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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Werewolves and Misconceptions About Science Fiction

I was perusing Yahoo! Answers today and saw an interesting inquiry:
I know that very technical stories like one of Jules Verne's are science fiction, but what about stories of werewolves, etc.

Does this count as science fiction? Does it count as fantasy fiction? Is fantasy fiction a subgroup of science fiction?
I've never heard of fantasy as being a subgenre of science fiction, which is why these questions are rather interesting. Since when have science fiction and fantasy been at all synonymous? They've always seemed to be rather opposite categories to me, connected only by the fact that they both deal with elements of the nonexistent. Science fiction, in theory, looks at these elements through the lens of the possible, while fantasy looks at them through the lens of the impossible. Spaceships are real, while wizards and dragons are not.

Answering the question, however, leads me to a bit of a paradox. I've always automatically lumped werewolves in with horror and fantasy, but is it possible that werewolves could be allowed in science? I'm inclined to think so. Perhaps not in the traditional sense that we have seen in the movies, but in a different sense. Werewolves are easily fantastical creatures, yet they could also be scientific creatures. It all depends on how it is done. If the werewolves change because of a curse or "blood" without explanation of why they are genetically the way they are, then it's clearly fantasy or horror (or both). But if the werewolves are explained to be, say, genetic experiments
in a government lab, or genetic anomalies explained by mutations in the cells, then they become part of a science fiction universe.

That aside, I was surprised by the response that was chosen as the "best answer" by the questioner (note: I've edited it so it's readable, which will only help to a certain extent):

Sci-fi is a HUGE category. From aliens to elves, wizards to talking animals and everything in between. So, I think that werewolves can be counted as fantasy fiction, and horror like someone else said. Sci-fi is interesting, because it can intertwine itself with many other different genres without getting confusing. Of course, there is the basic story plot that is pretty sci-fi, and then it can venture off into different courses. Horror being one of them. So yeah, it can!
Actually, no it can't. You see, here's the problem with this whole discussion. Science fiction isn't fantasy. Fantasy is not a part of science fiction, it's a part of the broader term "speculative fiction." Speculative fiction encompasses all literatures of the fantastic/nonexistent. Fantasy and science fiction each deal with specific forms of speculative fiction. Aliens and elves are not synonymous with the same thing. Aliens are almost exclusively the realm of science fiction while elves are almost exclusively the realm of fantasy, with little exception.

In fact, to make such generalizations is rather ignorant of what
the genres actually entail. You can have elves in science fiction, but not Tolkien elves or traditional fantasy elves. The parameters are different for science fiction elves; fantasy elves are not the same as science fiction elves precisely because they follow different rules. Vulcans from Star Trek are science fiction elves and you can clearly see that they aren't the same as the elves that Tolkien created, where magic and enchanted rings exist.

So, while there may be some similarities between the genres, it is important to maintain a separation. The two are, with rare exception, distinct from each other. Without that separation it becomes near impossible to provide appropriate classifications for speculative literatures. If science fiction and fantasy can be anything, then they cease to become categories at all--they cease to be important. Before long, all categories could become unimportant (and trust me when I say this will wreak havoc on book shoppers).

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50 comments:

  1. Interesting post! I'm afraid that I have to disagree with you, though. Remember that Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It's true that we generally classify those books with a scientific explanation as science fiction, and those books that seem impossible as fantasy. But in between those two extremes is a wide range of possibilities. I've read books with poorly explained science and books with scientifically developed magic. I've read books that straddle both worlds, with fantasy elements in the context of a scientific system, or visa versa. Some elements that may have seemed like magic 40 years ago, may actually be possible now. I tend to think of fantasy and science fiction as a continuum, rather than a divide, with pure fantasy on one end, pure science fiction on the other, and everything else in between.

    You said, "Spaceships are real, while wizards and dragons are not." And yet I've read books where dragons are used in a science fiction setting, either as a native species or a genetically created one.

    As for werewolves, I haven't read Patterson's Maximum Ride series, but I understand that there are lab-created wolf-human hybrids called Erasers in the books. I don't know if they would qualify as werewolves or not, but it's certainly along the same lines.

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  2. Ah, but see I'm willing to accept exceptions to every rule. Take the elves example that I mentioned. You can have elves in science fiction provided that they are explanable through some sort of scientific concept. Dragons COULD be in science fiction if they are explained somehow. You can't just chuck a dragon into a story and say "well that's scifi," you know? But if you said that they were genetically created, then that would be science fiction.

    And I think when Clarke made that rule he meant it less as a way to blur the genres, but more as to explain that science fiction as a genre is limited.

    And as for the werewolves, well, I think what you're talking about labels that really don't matter. Vulcans aren't called elves, but that's basically what they are. There are plenty of stories I've heard of that have vampires in them, but don't call them vampires and take liberties with traditions of vampirism. So the same could be said about werewolves in stories where they aren't called that and are different from the traditional form, but have similarities. It's up to the reader I suppose.

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  3. Science fiction, in theory, looks at these elements through the lens of the possible, while fantasy looks at them through the lens of the impossible. Spaceships are real, while wizards and dragons are not.


    This definition, it appears to me, has an unstated premise:

    that the supernatural is not real.

    Its a premise I, for one, happen to think is nearly certainly true but I also think one can write science fiction that speculates on the possibility that this premise is incorrect.

    Offhand, I can think of only one example from my own reading. OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET by CS Lewis. It assumes the reality of the whole set of supernatural beliefs associated with Christianity to be true.

