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Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

Started by James_Nostack, November 02, 2005, 03:05:19 AM

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[Ed.'s note: this is split from the Shock 0.1.0 Playtest Thread and pared down by me. -Joshua]

11.  Why is this necessarily science-fiction, as opposed to say, socially conscious fantasy fiction?  Like you could do a shock, "Accursed Magic Rings" and an issue, Will to Power.  I mean, it would be cool if this were uniquely sci-fi, but I'm not sure it is.

Joshua A.C. Newman

OK, let's start with the (I think, very good) definition over at Wikipedia.

Now, let's consider the conceit of Shock: SSF. The idea of a Shock assumes that, otherwise, society and people are pretty much how you, the reader/viewer/player, experience them every day. Some parts of that everyday experience are more interesting to you than others. Those are Issues.

In Fantasy, you might assume that the world is inexplicably different and there are these human, personal themes that are highlighted by that world. The interactions of the characters highlight those personal themes, blown up through the exaggeration of wars, monsters, and family tragedy. That color is there to highlight the personal scope and give traction for the Heroic Cycle to take place, as in Fantasy's proud ancestor, epic mythology.

Beyond that, I'm not really that qualified to discuss Fantasy. I've read Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, a bunch of Pern novels (which I'll come back to), Earthsea, and so forth, but I don't know where it's gone since then because everything I've ever tried to read is horrible crap.

So let's say we take Beowulf. The themes in Beowulf are: "The Line Between Human And Monster" and "Age". That is shown by having Beowulf fight a monster and do horrible things to it, first eschewing weapons, armor and clothes, then go kill its mom for the sake of his own glory. Later, as an old man, he faces the Dragon and kills it only with the help of a young boy.

So now let's take Dune. Our "hero", Paul, dies by his own devising and his children go on. He represents demagoguery, sure, but it's the world that does the heavy lifting with its Issues: Relgion, Monopoly, Feudalism, Technology, Cold War — and its Shocks: Immortality, Terraforming, Precognition.

That is, it's a matter of focus. Fantasy focuses on the hero, Science Fiction focuses on the society.

Now, obviously, they overlap. There's some discussion of the society in Middle Earth, and obviously there are individual characters in Science Fiction. But in Middle Earth, the society is in service to the characters and their cycles, and in SF, the characters are in service to their world's Issues.

Some comparisons
It's 2005. Aliens invade, destroying the world as we know it, capturing people and putting them in sacks to use for their own nefarious purposes.

It's 1205. Dragons raid, burning towns, villages, and cities alike, capturing virgins and putting them in caves for their own nefarious purposes.

Neither of these, so far, is Science Fiction or Fantasy. We don't have enough to go on. We don't have a piece of fiction, really, just a quickie outline of some events. So let's assume that it doesn't have to do with the color.

Does the fact that a space shuttle is mentioned in the Pern novels make it Science Fiction? Nope. It doesn't even address the topic. What makes the Pern novels fantasy is the concentration on the individuals over their society.

Does the existence of Luke and Vader's relationship make the Star Wars movies Fantasy? Yep! That's what it's all about.

So can you use Fantasy color in Shock:? Sure, if you're so comfortable with it that it passes as "everyday experience" for you. But keep in mind that the mechanics for the personhood of your hero are almost vestigial. You'll wind up talking about your own society more than your character.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.



I picked up Shock at GenCon (I was the guy who's doing the thesis on RPGs), and have looked through it a bit, but not extensively.

I wanted to hop in here with a different perspective.  One of my research fields is speculative fiction, and my opinion of fantasy and speculative fiction more broadly (wikipedia definition here for those to whom it may be useful:, and I think that fantasy is just as rife a genre locale for the kinds of stories Shock helps you tell. 

Many fantasy narratives take a familiar world and introduce a novum/nova (the one new thing, ala a Shock) to see how it changes things, especially with regards to the characters' interactions with that changed world.  What I'm talking about is most prevalent in Urban Fantasy or Horror, with the works of Charles DeLint, Neil Gaiman, Emma Bull, or even Anita Blake. 

A setting that is known, but not similar to our own can be just as much a 'Shock' as the addition of a science fiction element.  George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire takes the Shocks of Fuedalism and Rising Magic to explore the Issues of Honor, Family vs. Duty, and so on.  Other examples include Issue - What is humanity, The price of power, Shock - Demihuman species, Magic -- and so on, and that's in a fairly standard fantasy world.

While I'd look first to science fictional elements and thematics when using Shock, since I didn't have a good SF RPG that was oriented towards social issues, but I think it could very easly be Shock: Social Speculative Fiction, or just Shock: Social Fiction.

However you come down, thanks for the game, and the chance to have a go at what the worth/use of these genres can be.

--Mike Underwood
Michael R. Underwood

Joshua A.C. Newman

Mike, for the most part, I agree. The pages of Amazing Science Fiction and the like were as much home to Conan as to Hari Seldon. I think it could be perfectly functional to play Shock: in a "fantasy" world rather than a "science fictiony" world.

