Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Step Toward a Taxonomy of Speculative Fiction

I got an email this week from a writer-friend of mine, Russ Colson.  He has started his own blog, “The Writer’s Corner.”  For his first entry he decided to write about the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy.  He recalled that I had written on the same topic in my blog and invited me to comment with a link to my own entry on the subject.  
Hate to say it, Russ, but I don’t recall writing such an entry.  It sounds like something I would do, something any speculative fiction writer might do, but I’ve looked and can’t find such posting.
So, I decided to create one.  Ta-Dah!  Here it is.  
In fact, since receiving Russ’s email, thinking about the question, I’ve decided to go a step farther.  As the title suggests, I want to see if I can come up with a means of classifying the different genres of Speculative Fiction.  I haven’t gotten the complete answer, by any means.  This is merely the beginning, the first step, in that direction.  
Here we go...
When the question, “What is Science Fiction?” is posed, I am reminded of the statement once made by a Supreme Court Judge when asked to rule on whether something was obscene or not.  The judge’s reply was something along the line of, “I may not be able to define ‘obscene,’ but I know it when I see it.”  
One of the earliest recollections of when I came face to face with Science Fiction was reading the story by Tom Godwin, “The Cold Equations,” first published in 1954.  
In the story, a “Emergency Dispatch Ship” pilot discovers that there is a stowaway on board his ship.  It turns out to be the sister of a man with the survey team the EDS pilot is taking medical supplies to because of the outbreak of a deadly disease.  What the young girl didn’t realize was that Emergency Dispatch Ships have only enough fuel to reach the destination with their cargo.  Any extra weight, such as the mass of a stowaway, is by law, jettisoned immediately.  
In its set-up, Cold Equations showed me the one essential aspect of Science Fiction that separates it from other forms of Speculative Fiction.  Science Fiction stories are set in a Universe which is vast and impersonal.  A Universe that works in accordance with principles that do not take into regard what we, minuscule components of that Universe, may want for ourselves or those things we care about.  These ‘cold equations’ do what they do, and we can only adapt to them.  
Or...!  We can learn what they are and use them for our benefit.  But I’ll get back to that point in a bit.  
Fantasy, on the other hand, is set in Universes that are more personable and aware.  Fantasy has its roots in the myths of religions long dead.  Hercules and his labors.  Thor fighting frost giants.  Fantasies are the evolved off-spring of the tales that were designed to teach us how to get to know and deal with the gods and goddesses that created and ran things.  Gods and goddesses that were intimately connected to the forces they embodied.  
In a Fantasy story, if the wind brushes your cheek, it could very well be because the Spirit of the West Wind wants you to look that way at something important.  In a Science Fiction story, it’s because a low pressure system miles away has moved to a point where it can tug on the air mass in your local environment.  
I don’t think this is, however, the complete definition of the difference between these genres.  
In Cold Equations, the EDS pilot has few options.  He can’t keep the young girl on board.  Doing so would cause the deaths of the party he has been sent to rescue.  But he can use his knowledge of these equations to adjust his trajectory.  He can conserve fuel until it is necessary to decelerate for planetfall.  This will allow them to get into radio range of the planet so she can say good-bye to her brother.  
It’s not a lot.  It is not enough to save her.  But it is appreciated by those involved.  
The pilot’s knowledge, based on science, gave him some measure of control.  It was insufficient to do what he wanted it to do, save the life of the young girl, but it was something.  The Universe continued to exist has it has and would for billions of years in the future.  For one brief moment, though, a human using the tool gained by studying the workings of this Universe was able to extract, or create, a moment of meaning.  He took a stand against the implacable cosmos and said, “We were here, for a time.”  
There is a power to effect change in Fantasy as well, but this is a power of the divine.  As someone raised Catholic, I remember the priest in catechism class explain to me that transmogrification of the host into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ was a real event.  Not symbolic.  Not metaphorical.  It was happening before us in Truth.  It was not a power we could ever understand.  It WAS one we could yield IF we had sufficient faith.  The faith of a mustard seed can move mountains, remember?  