    That's not an assumption I share but I still think christian science fiction qualifies as actual science fiction---the same, of course, goes for science fiction written from the perspective of other faiths.

    But what about supernatural beliefs not associated with any religion. I don't know of any religions that believe in werewolves. Even if there aren't any, though, I don't see why we should, if we are to grant religious science fiction as, in fact, science fiction, we should necessarily exclude other forms of supernaturalism from science fiction.

    Which means, to my mind at least, that the distinction between science fiction and fantasy is capable of being blurred a bit more than you seem to grant---even if I personally wouldn't be much interested in reading science fiction where werewolves (the supernatural variety---not ones where its given a naturalistic explanation) are flying around in spaceships.

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  4. I once worked with a woman who claimed to believe in vampires (and she seemed sincere about it---though I'm not ruling out the possibility that she was pulling my leg).

    It brings up an interesting problem---what you call fantasy depends largely on what you believe is real.

    A person who believes werewolves are real can no more call a werewolf novel like David Wellington's FROSTBITE (which I highly recommend) a work of fantasy than they can a detective novel.

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  5. Well, again, this all depends on how it is portrayed. If you're using a Christian theme, but the way you present it is based on the supernatural rather than some sort of scientific, natural order of things, then it's fantasy. Things don't just become science fiction because someone believes they are true. There's that blasted word "science" in the phrase.
    But, it's entirely possible that you can take things that are traditionally fantasy elements and turn them into science fictional ones. Science has to play a role in it all, but it's possible. You could turn dragons into science fictional creatures (wizards would be a bit difficult, but doable).

    That's what I think, though.

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  6. Then you are saying that science fiction, by your definition, must assume a naturalistic worldview?

    As much as I share that worldview I wouldn't define SF that narrowly.

    But then the definition of science fiction is notoriously difficult to pin down so it should be no surprise we don't agree on the issue.


    Things don't just become science fiction because someone believes they are true. There's that blasted word "science" in the phrase.


    Science wouldn't cease to exist if the supernatural turned out, against all expectations, to be real. If someone wrote a story where supernatural werewolves and sorcerers inhabited a future of high technology including interstellar travel, contact with aliens, robots, and all the rest of the tropes of SF I'd have little trouble calling it science fiction....supernaturalist science fiction to be sure, but science fiction none the less.



    If you're using a Christian theme, but the way you present it is based on the supernatural rather than some sort of scientific, natural order of things, then it's fantasy.


    Its not an either/or issue. Christian science fiction, of course, acknowledges the existence and validity of science and the study of natural processes. They just also believe in supernatural forces which you and I don't---and include them in their tales exploring what they believe to be possible futures.


    You could turn dragons into science fictional creatures (wizards would be a bit difficult, but doable).


    The psychics in a lot of SF are, for all practical purposes, just wizards without the robes, wands and pointy hats. In most science fiction stories featureing them there isn't even any attempt to give it a naturalistic gloss.

    Did you read the recent SF Signal article asking several SF authors whether science fiction is, in some sense, hostile to religion? There were some interesting responses that touch on what we're talking about here.

    One of the things I love about science fiction is the way it naturally brings up fundamental philosophical questions....even the attempt to define the genre forces us to deal with some very interesting issues.

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  7. I'm saying that by my definition science fiction must include science. I'm not saying that science fiction can exclude the belief in God or present unexplanable things, but it must deal with a scientific or technological subject in some way.

    A good example of a series that is called science fiction, but isn't is the Left Behind series. We're presented with a future possibility based on Biblical accounts, but there is nothing to explain what is happening by laws that we understand. People just start disappearing and prophecies are fulfilled. That's not science fiction. That's fantasy. Just because it's set in today doesn't make it science fiction. If I wrote a story set 200 years in future and everyone was riding on flying horses and shooting balls of energy out of their hands, and there was absolutely no explanation, that would be fantasy. Science fiction has to try to explain what is going on in terms that make sense on a scientific level, even if it is dealing with the unknown.

    I hope that makes sense. I'm not suggesting that the supernatural cannot exist in science fiction, but you cannot have stories that rely on the supernatural to progress and call it science fiction. Something has to be said for the science of the story, whether that science be explicit or not.

    Some of the best science fiction stories out there dealt with issues of the supernatural, but they looked at them through the lens of science. "Nine Billion Names of God" for example, or any number of equally interesting tales that took on aspects of the supernatural from a different perspective.

    And agreed, psychics are, for the most part, science fiction wizards, and when done right they are explained through science either by some sort of mutation, government experiment, or what have you.

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  8. I'm saying that by my definition science fiction must include science. I'm not saying that science fiction can exclude the belief in God or present unexplanable things, but it must deal with a scientific or technological subject in some way.


    My example of a werewolf in a future of spaceships, interstellar travel, robots, and contact with aliens DOES deal with scientific and technological subjects---it just also happens to include supernatural elements as well.


    I hope that makes sense. I'm not suggesting that the supernatural cannot exist in science fiction....


    That's precisely what you suggested.

    The whole point of your essay was that if a story had werewolves or vampires or other such beings then the peculiar qualities they have must have a naturalistic, not supernatural, explanation, else the story is fantasy.

    You now seem to be vacillating between the position that a story is science fiction if it includes scientific/technological elements (a much broader view and precisely the position I've been arguing for) and your previously argued for position that a story with supernatural elements cannot fit within the definition of science fiction---that if it uses traditional fantasy tropes like vampires they must have a naturalistic explanation (as in the brilliant 2007 novel BLINDSIGHT by Peter Watts).

