Friday, January 25, 2013

Genre Savvy: Science Fantasy

In the bookstore, at the video store, or anywhere in fact, Fantasy is almost always merged with Science Fiction.  One might argue they have little to do with each other, I disagree.  They really do have a lot to do with each other, but not enough to really put them together.  So of course, I use the term Science Fantasy.

Why?  First it comes down to the time thing I mentioned last time.  Science Fantasy is more "futuristic," as it were.  Or at least it SEEMS like it's in the future.  We as a society can look at something and say, with reasonable certainty, whether it is from the past or the future.  Saying something looks "advanced" is our way of saying "that's future stuff."  This idea is what separates Science Fantasy from the other two and is its key element.

This futuristic look is why Star Wars is the poster boy for Science Fantasy as a whole.  Lightsabres, blasters and spaceships certainly all LOOK futuristic, but they don't mean much to the story or characters as a whole.  In fact, if you replaced those fancy future tech things with their contemporary, or even ancient, equivalents, no one would notice the difference.  Swords, guns and sailing ships could be used to tell almost the exact same story, sans the giant planet destroying space station.

It is NOT, however, Science Fiction.  The futuristic element defines Science Fantasy and everything under it's umbrella, including Science Fiction itself, but Science Fiction needs a bit more definition.  To sum up, all Science Fiction is Science Fantasy, but not all Science Fantasy is Science Fiction.  And capitalizing each of those words over and over again is making my pinkie tired.

So what makes Science Fiction what it is?  Technology.  As I said, removing all the futuristic stuff from something like Star Wars doesn't harm the actual story telling itself.  Removing that stuff from a piece of Science Fiction, however, ruins it.  Science Fiction is very much about man's relationship with his technology.  How that technology changes how people live, how people change the technology and all that stuff, for good or ill, is the essential element of Science Fiction, and without it, the point of the work is lost.  Often it can be regulated down to a key scientific advancement or technology, and everything in the story grows from that, be it cybernetic implants or time travel.

Let's go back to Star Wars for a moment and ask what is the key element of the entire series?  What one thing drives everything in the plot?  It's the Force, which is clearly not science or technology, despite the ham-fisted attempts to say otherwise.  The Force drives everything in the series, which is why the technology around them is basically unnecessary.  It's window dressing for something else.

This contrasts with the chief rival of Star Wars, Star Trek.  What is the key driving force in Star Trek?  What pushes everything forward and is the reason everything happens in every series, movie and book?  Warp drive.  Without warp drive, humanity never leaves Earth, is never visited by the Vulcans, never fights a war with the Romulans, never wages a cold war with the Klingons, never meets Q, never has to deal with the Borg and never fights the Dominion.  It is THE essential technology to everything in the series, and drives it forward, to where no one has gone before.  Now one could argue the same about hyperdrive in Star Wars, but again, remove it and the story would hardly notice, but without warp drive, Star Trek does not exist.

Which brings me to the comic examples.  On the Science Fiction end of the spectrum, there is Schlock Mercenary, which is about comedy as much as it is about technology.  The initial prime mover is the gates which allowed for FTL travel, and later the open source Teraport, which dramatically changed the very nature of the entire galactic community.  It's such a major shake up that the world the characters inhabit now is far different than the one at the beginning of the comic.  The fact that other technologies are explored, from DNA manipulation to artificial intelligence, further cements it in the Science Fiction branch of Science Fantasy.

The other example I spoiled right in the introduction article, Girl Genius.  It often gets labeled as steampunk, which is more an aesthetic rather than a genre, but it is a great example of the other end of the Science Fantasy spectrum.  The reason?  The main driver isn't a piece of technology, it's the Sparks, the super geniuses that rule, ruin and push forward the entire comic.  Remove the steampunk aesthetic and the Sparks would still be raising hell and driving the story forward.

With the Fantasy branches out of the way, it's time to start covering the over-genres, the three very powerful and very prevalent genres that they often engulf not only the three Fantasy's, but often each other.  Until then kiddies.

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