Indistinguishable From Science?

When I attended Illogicon last month, one of the things that stuck with me was Tim Powers’ comment that he tries to incorporate science into his fantasy novels (like the use of quantum mechanics in Last Call) because readers know fantasy, by its nature, is impossible, so he tries to make it more plausible.
This is something that never much bothers me—I usually assume anyone who reads fantasy is okay with that. There is, however, a long tradition of giving fantasy an SF overlay. Fritz Leiber’s classic Conjure Wife implies that there’s an underlying scientific logic to magic, even if it’s not clear exactly what it is. A. Merritt’s superb fantasies (Face in the Abyss, The Moon Pool, Dweller in the Mirage) usually have pseudoscientific rationales (racial memory, other-dimensional energy beings, guardians vibrating so fast they’re invisible). Even if it doesn’t draw more readers (I honestly have no clue), it can certainly be entertaining (as Powers always is).
But the point of this post is that there’s two ways in which pure fantasy can work that SF just doesn’t.
•The impossible happens.
In reading New Worlds of Fantasy II this week, I came across the short story “En Passant” by Britt Schweitzer. The concept is simple: A man’s head falls off his body and has to find a way to climb back on the neck.
That’s something you can only do in fantasy—a story built around a completely impossible premise. Not impossible in the “magic works” way, just impossible.
Likewise, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo centers on Jeff Daniels as a movie character (“Tom Baxter—poet, explorer, of the Chicago Baxters.”) who sees Mia Farrow watching his film over and over and walks off the screen to meet him. Again, no explanation, magical or scientific, it just happens.
These are the kind of stories where any sort of scientific explanation would probably work against it, not for it.
•Poetic reasoning.
In the 1949 film Orphee, Death comes and goes from our world using mirrors for gateways. Why? Because “mirrors are the doors through which death comes and goes—look at yourself in a mirror all your life and you’ll see death at work.”
That’s the logic of poetry, not science. It works because it’s poetry.
Like so much else in writing, success with fantasy-as-science is a matter of judgment, of knowing when it works and when it doesn’t. No hard and fast rules.


Filed under Movies, Reading, Science vs. Sorcery, Writing

6 responses to “Indistinguishable From Science?

  1. Pingback: Movies and Books | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. I think of it as stories told with dream-logic. You can turn a wolf into a rose and put it into your hair if you’re dreaming, so in fantasy that’s fair game as long as you’ve established that someone has that particular power. Trying to make fantasy scientifically plausible–dragons are just like any big reptiles, and you don’t see them because of reasons, and the environment can sustain them because of other reasons–takes a lot of imagination and ingenuity, and makes for entertaining reason, but always falls apart at some point.

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