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Saturday 24 October 2020

Sci-fi Versus Fantasy

I was walking around the other day, an unusual activity in these troubled times, when for no particular reason a half-read Quora answer popped into my head. It was something about whether Game of Thrones is high fantasy or not. The answer mentioned that the amount of magic has nothing to do with it, which I thought was a bit odd and I hadn't bothered to read any further.

Call me crazy, but I'd say the presence of magical dragons is a dead giveaway. J. K. Rowling disagrees.

What struck me was that it might be exactly wrong. If we invert this, we might get a useful definition of what science fiction and fantasy is all at the same time. And surely we ought to be able to do better than Arthur C. Clarke's (or was it Asimov ?) "I know it when I see it". Because, given the current crises, it's very important indeed to think about things which are of no importance whatsoever. Otherwise we'll all go Stark (see what I did there ?) raving mad.

Here's my suggestion. Both sci-fi and fantasy are speculative fiction, where something about reality is fundamentally different to our own. If it's a plausible difference then it's science fiction. If it's not, then it's fantasy.

Perhaps "plausibility" is too limiting though. I'd say that things based on essentially sound scientific principles, albeit often with exaggeration, or exploring concepts which are scientific in nature, are generally sci-fi, not fantasy. This even extends to postulating deliberately fictional science : what if the Planck number was much bigger, what if gravity could be controlled, what if we could warp space with unobtainium, etc. It doesn't necessarily mean that the science has to be accurate (although that always helps), just that the modification has to be about science.

Fantasy is when the modification is about something actually incompatible with science. A story about the Sun going nova is definitely science fiction even though we know that's impossible, because it's still about science, but a story in which the Sun is actually a fire pushed across the sky by a surprisingly fire-retardant scarab beetle is fantasy. Science fiction generally requires altering the laws of physics, fantasy requires we do away with them. That's what I mean by "plausible".

One of these is not 100% accurate based on our current knowledge. The other is absolutely 100% impossible.

Judging whether something is hard sci-fi or space opera, high fantasy or escapism, is easier. It's not exactly "how much magic there is", but neither does it have anything to do with anything as mundane as the location of the events (as is the usual definition of "high fantasy"). Instead, I suggest it's about how important the speculative aspect is to the story. Could just be one crucial difference, could be lots of little things - importance neatly subsumes all that ugly mess into one nice happy parameter.

So : if a story is fundamentally driven even by a single but absolutely essential difference to reality, then it's deep in the genre of speculative fiction. If it's of only a minor element, and actually most of the story is about character interaction (whether on a spaceship or in pseudo-medieval Europe), then it isn't. This, I think, is much more consistent than the usual definition that "high fantasy is not set on Earth". And everyone loves consistency, apart from Michael Bay fans and Trump supporters, of course.

Lets explore this with a handy four-way chart :

Now obviously there are grey areas and lots of subjectivity here. After all, most sci-fi doesn't try to get everything right, and most fantasy contains at least a few aspects of reality : very few novels feature humans which are two hundred feet tall and made of socks, for example.

It's usually easy to see if the modification was about a scientific concept or not. Deciding how crucial that is to the story is much more difficult. In principle, for instance, one could have the story of St. George and the Big Crocodile*, but this would hardly have the same mythological overtones. The change would matter, but in a way that's very hard to define. Even in really deep stuff, one can always argue that it's really about characters and their interactions, that some more plausible substitute could be devised to tell the same tale**. So yes, there's a good deal of subjectivity here, but you can't replace everything. Sometimes the speculative element is absolutely crucial.

* Or St George and the Surprisingly Small Lizard in the case of the Czech Republic.
** A friend of mine was once asked to say what "Aliens" was about. She said "motherhood".

It's probably time to go through the different quadrants of the chart.

Proper sci-fi

From back in my CGI hobbyist days of my long-lost youth.

This is when the speculative element is definitely scientific, basically plausible (in the sense discussed earlier), and dominates the plot line. Only very realistic works in which the science is absolutely integral to the plot deserve the label of hard sci-fi though : basically anything by Clarke, Baxter and Asimov (among many others). 

