The British Film Institute and my UK publisher, Voyager, are having a grand Sci-Fi festival.
"You're a scientist, Mark," they said at Voyager. "Shake your science at them!"
In the past I have taken a couple of shots at demonstrating that fantasy and science fiction are pretty much the same thing. Primarily by focusing on 'magic' and arguing that it's just the natural operation of a world where different rules apply and therefore comes firmly under the remit of science. My own work so far wears the cloak and sword of fantasy but is in fact science fiction in as much as it's set in the future, involves technology in advance of our own, and has no magic.
Here I'm taking a different tack and having a go at saying what I think the real difference between fantasy and science fiction is (generally).
Science fiction is inclusive. We might describe it as the American dream, where everyone has a chance to make it big. In science fiction the power lies in technology that can be replicated and made available to the masses. The ideas are portable. Given the material and an understanding of the principles you can manufacture your death-ray on any planet, anyone may aim it and press the button. There's no sense of any right to power, any destiny to rule, any uniqueness required. Science fiction, whatever the politics overlaying any particular story, at its core leans towards egalitarianism.
Fantasy tends to be more focused on the individual. 'The Chosen One' is a fantasy trope and to some extent this trope infects nearly all fantasy, even when the author is struggling to avoid it. Magic and science may be able to be mapped onto each other, but the fact is that when you set a story in a world where 'magic' exists it almost always lies in the hands of a few special individuals and can't be taken from them, can't be shared.
In Harry Potter, for example, magic tends towards science, it's formulaic, we're shown how to learn it. The main thing that makes it 'magic' rather than 'just the way the world is' is that it only works for a tiny percentage of special people. The rest of us muggles can say 'Avada Kedavra' until the cows come home and nobody we point our wand at will die (believe me, I've tried). Imagine though if anyone could read those spells and they worked - imagine they were on the internet ... they would be a technology then, anyone could use them, they would be part of the world, and they'd be interchangeable with gadgets that performed the same function. It would just be a world with different laws of science - the book about such a place would be a work of science fiction.
So it seems to me that the important difference between science fiction and fantasy is one of equality of opportunity. Sure, a science fiction book may describe a horrible tyranny where an underclass are born into slavery to serve an elite. But at the core of it, the technology that is oppressing them will work for those slaves just as well as for the masters, the technology and the science behind it is neutral, the same laws of physics apply for everyone.
In fantasy we have items of power imbued with great magics. Often they are unique. Nobody else can make one. Owning it, wielding it, makes you the chosen one, gives you the chance to be hero or villain, a god perhaps. In science fiction the laws of the world are not local - everyone else has the chance to copy or reinvent your teleport device, regardless of how pure in heart they might or might not be, or what their lineage is.
In short, in space there is no chosen one.
[ Exceptions that prove the rule include, The Matrix, Dune, and Star Wars. Star Wars in particular is often cited as 'fantasy with spaceships'.]
A semi-famous performance hate blogger known as Requires Only That You Hate, or Requires Hate, or RH, has been revealed as being several other very active and very vicious trolls. More surprisingly, RH has been shown to be the Campbell-Award nominated new-on-the-scene author Benjanun Sriduangkaew.
Inconsistencies in this person's trail of wreckage cast doubts on whether anything they've said is true. Are they really female, really Asian, who knows? I'll use 'her' in this post for convenience rather than out of conviction.
What is clear is that RH is a bully who has used threats of violence and rape to intimidate vulnerable people, and has been successfully doing so for years, much of the time hiding behind a cloak of defending those same people and battling for social justice.
Anyway - I've been watching the fallout from RH's unveiling with interest. Most of the condemnation has arisen from the aforementioned teacup, with people who were abused coming forward now that the tide has turned and RH's ability to hurt their career, or just plain hurt them, has been removed. The SFF community doesn't like bullies and many good-hearted folk are speaking out about it.
This is all good.
The part that interests me most is when RH was in her prime, posting to her hate blog but with her victimisation of a wide range of writers from various minorities largely unknown. (I'll note here that I'm unclear whether she went after these people because she saw them as competition, doing what she wanted to do but hadn't yet succeeded in doing - or if she just had faith in her aliases and likes to hurt people ... or perhaps is a racist white guy in Alabama have a ball...).