    I don't mind you disagreeing with me but now you seem to be arguing for two mutually exclusive positions in the same breath.


    A good example of a series that is called science fiction, but isn't is the Left Behind series. We're presented with a future possibility based on Biblical accounts, but there is nothing to explain what is happening by laws that we understand. People just start disappearing and prophecies are fulfilled. That's not science fiction. That's fantasy.


    I disagree. The LEFT BEHIND series, besides being so atrocious I couldn't get more that a dozen pages into the first book before putting it down in disgust, is neither science fiction nor fantasy.

    It includes no speculative scientific or technological elements, not even peripherally---so it is not science fiction.

    It includes no elements which the authors and primary audience take to be imaginary, impossible entities or forces so it is not fantasy---this seems to me an essential feature of fantasy. If not, any story including elements we are mistaken about being possible, like wormholes or FTL or extraterrestrial intelligent life (if they are, in fact, not real), is as much fantasy as THE HOBBIT.

    The LEFT BEHIND series is religious fiction. That's a category that CAN cross over with science fiction, just as horror sometimes does, but in this particular case doesn't precisely due to the lack of speculative scientific elements to the story.

    Had it been set in the year 5975 AD in the midst of a massive interstellar human empire which is in regular contact with 8 known intelligent alien civilizations and the primary character was struggling with the uncomfortable fact that many robots, which he has regarded as soulless automatons, have been taken up into heaven while he, who thought he was saved, has been left behind, well, then we'd have a story which is both religious/supernaturalist fiction and science fiction.

    I'd even probably be interested in reading THAT story.

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  9. Right, but are those werewolves still supernatural creatures if they live in a society that explains things by science? Or is there, in theory, a biological basis for their supernatural existence, whether made explicit or not?

    "I don't mind you disagreeing with me but now you seem to be arguing for two mutually exclusive positions in the same breath."

    Explain how the two ideas are mutually exclusive, because I don't see them to be.
    If I'm arguing that science fiction must include scientific/technological elements and supernatural elements generally fit within the realm of fantasy, how are they mutually exclusive?

    I believe both to be true and of equal importance to defining the genres. There may be rare exceptions, such as the fact that science fiction can include the supernatural provided taht the supernatural is not the basis for the story, but an occurrance that simply can't be explained by the characters. But the supernatural is almost exclusively the realm of fantasy, while the scientific/technological is the realm of science fiction. They're like polar opposites.

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  10. Right, but are those werewolves still supernatural creatures if they live in a society that explains things by science?


    In my hypothetical example they are, indeed, traditional supernatural werewolves living in a future world of advanced science and high technology.

    I think part of the problem here is that you seem to be using the terms "scientific" (pertaining to or explained by science) as if it meant the same thing as "naturalistic" (having a cause based on natural physical processes) when, in fact, it doesn't.

    Since we live in a world where the supernatural apparently does not exist they are, yes, functionally equivalent so we can make the mistake without much noticing it. But in a fictional universe where both advanced science/technology and the supernatural exist the distinction becomes more important.

    After all, if the supernatural beings and phenomena existed, science could be applied to it as much as it can to natural beings and phenomena---make observations about the supernatural phenomena, design experiments to make clear the precise properties and functioning of the supernatural phenomena under various conditions, come up with theories explaining how it works---all the things science does applied to a new set of phenomena.


    Explain how the two ideas are mutually exclusive, because I don't see them to be.
    If I'm arguing that science fiction must include scientific/technological elements and supernatural elements generally fit within the realm of fantasy, how are they mutually exclusive?


    What I was saying is that you now seem to be presenting two contradictory definitions of science fiction.

    At first you stated that a story should be called fantasy and not science fiction if supernatural entities (like traditional werewolves) exist in the story.

    Then you say "I'm saying that by my definition science fiction must include science" but that you're "not suggesting that the supernatural cannot exist in science fiction".

    The first excludes all supernatural elements from an SF story and the second does not. Those are flatly contradictory positions.

    I agree, of course, regarding the original Answers question that prompted your essay:


    I know that very technical stories like one of Jules Verne's are science fiction, but what about stories of werewolves, etc.

    Does this count as science fiction? Does it count as fantasy fiction? Is fantasy fiction a subgroup of science fiction?


    that the traditional werewolf story and other fantasy tales are in no sense a subcategory of science fiction.

    I'm simply saying a science fiction COULD include such supernatural elements that normally only appear in fantasy. We just don't see it very much (thankfully so, in my opinion, I don't think they make a good mix on the whole---though I suppose it could be done well by a sufficiently talented writer).


    But the supernatural is almost exclusively the realm of fantasy, while the scientific/technological is the realm of science fiction.


    On that, at least, we're agreed (partly, at least, I distinguish fantasy from religious fiction and you don't seem to). Normally writers don't mix speculative science and the supernatural---but they can and occasionally do and to do so is perfectly legitimate---even if it is very hard to do well.

    I'd still like to read that christian supernatural post-rapture science fiction story I mentioned though.

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  11. Anyway, can you think of any good examples of the supernatural appearing in science fiction stories or of science appearing in fantasy worlds?

    I can't think of very many. Jack Vance's DYING EARTH series was a particularly good example of the mix being done successfully (magic and highly advanced science side by side in the distant future).

    Also Clifford Simak's THE GOBLIN RESERVATION.

    I'd also put Dan Simmon's ILIUM/OLYMPOS in that category.

    All three of these being excellent books as well. So it can be done right.