Hard sci-fi is a wonderful mechanism for exploring how humanity would change if given access to radically different technologies and/or knowledge. The science may matter more than individual characters, but this doesn't prohibit such works from examining entire societies. For example The Time Machine, : never mind the time travel, the story is driven by the principles of evolution creating two human species, along with a stonkingly good social commentary.

In contrast the bulk of more popular sci-fi doesn't have such-far reaching epic consequences. Stargate has a thoroughly sci-fi device but keeps it secret, so that the consequences for humanity are never really exploited; the first Jurassic Park movie similarly places heavy restrictions on the impact of genetic engineering (though the book has somewhat broader, if subtler, comments). The science does matter in these stories : Jurassic Park is fundamentally about genetic engineering, not sexism in survival situations. But individual characters play a much greater role than in the hardcore stuff. The full implications of the speculative science are not fully played out, and its importance to the story diminished. You could change the xenomorph to a completely different monster without many serious changes to the story at all, although if you did that I would have to hurt you.

Weak sci-fi

Eraser has a cool gun, but other than that it's basically just another action flick.

A.k.a "space opera", though not all sci-fi is set in space. Soft sci-fi is probably a much better term, but too late did I realise this to alter anything.

The lower right section is especially sparsely populated : it's pretty rare, but it is possible to have realistic sci-fi elements in a story that don't actually contribute much. The rebooted Battlestar Galactica is a good example of this. Sure, it has sci-fi elements, some of which are crucial (especially later on), but the majority of it is contemporary American politics that's been shot back in time and into outer space. It's not that the science doesn't matter at all, just that it doesn't matter anywhere near as much as the characters, politics, presence of hot people, etc. depending on the story.

Some other media also features the occasional sci-fi element that can be vaguely plausible (i.e. not violating the laws of physics, but often breaking the laws of economics or psychology or just plain common sense) but is not really important to the story as a whole. Bond movies are generally action-driven, not science-driven, but they do feature occasional improbable but technically possible devices (space lasers, for example); Arnie movies and other action films tend to be similar.

High fantasy

The world of The NeverEnding Story works in a fundamentally different way to reality, even if the human psychology element doesn't.

Tolkien's world is undoubtedly the highest of high fantasy, especially the Silmarillion. The world fundamentally runs on magic - the plot could not be told without it, and the breaking of physical laws is used deliberately to that effect. The only thing that could exceed it is true mythology.

As with hard sci-fi, this label applies really only to the extremes. Other fantasy uses far more mundane settings with much more limited impacts of magical thinking : most of the characters in Dracula, for instance, are entirely non-magical. The story couldn't really be told without its supernatural elements, but they're far less important than in Middle Earth. Star Wars is undoubtedly a fairy tale in space - not quite as outright impossible as Middle Earth, but still heavily reliant on magic. Heck, it's full of space wizards with magic swords, for heaven's sake.

Dune is more difficult to place. Large aspects are plausible but speculative, but other key factors are entirely magical. And those factors are absolutely essential to the story : Paul's prophetic abilities may be intended as a metaphor, but they could not be easily replaced. 

Further down the quadrant we get Marvel. These are fantastically implausible. The speculative element is important in some ways, but the main feature is lots of hot people dealing out vast amounts of property damage with hilarious witticisms, none of which makes a lick of sense but is enormously entertaining.

Escapist fluff

Sometimes you need to stop caring. The Asylum movies are brilliant examples of this, being (deliberately) hilariously stupid. Few others go to such extremes, at least not on purpose, and if any section of the chart is biased towards bad content (or at least away from serious content) it's this one. When you don't care about plausibility or importance, you're less likely to care about anything else.

Of course, good and bad content can be found all over the chart. A hard sci-fi that's badly explained (e.g. The Expanse) is no use to anyone. A high fantasy that's based on defeating the Dark Lord by shoving an enchanted hamster up his backside would be unlikely to ever be taken seriously. But equally, just because something is intended as pure entertainment doesn't mean it isn't worth watching.


So, in much less time than usual, that's it. We haven't learned a damn thing of any use, except that now there's something to rant about that will irritate lots of people that doesn't involve talking about politics. And surely that alone makes it all worthwhile.

Tuesday 6 October 2020

Puppy Plague Prevents Pandemic Pessimism

Remember how this blog used to be full of wacky adventures and not long cynical rants ? Well today I've got the least cynical thing ever : a PUPPY !

