disappointment was all the more bitter for their hopes being raised then dashed.
These malcontents made Vumo more nervous than Vio, and Vumo kept asking him, “You’re not still sore about that trick we played are you? It was Nangi’s idea."

“No,” said Vessia. “It was mine.”
Vio measured her a long look, but to his brother said mildly, “I’m not sore.”
In earlier generations, only Tavaedies and warriors would have been expected to bend knee and pledge life to the War Chief, but the Bone Whistler had demanded the personal pledge of every tribesman and tribeswoman, all eight thousand of them, who lived inside the walls of the pueblo. The people were eager to purge themselves of the stain of the fallen tyrant, and the elders felt only a new pledge would break any lingering thrall of the Bone Flute. Vio stood in the central plaza and received a long line of men and women who knelt to him by turn. The process took days.
Nangi offered to eat the thoughts of those who gave their pledges, as she had for her father. In her father’s day, those whose thoughts belied their words would have been dragged to one side and killed on the spot. Vio declined her services.
“Is it because you trust them so much, or because you trust me so little?” demanded Nangi.
“Let each man and woman garden what thoughts they please,” said Vio, “I will harvest only their deeds when I judge their loyalty. The same is true for you, Nangi.”
She snorted.
With his position as War Chief at last secure, Vio assembled seven septs of warriors on horse to sortie into the hills against the Morvae.
There's a single line here that speaks to the issues Brin raised: In earlier generations, only Tavaedies and warriors would have been expected to bend knee and pledge life to the War Chief, but the Bone Whistler had demanded the personal pledge of every tribesman and tribeswoman.... society is not feudal; but it is on its way to becoming feudal. They have no kings...yet. But their War Chiefs will soon become chiefs, and then, probably, Kings.

Or maybe not. That depends on whether one thinks that a certain kind of government inevitably follows a certain level of civil organization. Their society is changing. Whether one wants to call it progress is an interesting one. It is striking how many isolated human civilizations passed through the same "stages" as their technology advanced. Stone age technology usually accompanied egalitarian tribes and chiefdoms; bronze and iron age technology, in large agricultural social groups, was usually wielded by kings served by castes of specialized priests and warriors. Industrialization brought a return to egalitarian impulses and the rise of democracies. Was this the only way that civilization could unfold? And if one were in an egalitarian, tribal society on the cusp of a much more brutal but also more productive agricultural kingdom, is that progress or decay?

I did not want to write about a utopia (nor a dystopia) in The Unfinished Song. There are many things I think are admirable in the cultures I describe, but also things which are rather horrid. There is also real change; real progress--though it may be as much a threat as a promise. One thing it is not, is an immutable world. Indeed, that is the crux of the dispute between the fae and the humans. The fae are immutable, immortal and eternal. Their time is circular. The humans, like the Black Arrow of Lady Death, can only travel time in one direction. They must change, as inevitably as they must die.

* * *

If you'd like to receive a free copy of Wing, please sign up for my newsletter. When you sign up, be sure to tell me what ebook format you prefer.


Unknown said…
I found this article very interesting as I have recently completed the first part of a four part novel, The four dreams of Leonardo. This book is both, science fiction, as well as fantasy.