    I think a lot of Philip K. Dick should go in this category too. His psychics are just renamed wizards.

    And in Lawrence Watt-Evans ETHSHAR fantasy series scientists exist---though, at most, at a low tech pre-industrialization stage of development. And is mistakenly considered by the inhabitants of that world as just another of many forms of magic alongside wizardry, witchcraft, demonology, theurgy and several others.

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  12. "In my hypothetical example they are, indeed, traditional supernatural werewolves living in a future world of advanced science and high technology."

    That's not really what I was asking though. I was asking whether they still are supernatural creatures if they come from a world where they're supposed "supernaturalness" is understood to be the natural order of things. If you and I were actually werewolves and lived on an Earth where werewolves were the dominant species, do you think we would consider ourselves remotely supernatural? Or do you think it's entirely logical to assume that in a high-tech society we would have taken science and applied it to ourselves as werewolves to figure out what it is that makes us tick?

    I do see the issue with making science and natural synonymous though. They can be linked, but obviously they can be rather opposite.

    "Then you say "I'm saying that by my definition science fiction must include science" but that you're "not suggesting that the supernatural cannot exist in science fiction".

    The first excludes all supernatural elements from an SF story and the second does not. Those are flatly contradictory positions."

    Kind of. Science grapples with things that are considered supernatural quite a lot. That's what it does. Everything used to be supernatural to us at one point, and science has sort of removed the mystery of things for us, so it makes sense by laws we can, in theory understand. So, the supernatural could exist in a scifi story depending on how it is framed in the story. Science and the supernatural can exist together, but one will be there to find the answers, while the other will be doing something else.

    As a general rule, however, the supernatural is in the realm of fantasy, not science fiction. It would take a really good writer to manage to write a story with supernatural elements and have it be science fiction. Star Wars tries this and fails in some ways and succeeds in others, which is why people still argue over its genre placement.

    "I'm simply saying a science fiction COULD include such supernatural elements that normally only appear in fantasy. We just don't see it very much (thankfully so, in my opinion, I don't think they make a good mix on the whole---though I suppose it could be done well by a sufficiently talented writer)."

    That's kind of what I'm trying to say too, though (mostly here in the comments and less so in the original article). Those elements could be there. What I don't want to say, though, is that they can be integral to the story. As soon as the supernatural elements supercede the science fiction elements, it ceases to be a science fiction story.

    I'm actually wondering what the hell we're even arguing about anymore...because we're actually agreeing...


    And to your second comment:
    PKD is HEAVY on the "supernatural." I'm sort of hesitant to actually call it supernatural though, because his work is less about actual supernatural things, but more about how the human mind visualizes things or how humans beings react to things. Ubik, for example, might seem supernatural, except the whole story has a central science fiction premise (what is real in a world where you can be "uploaded" into a "soul database" to preserve your self for loved ones to call upon you whenever they want to see you--like a zoo for dead relatives).
    There are definitely weird, bizarre, and odd things in his books, though, but what's important is how he uses them. There's always something underying the use of the "supernatural" for PKD. He doesn't just chuck a unicorn into the mix for no reason. There's always an explanation for things.
    Books by PKD with "supernatural" elements: Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Lies, Inc. All three of those delve into the bizarre world of the subconscious in very different ways, and if you're read his non-fiction you'd understand why. The guy was almost obsessed with humanity and the human mind (philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc.).

    There's certainly a lot to be said about literature that blurs the line took, which I sort of ignored in my original article. Steampunk, for example, tries to look at the "what if" of the advancement of steam technology. There's a lot of science there, but it's not quite science fiction, nor entirely fantasy. It's like this mixture of the two. Those sorts of things do exist.

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  13. That's not really what I was asking though. I was asking whether they still are supernatural creatures if they come from a world where they're supposed "supernaturalness" is understood to be the natural order of things.


    Yes, they are supernatural (in the sense I'm using the term) because their abilities and properties results not from physical processes like nanobots rapidly reworking their physiology but from a magical curse. The above comment you made involves a switch from natural in the sense of "naturalistic", that is, resulting from physical processes, to "natural" in the sense of normal or ordinary---that magic is a normal part of the way our world works in such a fictional universe.

    And, obviously, that wasn't the sense in which I was using the term.


    If you and I were actually werewolves and lived on an Earth where werewolves were the dominant species, do you think we would consider ourselves remotely supernatural?


    Again, you seem to be using supernatural to mean extraordinary and natural to mean ordinary ---not at all the sense in which I was using them.

    And, yes, in a world where both magic and advanced science existed we would be able to distinguish what resulted from magic from what resulted from physical processes.

    Just as, if everyone had magical powers, we could tell when we were physically lifting a spoon of cereal to our mouths from when we were using our magic to make the spoon float through the air without touching it---such distinctions between the natural and the supernatural/magical would not be hard to make even in a world where the magical was commonplace.


    Science grapples with things that are considered supernatural quite a lot. That's what it does. Everything used to be supernatural to us at one point, and science has sort of removed the mystery of things for us, so it makes sense by laws we can, in theory understand.


    I am not using the term supernatural to mean things in which the physical causal explanation is not known. I'm using it to mean things which don't have a physical cause at all.

    The most commonly shared element of the many things we lump together under the umbrella term "supernatural" is that they involve the ability of mind to act, exist, gather information, etc, without any physical basis.

    For example, gods, angels and souls are supernatural because they are minds existing without a physical basis. Wizards chant some words and magically make something happen with their minds alone. You get the idea.


    I'm actually wondering what the hell we're even arguing about anymore...because we're actually agreeing...