This is Gilly, a.k.a. Gigi, a.k.a. GillyGiGi, a.k.a. Gilly GiGi Gizelle, a.k.a. Gouger, for reasons which will become clear later on.

We already have one papillion, Lulu (a.k.a. Cthulhu), and some time ago we decided we wanted another. We made a preliminary visit to the breeder a month or so ago just to visit the horde of dogs, which was exactly as much furry chaos as you'd expect in a tiny two-room apartment filled with (I believe) a total of no less than eleven crazy little butterfly dogs. The breeder is a woman absolutely devoted to her dogs, which is probably why she produces such excellent little nutcases.

Little Lulu was not terribly happy about returning to the nest, but then, being mobbed by a bunch of tiny lunatics would be a distressing experience for anyone. Eventually she settled on keeping as far away as possible from the rest of them and occasionally venturing to inspect the puppies when the adults were out of range.

"But... I am the only papillon in the village !"

Not that the other papillons were at all keen to give her any personal space. Lulu's travel bag was particularly popular.

Lulu's dad Jeremy is an especially magnificently fluffy beastie.

The nightmare over, we returned some weeks later to retrieve her half-sister Gigi (we couldn't decide on a name, but the dog responds better to Gilly, so we're mostly going with that). It's always hard when a puppy leaves home, but she soon settled into her travel rucksack and slept pretty much the whole way back.

(Incidentally, we've made three trips during the pandemic - once to Germany when case numbers were near their lowest, and twice to Brno for puppy inspection/acquisition. Of those two trips one was by car and the second by train. Covid restrictions are limited to wearing masks, but there being only two or three other people in the compartment, this doesn't present a risk nearly as high as being in the crowds in Brno itself. But if I say any more on that I'll become cynical, which I've banned for the duration of this post.)

There being no real prospect of travelling outside the Czech Republic for the foreseeable future, we took two weeks of holiday for a staycation. During that time, we did exactly nothing except binge watch TV and play with the puppy. And there are far worse ways to spend a holiday. I think I'd probably do extremely well on a long-duration space mission : only give me my creature comforts (pun intended) and I'm happy indefinitely. The hard part would be persuading me to go in the first place, not dealing with the stresses of travel so long as there was sufficient Netflix and tiny doggies.

Anyway, it's already hard to believe just how small she was on that first day :

It took about a week for her to learn to hold both her ears up. Now she looks a lot like a bunny, especially when she goes hyperactive and charges around the garden at full speed.

Gilli treats other dogs with sensible caution, not running away from them but not getting too close either. Which is exactly what you want when they're a full thirty times heavier than you in some cases.

Getting Gilly used to Lu is easy. Getting Lu to accept Gilly was a longer processes but not all that bad in the end. Lulu is very particular about other dogs and especially doesn't like other dogs touching her, although she's generally more tolerant of tiny puppies. Still this meant a few massive over-reactions with Lu going into full-on explosive mode when Gilly got too close, but in a week this was over. In a week and a half they were playing and cuddling together. Lu has learned she just has to stare menacingly at Gilly when she wants her to back off, or maybe give a warning growl, and not turn into a fluffy hand grenade of death and destruction. We did this with a combination of shouting at Lu for misbehaviour and bribing her to come close to the puppy with treats and enormously exaggerated praise. And it worked perfectly.

But alas ! Poor Lulu is a victim of this success. One evening during puppy wrestling Lulu gave a rare yap, then carried on as normal until they both collapsed from exhaustion. The next day her eye was swollen and she looked like a pirate, but it seemed to be improving. The day after it got worse again so we took her to the vet, expecting she'd need eye drops...

... only to discover she needed eye surgery to save the damaged eye ! Fortunately they were able to do that the same day and it took less than two hours. She's now doing well, getting a bit more active each day, and is expected to fully recover with both eyes completely back to normal in a couple of weeks. She's starting to want to play again, though this is very difficult on account of the lampshade, and able to tolerate "Gouger" running underneath her (still being a tiny bunny, even if she is a bit bigger now). So all is well, and once again working from home has proven a godsend. The fluffy adventures shall continue.