I repeat: it's the focus of social issues crossed with differences between the player's perspective and the characters' fictional perspective that makes it fly. Hero stuff will be much less satisfying than stories about the world that the players live in when playing Shock: I don't care if they're using swords or lightsabers; it's the society-wide scale of the fiction that makes Shock: work, as opposed to the personal scale of heroic fantasy.

I look forward eagerly to some Actual Play from you! Your perspective promises some stories of great interest.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.


I might be able to put together a short game in the next month or so, but since I'm currently running a short-term Exalted game (ONOZ, Mainstream RPGs!), who knows.  I have the dillema of having acquired 13 new RPGs at GenCon and the likelihood of not getting to play more than one or two of them in the forseeable future.

Until I find myself a gaming group in Eugene--then there will be much AP of fabulous innovative hipster-tastic games (I live 2 hours south of Portland, in all gentle self-deprication, how could I not play the 'hipster' games of the industry?)

I think I'll get the most milage out of Fantasy games of Shock when the worlds are built up from the ground as being worlds for Shock:, rather than looking around in the fantasy genre for worlds that could be modeled with Shock:.  There's just going to be a difference of agendas in a lot of cases.  It's not too hard to say that recently, science fiction is the genre which has recieved more attention as the site for (metaphorical) socio-political discussions. 
Michael R. Underwood

Joshua A.C. Newman

Building a world without preconceptions is an important part of Shock: I've never really tried to retrofit another world. If you try it, let me know how it works out.

Science fiction has been an engine of social critique since A Trip to the Moon and War of the Worlds. Fantasy color would be fine, but science fiction is downright traditional.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.

Nev the Deranged

Joshua! Go, now, to your local library and read Philip K. Dick's preface to the collection "Beyond Lies the Wub", in which he talks about the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, in which he uses the word shock several times(!) and which is all about exactly what your game is about, exactly.

Then read the stories, cuz they are also really good. I wanna play a Stabilizer!

But yeah, that preface absolutely nails it.

and I'm going to sound like a right idiot if it's already in your bibliography or something... heh.

Joshua A.C. Newman

That one's not!

I'm reading Spione right now. When I'm done with that, I'll be ready for some more sci fi!
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.


Actually there's an author who writes fantasy, and he's nothing like what you would call a "fantasy" writer, because A) he deals with as many deep issues as sci-fi and B) he doesn't try to rip Tolkien off. He's also written a sci-fi book that though sci-fi, feels like fantasy and illustrates the thin line between the two. Plus, he's just really good. I thought exactly like that about fantasy (most of it was crap) but he really convinced me that one could be original in the genre.

I'd suggest reading "Sabriel", and if you like it the sequels "Lirael" and "Abhorsen". Also "Shade's Children" is good, though sci-fi.

As for the whole issue of subdividing speculative fiction into sci-fi and fantasy, I sort of feel it's a little pre-1980s. Maybe in western fiction the divide is still there, but I've found a great deal of anime and manga (most of the ones I like) blend the line between the two. I've seen sci-fi anime that utilizes the supernatural, usually the transcendental, like God and Angels or whatnot. I've also seen fantasy anime where by using magic they are able to forge a sci-fi like civilization with space travel and other things, by incorporating magic into their machines (and honestly magic is more plausible for FTL than some of the excuses that are floating around sci-fi, like tachyons).

Joshua A.C. Newman

The only distinction I really care about is if the fiction is a) about the society-scale concerns of the players (including how the society deals with personal-scale issues) through b) a metaphor of the fantastic.

If space flight is with the Tachyon Orbit12 Drive, it makes just as much sense if it's with Circle 12 Psionics or Twelfth Cyrcle Magyk. Those are aesthetic discussions that are up to you, as the creator of the fiction. Those metaphors are there for you to forge.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.


It's really very easy to make a fantasy setting with Shock:. Shocks are still shocks, thought they would be less realistic and more about fundamental altering of reality. Issues are still issues, and I think that that's what truly separates sci-fi and fantasy authors: sci-fi authors have both shocks and issues, but fantasy authors tend to only have shocks. As for magic in general, I'd probably suggest that - if your world has it - you don't put it as a shock, and just have it assumed. If there's going to be a magic based shock it should be more specific than just "magic", though if there are no other shocks then "magic" works.

A good one I just thought of:

Shocks: Sacrificial magic (general sacrifice, like of animals and plants)

Issues: Rampant human sacrifice, Extremely weak central governments

One of my friends is writing something that would break down well:

Shocks: World-trees, Magic-powered machines

Issues: Semi-theocracy, Perpetual inter-species war, Terrible international relations

Joshua A.C. Newman

Some of the Issues you list are really Shocks. For instance, "Rampant human sacrifice" isn't a social issue you, as a player, are really concerned with. It's not something you're likely to encounter in your life, nor is it something you're reading about in the paper that makes you react strongly and emotionally. Now, I could be misreading you, and you may be referring to, I dunno, Serbian "ethnic cleansing" or something, in which case, awesome. But Issues should be really non-gonzo. They're grounded, real things that you care about.

