Trenchcoats and Wish Lists / Science Fiction and Fantasy's Clashing Toolkits

I powered through the rest of Ninth Aspect's Sentinel. The laid-out portion of the Trenchcoat Farewell Project is now 618 pages long. Sentinel itself was fifty pages long.

Around 250 pages to go...

Looking back over the Trenchcoat/Ninth Aspect series, I can really see my development as a writer. The first stories, written when I was seventeen, were flimsy little things. The plots were workable (I was able to rewrite them into something less cringeworthy -- you can't do that if your plot is shot to hell), but unambitious. The action moves quickly, like a writer in a hurry. Then, as I went on, the writing got more ambitious, and I started to pay attention to the action between the main action. Story lengths doubled, then tripled.

Intriguingly, it's not only my stories which did this. My friends who wrote for this series also saw similar increases in word length. This probably has something to do with the average age of the contributors (which stayed close to my age). I bet most 30-year-old authors would cringe to see their 17-year-old selves published. I certainly cringe at my early material. But I wrote it, and it was an important part of my life when I wrote it. The Trenchcoat Farewell Project is here to celebrate that, so I'll take my embarassment. We all have to start somewhere...

My birthday is coming up (April 19) and I hear some have asked what I'd like for my special day. Nothing much, really. I have most everything I need, and the things I really want are far too expensive to be considered as gifts. At Erin's suggestion, I drafted a wishlist on It's a good bet to give books and DVDs, and these are a few DVDs I'd particularly like to add to my collection.

This link is intended more for my in-laws, but if there is anybody else out there who would like to send me something, I won't turn it down. And I recommend The prices are in Canadian funds, and you only have to pay for Canadian shipping.

My earlier article on the toolkits of science fiction and fantasy was hard to write. I ramble if I'm not careful, and that night I wasn't careful. I finally realized that I was writing two articles at once, pulled out one (here it is) and left the other one behind, much more coherent than before.

Anyway, the other post got Erin and I talking. My thesis: since many of the elements in science fiction's toolkit have no basis in science, the genre is best called "science fantasy" -- fantasy that makes a few nods at pseudo-scientific "realism" but whose elements are basically magic in a lab coat. I even had a provocative title: Science Fiction is Fantasy With Delusions of Reality.

Not so, says Erin. Science fiction and fantasy have two different toolkits, science fiction based on scientific gadgets and gismos, fantasy based on mythological objects and magic. I'd just written a review criticizing Artemis Fowl for draining the magic out of the Faerie legends, clearly the two don't mix. The only episode of Buffy that she really detests is the one where the Scooby Gang fight the Invasion of the Body Snatchers riff.

But her analogy took a bit of a hit when I pointed out that the series had done robots effectively. Robots are a science fiction staple. What are they doing alongside vampires and demons?

We decided that, as with all continuums, science fiction and fantasy bleed into each other. Clarke's law, that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic (and vice versa, says the Doctor in Battlefield), helps the mixing, as does fantasy's increasing tendency to link its stories with present-day Earth.

More than that, some science fiction and fantasy elements have parallels with each other. Compare the faerie legends of yore with the demonic possession stories of medieval times, to alien abductions of today -- clearly, a similar psychological device is at work here. And what difference is there, really, between a robot run amok and a rampaging troll?

Despite this, one can't leap easily from deep in the heart of science fiction to deep in the heart of fantasy; then the toolkits of the two genres clash. A story dealing with robots and lasers and time travel has, at least, a whiff of scientific plausibility. Vampires and incantations don't come with explanations or even plausibility; they just are. Insert a vampire next to a laser, and these differences stand out. You run the risk of making the toolkits more obvious and intrusive to the reader.

Rosemary and Time is clearly fantasy. Although there are no dragons or vampires, there is no scientific explanation possible for the events which drag Rosemary and Peter into the Land of Fiction. The same goes double for Fathom Five, where I use actual mythological creatures as the threat. The Young City has time travel, generally a science fiction staple, but it's magical time travel, mythologically based, with no possible scientific explanation. Time travel is one of those devices that seems to fit in both science fiction and fantasy.

The fourth story that I hope to do for this series, a revamped Shepherd Moons stands out more than ever now that I write this article: a story set in the future, with telepathy and aliens, is definitely more in the realm of science fiction than fantasy. However, it seems appropriate. The Young City is concerned with the past, and that seems to be where a lot of fantasy is oriented. With Shepherd Moons set in the future, the science fiction toolkit itself helps to evoke a completely different atmosphere that's in tune with the setting; we're no longer in the gaslit and grimy 19th century -- we've moved into the bright and gleaming 21st.

So, I guess the moral of the story is that writing tools don't always fit into neat little boxes. Science fiction and fantasy do bleed into each other, but they are completely different territories. Always be sure you have your passport with you if you hope to cross at the border.

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