    Well, we're beginning to now....since you've modified, or at least clarified, your position somewhat from the original essay.

    I wonder if mystery or romance fans have such debates about what is or isn't part of their genre. I suspect not. Just another reason science fiction is the most interesting genre---to me at least.

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  14. "Yes, they are supernatural (in the sense I'm using the term) because their abilities and properties results not from physical processes like nanobots rapidly reworking their physiology but from a magical curse. The above comment you made involves a switch from natural in the sense of "naturalistic", that is, resulting from physical processes, to "natural" in the sense of normal or ordinary---that magic is a normal part of the way our world works in such a fictional universe."

    Oh, see, I wasn't assuming we were talking about the myth of lycanthropy as a curse. I was assuming we were talking about actual werewolf people, which is believed in a lot of European cultures (or was, at least). If you were talking about werewolves as being "cursed," then no, those are fantasy unless you can somehow offer some sort of explanation for that curse (or they aren't central to the story and therefore no need for an explanation). But if your main character is a werewolf in the sense that I was thinking, there has to be some sort of explanation for the lycanthropy...anything logical that follows some sort of natural order or science (making the distinction now). A curse isn't really part of either, unless you have a world where everyone gets cursed, which would then be fantasy again. This whole thing is so utterly conflicted and ridiculous, :P.

    "For example, gods, angels and souls are supernatural because they are minds existing without a physical basis. Wizards chant some words and magically make something happen with their minds alone. You get the idea."

    If there truly is no physical explanation for these things, at all, then they aren't science fiction. They are fantasy.

    When I refer to the supernatural I'm talking about a lot of things at once primarily because things that are "supernatural" have the potential to be explained, for the most part. You could write a story about a "god" that turns out to not really be a "god" at all, but something else that simply has immense power (think trying to explain Galactus from Fantastic Four or something; he's not technically a god).

    "The most commonly shared element of the many things we lump together under the umbrella term "supernatural" is that they involve the ability of mind to act, exist, gather information, etc, without any physical basis."

    I think we assume that this is true, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. Plenty of things were thought to be supernatural in this vein at some point in our history, and we found out they weren't as "magical" as we thought they were (chemistry, for example).

    "I wonder if mystery or romance fans have such debates about what is or isn't part of their genre. I suspect not. Just another reason science fiction is the most interesting genre---to me at least."

    I imagine there's a group of romance writers out there bickering over whether paranormal/scifi/fantasy romance should be allowed into the genre.

    The problem with defining science fiction, I'm learning, is that as soon as you start to get into the complexities of definition it because nearly impossible to define. The only way to truly define scifi is with simplistic definitions, because otherwise you could go insane arguing with people about what is and isn't in the genre, and likewise running around trying to digest all the different opinions, some of which make sense, and some of which don't...it's insanity.

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  15. If there truly is no physical explanation for these things, at all, then they aren't science fiction. They are fantasy.


    You're switching positions again. You started off saying a story with supernatural entities like werewolves must be fantasy then you modified your position and said "I'm not suggesting that the supernatural cannot exist in science fiction" and now you're back to saying exactly that---that a story with the supernatural in it cannot be science fiction.

    Maybe when you said that the supernatural could exist in a science fiction story you meant only the apparently supernatural as the following seems to indicate:


    I think we assume that this is true, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. Plenty of things were thought to be supernatural in this vein at some point in our history, and we found out they weren't as "magical" as we thought they were (chemistry, for example).


    But if you meant that then we're back to having a substantive disagreement about what should and shouldn't be called science fiction.

    Oh, well. Like I said at the beginning, few SF lovers define SF the same way.

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  16. I said a story that has supernatural elements that supercede the science fiction elements is a fantasy story. That's what I said.
    I never refuted my modified claim, and my original claim did address the option that werewolves could be included, I just didn't explicitly state that werewolves could.

    That position does not say that the supernatural cannot be in science fiction. It doesn't say that the supernatural is ALWAYS fantasy. It simply makes the claim that anything that is explicitly supernatural in nature is fantasy and something that is science fiction in nature, with some supernatural elements, is possibly science fiction depending on how it is done.

    The problem is that you only see the supernatural as being what I would say belongs in fantasy, but I don't see the supernatural that way. I see it as a broader subject.

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  17. I said a story that has supernatural elements that supercede the science fiction elements is a fantasy story. That's what I said.
    I never refuted my modified claim....


    To quote from your last comment: "If there truly is no physical explanation for these things, at all, then they aren't science fiction. They are fantasy."

    That's an explicit reversion to the original claim.


    and my original claim did address the option that werewolves could be included, I just didn't explicitly state that werewolves could.


    Your original claim included the option that werewolves which have a naturalistic explanation could be included as science fiction. That's never been in dispute. We've both agreed on that from the start. Its your original contention that a traditional, supernatural werewolf, vampire, wizard, angel, etc cannot be in a story and have that story be called SF that I disagree with.


    It simply makes the claim that anything that is explicitly supernatural in nature is fantasy and something that is science fiction in nature, with some supernatural elements, is possibly science fiction depending on how it is done.


    "Explicitly supernatural" is a pretty unclear term. Do you mean by this something which is actually supernatural, that is, magical as opposed to something people have referred to as supernatural but which was, in fact, just an extraordinary, unexplained but perfectly natural, physical phenomena?

    Perhaps I should just ask a simple, unambiguous "yes or no" question:

    would you consider OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET (in which the protagonist encounters an archangel---not some powerful alien entity misconstrued as supernatural but an archangel as believed in by traditional forms of christianity) to be science fiction?