At that time RH's activity revulsed a large section of the SFF community but she still had a sizeable body of support, an audience who ate up her rants. Some of these admitted she sailed close to (and over) the line, or indeed any line you cared to draw, but were cheerfully tolerant of it because they felt she was in their camp politically, she was 'punching up', and her claimed minority status gave her some kind of pass. Others were rabidly on board with everything she did - a mob psychology well documented by one of her higher profile targets, R Scott Bakker. A rent-a-crowd that literally believed every word she wrote, even when she admitted not having read the books she was writing about. Disciples who would caper to amuse her (one lick-spittle writing approximately 50,000 words roundly condemning my own work just to earn an atta-boy from her).
Here's RH's 'review' of Prince of Thorns, she deleted it from her site when exposed as Benjanun Sriduangkaew recently, but the internet has a long memory. Of most interest to me are the comments. That gives you a sense of the echo chamber she had going.
I saw one of these people commenting on the expose linked at the top of this post. Her defence was that she helped out with the RH blog posts but 'only against white guys'.
And that's the needle on whose point these particular 2 cents are spinning.
First let's admit that there is encoded somewhere into all of us a primal desire to form gangs and hurt 'others'. Presumably it served a useful evolutionary purpose. You and I are no different at core from the crowds cheering the death of gladiators in the circus, or the picnickers at the guillotining, or the folk applauding the bear baiting. The trouble is that we know these are not good things and we try to grow out of these 'simple pleasures'. We try to be better people, more socially aware.
However - along comes RH and tells us we're wonderful non-racist, non-sexist human beings ... and do we want to come and bait some authors? Especially privileged white male authors. It's fine - because they're PRIVILEGED WHITE MALE AUTHORS ... it's not as if they're human or individual or have feelings ... let's get them!
And, absolved of conscience in much the same way that the popes of old absolved the crusaders of responsibility for the means because the end was so desired, a pitchfork wielding mob of honest, caring, socially minded, non-racist, non-sexist SFF fans ... unleashed incredible bile at anyone RH set her cross-hairs over.
The thing is ... obviously ... it's not the direction in 'punching up' that's the important bit. It's the punching.
The minor friction burn I took from RH's post on my work is nothing compared to what she unleashed on far more vulnerable people, struggling authors from various minorities, people with far less support whose careers depended much more on communities that RH was able to manipulate. Even RH's mentioning of my children in her review, whilst I could make some song and dance about it, was largely water off my duck-like back. It's not that I'm complaining about - it's not the minimal hurt done to me. It's the observation that so many people who pride themselves on having kindness, equality, fairness at the forefront of their thinking were so easily turned into the very thing they hate by a little clever manipulation, the deployment of the right buzz words, the playing of the right cards, and, frankly, the thrill of the chase.
"I influence the course of events by using mysterious and supernatural powers!"
"Well, uh, they're only mysterious until you explain them. And if they're not explainable by natural laws then we need to update the natural laws to take into account these observable and measurable phenomena."
"Do not mock powers you cannot explain!"
"I might mock powers that can't be demonstrated but if you show me these sorceries I'll start measuring them and trying to frame a theory that describes them. You can show me ... can't you?"
"Of course I can! Stand back, mortal!"
"Wait! Is that a book of rules?"
"What of it!"
"Well we have those..."
"But these are MAGIC powers! Very few special individuals can fathom them."
"Behold! I am one of six persons on this planet of seven billion who fully appreciate the finer points of variational quantum chromo dynamics. BOW DOWN BEFORE ME!"
"Look, you're just being silly, this is MAGIC, not science. Observe my hat. Touch my staff ... if you must. Magic!"
"There are any number of things that science has yet to explain - we don't just label those 'magic' and give up. What you're doing is measurable - nice fireball! - has rules, and can be learned by people with sufficient inborn talent. It exists, it's part of the world. The people who pursue its study should be called scientists."
The bad news is that the competition is tougher than ever this year!
Last year Emperor of Thorns scraped into the final and came 9th of 10.
This year Goodreads have abolished the Paranormal Fantasy category - the folks with guns, tight leather trousers and bare midriffs are with us - and so really heavy hitters like Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs and Ilona Andrews are in the mix.
This graph showing the number of ratings the 15 nominees have gathered so far from Goodreads readers - this is likely to translate roughly into the number of votes they'll gather in the Award poll.
(click to see detail)
So you can see that Prince of Fools needs all the votes it can get.
Doing well on these awards is a great boost for any book - so if you're on Goodreads and can spare a vote ... many thanks!
& if you're not on Goodreads ... sign up!
Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns and Emperor of Thorns were nominees in 2011, 2012, and 2013, coming 10th, 4th, and 9th respectively.
