Pull the blinds and turn off the phone, it’s time to head to the Game Room and lock in on some hardcore meta-gaming action. In the Game Room we will explore the world of gaming in all its many incarnations, while lingering over that corner of the meta-verse where games and literature converge. Bust out your opinion and your favorite snack, it’s game time.
As I sit in the Game Room looking at shelves filled with dusty paperbacks and abused game books, I consider the shifting line between science fiction and fantasy. Recently I joined a book club on Goodreads called The Sword and Laser in which members vote on books in two categories. The Sword category marks books as works of fantasy, while the Laser category marks books as works of science fiction. The reading list for the group alternates each month between Sword and Laser. As I examined the list, I noticed several entries on both lists that looked out of place to me. Obviously others in the group felt they belonged on that list.
As you might have guessed, the Game Room is all about rules, since every game must have rules. With this in mind, our obsessive compulsive nature requires that we create rules for determining the difference between science fiction and fantasy. Perhaps our search for a universal ruling in this case may be in vain, but just like the top shelf physicists who hunt tirelessly for a Unified Field Theory, we will press on.
In my younger days, the great James E. Gunn explained to me that the difference between science fiction and fantasy was that in science fiction there was an attempt to explain why and how things occurred. That is they explained the science of the science. Fantasy on the other hand had no explanation. The events were simply the events.
Case in point: Star Wars in its original incarnation made no attempt to define or explain how it was possible to have a light saber. The Force was a magical energy that allowed Jedi to perform supernatural feats, while movement at the speed of light allowed ships to travel light years away in a matter of hours. Some might argue that Star Wars is fantasy and not science fiction. They might suggest that the Death Star is the evil wizard’s castle, and that Luke and Han Solo are the warriors storming the castle to save the princess. As all good fantasy tales go, the adventure party defeated the evil wizard, Darth Vader, and saved the princess.
The Game Room is confident that the majority who have joined in the discussion of this ruling, would label Star Wars as science fiction and not fantasy. So what makes it science fiction? Does my new reading group have it pegged? Does the existence of lasers in the story make it science fiction? In part, it does, but really it goes beyond that. It seems as if a story or game or movie that has technology beyond that of present day Earth is considered science fiction. So with that in mind robots, space ships, laser guns, aliens, and alien worlds all add up to science fiction. The Tech Geek in me says wait. We have robots and space ships and laser guns today, and the United States border patrol would suggest we have aliens here too. Suddenly that line of future technology becomes a little more vague. Certainly when we look at light sabers and warp drives and cyborgs it is easier to identify science fiction, but when you draw a line back to our present day technology where does the line stop?
We also wonder how this definition applies to historical science fiction, or for that matter simply old science fiction. What about Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? When it was written in 1870, the technology was beyond the world’s reach. As we look back now, the technology in the book appears mundane. So at what point in our history did the Jules Verne classic cease being science fiction and simply become fiction? Or did it?
What about games like Shadowrun? Science and magic exist together? Does the existence of magic in a book or game or movie make it fantasy? Does a Jedi wield magic or some scientific power? The Grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke stated that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. With that in mind, phasers and transporters are advanced beyond our present day ability to recreate them. Are they magic? Is a phaser just a disintegration spell? Is a transporter simply a teleportation spell? What would happen if Gandalf and Darth Vader went toe to toe? Whose magic would win out?
Is Game of Thrones fantasy because they use swords and not light sabers? How many dragons have we seen in a Star Wars movie? Are the Others simply the Zombie Apocalypse? Swords and castles and armor are all very real technology that is easily explained. Ravens deliver messages from kingdom to kingdom, but how does Obi Wan transmit a holographic image hundreds of light years away?
The role-playing game Traveller uses a concept known as Technology Levels to label different societies, in all there are sixteen tech levels from zero to fifteen. In brief they are as follows:
TL0: No technology. Stone age.
TL1: Bronze or iron age.
TL2: Renaissance technology. Introduction of the scientific method.
TL3: Industrial revolution. Steam power.
TL4: Industrial world. Late 19th century early 20th century.
TL5: Technology begins to blossom. Mid 20th century.
TL6: Dawn of the space age. Landing on the moon.
TL7: Reach orbit easily. Computers become prevalent.
TL8: Possible to reach planets in the solar system. Space habitats are possible. Today.
TL9: More advanced means to travel in space. Ability to begin to colonize other worlds.
TL10: Can start reaching other solar systems.
TL11: True Artificial Intelligence is born. Space travel continues to expand.
TL12: Terraforming becomes possible. Still more advances in space travel.
TL13: Cloning body parts. Advanced weaponry. Space travel between systems is easy.
TL14: Flying cities and fusion weapons.
TL15: Human lifespan is dramatically increased. Technology has passed into the realm of magic.
Let us step back and take a look at these categories and try to apply them to the line between fantasy and science fiction. If we say that anything more advanced than us is science fiction, we would need to select Tech Level 9 and higher as being science fiction. I would place Star Wars at Tech Level 13 and Star Trek at TL13 or TL14, but where does Doctor Who fit in?
If we travel backwards to find a line for fantasy, how far back do we need to go to set the line? Would Tech Level 3 represent fantasy? Steam Punk is generally considered science fiction, but it contains technology more primitive than our own. Ah, but does it try to explain the technology? Does that make it science fiction? Or is it that the technology is believable? Maybe the line should be drawn at Tech Level 2. I would place the Game of Thrones at Tech Level 2 and it is considered fantasy, but what about the scientific method? Surely that must weigh for something. Romeo and Juliet would be tech level 2, but it is neither science fiction nor fantasy, but if we add in an alien attacking the lovers it becomes science fiction. Unless the alien is in fact a creature summoned by the evil warlock, but what if the evil warlock is a Sith Lord? I’m confused, and my head is spinning.
Perhaps we could simply look at the time period of the setting to determine fantasy or science fiction. I glance over at Jim Butcher and his urban fantasy, and decide that won’t do. I circle back to the zombies. Zombies created by an evil necromancer equates to fantasy. A scientific explanation for flesh eating zombies ( see I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and popularized by Will Smith) becomes science fiction.
The Game Room demands a ruling on the line between science fiction and fantasy, but I find myself shaking a fist at my picture of Einstein. Can it be that the ruling we seek is as elusive as the Unified Field Theory? Or can it be as simple as Laser equals science fiction and Sword equals fantasy? Perhaps there is no answer. Perhaps we will just continue to survive on instinct, using our primitive intuition to separate science fiction from fantasy. Someone please provide the house rule.