Quincy and The Nano: A Response, In Short

Hello everyone, ’tis I, Erik the Reddest, back on rotation. Since this is my first day back, I’d like to take a moment to give a quick response to Melissa’s story, “Quincy and the Nano,” since that was basically directed at me. Melissa and I work closely together and have talked at length before about the subject (Ok ok, she’s my girlfriend). She generally makes fun of me for doing the science-y technobabble thing we science fiction writers are prone to do, and I generally make fun of her for her inability to write an unhappy ending. So then she had the idea of seeing what it would be like to try to write a science fiction story of her own, and The Nano was the result. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading this story yet, go check them out.

3d cgi science fiction city with spaceship

Clearly, science fiction.

Here at While We’re Paused, I’m pretty much the science fiction guy. This is not an incidental thing; I’m actually the chair of SF at Lantern Hollow Press. The Gatekeeper, if you will, for SF stories that arrive in the hopper for the next ezine. This isn’t to say that no one else here at LHP writes or likes sci-fi. Dr. Williams is a Trekkie, for example, and if you mention Firefly around our group, more than a few ears perk up. The thing is, I actually study this stuff, and it comes to me as sort of a default, whereas Dr. Williams is a poet, and Dr. Melton is a historian. Heck, I’m even making my Master’s thesis about science fiction.

I’m not saying any of this to try to put myself on any sort of pedestal. But, given Melissa’s posts last month, it falls to me to respond to her rendering of Science Fiction. It is my solemn duty to answer the challenge: is the difference between my beloved SF and the ranks of Tolkienesque Swords-N-Sorcery stories really only the mere mention of Nanos rather than Magic?

What is Science Fiction, Anyway?

fantasy pegacorn pegasus pastel painting

*Definitely* fantasy.

Genres are weird, inconsistent things. The common complaint of modern genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres in today’s fiction is that the only reason we have them is because of the marketing department of the big traditional publishers. But that’s not really fair, is it? The marketing guys wouldn’t have to come up with names like  “Alternate-History Gothic Noir Magipunk” if there weren’t people in the world that said “Hey, I could really go for a fictionalized historical account of wizard Dr. Frankenstein’s monster detective agency set in 18th century England.” The academics are often also to blame, as there are many authors within the learned circles who have always pushed the envelope of what kinds of stories can or should be told. But clearly, regardless of what sort of chicken-and-egg argument you make for how we came to all of these splintered ideas about genre in fiction, we are further from a helpfully specific definition of science fiction and fantasy than before we decided to attempt to be so drastically specific in how we label our stories.

retro science fiction rockets aliens robots lasers

*Retro* science fiction.

That’s why Melissa’s “Quincy and the Nano” not only succeeds in being an amusing story, but also quite aptly frames a real problem authors face when they approach writing science fiction and fantasy. Where is that line? What elements does a story have to have in order to be called Science Fiction, or Fantasy? When does a story stop being science fiction and start being fantasy? Well, I’m happy to report that you don’t really have to answer that question! As Melissa’s story demonstrates, the most important thing for a story is for it to be good,  and that relies on the basics: good plot, good characters, and a well executed narrative. If you have those things, exactly what specific box you fit into almost doesn’t matter so much.

Now, certain sub-genres do have particular conventions that readers look for. Melissa couldn’t write her story and then claim it to be “Hard Science Fiction,” for example. There’s just not enough technical structure to her technology for fans of that genre to take it seriously. But that is, of course, not the point at all! The point of Melissa’s story is to make fun of how magical some of these things in science fiction actually are.

So, even as the self-declared SF guru of Lantern Hollow Press, I’m not going to even try to tell you what the dry, technical definition of science fiction supposedly is (that is a much debated topic, and the definitions change dramatically the further you get away in history from the “Scientifiction” days of early SF). Instead, I’ll just shamelessly reference myself from this post, where I was discussing Orson Scott Card’s thoughts on the differences between science fiction and fantasy:

Card offers us these basic definitions: ‘…science fiction is about what could be but isn’t; fantasy is about what couldn’t be’ [How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, 22]. Worlds containing technologies and cultures that are based on what is conceivable but not known by the laws and theories of science would fall into Science Fiction. If that world contains things that are contrary to known laws (like magic, for example), then it is more suited for the category of Fantasy.

So really, it’s not all that important as long as you can make a case one way or another so you can get it published. The much more important thing you should remember is that your story must first and foremost be a good story. If you don’t have that, you have nothing!

As For Quincy and the Nano…

science fiction fantasy landscape tree green field planets

Erm… science fantasy? You tell me. This isn’t as easy as I thought it might be… seriously, just try googling “Science Fiction” or “Fantasy.” It illustrates my points rather well…

Now, since Melissa, a self-declared fantasy writer, wrote a science fiction story to show the ambiguity in genre, I thought I’d try something similar. The funny thing is, I actually do write a lot of fantasy. But, unsurprisingly, since my approach to story worlds is so heavily colored by my love of science fiction, my fantasy stories tend to feel awfully similar to science fiction. Expect my own story, “Jasper Frank’s Very Bad Day,” next week, in which I will attempt to demonstrate this peculiar habit of mine as well as continue the genre discussion.

For more discussion of the Science Fiction genre in particular, check out my extensive series of Science Fiction Problems posts. Until next week, what’s the craziest mash-up sub-genre you’ve ever run into? Let me know in the comments below!


About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on August 7, 2013, in Authors, Cliches, Erik Marsh, Fantasy, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Orson Scott Card, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Many scholars are now talking about “speculative fiction,” a genre which includes both scifi and fantasy and punts the ball down the field . . .

  2. Yeah, I’ve heard that term used to try to describe SF and Fantasy together. In fact, for those interested, Dr. Melton has some posts about “speculative fiction,” do a search for that term and you can bring them up. I think it’s an attempt to step back from discussing *why* we’ve decided to splinter our genres, and to me that doesn’t seem like a fruitful approach to the phenomenon. Aside from that, the term “speculative fiction” is almost uselessly vague, since it could conceivably describe all fiction unless you attempt to assert a very specific definition… which is pretty much exactly what we’ve been trying to do with “science fiction” and “fantasy.”

  3. As I said, in one way it’s punting. On the other hand, it also asks us to consider what the two genres have in common: They both deal with worlds that are different from our everyday world in some way. Thus both engage the imagination in a way that “realistic” fiction does not. So it’s not surprising that the borders are somewhat permeable, as in Anne McCaffrey, for example–or Star Wars, which also blends elements of both (in a way that Star Trek does not).

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