Hard fantasy

I think it’s been about two years since the Internet spawned a new iteration of an old debate (like it tends to do), in this case the notion of “hard fantasy.” These thoughts coalesced in my head then, but what with one thing and another I was too busy to ever post them, so here I am: well and truly behind the bandwagon. And I’ve lost all my links from that old debate to boot. But it’s a notion I happen to like, so let me toss in my two cents’ worth, however late they may be.

The term has been around for a while without anybody ever achieving consensus on what it refers to, which may mean it’s missed its window of opportunity for ever being useful. I’m not necessarily expecting to convert anyone here. I do think, though, that there is a way to apply this label that produces something worthwhile.

I believe (this is me having lost all my links) that it was Michael Swanwick who argued for hard fantasy being fantasy that bases itself on primary sources, but I find that approach problematical from a number of angles. To start with, being a folklorist means I’m hyper-aware of the morass represented by that word “primary.” Folklore is all about borrowing and adapting and recontextualizing, and it’s terribly easy to fall into some romanticized notion of “pure” folklore, and then to sneer at works that are too many degrees of separation removed from Sleeping Beauty/the Odyssey/Njáls saga/Kevin Bacon in the eye of the beholder.

But you don’t need to be a folklorist to spot another problem with that definition, which is that it makes a poor analogy to hard SF. Now, not everybody agrees on a definition for that either, but if I try to imagine what the equivalent for “primary sources” would be in hard SF, I find . . . what? Richard Feynman? More like the laws of physics — but equating fundamental principles of nature to creative cultural works seems askew to me. And if we’re going to talk about hard fantasy, I think it should bear analogous relationship to hard SF.

We get that in the closest thing we have to an official definition — in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy — where John Clute says it “might refer to fantasy stories equivalent to the form of hard sf known as the ‘scientific problem’ story, where the hero must logically solve a problematic magical situation.” That seems awfully limited to me, though, especially since it analogizes only to one type of SF story. More broadly, it’s any story that treats magic like science — but frankly, real-world notions of magic don’t often map that well to science, and defining hard fantasy as fantasy that behaves like SF doesn’t sit right with me. So let’s keep going.

And then I had an epiphany, boiling it down to five words that work for both sides of the genre: hard fantasy and hard SF alike are concerned with how stuff works, and why.

In science fiction, that can mean physics, computing, biochemistry, etc. A hard SF story is one that takes the known facts of those sciences and extrapolates them, rigorously exploring the mechanisms by which they operate, and how they might be made to operate in new, expanded ways. The equivalent in fantasy, then, is the type of work I’ve often labeled “anthropologically rigorous” — concerned with history, religion, politics, systems of magic, etc. What happens if you set your world conditions like this? Just as in SF, a given novel may devote scads of attention to one topic while ignoring others; finely-tuned interstellar travel matched with nonsensical alien biology is paralleled by, say, Tolkien, who thought through his cosmology and linguistics like whoa but didn’t seem much concerned with where anybody outside of the Shire got their food. It’s hard linguistic fantasy, hard cosmological fantasy, but politics and economics fall by the wayside.

How stuff works, and why. George R. R. Martin treats his politics with all the attention and rigor you could hope for. Jacqueline Carey extrapolates an alternate Europe where Christianity never homogenized Western culture. To a hard SF writer, these may not look like much; human culture and behavior are inescapably fuzzy, and do not lend themselves to replicable laboratory experiments, much less testable thought-experiments. But a hundred years of social science research has produced some pretty good models for understanding how people live, and I think it’s possible to devote in-depth attention to those aspects just as one can with the natural sciences.

The result is hard fantasy. And I don’t know about you, but I am a sucker for authors who write it.

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  1. 1. Karen Wester Newton

    If we have to use labels, I like broader labels rather than narrower labels. I love the term “speculative fiction” because it’s all encompassing. If you obsess about labels within the broader genre, you start wondering what you would label something like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea works?

    How about just “well written fantasy with richly drawn worlds”?

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    I think narrower labels have their place — for example, being able to say “steampunk” instead of “books set in the Victorian period or something a lot like it with a focus on steam-driven gadgetry” and anything else you feel like tossing into that one — because it’s more efficient. Where I personally get annoyed is when people start treating labels like something more than a convenient shorthand, and degenerate into arguments over what is or isn’t “really” steampunk, etc. At that point, they turn into time-wasters instead of time-savers. But creating categories helps us slice our data in a way that can illuminate interesting similarities and differences.

    Something I should have added in the essay itself is that I especially tend to think of hard fantasy as writing where the playing out of “how stuff works and why” is a driving force in the story — much like hard SF is often driven by the scientific issue it’s extrapolating.

  3. 3. Michael R. Underwood

    What would you say is the useful compare and contrast on Hard Fantasy and your own coinage of Cultural Fantasy? It seems like the exploration of Hard Fantasy here dovetails with Cultural Fantasy — which is of course one of my favorite uses of the fantastic.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Cultural fantasy, as I defined it for my own purposes, has to do with variety in setting — picking cultural models off the beaten path, and (to some extent, yes) making them important to the story. Hard fantasy overlaps in terms of centrality, but it’s more concerned with the “how and why” instead of the variety.

