Friday, June 19, 2020

Between the Mythical and the Mechanical

Fantasy, Science Fiction, Forward, Ufo, Spaceship

Today when people think of science fiction and fantasy, chances are, they think of two separate genres. Science fiction, the genre of starships and computers and technology. Fantasy, the genre of knights and dragons and castles. Two distinct genres, and never the twain shall meet. The meeting of the two, science fantasy, was the exception, the red-headed stepchild, never part of the mainstream.

This wasn’t always the case.

The pulp era made no such distinction between science fiction and fantasy. Indeed, they cared little for what we would call genres today. The pulp grandmasters simply chose the aesthetics, setting, and tropes that best served the story.

Leigh Douglass Brackett is the queen of space opera. Through her Eric John Stark stories, she popularized the sword and planet story, a genre that combines advanced technology and fantastic futuristic locations with heroic adventures and melee combat.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars combined sword and planet and portal fantasy fiction. Captain John Carter, once a soldier for the Confederate States of America, is mysteriously whisked away to a Mars teeming with life. Despite the high technology of the setting, swordfighting remains a critical element of conflict.

The Lensman series was a seminal space opera series. It features interstellar travel, warring alien races, and mental powers weaponized for mass warfare. The first two are sci-fi staples, but the last should—by today’s standards—fall under fantasy fiction.

The pulp era is filled with stories that, seen in a modern light, straddle the line between science fiction and fantasy. Even today, the split between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ SF and fantasy is an illusionary one.

Hard science fiction is defined by its commitment to scientific accuracy and logic. One of the leading hard SF franchises today is The Expanse. A space opera series, it has nuclear fusion-powered torchships burning across the solar system at extreme accelerations, spacesuits that function as powered armor, societies rising from micro- and low-gravity environments.

These are all speculative technologies. Many of them can be calculated on paper. Atomic Rockets investigated the Epstein Drive and determined that it is within the realm of possibility. They may even exist someday in one form or another. But they do not exist today. They are products of the authors’ imagination.

They are fantasy.

Dune is held up as an example of soft science fiction. A saga set in a distant planet, it features a faster-than-light warp drive, a desert planet that is the sole source of the spice that enhances mental powers and facilitates space travel, gigantic sandworms that protect the spice, and more.

None of these story elements exist. They are all made up, created out of whole cloth to facilitate a sweeping saga about the genetic destiny of man. Why is it SF and not fantasy? Because of the aesthetics? Because it has shields and lasers, even though people prefer to fight with cold steel? Because it has space travel and house wars, never mind that space travel takes up only a small fraction of the story?

If the genre of a story is defined simply by its aesthetics, by the existence of tropes and items that arbitrarily fall into one category or another, then why is magitech not treated as science fiction?

In magitech stories, magic is indistinguishable from technology. Magic runs along rules, has predictable outcomes, and otherwise functions as an exact analogue to modern and future technology.

The Laundry Files is set in a world where applied mathematics is the basis of magic. Yet it is treated primarily as horror and urban fantasy, because the titular Laundry protects the world from eldritch abominations. Harry Potter is fantasy, even though in the world of wizards, magic takes the place of much modern technology. The World at War series is billed as a fantasy story, even though it is basically World War II set in a world that experienced a magical revolution instead of an industrial revolution, with magic tools that obey understandable laws.

The divide between science fiction and fantasy is a false divide. It is useful only as a marketing tool, a means of branding a book in a post-pulp world. PulpRev keeps with the traditions of those who came before us and reject this divide.

Science fiction is fantasy. The counterfactual elements in science fiction are by and large products of the author’s imagination. They may exist as prototypes or as speculative ideas, or they may simply be made up from whole cloth, but they are counterfactual because they do not exist now. They are born from the writer’s creative process.

The perceived difference between science fiction and fantasy lies in the mileu, tropes, props, and, where relevant, whether something may or may not exist in the future. It is not a significant difference.

If I say a story has palaces, monsters and swords, you’d think epic fantasy. If I say it has spaceships, lasers, and planets you’d think science fiction. But I am referring to Star Wars, which has all of them.

Which, incidentally, was written by Leigh Breckett.

Instead of the imaginary split between science fiction and fantasy, I propose a different kind of divide. The mythical and the mechanical. This is not meant to compare different kinds of stories and create make-believe genres from thin air. Rather, it is meant as a framework to help writers clarify what kind of stories they wish to write.