    In case you haven't read it you can read about its plot and themes here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Out_of_the_Silent_Planet

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  18. The problem is that you only see the supernatural as being what I would say belongs in fantasy, but I don't see the supernatural that way. I see it as a broader subject.


    For clarity's sake, define the term "supernatural" as you are using it.

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  19. Maybe the whole problem with this discussion is that we're relying on two categories that want to be separate, but we also aren't considering the possibility of a third category that could be that "mixed" place. Call it scifantasy if you will (some folks have called it that). That would be where the two blend, and where a story is neither science fiction or fantasy. Star Wars would fit nicely into that.

    So, based on what little I know of that C. S. Lewis book we could call it scifantasy and stories that use your traditional vampires/werewolves/whatevers would fit there too. But I don't know much about the book and I don't trust Wiki to give me the full story on it. I'd have to read it to be sure, so don't hold me to this. I think of Lewis' book, at this point, as more fantasy than science fiction, but it could very well be more scifi or a perfect mixture. I don't know. It's hard to make an appropriate judgment based on a book you haven't read.

    By supernatural I don't mean the standard definition, but a more general definition: anything that exists and is unknown or unexplained. Maybe just call it the unknown though. That way it works into what I'm saying more without being confusing.

    "To quote from your last comment: "If there truly is no physical explanation for these things, at all, then they aren't science fiction. They are fantasy."

    In a world that explains things via scientific concepts the existence of the supernatural/unknown (as I'm seeing it) doesn't necessarily imply that they can't be explained, just that they aren't, at that moment, explained. That's what I was trying to get at there. I'm not implying that the story has to explain how the unknown/unexplained comes to be, such as a werewolf (traditional as you see it, and I hope I'm not implying this), just that it has to have a framework that suggests a logical explanation is there. And again, my point that the supernatural cannot supercede the science fiction else it becomes fantasy is important here. A spaceship does not a science fiction story make.
    I was also probably speaking in absolutes when I should have indicated that there are exceptions to that and that it's not really that concrete...but I didn't do that, so you get +10 points, :P.

    Anywho. Call me out on more contradictions :P. Perhaps this is the state of the genre war :P

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  20. I think the best explanation here was Sheila's in the beginning. Speculative fiction is essentially a continuum, with obvious sci-fi (spaceships, time travel, etc.) on one end, and obvious fantasy (elves, dwarves, wizards, etc.) on the other. The line between the two genres is essentially imaginary.

    In between there are books like McCaffrey's Dragonrider series - science fiction, but with dragons that fly on belief. Or Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, with a man from Mars and angels in Heaven. Or Star Wars, which has spaceships and aliens, but also things like the Force and hyperspace with no scientific basis at all.

    In the end, I think there are only two definitions that matter. The first is the publishing definition. "Science fiction" and "fantasy" are essentially marketing terms, because they have partially different fanbases and marketing techniques.

    The second definition is Damon Knight's: "Science fiction is what I say it is when I point to something and say that's science fiction."

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  21. But how do we know what Damon Knight was pointing at? Are there YouTube videos of him proclaiming "this is science fiction"?

    Yes, I'm being ridiculous, I just thought it was funny.

    I also agree. That's a wonderful way to put it. That goes along with what I was saying about having a "scifantasy" category that represents those things that flirt with the edges.

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  22. So, based on what little I know of that C. S. Lewis book we could call it scifantasy and stories that use your traditional vampires/werewolves/whatevers would fit there too.


    So you, in fact, ARE defining science fiction in a way that requires the story to assume a naturalistic worldview and which rejects the reality of the supernatural beliefs of religious people.

    Interesting.

    Did you know that Lewis wrote that book specifically to meet the challenge of writing genuine high quality science fiction which accepted the existence of supernatural entities like God, angels and souls are fantasy?


    By supernatural I don't mean the standard definition, but a more general definition: anything that exists and is unknown or unexplained.


    If you're going to use a non-standard definition of a term you really ought to state your definition from the start. Especially when the definition you've given allows things to be called supernatural which have a naturalistic basis and are, therefore, the diametrical opposite of supernatural as understood in the standard definition.


    In a world that explains things via scientific concepts the existence of the supernatural/unknown (as I'm seeing it) doesn't necessarily imply that they can't be explained, just that they aren't, at that moment, explained.


    Which means you are assuming a naturalistic worldview (that all phenomena have a "nonmagical" explanation in terms of underlying physical phenomena). And if it doesn't you consider it fantasy.


    The line between the two genres is essentially imaginary.


    I wouldn't really say its imaginary. I think there are things that are clearly and indisputably science fiction. But I think fantasy is the more problematic term. I read recently that slightly over 50% of people native to Iceland believe in "hidden folk" like elves, gnomes, and trolls just as much as a majority of Americans believe in angels. If people who believe in angels or elves write a work of fiction about them aimed primarily at an audience which shares those beliefs or intended, partly at least, to convince nonbelievers of the reality of such beings (as is the motivation of a lot of religious supernatural fiction) then you're misnaming it to call it fantasy. Fantasy is understood by its author and primary intended audience to be about purely imaginary "impossible" things--at least as I would use the term.

    SMD holds a naturalistic worldview, as do I, and seems to want to exclude from SF anything what that includes the genuinely supernatural (as opposed to merely unknown or unexplained).