    If that makes any sense.

  5. 5. Damien R. S.

    Someone allegedly once referred to “fantasy with rivets”.
    I’ve used “hard fantasy”; it might highlight it’s usefulness by doing a compare and contrast.
    Not hard fantasy:
    Robin McKinley. I love her books, but most of them are living fairy tales, esp. the Damar books and Beauty, say. (Sunshine’s got commercial wards and the most sensible take on modern vampires ever, and Outlaws of Sherwood has concern about privies… but then it’s not even fantasy.)

    fairy tales in general, where a narrative logic is operating, not economic/military consequences of people being able to turn into bears.

    lots of D&D fantasy: where if the player characters start applying their powers methodically they can break the setting, with magic food-creating items and such. Not just D&D, lots of “generic fantasy” seems to be “medieval Europe with magic lying around and no actual Catholic church.”

    hard fantasy: the Exalted RPG, where the economic/political/military consequences of various powers has generally already been written into the settings. Given various tools, people have exploited them.

    Aspects, at least, of Discworld. Trolls are rock, rock is silicon, silicon computers run better when cool, trolls are dumb because they’re too hot down in the plains. That’s cute. Making a cooling helmet for a troll to think better, makes it ‘hard’ or ‘with rivets’.

  6. 6. Karen Wester Newton

    From your comment: “I especially tend to think of hard fantasy as writing where the playing out of “how stuff works and why” is a driving force in the story”

    Interesting. It almost sounds like an oxymoron—how magic works. Obviously you need rules for what magic can do and what it needs to do it, or the story becomes a pointless exercise of “wand waving saves the day.” But one definition of magic (at least as an adjective) is “Possessing distinctive qualities that produce unaccountable or baffling effects.”

    So maybe that’s the “hard” part of “hard fantasy”—explaining the how and the why while maintaining the magical?

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    I don’t think magic in a fantasy context needs to be unaccountable or baffling; I do want it to be numinous. Which is why Clute’s definition, to my mind, walks perilously close to the edge, since magic treated like science bores the snot out of me. (Dungeons and Dragons magic is boring as hell, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s way too systematized.) But you can work out the metaphysical logic by which blood sacrifice or spirit-binding achieves its effect, and then spin out the consequences of that for the society in question — and yes, the trick there is doing it without taking all the shine off the idea.

  8. 8. asotir

    I was disappointed in this post, since I expected, from the title, that you would know what the term ‘meant’ rather than speculating on what you imagine other people might have meant when they coined or used the term. And without the links, we are all a bit in the dark, aren’t we?

    (But you are most likely remembering the term as you encountered it, so I trust your memory.)

    Here I will speculate otherwise, approaching it not as analogue to ‘hard SF’ but as the opposite of ‘soft fantasy.’ The term ‘soft fantasy’ to my mind invokes fluffy clouds, blue bunnies, wistful Elves, harmless Dragons, and prancing unicorns. ‘Hard fantasy’ then would be what is often called ‘gritty’ — blood and death and sex, and murderous ‘realism’ set in a magical world.

    In other words, George RR Martin would exemplify it.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    Sorry to disappoint — I’m certain I have encountered those definitions, but I’m not certain it was Swanwick who promulgated the one I attributed to him. I can’t tell you what the term “means,” though, because there isn’t any agreement on that. I can only tell you what other people have used it to mean, and what I think would be a suitable meaning.

    As for your suggestion, my personal feeling is that grittiness will often go hand-in-hand with the kind of thing I’m pointing at, because “soft fantasy” of the type you describe is so pretty as to be unrealistic. Realism usually carries a fair bit of grit.

  10. 10. Eliza

    I like your definition of hard fantasy– I’m a sucker for it myself. Of course, once I start thinking of that I think perhaps a simpler definition would be something like ‘real consequences for choices’, or perhaps just ‘fantastic realism’. Magic doesn’t necessarily need to be understood, perhaps… but if it’s wild and inconsistent, it would be viewed that way and not meddled with lightly. Though it doesn’t fit under ‘understanding magic’, if done well and consistently, it’s also very believable.

    Of course, writing like that is hard to find. George R. R. Martin is brilliant, and I think now I’d add Patrick Rothfuss to the list. I’d love to achieve that sort of depth in my own writing.

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    Oops, I missed Damien’s comment in the moderation queue. In response to that: I like your examples. And it makes it clear that fantasy doesn’t have to be “hard” to be “good;” I adore Robin McKinley, but she’s not engaged in the kind of thing I would call hard fantasy. Sunshine comes the closest, I would say.

    Eliza — “real consequences for choices” applies to any fiction, regardless of genre; I’d say it becomes specific to sf and fantasy when the choices in question are sfnal or fantastical. Which is why it’s science in the SF and worldbuilding (not necessarily just the magic) in fantasy, because those are places the story becomes differentiated from mainstream fiction.

