RogerBW's Blog

On Distinguishing SF from Fantasy 30 June 2016

One might naïvely suppose that this would be an easy distinction, for both books and games. Fantasy has dragons; science fiction has spaceships. But there is a set of ideas, loosely correlated with the SF/fantasy divide, which to my mind make a greater difference to the feel of a story than do trappings like those.

Principally I think this is the idea of the world as something to be engaged with and changed, versus something to be taken as it is. There doesn't seem to be an extant critical term for this distinction (thanks to Chris Bell and Bill Stoddard for looking for one for me), so for this purpose I'm going to follow one of Bill's suggestions and call it "user" versus "maker".

On the "user" side, often associated with fantasy:

  • magic/psionics/etc. consists of largely static lists of abilities, each of which does one thing and can't be (or at least isn't) used for any other purpose; or protagonists aren't magicians at all, and magicians are plot devices. Developing new powers just doesn't happen.

  • ditto technology, such as the transporter in classic Star Trek, which is only there because the producers couldn't afford to film shuttlecraft; or the force-field window in one episode of Firefly, even though force fields don't show up elsewhere in the show.

  • generally, big complicated things are simply accepted without question. "Wizards don't wear armour" and nobody ever asks why.

  • gods or other super-powerful beings may well be active in the world, and they can actively favour some people over others in what seems like an entirely capricious way.

  • there may be a big tough enemy, but this is something to be beaten and then you can go back to the way things "should" be.

  • if there is any thought of a utopia, it's in the past. There may have been a golden age once, but mere men cannot achieve that any more. Success in a story consists of returning society to the way it was before the threat began, and if that can't be done it's a sign of how bad the problem was.

On the "maker" side, often associated with SF:

  • magic/superpowers give the heroes broad abilities, which they can then come up with interesting ways of using and combining. (In an extreme case you get something like Alicorn's Radiance.)

  • high resolution on technical matters, to the point that in a game players can come up with combinations of entirely imaginary things that the GM/game designer hadn't thought of – and which can potentially reshape the world. Fanfic authors will find that there's a consistent pattern to the way things work, and it's easy to extend it.

  • big complicated things can be broken down into smaller things, and tested to find where the limits are. How much armour can a wizard wear and still cast spells?

  • if there are gods, they don't do much; or their power is available to everyone who does the right things, in a purely transactional manner (make the sacrifice, get the benefit).

  • a big tough enemy may well change things so much, before being defeated, that there's no going back to the way things were before. Or the actions of the protagonists may bring about similarly world-shaking change.

  • utopia is in the future: we can build it! It may be necessary to reshape society completely, but that's OK, because we know more than the last lot of people who reshaped it, and the next lot of people will know more than we do.

Of course this is not by any means a strict correlation with tech-SF vs magic-fantasy. There's science fiction which talks about the past golden age (and the hyper-technological "Ancients" who show up many different universes are a version of this). There's (rather rarer) fantasy that gets crunchy about details, like Graydon Saunders' The March North; I think that rarity is because the maker approach does need some idea of the scientific method, which would be anachronistic for many fantasy worlds. But it obviously makes some sense to link the user with the past (which is, at least in theory, objectively knowable, and you can take it or leave it but you can't turn it into something else) and the maker with the future.

Worlds derived from wargames are particularly prone to the user outlook, since they already tend to have standard weapons, tactics and organisations, and allowing too much innovation would break the balance that's helpful to keep the game interesting. Taking Dungeons and Dragons as a form of wargame (which in its original incarnations it was, and while individual campaigns have gone a long way from that start it's still the primary focus of the rules), there's a similar tendency to argue "well, wizards work like this because that's what the rules say". It makes for a better game of conflict, even if the story is less interesting as a result.

This split is discovery versus invention, metaphysical versus materialistic, closed-source versus open-source, VMS/Windows versus Unix (at least traditional command-line Unix), packer versus mapper, buying off-the-shelf versus bodging your own. It's obvious where my sympathies lie, and I'm concerned that that may be blinding me to the virtues of the "user" approach.

See also:
Radiance, Alicorn
The March North, Graydon Saunders


  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 12:49pm on 05 July 2016

    Ooooh, I think you may have hit on why I don't like lots of fantasy or the Star Wars universe. I always mentally catalogued the difference as "created" versus "evolved and/or bodged from parts". Though, of course, the authors have created the "evolved" settings too!

  2. Posted by William H. Stoddard at 10:12pm on 07 July 2016

    There was a noticeable surge of fiction that I can only class as fantasy, but with a largely Maker stance, when John W. Campbell was editing Unknown. The specialized subgenre of stories like "Magic Inc." and The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump was a branch of it, but there were others; the Harold Shea cycle came from there.

    In many ways, the baseline GURPS Magic system embodies this attitude, despite having a fixed spell list. You constantly see people in discussion groups asking "Can I cast spell X to do this variant thing, and use that as a basis for casting spell Y?" Perhaps this reflects the science fictional orientation of its first creator.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 08:19am on 08 July 2016

    One might add to that Operation Chaos - and of course GURPS Technomancer.

    I think two other things in the rules help encourage a maker approach to GURPS magic. First, a magician generally knows dozens of individual spells, so is fairly flexible in terms of say fire magic rather than only being able to throw fireballs, and this generates some of the same effects that rules which simply gave a broad talent in "fire magic" would achieve. (And prerequisite chains mean that even a fire magic specialist will have some competence in other fields.)

    Second, GURPS spells are cheap; i.e. you can generally cast quite a lot of them, especially if you can get away from an immediate tactical problem, gather a bunch of friends and take your time. So they can effectively be combined even though they're inflexible as individual units.

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