Theocracy is obviously a valid Issue, but we've never experienced and inter-species war (except maybe when Cro Magnon met Neanderthaler, which is another game I'm working on). Terrible international relations is certainly a contemporary concern.

Don't blow out an o-ring trying to come up with issues. If you're stuck, do what the book says: open up the newspaper and go over headlines until something makes you mad.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.


No no, it's just I was having a little brainstorm about how it could fit for fantasy. And btw, yeah NOW rampant human sacrifice isn't a problem, but there were actual, non-magical civilizations (aztecs highest among them) who practiced human sacrifice on a massive scale. Now the reason I put it as an issue is because "sacrificial magic" was already a shock, and "rampant human sacrifice" is more a measure of the social problems around that shock than the shock itself, though obviously it's connected because they get something from the human sacrifice because of the shock.

And theocracy is actually a modern day issue, even in the news. There are actual theocracies, but they're just hidden. Any country that uses religious law instead of rational law is theocratic to an extent, so most sharia' countries. Iran is a theocracy, because though they "vote" their candidates all have to be approved by the religious aristocracy before they can vote for them. And even if it isn't an issue now, many things that were issues at one time still have value as social commentary and experimentation in fiction. Not to mention, most "social problems" in sci-fi aren't things we're dealing with now, they're things that the author is positing we'll have to deal with in the future. I get the feeling that if I said "perpetual war between species" and it was between humans and aliens, you'd be fine, but since its fantasy and they both live on the same planet suddenly it's invalid? I don't see us dealing with robot rebellions, but those are legitimate issues (the robots would be the shock). And there are a million and a half issues that we in the west, or just in the first or even second world, don't have to deal with at all, let alone on a daily basis, but other people have, do, or will deal with them eventually, and so I think they're still valid because they illuminate the human condition.

I mean, just look at the story in your book. Since when have we ever had to deal with an artificial slave religion? I mean, the issue says "religion" but if you get even a little more focused on it than that you see its just as irrelevant as you say "theocracy" is. Are all issues supposed to be broad brush-strokes then, like "self-awareness" or "justice"? "Human sacrifice" is an issue of morality and willingness to exploit another person for your own gain, but illustrated on a massive scale in a very visceral way.

Joshua A.C. Newman

I think you need to slow down your posting a little, man. You're not reading carefully.

Of course there are theocracies. I just said that. Vincent, the player in Who Art in Heaven who was dealing with the slave religion, was dealing with real issues from his own ancestral religion. Unless you're an Aztec, you're not going to be very satisfied with the results of the Issue of Rampant Human Sacrifice.

QuoteNot to mention, most "social problems" in sci-fi aren't things we're dealing with now, they're things that the author is positing we'll have to deal with in the future.

I don't think that's at all true. And even if I did, you wouldn't be able to play that satisfyingly with Shock:

QuoteI get the feeling that if I said "perpetual war between species" and it was between humans and aliens, you'd be fine, but since its fantasy and they both live on the same planet suddenly it's invalid?

Nope. I just said it's a Shock, not an Issue. You need to take a deep breath. I wrote a game you want to play, and the stuff you want to do with it is stuff it does. Don't worry! It's cool! It does it! I'm happy to answer your questions, but you've gotta read my answers all the way and consider that, if it sounds like I'm saying something dumb, that maybe you should reread it again with the assumption that I'm not and see if it makes more sense that way.

Now, I'm not gonna be online for a few days. Take advantage of that and read what I wrote carefully, and if you still have questions, compose them carefully. I'll still be here. It looks like the Forge is now notifying me of new posts again, so I'll know to come back and read your questions and comments.
the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.


I actually wasn't angry, though I realize I must've come off that way right after I finished it. Actually though, now that you mentioned that the "artificial slave religion" came from your friend's background, I'm interested. How so? If there was actually some case of that I really wanna google it now. And I still think it's true that a lot of sci-fi issues are extrapolations of modern issues, not just reflections of what we have now. If that were all it was I would hate it. It's the ability of speculative fiction to speculate and abstract that makes it great. "Brave New World" dealt with issues we don't have to deal with, but are inevitable extrapolations of what we do deal with now. The whole "pacification" in it has a lot to do with our modern media culture and whatnot, but somehow I don't think people are drugging us involuntarily (to my knowledge). It was purposely designed to be something extreme and not perfectly what we deal with now, so that it would be shocking. Otherwise you could get Steinbeck to write about it or something. They're emotionally relevant because they're directly related to current world issues, but they're hardly replicas of them.

(Also, part of the reason why I was reading fast is because I realize it's late and you're going to sleep soon, so I wanted to catch you before that.)