  12. 12. Damien R. S.

    Another example:
    soft superhero comics: almost all of them, where completely fantastic elements co-exist with “the real world” without changing it reliably.

    hard superheroes: Watchmen, where Dr. Manhattan destabilized the Cold War balance of power through his alliance with the US, and had revolutionized the world economy through synthesizing lithium for electric vehicles. (The *science* is beyond ‘soft’, but given the power it had an effect beyond the plot of the week, or using Superman as an airstrike on Libya.)

  13. 13. Jaws

    I would emphasize a slightly different distinction between “hard” and “soft” speculative fiction. In “hard” speculative fiction, the characters and the narrative explicitly acknowledge a rule-based rubric that constrains their actions and situations. That means no deus ex machina by non-rule-bound actors/forces allowed! Perhaps a couple of examples would make this theory clearer:

    Tom Godwin, “The Cold Equations”, perhaps epitomizes the hard-SF story. The rubric isn’t just a constraint — it’s the McGuffin. Conversely, despite all of the references to physics and physical constants (particularly Planck’s Constant… which contemporary research indicates may not be a constant), Dan Simmons’s excellent Hyperion Quarto is not “hard SF,” because the characters simply are not constrained by any consistent rubric.

    Ursula Le Guin’s short fiction set in Earthsea is an excellent example of “hard fantasy,” even though the rules themselves are not what a scientist would accept as sufficient. However, carefully examining the rigor underlying Le Guin’s works (and it’s merely more apparent in the short fiction) shows that it qualifies as “hard.” Conversely, and to use a purposefully annoying example, Bewitched is not hard fantasy.

    Or maybe it’s just “hard” if it has math in it. ;-)

    — CEP

  14. 14. Nora

    Huh. I like this. I’d never heard the term “hard fantasy” before — I’ve been calling it “traditional fantasy”, but tripping over this term because that automatically begs the question whose tradition? Then I tried “worldbuilding-focused fantasy”, which feels closer, but is still clunky. Hard fantasy it is. =)

    Just discovering this site, too, BTW, and I like what I see so far. Nice!

  15. 15. chrisweuve

    This came up just as I was discussing a something similar with some friends. In a recent episode of _Darths and Droids_, the following comment was made:
    “Some players will nitpick about the tiniest details of a setting, complaining endlessly, for example, how unrealistic it is to have a type of armour called ‘splint mail’, which never existed in real history, blah blah blah, when the thing wearing it is an **orc**. Or how a coinage system based on large quantities of more or less pure precious metals is completely economically unsustainable, while ignoring the fact that there are literal miracle-working priests and wizards running around the countryside. Or that nobody ever seems to be sick in a society with no concept of personal hygiene, yet are perfectly happy to accept that dragons fly and breathe fire and masquerade as human beings.”

    A friend responded to this by noting a long-running home-brew FRP game he had seen at MIT, “in which player characters have to contend with the malnutrition that comes from spending too long eating just waybread, the most common miracle worked by priests is the cure of infection, bimetallism is alive and well with silver being ten times more valuable than gold (for reasons left as an exercise for the reader), orcs are believed by some players to have two Y chromosomes and no X, and, yes, horses make aging rolls.” My friend went on to point out that the game “was once accurately, if impolitically, termed ‘the favorite FRP game of those who can stand it at all.’ ”

    A conclusion, I think, which can be applied more generally to the entire hard vs. soft fantasy debate.

  16. 16. Marie Brennan

    Nora — yeah, calling it “anthropologically rigorous” didn’t exactly leap off the tongue for me, either. :-)

  17. 17. Elaine Isaak

    doing some research for my talk on Hard Fantasy next week, stemming from the Hard Fantasy Manifesto I posted on my website a while back. Marie notes a recent interest in the topic (as of 2008) Swanwick is indeed credited with first use, but as a reference to highly original fantasy, not neccessarily rigorous fantasy. I proposed it as a panel topic which ran at Noreascon 4 (2004) to good effect. I wish I knew what happened to the meme between 2004/2008/2011 Still researching. . .

  18. 18. noks

    I dont know what hard fantasy is, and so what I write may be bullshit because names dont need to have something to do with that they mean, as some example rock music genre has nothing to do with rocks.

    Anyway, thinking about hard in hard fantasy as something related to the word hard in hard scifi it would be like this:
    The world/setting/story would show what would happen if stuff worked on the way they are supposed to work.

    A some example, magic wouldnt need to be some sort of science like magic with alot of rules and etc.., you book wouldnt need to have explanations to why dragons can trow fire with their mouth.

    BUT, they would need to show what would work. In a world with nonsense magic (“its magic I am not going to explain shit) people would problably get paranoid because of the fact magic can happen in the most unexplained ways.

    Said that, while stuff dont need to be have rules (like those as some example, those scientific like magic systems), most of books, rpgs and setting would explain and be made in a way that alot of stuff is explained and follow some sort of logic, because trying to make a setting/world/rpg/book with “I fantasy, ant gonna explain this” fantasy things, would be hard, would create a mess int the world


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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.



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