SFF: one F too many

If there’s one thing I really hate, it’s the way the fiction business conflates Science Fiction with Fantasy.

SFF is not a genre. Science Fiction is not Fantasy, okay? If Fantasy has a role, it’s as Sci-Fi’s less respectable cousin. A burger and shake for preteens before they graduate to something crunchy and interesting like a Dozois anthology. Sci-fi writers have worked for decades to be a genre that even has a less respectable cousin; that extra F hasn’t earned the right to be there.

I accept there’s an argument the other way. You could say a dwarf and an alien share conceptual DNA (now there’s an image to conjure with.) And when it comes to “magic”, Fantasy has its vanishing spells while Sci-fi has teleports and hyperdrive.

But I maintain that’s moot, because most SF at least tries to ground itself in natural law; the physics of a space/time warp, the excitement of photons in a death ray. In good SF, hyperdrive isn’t a get-out; it’s an integral part of the plot. It’s what allowed the human species to spread out over a thousand worlds without fragmenting into separate societies. Or, in other narratives, what caused it to fragment.

Sci-fi is rooted in realities. Even if that reality is a speculative extrapolation of engineering and physics. Much SF recognises the frailty and weakness of the human, and the greatness of applied learning that lifts us above our Earth and onto the surface of alien worlds.

By contrast, Fantasy’s characters draw heavily on cheat factors – lost kings and highborns, warrior tribes and evil overlords. They’re fairy tales, stories for children not adults, not worthy of respect the way a Bear novel or Dick short is when it explores the future of technology and returns a commentary on what it means to be human. (Of course, Star Wars was a fairy tale, but the point holds.) Sci-fi is self-aware, in a way Fantasy never seems to be.

Other worlds. The only one we've been to.Of course there’s a lot of bad SF out there, just as there’s a lot of bad Fantasy. (And bad romance. And thriller. And…) Because good sci-fi takes serious effort to write. You’ve got to create a believable storyworld that’s both complete in itself and consistent with the world we know, physical laws and evolution and cosmology. (Even at this early stage in the human adventure, we know a fair bit about physics.)

One of the few “good” Fantasy series – JRR Tolkein’s – is readable precisely because he grounded his monsters and magic in laws we feel hold true: the laws of living languages. The vast majority of Fantasy doesn’t feel the need, while almost every Science Fiction novel does. And Fantasy’s dragons and swordplay are a steaming pile of garbage as a result.

“SFF” is an abomination. Let’s drop that extra F, and leave Fantasy to the people who want to read about dwarves and buried treasure.

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