Clarification of “Science Fantasy”

Posted in: Guidelines Questions, What We're Looking For by Scott H. Andrews

12-08-2008, 09:32 AM

Quote: M. Arkenberg

Clarification of “Science Fantasy”

Where is the line (as far as BCS is concerned) between Science Fantasy and Science Fiction? How much “technology” is too much; alternatively, how much “magic” is too little?

That’s a great question–thanks for asking.

First, an aside: I personally don’t think “magic” is a necessity for adventure fantasy or a fantasy secondary-world. Lots of worlds have it, but I as a reader find just as much awe in fantastical animals or plants or landscapes or sentient beings. Any of those sorts of thing would make a setting seem fantasy to me.

As for technology, I don’t want anything that feels modern or contemporary or futuristic. Using historical eras of Earth’s past as a guide, I would draw a loose line at the end of the Victorian era or the start of the 20th century. Steam engines, clockwork devices, and early cartridge-based firearms are all present in stories that are forthcoming in BCS this winter. Halloween parties, household electricity, styrofoam cups, anti-aircraft guns, urologists, artificial wormholes, containment fields, blue blazers and brown slacks, movies, television, yuppies, American football, and VW Microbuses are all elements from stories that I’ve rejected in the last month for feeling more modern than I’m looking for.

I also think part of the feel of the technology in a story comes from the characters’ attitudes and vocabulary about it. I sometimes see stories where characters in a low-tech world act or talk like modern people in a high-tech world, making modern assumptions about how societies work when their society doesn’t work that way. So for me, it’s not just the actual technological elements but also the society that contains them and the characters the story is showing in that society.

Basically I’m looking for a pre-modern feel, regardless of the actual time period. I think that feel could exist in a post-apocalyptic Earth, if so much of our technology was destroyed that the societies left over didn’t have advanced tech and didn’t have modern attitudes about it. Dune feels mostly pre-tech to me because the Fremen have very little advanced tech and have non-modern attitudes about it. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories have sorcerers flying from planet to planet, but they’re using magic instead of technology, and their attitudes and vocabulary are colored by magic and not by tech.

So that kind of low-tech future setting could give the pre-tech sort of feel I’m looking for. It’s just that the pre-tech feel is more commonly found in bygone eras, whether true historical ones or fantasy ones inspired by them.


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15 Comments on “Clarification of "Science Fantasy"”

15 Responses to “Clarification of “Science Fantasy””

  1. M.Arkenberg says:

    12-08-2008, 09:48 AM

    Thanks for the in-depth answer, Scott! Now I’m looking forward to some steampunk from BCS. :-)

  2. nithska says:

    01-08-2009, 01:39 AM

    :) I’m replying to another older post, but this is close to what my question is, so I thought I would reply instead of starting a new thread.

    I’m wondering about other world stories (2nd world?) in which a modern character journeys to that world.

    I can’t think of a good example, other than to imagine if Tschai were reached by fantasy means instead of spaceship.

    So, if you received a submission that featured a world perfect for the magazine, written with the right feel, but it featured characters from the modern day, could that be acceptable?

    Thank you,
    Brandon Bell

  3. Scott H. Andrews says:

    01-08-2009, 09:17 AM

    That’s a great question–thanks for asking. There of course is a long tradition of F/SF stories with “outsider” characters like that, going back to C.S. Lewis (not just Narnia, but also Out of the Silent Planet and its sequels) and even Jules Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

    But for me, I don’t think that type of story would fit what I’m looking for for BCS. I’m interested in stories that immerse the reader completely in another world, not just in terms of setting but also in terms of character–how the character thinks, what their values are, how they make decisions of what to do.

    If a character from our modern world journied into a fantasy world, that character would still be a product of all their years and experience in our world. The way they think and make decisions would come from our modern world, not from the new world they’ve just ended up in. The setting would be different from our world, but I don’t think the character would be different enough for me.

    Perhaps another option might be to have the outsider character come from a different place or nation elsewhere in the fantasy world? That way they would still offer all the advantages of an outsider character, letting the reader discover their foreign surroundings at the same time they do, but they would be a product of their fantastical homeland rather than our real one.

  4. nithska says:

    01-08-2009, 03:30 PM

    Thanks for the input, Scott.