The chart below shows the order of results in 2011 with the orange columns showing how many ratings each book acquired on Goodreads in the time since then. Note, it's the area of the column that is proportional to number of ratings. If the columns for the first three were the same width as the columns for the rest, then they would be three times taller!
If Harry and Jorg had been swapped at birth the Harry Potter books would have been rather different in tone...
It seems safe to assume that Jorg would not have tolerated the Dursleys. I suspect that an early attempt by Dudley and friends to bully young Jorg would have resulted in Dudley losing an eye to a ballpoint pen, having woefully misjudged the level of violence Jorg would be prepared to use.
The Dursleys would of course have put infant Jorg into the care system, possibly earning themselves a spot of farewell arson into the bargain. By his 11th birthday Jorg would undoubtedly have risen through the ranks of London's street children into some starter position in the criminal underworld.
Bully Jorg? Seriously?
It's possible that, deprived of the magical protections that were part and parcel of living with family, young Jorg would have been killed by one of Voldemort's followers - though by this stage the dark lord's power was still essentially shattered and his support scattered and disorganised.
At 11 Jorg would have received his invitation to Hogwarts and turned up promptly on platform 11 and three quarters.
On discovering his wizarding celebrity and the fact that Voldemort killed his parents, young Jorg would undoubtedly sworn a terrible revenge on all involved. When it transpires that Voldemort may in fact have survived, he would immediately become the focus of that retribution.The idea that the most powerful wizard of his time was out to kill Jorg after a failed early attempt would be a challenge that Jorg just couldn't resist. Brother Hagrid would be an early recruit to the cause.
More 'king in the North' and less 'I shouldn't av said that.'
The Sorting Hat:
Well it would be Slytherin of course. Remember Harry himself was almost a Slytherin - they're ambitious and ruthless, not characterised by the spineless spite of Malfoy or the moronic bullying of Crabbe and Goyle. Jorg would join Slytherin and approve of its ethos, whilst at the same time being dedicated to the destruction of Voldemort and his followers.
Jorg would recruit the most reckless, capable, and dangerous of Hogwarts' students - this isn't to say that they would all be murder-minded Slytherin though. Who among the Hogwarts intake might fit the role of Sir Makin or the Nuban? The truth is that Jorg would seek the loyalty and confidence of selected members of staff or wizards outside the school. Snape's old reservations would soon be overcome and the potions master would become Jorg's lieutenant. Working together it wouldn't be long before Snape was teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts.
Would Ron and Hermione feature? It's possible. Hermione as an extremely capable witch would be very attractive to Jorg, if her law-abiding nature could be overcome. Ron ... hard to say, but his family's anti-Voldemort stance would find favour.
Show us your dark side, Ron!
The story of Jorg Potter would be decidedly quidditch-lite. There might have been some early instance where Jorg showed himself to be rather good at the game. He would be a chaser, wanting to be in the thick of the action, taking out the opposition and scoring with the quaffle. The business of hanging around on the margins and hunting for a small gold ball would not appeal... Early on though someone would have been badly hurt - getting between Jorg and the goal is never a good idea - and Jorg would have lost interest after being lectured on the rules. He would spend his time playing the game that mattered instead, the one that's played all the time behind the scenes, the one without rules.
the game is a bloodsport - it just needs spikes on the front of the brooms
Props to quidditch players through - how uncomfortable is it to sit on a thin piece of wood while making 5g turns?
Jorg would be a very keen and able student. Top of his list would be an early acquisition of the unforgivable curses. He would put his cloak of invisibility to good use, paying regular visits to the restricted section of the library and making an extensive study of dark magics. There appear to be many logical inconsistencies in the magic employed - Jorg would attempt to exploit these to devastating effect.
Jorg's objection to Voldemort would not be what he did or plans to do - only that he did it to Jorg.
The Philosopher's Stone:
Jorg would make serious attempts to crack the mystery as soon as it came to his attention. These would include the use of spying, theft, and torture as required. Most likely Snape would just tell him what the deal was.
When it became apparent he needed to take possession of the stone before Voldemort got to it, Jorg would have gone in mob-handed, preferably with Snape, Hagrid and all his recruits. The solution to the barriers that couldn't be circumvented would be brutal and efficient. Can't they walk past the chess game or storm across ignoring the rules? Does the door really need a key or can it be blasted open? Would fire help? How about a pet troll?
The final confrontation:
Jorg would pull out his gun (from his days in the criminal underworld) and shoot Voldemort in the head before he could say Abracadabra Avada Kedavra.
I'm not saying it would be a better book - just very very different!