Monday, November 21, 2011

World Fantasy Con: Can You Mix Science into Fantasy"

I went to World Fantasy Convention (WFC) 2011 in San Diego at the end of October, and the second panel I attended was on mixing science into fantasy.

The panelists were Greg Benford, Yves Meynard, Brent Weeks, L.E. Modisett, Darryl Murphy, and Edward Willett.

I did not stay for the whole panel because I wanted to get a good seat at the animal show. (Yes! The San Diego Zoo brought exotic animals to WFC, and for an hour talked about their adaptations. Very cool.) But even in what I attended, I learned several interesting things I'd like to share with you.

Edward Willett says that he likes to write fantasy in which the magic does not break physical laws of nature. However, after his steampunk fantasy was published, he received criticism that by having coal- and gas-based inventions that could be built and work in real life, he had taken all the magic out of the story.

Most or all of the panelists agreed that magic in fantasy should have rules (at least in the author's mind; it's okay if the characters themselves do not understand the rules) and that the rules should make sense. One panelist pointed out that if magic is not given rules, explicit or implied, then tension and drama are reduced because anything can happen (similar to the tension-draning effects of deus ex machina solutions in literature in general). That is such a great observation that I will repeat it again:
If magic is not given rules, explicit or implied, then tension and drama are reduced because anything can happen.
The panelists agreed, though, that some authors and readers particularly like figuring out rule-based magic, while for other readers, the wonder of the magical world is what they read for. Harry Potter's world may not make sense, but who wouldn't want to attend Hogwart's Academy?

Willett said that George R.R. Martin says that magic stands in for all the things in our real universe that we can't control. I searched today for the quote and didn't find it. However, I did find a recent interview with GRRM in which he says that for magic to work in fiction, it has to be mysterious. He does not believe in creating elaborate rules. (Full interview here.)

Modisett thinks also that magic especially appeals to people who wish things were other than they are. (Shauna's note: Perhaps this partly explain fantasy's appeal to children, who are loaded with so many unwanted rules and restrictions physically and socially.)

Personally, I prefer rule-based magic. It usually takes me out of a story if, for example, Michelle Pfeifer transforms into a twelve-pound hawk with nothing left over, breaking the law of the conservation of mass-energy. But if a story is good, I am willing to suspend belief. I loved Ladyhawke despite the unbelievable magic and many anachronisms.

What about you? Which type of fantastical story do you prefer? And why?

Los Angeles Appearance

I will be at the Los Angeles Science Fiction Convention (LOScon) this Friday, November 25. I speak on the panel "10 Beginning Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them" from noon to 2 pm; I sign copies of Like Mayflies in a Stream from 3:00 pm to whenever the next scheduled author shows up; and I will be on the panel "Short, Short Stories" (about ultraflash fiction) from 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm. I hope to see you there.

Until next time (December 6)!

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

I grew up reading the so called "Super science" stories, and I still have a soft spot for them. In these, the magic has a "scientific" explanation, although it usually isn't revealed exactly. I'm ok with that. The main thing I want from a magic system is to have the magic "cost" something. Great magic should require great effort.

Jewel Amethyst said...

As an adult I haven't read much SF or fantasy novels. I like it more real. But as a child I loved magic books, especially Enid Blyton.

I still love magic for children's books because it allows all the imagination with none of the rules and explanations we have to make as adults. But even in children's books, I think the magic has to have some kind of rules, explicit or implied otherwise it loses it's impact...even for the children's boundless imaginations.

Derryl Murphy said...

Derryl, not Darryl. And me, I prefer whatever works for me at that time. Jo Walton and I were talking about this on the weekend, and she told me that Tim Powers (one of my all-time faves) says he makes sure he has rules for his magic, although he pretty much never shows any of it. So rules can be what we say they are, I guess.