The Nature of Science Fiction and Fantasy Part 3


We have arrived at some workable definitions, possibly:

Science fiction stories take place in a world based on the premise that the observer and the observed have a separated relationship: the subjective experience of human beings is divided from the objective, material environment. The result is an emphasis on science (the investigation of the ‘objective’ by the ‘subjective’) and the 'machine', whether mechanical or psychological or societal.

Fantasy stories occur in a world where the observer and the observed are not quite so separated: the subjective experience of human beings is joined in some way to the objective world. The result is an emphasis on magic, and the themes are largely spiritual.

Wide variations occur in each genre, and sometimes, as in Star Wars, they seem to almost blend together. Thus you can have the ‘hard’ science fiction of much of Arthur C. Clarke’s work, in which feasible scientific discoveries or encounters play out dramatically, through to Frank Herbert’s Dune series, in which mental powers exist which verge on the magical. In fantasy, you can get everything from the carefully worked out world of Tolkien to the wildly free-wheeling nursery tales in which no real attempt is made to work anything out rationally. But though the scope is broad, our definitions seem to hold true: as soon as one crosses the line between the subjective and the objective, one steps over into the other genre.

What does that mean?

It might take a brief history lesson to grasp what has happened.

Over 500 years ago, there was a vast consensus of thinking, in the West at least. It was based on the premise that Christianity was true, and that the world was an ordered structure, ordained into existence by a beneficent God. Individual human beings had their place in this divine order of things; the Church was a network of ‘portals’ through which the population could experience the reality of it all. Liturgies, ceremonies, rituals, the calendar, the cycles of life and death, everything was orientated around this consensus. The material world was firmly placed towards the bottom of a chain of being which led to a better spiritual life after death. The predominant Christian world view had evolved from earlier pagan perceptions of a similar kind.

This all began to break down when those representing the pathway - i.e. the clergy- began to benefit too materially from their role. The vast accumulating wealth of the organisation designed to guide people into an afterlife meant that the focus slowly shifted, corruption grew, and large bodies of people began to get the impression that they were no longer gaining access to the divine unless they could pay for it. Sections split away from the main body of the Church — but with the splitting off, and the accompanying translation of Scripture into the vernacular, and the consequent multiple reexaminations of the principles of the faith, new viewpoints emerged. A slow but steady movement began towards a psychological detachment of the individual from his or her surroundings: rather than being part of a chain of being, some began to perceive that the material world had an external ways of working. This was the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

Science appeared, and the observer and the observed gradually became separate.

Science fiction explored the possibilities of a world full of undiscovered wonder - and horror. One of the first 'science fiction stories' - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein- looked at a detached creation of 'life' and its consequences. Later stories more optimistically explored space, under the ocean, and inside the earth (Jules Verne, for example). Then, as time went on and the human psyche began to suffer from isolation as a result of scientific detachment, dystopian tales emerged. Maybe the universe was not a structure of divine wonder but a hollow and soulless machine; maybe the human spirit wasn’t made in the image of a benevolent Creator but was a chemical byproduct of a meaningless series of cosmic accidents.

Perhaps space was occupied by horrors unimaginable.

Modern fantasy hankered back to the times before this intellectual/spiritual separation, evoking societies and beliefs, creatures and relationships that had once been familiar to the human imagination and which brought with them a reassuring view of the world as a connected, spiritual place rather than as an empty machine.

Any writer of speculative fiction, then, who starts from the viewpoint that the life of a human individual has meaning and purpose tends to be writing fantasy; any writer who begins with the human individual being a small part of a vast material universe which probably doesn’t have any meaning ultimately, tends to be writing science fiction. Contradictions and exceptions occur, of course - as asserted above, the range within and across the two genres is vast — but this hopefully provides some clarification.

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