Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction

By George E. Slusser; Eric S. Rabkin | Go to book overview

High Tech and High Sorcery: Some Discriminations Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Michael W. McClintock

Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?

-- H. G. Wells

At first it seems easy to decide, for usually, now, the specimens come labeled, by conventional icons, at least, if not by the literal terms. Sometimes titles alone are adequate indicators: Timescape or Starship Troopers will not name works of fantasy, nor will The Wood Beyond the World or A Wizard of Earthsea name works of science fiction. The covers of mass-market paperbacks mostly function within a consumer guiding iconography: spaceships, robots, or rivets mean science fiction; a quaint village, an old man with a very long white beard, or a sword held by a mostly naked person mean fantasy. Although memorable first sentences are rare--perhaps they are being eschewed--throughout contemporary and post-modern literature, some do reliably announce the sort of text that follows them: "In the nighttime heart of Munich, in one of a row of general-address transfer booths, Louis Wu flicked into reality," Larry Niven, Ringworld. "The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone," Peter Beagle, The Last Unicorn. These works I have mentioned or cited seem generically consistent by the most elementary standard of consistency: they give the reader what the reader has come to expect of the type of thing they seem to be. To the extent that such typology is reliable, we may as well take it to be licit.

But what sort of thing will come after this opening? "Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert. Once it had known change and alteration, but now Time passed it by" ( Arthur C. Clarke , The City and the Stars). A reader with one sort of literary

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