  5. steffenwolf says:

    02-08-2009, 11:55 AM

    Another question about science fantasy.

    What about a story where the setting is a game world and the protagonist is a character within the world? The game world is a middle ages fantasy. Because the characters aren’t aware of the technology underlying their world, and because they never actually venture into the “real” world, would this be a possibility?

  6. Scott H. Andrews says:

    02-08-2009, 02:34 PM

    I don’t know exactly what you mean by “game world.” Do the characters know they are in a game? If so, I think they would be aware of whatever world or technology created the game.

    If you mean the world is a setting that you originally created for a game but you’re now writing stories set in it, that’s no problem. From the characters’ perspective looking at the world as they live their lives in it, they wouldn’t be able to tell any difference.

    Any setting where the characters are products of their own secondary world and have no advanced tech is fine.

  7. steffenwolf says:

    02-08-2009, 11:21 PM

    The characters are unaware that their world is part of a game. There are some technical terms that are part of the story (such as kernel and code), but the context from the characters’ point of view makes them seem more mythical than technical. I could see it as either in or outside your guidelines, I’m not sure.

  8. Scott H. Andrews says:

    02-09-2009, 08:41 AM

    My first general rule on this, borrowed from Gordon Van Gelder, is that when a story is close to the line, send it anyway and let the editor make the call. If it’s not quite right, I’ll let you know. But often many of the coolest submissions are things that are on the edge and/or flirt with the edge in ways that I had never thought about, so I would rather see stories that might be on the edge than never get the chance to.

    My thought from your comment here would be that the context from the characters’ point-of-view should be thoroughly from their own experience, with no hint of the modern or advanced connotation that those terms also have. The reader of course will bring that to the table in their own head, but for characters written using the close point-of-view narrative that I prefer, the characters should show no hint of it.

  9. steffenwolf says:

    02-09-2009, 10:06 AM

    Thanks! It’s not ready just yet, but when it is I’ll send it in. I’m happy to have something to send. Most of my stories tend more toward contemporary fantasy, and so are outside your guidelines.

  10. Guest says:

    05-11-2009, 03:18 AM

    Out of curiosity, what about a character traveling from one fantasy world to another?

  11. Scott H. Andrews says:

    05-11-2009, 08:39 AM

    Sure, that seems well within what we’re looking for. It might be double the challenge to effectively introduce not one vivid fantasy world but two, within the limited space of a short story, but if it all worked, it would be within what we’re looking for.

  12. Guest says:

    07-06-2009, 10:24 AM

    Science Fantasy – would this story work?

    I have a short story that has an old wizard battling an enemy that has taken refuge in an online game (World of Warcraft type of setting). He combines magic with computer programming to fight his enemy. The protagonist is in the real world, but he’s magically tied to his online persona/avatar.

  13. Scott H. Andrews says:

    07-06-2009, 11:02 AM

    Thanks very much for posting. That setting as you describe it would probably be too “self-aware” for me because the existence of the online game would presuppose that some technologically advanced society had made that game. There’s a rich history of fantasy-based gaming in our society, and lots of cool fiction has been written extrapolating on it, but to me those settings still feel like a product of our society rather than a product of some other world.

  14. T. Edwards says:

    07-09-2009, 06:05 PM
    T. Edwards

    What about a fantasy story that borrows ideas from science fiction (I ask both out of curiosity and because I may submit a story with this description)?

    What I mean is a modern/sci-fi idea that is explained through fantastical means. While I don’t wish to speak specifically about my work on an open forum, let’s say, for example, a story, set in a fantasy world, where they have developed machines that are like airplanes. The machines have roughly the same capabilities as airplanes and may even physical resemble them but are produced and controlled through magic rather than technology.

    I’d also be curious to hear your stance on wholly fantasy worlds that feature attitudes and ideas that we would consider modern. I’m thinking of something like Ian Irvine’s Three Worlds Cycle, where scientific principles (such as evolution and natural selection) play key roles in the plot and magic is more a science than an art.

  15. Scott H. Andrews says:

    07-10-2009, 09:39 AM

    That certainly sounds very interesting. With something like this, I think it would depend a lot on the precise execution in the story, so I would suggest submitting it so we could all see if it worked for us.

    I am not familiar with that series, but again it sounds interesting and I think the execution in the actual story would determine whether or not it was right for us.

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