    That seems like a bad idea to me. It means that one really can't allow that there is such a thing as Christian science fiction. As in the case of Lewis's OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET which he wants to label science fantasy instead---despite the fact that the story includes no elements which its author considered fantasy---in fact, its author considered the existence of angels more definitely true than its scientific speculations about the existence of life exists on Mars.


    The second definition is Damon Knight's: "Science fiction is what I say it is when I point to something and say that's science fiction."


    I'm reminded of a comment which I've heard one of the justices made during deliberations on pornography.

    "I may not be able to define it but I know it when I see it."

    What it comes down to, I think, is that definitions of genre are useful but diminish in usefulness when they become inflexible.

    SMD and I just disagree somewhat on quite how flexible the definition of SF should be.

    Anyway, I think we've slogged this dead horse more than enough. I'm going to call this my final word on the subject.

    Thanks for an interesting discussion.

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  23. Where I said "which accepted the existence of supernatural entities like God, angels and souls are fantasy?" it should have read "which accepted the existence of supernatural entities like God, angels and souls?"

    Forgot to erase that last bit when I rephrased the sentence.

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  24. "So you, in fact, ARE defining science fiction in a way that requires the story to assume a naturalistic worldview and which rejects the reality of the supernatural beliefs of religious people."

    Yes and no. There's no reason why a science fiction story can't take seriously a religious belief. Science fiction can have people who believe in God and what not.

    "Did you know that Lewis wrote that book specifically to meet the challenge of writing genuine high quality science fiction which accepted the existence of supernatural entities like God, angels and souls are fantasy?"

    Again, I'd have to read the book to make a proper judgment, but generally what an author's intention in writing something and what the reader picks up on aren't always the same.

    "That seems like a bad idea to me. It means that one really can't allow that there is such a thing as Christian science fiction."

    No, I just don't allow for stories where God is portrayed as riding on unicorns. If you can somehow explain God through science, then cool. You can have Christian science fiction. I'm not saying you can't have that, you just can't throw something out there that you can't even prove is real. Christians believe something that is impossible to prove and they are quick to make fun of ancient peoples who believe in crap we think is ridiculous. I don't think they should be excluded from that same criticism. Prove to me that God, angels, and flying bunnies are real and I'd be willing to accept any unexplained use of such things as being welcome to science fiction.

    "Thanks for an interesting discussion."

    Thanks for having the discussion! Come back again and rack my brain on something else :P. It's fun.

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  25. I pretty much agree with S.M.D. and I think he defends his position well, so I have little to say about the vast majority of responses but I did want to point out that while the Left Behind books are horrible there is very good criticism of them from a Christians perspective.

    This is the Index to slactivist's criticism of the books, if anyone is interested.

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  26. Hey Spherical,
    Would you mind reposting that link? I can't access it for some reason. Just put it as a normal html link. Might just be my computer being weird or a problem for all, but I want to see what it is :P.

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  27. John Scalzi just put up a post on his blog for AMC tv on a related topic titled "The Battle Between Science and Religion - And SciFi Is the Battleground".

    http://blogs.amctv.com/scifi-scanner/2008/12/religion-in-science-fiction-movies.php

    You might find it interesting. I also posted a link from there to this discussion. Hopefully it'll bring a little traffic to your blog.

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  28. ....while the Left Behind books are horrible there is very good criticism of them from a Christians perspective.


    True. There are a lot of christians who strongly disagree with the interpretation of Revelations used by LaHaye as the basis for the plot of LEFT BEHIND. And they're, in my opinion, on stronger footing biblically.

    Not that I have a pony in that race---since I believe neither in the truth of the Bible nor religion in general.

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  29. The slacktivist post about LEFT BEHIND:

    http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/left_behind/

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  30. I saw you posted that :P. I was thinking that either you hated me like some of the Anti-Eragon people did when I was critical of their "movement," or you just enjoyed the conversation enough to link :P.

    Thanks though!

    And thanks for the linky to that guy's post.

    Anywho!

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  31. I just think the general topic of religion in science fiction is fascinating. And, luckily for people like me who love debating religion, politics, ethics and other contentious issues, its been popping up quite a bit lately on science fiction blogs.

    As to Eragon, I've only seen the movie. I greatly enjoyed some of the special effects---the dragon was cool and the climactic battle great fun. But the plot and writing was atrocious. A tired and obvious pastiche of the most cliched elements of other books and movies (esp. Star Wars).

    But I haven't read the book so I can't pass judgement on it. Movies often fail to do justice to their source material.

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  32. The movie was terrible even for fans of the book. So many glaring inconsistencies, poor plotting, bad acting, etc.

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  33. Eragon the book had plenty of cliches and tired elements, but it was much, much better than the movie. I can forgive most of Paolini's cliches by the fact that he was a teenager writing for teenagers. It's still a decent book.

    Theology aside, the Left Behind series are still terrible. Unfortunately, those who agree with the theology believe that good theology covers a multitude of literary sins. I wish that it did.

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  34. I pretty much lost interest in the Left Behind series when it started to become more than just a book series and more like a centerpiece of a dogmatic religious movement. At that point I tuned out due to my mind being too clouded by what was going on around the books. It's sort of like when everyone tells you "this writer is the greatest ever, you have to read him" over and over, but by the time you do you're so jaded you can't get into whatever that writer wrote...

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  35. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  36. I generally agree.

    And is that a cleverly concealed slam on my blog novel, :P.

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  37. I've never had that problem if the writing is actually good.

    I avoided the Harry Potter books for years while everyone was telling me how great they were. The premise just didn't strike a chord for me.