The mythical represents the wild, untamed, and unknown. It points to stranger realms that exist beyond human comprehension. Mythical beings and items are capable of seemingly-impossible feats, at least in the context of the story world. These feats are unique, as individual as the actor or the object, impossible for others to reproduce.

Limitless and undefinable, the mythical overwhelms the mundane and the mortal with the sheer immensity of its presence and power. Every contact with the mythical leaves an indelible mark, a searing realisation that there is more to heaven and earth than dreamt of in the philosophies of men. Mythic fiction echoes the bygone days when the world was a dim place and the horns of elfland sound in the distant forests just beyond mortal sight. The mythic is a realm of wonder and adventure and transcendence—but also a realm of chaos and danger and deception.

The mechanical reflects the principles of contemporary science: rules, repeatability, falsifiability. Rules govern the workings of mechanical objects, rules that are well-understood by the experts of the story world. These rules are consistent across space and time, leading to repeatability. Thus, under the same circumstances, Input A always leads to output B. Should a mechanical object fail to work, the cause should be traceable to a rule violation—or it is a sign that not enough is known about the true workings of the world.

These rules sharply define the limits and capabilities of mechanical objects. Input A will forever produce Input B, until or unless something about the object or environment changes. Because they are well-known and well-defined, these mechanical objects are totally unremarkable to the characters of the setting, as mundane as their food and drink.

A highly mechanical universe operates by the principles of naturalism. Naturalism holds that the entire universe consists only of natural elements with spatio-temporal physical substance, meaning mass-energy. The non-physical or quasi-physical can be reduced to a physical account, or is related to something physical. The entire universe operates only by understandable and discoverable laws, and thus the supernatural, that which exists outside the laws of nature, cannot exist.

If we look at the mythical and mechanical divide, we can see various stories through a different light.

A LitRPG story featuring adventurers who explore dungeons and fight monsters in search of gold, and use a magic and stat similar to contemporary RPGs, is primarily a Mechanical story. In such a setting, the stats govern all. They represent the laws of the universe. Characters achieve effects—casting a spell, damaging a monster for 999 HP, summoning a friendly spirit—by working with these laws and stats. The stat system is well-understood, characters understand that higher stats equals higher power, and there are no deviances from the stat system.

A Sword and Sorcery story starring a barbarian mercenary who must battle through a mountain range ruled by a cabal of evil wizards and their slave army is primarily a Mythical story. The setting is wild and strange and unknown. Magic is scarce and unpredictable, the domain of people who have dedicated themselves to the occult. Anything can happen when a wizard appears. There is unlimited adventure here, but also unlimited danger.

A story featuring awesome lost technology is Mythical, with a dose of Mechanical. it is Mythical in that the technology is unique, unknown, and unbound by rules. It can be Mechanical once the characters study the technology and understand what it can and cannot do, but if that technology remains a black box, unable to be reproduced by anyone, it remains Mythical.

The divide between the mythical and the mechanical stems from the portrayal of key tropes and devices, and the characters’ attitudes towards them. It is not about whether the story has spaceships or flying carpets, but how they are portrayed to the reader.

The mythical-mechanical framework erases the arbitrary distinctions between science fiction and fantasy, while opening avenues to weird and wonderful stories that capture the spirit of the pulps. Consider these examples:

The mythical-mechanical framework, it must be remembered, is not about creating genre divisions. It is simply a framework to apprehend fiction, and to help writers better conceptualise and craft their own stories. Some of the best stories I’ve read where stories that deliberately mashed up the mythic and the mechanical.

In the JRPG series Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, the Orbal Revolution catalyzed an exciting era of magitech. Every playable character carries an orbment, a mechanical device the size of a wristwatch, allowing them to use magic. The magic they can use is determined by their orbment configuration: a general-purpose magic user will have a setup that lets them use many weak spells from various elements, while a specialist will have a setup that lets them use the most powerful spells of a single element but few or none of the others.

As an RPG, the combat system is mechanical. Stats define everything. For a given stat value, you can predict a character’s actions and consequences in battle. If you know a character’s arts attack stat and the enemy’s weaknesses and arts defense stat, you can predict the outcome of an arts attack.

