It’s Fantasy, Dammit, Not SF!

At a reading recently, I was asked an intriguing question. One of the attendees was grappling with the physics of the world I invented for The Stoneways. Specifically, he was trying to understand how dense a ten mile thick world had to be in order for there to be gravity.

“It’s a fantasy,” I explained.

Some background. The Stoneways is a flat world without horizontal edges (at least as far as the people living there are concerned). It’s about ten miles thick, with humans living normally on the top, and dwarves living normally in their own way on the bottom. Gravity is consistent throughout the world, i.e. it pulls in only one direction – down. If anyone lets go of the bottom of the world, they fall.

Scientifically, then, I didn’t need to have a super dense layer of neutronium, handwavium, or whatever, in the center of my ten mile thick slab of stone in order for gravity to work. My questioner hadn’t quite understood that (he’d thought the Dwarves were walking around on the bottom of the world like Aussies (alas, I have failed at basic exposition)), but once he realized the difference, he wanted to know how far it was before someone who fell off the bottom of the world would hit bottom.

“There is no bottom,” I said.

“But there has to be! How else can there be gravity?”

“I dunno. It’s fantasy, not SF.”

This seemed a very hard concept for this reader to grasp. But really, once you posit magic, how real can a subcreation be? SF writers like Larry Niven or Karl Schroeder might have to explain the structure of their worlds with the laws of physics, but not me. Or any other fantasy writer. Which means, at least when we’re setting up worlds, that fantasy writers can pretty much do whatever we want. Our worlds can exist as air bubbles within a universe of water (Leiber), as peninsulas connected to the continent of Heaven (Lewis), or reflect different skies depending on whichever god is worshipped there (Bear).

We don’t have to justify it. We can just make it up.

It’s fantasy, dammit. Not SF.

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  1. 1. Mary

    Fantasies that forget this and make their marvel smack of science are very annoyng.

  2. 2. Ted

    On the contrary, fantasies that spend some time explaining their mechanics (like Mistborn, or Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles) are that much more interesting to me. Definitely a personal preference sort of thing, but I like when authors don’t flat-out cop out and say to the reader, “It’s fantasy, dammit.” Sorry, Mr. Butler.

  3. 3. Lioness

    To me, SF includes Fantasy.
    SF =Science-Fiction, Speculative Fiction, speculative Fantasy, etc. But since too many book stores/libraies put fantasy and Sci-Fi together, I see why some people might get confused & believe that it is the same thing.
    Although really, the Dwarves should have tipped him off.

  4. 4. Kathryn Scannell

    I cringed a little when I read this line: “But really, once you posit magic, how real can a subcreation be?”

    Once you posit magic, that usually becomes the dominant set of rules for how your world works, rather than science. Or at a minimum it becomes part of the rules for how your world works, alongside the better known scientific rules.

    Having magic should not mean there are no rules. It means there are different rules. If you don’t feel you need internal rules, it becomes very difficult to have a reasonable plot, because magic should be able to just solve everything. You may never need to explain all of them to the reader but I think if you as the author don’t understand them, it shows, and your book will be the poorer for it.

  5. 5. Bruce H. Johnson

    If one makes up the fantasy “rules”, at least make them behave consistently. The same “spell” done exactly the same way should give pretty much the same results — unless you have a beginning wizard, then all bets are off.

    If you build a fantasy world like the Stoneways, please make it internally consistent. Please, no last-minute introduction of a “way things happen to happen” which saves our hero.

    “With a mighty bound, he sprang from the pit” went out years ago.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Mary – I’m with you. I like a sense of wonder.

    Ted – It’s still fantasy, even if you explain the mechanics. Sanderson and Rothfuss are making it up, not using the physical laws of the universe as we know them. The Stoneways is the same.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Lioness – I agree. There’s been a great deal of blurring of the lines between fantasy and SF. Which is both a good and a bad thing, in the end.

    Kathryn – I agree one hundred percent. Magic systems have to be consistent, nor can they be all-powerful. But I wasn’t talking about the magic system, I was talking about the actual world-building. In a sense, it’s one of the postulates of the world-building, part of the infrastructure from which the magic system is derived. The Creation Myth in The Stoneways explains the magic, and the world completely, though it’s not explicit.

    Bruce – Exactly.

  8. 8. Wolf Lahti

    I’m still amazed by the number of people who think Star Trek is science-fiction and not fantasy, particularly the original series.

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    Wolf – Oddly enough, I’m thinking of making Star Trek’s crimes against SF as the subject of my next post.

  10. 10. Cr1spy

    Maybe it is just me, but this seems like the perfect time for a “It is turtles all the way down” reference.

    As readers, why do we think we have the right to attempt to impose our will upon the writers? If a writer chooses to explain every detail, including proving how he has worked out the math as to why something would work, fine! It will be a boring read, but that is the author’s prerogative. But, if the same author says this is how it is and you just have to deal with it, that is fine as well.

    At some point we have to allow the universe to be what it is and be fine with that.

    Now, when you write your own book……

  11. 11. Midas68

    Zombies are now Science Fiction.
    Vampires are Paranormal Romance.
    Cats sniffing dogs butts.

    And now Men are writing under pseudonyms to get into the cash cow of Women Dominated YA and Paranormal Romance.

    The Script has been Flipped.

  12. 12. Traci Loudin

    I haven’t read them, so forgive me if I’m misunderstanding how the reader knew this information or how literal you meant to be with the 10-mile figure, but…

    If the story is about dwarves and elves and is an alternate world, why are they measuring in miles?

    Secondly, the super-genre (all of fantasy, SF, speculative fiction, or whatever you want to call it) is built around readers that *think*. They don’t just passively accept information. So when the story says the world is 10 miles thick, the SFF reader starts questioning things, such as who or what created this world in such a way that it’s based on such a nice, round number? An interesting concept, to be sure, and something a SFF reader might look forward to learning in later books.

    Also, just because there’s magic, doesn’t mean all of science goes out the window. If that were the case, fantasy authors would have to rebuild the entire world starting from scratch, explaining mundane things like why there are four seasons (if there are), how mortar makes pieces of buildings stick together for shelter, why air rises above water, and so on.

    So it seems to me that the average SFF reader has an inherent understanding that only the things you specifically mention as being magic are the rule-breakers (things that don’t follow our normal understanding of how things work in *our* world), which throws a big giant spotlight on them, thus making the reader want to know more. Assuming the 10-mile thing is explained in a creation myth, as a reader, I would probably be satisfied.

    But by giving the reader that information, you’re begging them to ask more questions—because that’s what science fiction and fantasy readers do.

  13. 13. S.C. Butler

    Cr1spy – Your analogy is apt. Maybe I should use gravity turtles too.

    Midas68 – ???

    Traci – Regarding your first question, I use English standards of measurement because I’m writing in English. As a wise woman once said, “If it looks like a rabbit and acts like a rabbit, don’t call it a vrisht.”

    And there are no elves in The Stoneways, just dwarves.

    Regarding your second comment, I believe you have fallen into the trap that Lioness pointed out in her comment. SF and fantasy are very different genres, though also very complementary. You don’t read a mystery the same way you read a romance – why should SF and Fantasy be read the same?

    Regarding the rest of your comment, might I suggest you read the books? You might be pleasantly surprised.

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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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