    But when I actually DID read HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE I loved it and have since read them all. Most of them 2 or 3 times.

    That certainly didn't happen with LEFT BEHIND though. I've never read anything as badly written as the first 15 or 20 pages (which is all I was able to slog through).

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  38. No. Actually I didn't know you'd published anything as a blog novel---I never noticed any link here to it---you should probably make it more prominent.

    And I changed before I even read your response since I thought it could be taken as denigrating blog novels---some of which I've thought were very good.

    In particular the online serial novels of David Wellington. His zombie trilogy is excellent (and became so popular online that it eventually attracted the attention of publishers and has even been optioned by a film studio, last I heard).

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  39. You may have already heard of it since in your review of CELL you mentioned liking zombie stories but if not you can still get some of his serial novels here:

    http://www.brokentype.com/monster/

    The link is to his first serial novel MONSTER ISLAND. The first of the zombie trilogy which is continued in MONSTER NATION (the weakest of the three in my opinion, but still good) and MOSTER PLANET.

    PLAGUE ZONE is also a zombie novel but more in the tradition of 28 DAYS LATER where the "zombies" are people infected with a virus that alters their minds rather than the more conventional undead zombies of the first trilogy.

    13 BULLETS (a vampire novel) and FROSTBITE (werewolves) are also excellent.

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  40. "No. Actually I didn't know you'd published anything as a blog novel---I never noticed any link here to it---you should probably make it more prominent."

    If you have suggestions on how to make it more prominent on the sidebar (it's on the right hand side bar), then by all means, please offer suggestions. It was an experiment I did when I first started blogging on WISB to see if I could finish a novel in a year. And I did. I started on the second book in the series, but hit a big snag in the story and I hate writing something that I don't like, so I'm back to the drawing board a bit.

    But it would be nice to get more comments on that stuff, so I should make it more prominent somehow...hmm.

    Oh and thanks for the book suggestions. I've actually heard of most of those books, just haven't been able to pick them up yet. Unfortunately school reading is in control of my "fun reading" time...and it's mostly just making me want to procrastinate because a lot of the stuff I'm reading this quarter is not particularly interesting.

    But so be it! I did like Cell. Not a perfect book, but it had zombies and I was actually scared for once while reading a King book :P. Then again, zombies are the only things that really scare me anymore.

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  41. If you have suggestions on how to make it more prominent on the sidebar (it's on the right hand side bar), then by all means, please offer suggestions.


    I'd put it on the left. I usually have my favorites links running down the left side of IE browser and it pushes what's on the ride off the side of the screen. I never saw any of that stuff and never thought to scroll over and see if there was anything on that side. If it was on the left there wouldn't be any possibility of that happening.

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  42. on the right, I meant to say.

    I should proofread better.

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  43. Yeah, I'll do that. I stopped using IE primarily because IE is horrible, but I've never had that problem of it pushing sidebars off the screen. Weird. Well, it will be fixed in about 35.51123452 seconds.

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  44. Okay, now you've confused me. Because it's already on the right hand sidebar. So should it go on the left or right?

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  45. About what Ms. Sheila Ruth said that there are books that straddle both worlds, I have to agree. I've read "science fiction" books by Mike Resnick, but to me, they have more elements of fantasy, albeit not the high fantasy of Tolkien or other fantasy writers. Yet, that kinda of "soft science fiction" is just an example of the gray area between the two genres.

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  46. Iva: Could you be more specific with your Resnick example? I haven't read any of his books, so I could definitely do with more context in order to address your point.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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  47. Anonymous8:28 PM

    Im a big sci-fi/fantasy reader, to say sci-fi is fantasy is to not know what the two things are, yes you can get fantasy in sci-fi and vice versa, just look at Anne McCaffrey and her "Dragons of Pern" books, they are most definitely fantasy but they also come under sci-fi because its about humans that have colonised a new planet (not with "translocation magic" like in Reymond E. Feist's "Rides a Dread Legion" but with tech) and then you have this little comic i found on the net called "Outsider" which is basically about elves in space which again is sci-fi, regardless of the fact it has elves in it, then there is "THE AGE OF ODIN" by James Lovegrove and "THE AGE OF RA" he's 2nd and 1st books (respectively)both of these are fantasy and(god i wish there was an italics key) sci-fi, then you have he's third book "age of zeus" (think i got the order right" which is just sci-fi, the pantheons from Greek legend are created by a scientist in the 21st century. There are other things that blur the line of sci-fi/fantasy too, like warhammer 40K (Black Library books) which are agin both extreme sci-fi and in some extreme fantasy and many more besides.

    I think what I'm trying to say is that fantasy and sci-fi don't always have clear defining cut off points, most are contextual, what i meant by that is that you need to read them and see what they are about instead of just the title or back and get a feel for them.

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  48. Anon: While I generally agree, I think assuming that elves must, by definition, be a fantasy element is kind of too far. Elves could very well be science fictional just as realistic dragons could be too. The species isn't really relevant, but how the author uses the tropes.

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  49. For one, I know of S-F movies with magic rings and werewolves. Underworld, except maybe Rise of the Lycans, is pretty much S-F, esp Awakening, with a werewolf running a labratory.

    For all intents and purposes, Green Lantern's power ring is a "magic ring".

    I am co-writing a storyline which features such fantastical creatures as "Tolkienish" elves, pixies, and vampires (and some werewolves too), in a sci-fi style setting.

    The dragons of Pern were pretty sci-fi, as were the ones from Reign of Fire.

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  50. Thanks for the comment!

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