However, the story itself has powerful mythical elements. The antagonist faction is a secret society that seeks to create a superhuman, and its members all possess unique and world-shaking powers. Lost technology is a critical part of the worldbuilding. Monsters serve as mobs and cannon fodder, but some may just take you by surprise.

Having mythical elements in a story does not exclude the mechanical, and vice versa. We live in a world so wide and strange that it can easily accommodate the mythic and the mechanical side by side. Thus, stories can be mythical, mechanical, or both. The mythic and the mechanical by co-exist in peace, or they may be pitted in bitter conflict against each other. There are no proscriptions save for this: craft excellent stories.

I do not expect the mythical-mechanical framework to be popular. It runs against the spirit of the age and trends in Current Year fiction.

Many Japanese fantasy stories, especially isekai stories, revel in portraying overpowered human protagonists. Such an approach violates the rules of mythic storytelling. A mythic story shows that there will always be something greater than mere men; if an overpowered human protagonist is the most powerful being in the setting, he becomes the myth – but only to other characters, not to the reader. To the reader, he is simply a reflection of an idle wish to be all-powerful.

Mythic stories cannot have all-powerful wizards as the protagonist. Magic without limits is magic that can never be countered or neutralized. It eliminates all possibilities for meaningful conflict.

The protagonist is the measure of all things in the story, and if the protagonist is the most powerful being then there is nothing greater than him. Without the realization of the existence of things and beings greater and stranger than mere men, you cannot have the mythic.

Mythic is the antithesis of the spectacle. Modern stories revel in showing spectacular fight scenes with jaw-dropping special effects and signature moves. But the more often something is seen, the better it is understood. Without scarcity and secrecy—and therefore, without mystery—something ceases to be mythic and passes into mere mundanity. Mythical magic is powerful, incredible, decisive—but also scarce. It shows up once and forever vanishes. It stays in the reader’s consciousness long enough to make an impact, and when it goes the mystery of its existence remains, like a brand burned into the brain.

The mechanical side of the equation may seem easier to handle. In a sense it is, but only if you know how to craft the rules of the universe, and assiduously enforce them.

The mechanical approach requires writers to think through the rules for the mechanical tropes they create. More than just saying burning X MP on Spell Y will create Effect Z, the writer must think through the worldbuilding implications.

In the case of the Grimnoir Chronicles, magic is understood sufficiently well in the universe that it is integrated into everyday life. People who can control lightning and fire serve as damage control and safety specialists in hydrogen airships, those with superstrength and gravity control gravitate towards hard physical labour, and so on. The more pervasive a mechanical object, the greater its importance to the story universe, the more its influence must be felt across the setting–and the rules must be applied consistently and logically in every single manifestation.

Any violation of the rules must be deliberate. It must point to something greater, something powerful, something that exists beyond the rules of the world or beyond the understanding of Man. It can be something as awesome as an eldritch abomination that rules a distant court beyond space-time, or it could be a revelation that the experts of the setting are but children grasping at straws, ignorant of the truth of the wider world. It must hint at the unexplained, the unknown, the deeper truth that underpins reality. It must point to the mythic.

If a rule violation doesn’t point to the mythic, then it threatens the foundation of the story world. Left unaddressed, it feels like the writer made a mistake, shaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief. If the rule violation has some mundane cause, this should first be treated as a mystery, and its resolution should uphold the mechanical nature of the world.

Consider this example. A magic knight in a LitRPG setting makes his reputation through his skilful swordplay and incredible magic skills. One day he discovers that his magic is getting weaker. This is a rules violation, and he finds no easy explanation to this.

A mechanical solution to this problem reveals that he has been struck by an invisible curse, one that robs him of his magic-related stats, but the curse nonetheless obeys the rules of the setting. A mythic solution points to the existence of a cosmic entity, one that exists outside the realm of the litRPG mechanics but possesses the power to meddle with the system.

The mythical-mechanical framework is only this: a framework. It is a tool for story analysis and for story writing. That is all. There will be many kinds of stories that fall outside this framework, where this framework cannot possibly apply.

Recognize its limitations and its intended use. It is not for a knife to divide a genre, but a springboard to catalyze your own works. It is an approach that hearkens to the spirit of the pulps, and is the approach I am using and refining into the future.

Want to see a cyberpunk story that blends the mythic and the mechanical? Check out BABYLON BLUES here!

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