In Fantasy stories, this tool or power is called Magic.  Magic has many different forms in Fantasy, with different potencies and different degrees of discernible results.  But what they share universally (which I KNOW is an opening for dozens upon dozens of comments with examples proving me wrong) is that they all depend on some innate quality, often emotion and/or psychological, of the practitioner.  
Anyone with sufficient training, discipline and education can be scientist.  But only a “destined few” can grow up to become wizards.  
To summarize, Science Fiction stories are set in Universes that are, in effect, unconscious, and where our power to impact change comes from our ability to learn the truths about how that Universe operates.  Fantasy stories are set in Universes that are aware of us, or where we, or beings like us, provide the awareness, and our power to affect change in such a Universe depends upon our relationship with that Universe.  
I said at the beginning of this blog entry that I wanted to at least start the process of creating a taxonomy of speculative fiction.  And to do that, I think I need to add a third point of comparison. 
An acquaintance of mine from years ago, someone who was a huge Call of Cthulhu fan, once told me that the bravest characters in fiction could be found in Horror stories.  His reasoning was that, the people standing up to the “great evil” in Horror stories often had no hope of success.  Any chance of victory they might have would be temporary at best, the evil is locked in its tomb for another millennia, for instance, and the cost to obtain even such a small respite, from the standpoint of the evil itself, was often huge.  And yet, these characters, for the sake of humanity, or a particular someone in humanity, they did it anyway.  
Horror stories, like Fantasy stories, are set in Universes that are personal.  They are embodied by the monsters, insane gods and demons the characters face.  And if there is such evil in the Universe, the logic goes, there must be an equal amount of good.  
Unlike Fantasy stories, though, the characters in Horror stories are, by and large, powerless.  They tend to be average people facing extraordinary forces.  At most, they have some arcane knowledge over which they have questionable control, and a faith that what they will sacrifice to stop the evil will be worth it.  
In my taxonomy, then, I’d have “Impersonal Universe” and “Personal Universe” across the top of the graph, with “Empowered” and “Powerless” along the left edge.  This would create four boxes, with Science Fiction in the upper left box, Fantasy in the upper right and Horror in the lower right.  
If anyone knows of a speculative fiction genre that features characters in a Impersonal Universe that are relatively powerless, let me know.  It sounds just like normal fiction to me.  
I’ve enjoyed reading, and writing, both Fantasy and Science Fiction throughout my life.  The discussion of their differences is interesting to me, and I’d love to join any number of my like minded friends in a bar to argue over the smallest detail.  They both exist, and mingle with each other, because they touch on different parts of what we feel when we face Existence.  The part of us that wonders at the incredible machine.  And the part of us that wonders what it would be like if we had the power to shape it. 


Anonymous Russ Colson said...

Hi Erick,
Love your comparison of the wind's brush on the cheek--gentle guidance or a distance low pressure center! Very funny. Also, that "normal fiction" falls into the "Impersonal, powerless" corner of your chart is a rather funny commentary on normal fiction. However, as a person of deep personal faith who is also a believer in a scientifically rational universe, I wonder if there might be some room for the "Personal" in science fiction. A rational and consistent universe doesn't have to be the same as an impersonal one, not when there is so much room to maneuver within the "laws". Russ Colson

--PS I found our previous conversation, which was by e-mail rather than on your blog. I had forgotten.

January 25, 2014 at 1:37 PM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

You're right, Russ. A rational universe isn't the same as an impersonal one. Not necessarily.

But this may point to the distinction between genre fiction and normal fiction. In normal fiction the universe is a given, an arena for action and nothing more. In speculative fiction, the author makes a decision, often unconscious I suspect, about the relationship of the characters and the humanity they represent and the universe they abide in. The direction and degree of that decision will tell you a lot about what the genre that story can be set.

January 25, 2014 at 2:04 PM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

I'm glad you figure out where our previous conversation was located. I was sure you were right, that I'd written something about this before, but couldn't figure out where.

January 25, 2014 at 2:06 PM  

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