Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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SF tropes that are really fantasy

So, the differing points of view a couple of posts back about whether Anne McCaffery’s Pern is an SF setting or a fantasy setting got me thinking.

Mike commented: Psi doesn’t really belong in SF (though I think it was legitimately more of an open scientific question at mid-century). But JWC jammed it in there by main force, and the subsequent development of the genre, especially in popular media, suggests it’s not going away.

After a startlingly long period of musing to realize that JWC is John W Campbell, I agreed on all points. I will totally treat psionics as an SF trope if the rest of the setting looks like an SF setting; or as a fantasy trope if the setting looks like a fantasy setting. But I do not and never have accepted psionics as suitable for “hard” SF because it is plainly magic.

As it happens, there are several tropes that are often used in SF that are actually ridiculously nonscientific and should be seen as magic. Yet some strike me as obviously magic and others “feel like” SF even if they are equally unscientific. Here are a handful of standard SF tropes that seem particularly magical to me:

1. Psionics, all sorts.

2. Group minds, hive minds. This particular offshoot of telepathy is SO RIDICULOUS. Except for how Verner Vinge did it in A Fire Upon the Deep. The Tines are the sole example of a group mind that is handled in a scientific rather than a magical way. (I think this came up before and someone had another example of a realistic group mind, but I forget the details, so if you have a contender, drop it in the comments, please.)

Not only do hive minds basically strike me as ridiculous and magical, they also seem to me to be vastly overdone. At this point, really, I just loathe group minds and hive minds.

3. Time travel. Honestly, time travel? There is no other SF trope that is more purely and obviously magic than this. Of course that’s why we also see time travel as a fantasy thing as well, not to mention that sometimes time travel as used as a device in a basically mainstream literary work.

4. FTL spaceships. However, I’m not such a stickler that I actually care whether FTL travel is consistent with real-world physics. I am totally putting FTL in my own SF work, using a variant on the standard wormhole workaround. Weird magic physics usually doesn’t bother me nearly as much as weird magic biology. Speaking of which:

5. Special magic evolution. Shoot, I wish I could remember the name of the novel where I actually made little comments in pencil all down the margins. It was a kind of thriller type of story taking place mainly in a museum, I think, and somebody got contaminated by the Special Magic Evolution Artifact and turned into a monster. This was all explained in technical terms that were completely wrong in *particularly* wrong ways that brought me to a screaming halt. Ugh.

If that sounds familiar, please remind me. It was some well-known author writing an installment in a popular series, but I guess I’ve blocked the details.

Some writers do a great job with evolutionary theory and develop really good species, obviously. Eric Flint’s Mother of Demons. Obviously James Cambias’ A Darkling Sea.

6. Related to the above, three sexes. I know that SF writers seem to feel that Earth species mostly wound up with two sexes as just one of those arbitrary things. This is not the case. There are sound reasons why two sexes arise rather than three or four or some other arbitrary numbers. If you’re actually interested in the theory behind this, you could do worse than take a look at Malte Andersson’s book on sexual selection. It’s mostly about, as you might guess, sexual selection, but I’m almost sure there is also a good discussion of how and why sexual reproduction arises in the first place.

Asexual species bother me less; so do species that change sex as they age, though actually I can’t remember ever seeing an SF species that did that. If a writer uses some weird reproductive pattern, though, I would appreciate it if he or she has some reasonable understanding of how and why those types of reproductive systems arose and why they are maintained in the species.

7. Giant arthropods. I was once reading a (pretty good) book featuring giant spiders and insects, and I had to stop in the middle and make a list of All The Reasons arthropods can’t be giant-sized before I could go on with the book. It’s more than just the exoskeleton getting too heavy. It’s things like, their respiratory system isn’t designed to move large volumes of air long distances and just on and on. To be fair, I was taking comparative animal physiology at the time and that would be why I was particularly sensitive to magic physiology. I doubt giant bugs would bother me so much now.

Only three more to get to a top ten list of magic tropes that are common (or common-ish) in SF. What am I forgetting?

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11 Comments SF tropes that are really fantasy

  1. Craig

    Force fields? Ray guns you can sort of manage, but I don’t think force fields have any scientific basis.
    Oh! Cloning that produces exact duplicates, with a full set of memories.

  2. pete mack

    Actually there is at least one SF novel that treats time travel seriously: SINGULARITY SKY by Charles Stross. It is very funny. It is even funnier if you read his backgrounder blog post first. Another worthy effort is by Kage Baker, who is also funny. I detect a theme.

  3. Matthew

    Was the museum book you’re talking about “Relic” by Preston and Child? It’s been forever since I read it, but I seem to recall that there was a lot of scientific explanation about how this person was turned into a monster that had to kill people for brain chemicals or something. It was really popular at the time, but didn’t much work for me.

    Also, how about parallel universes? I know some articles theorize they do exist, but how they work and what goes on in them in sci fi stories is often pretty fantastic…

  4. SarahZ

    I’d say shapeshifter aliens. Some chameleon capabilities are fine, but in Star Trek Deep Space Nine there was an alien who could change into inanimate objects.

    On the other side, what sci fi is the most scientific? A lot of “hard” sci fi still glosses over most of the science. Who doesn’t? There’s The Martian, of course, but also The Forever War. The Sparrow had some good science too, but less than those other two.

  5. Elaine T

    Also insta-translation ability for totally strange languages, or the everyone speaks English scenario. (The Teen’s been talking about Stargate, which apparently has that one. As does Trek.)

    Auto-doc style (Liaden books) instant healing of major damage.

    Bujold doesn’t do a lot of emphasis on tech but shows the implications and consequences of bio-tech in the Vorkosiverse quite convincingly.

  6. elaine t

    I asked over dinner last night and got the additional suggestions: energy beings; hand held energy weapons with settings from ‘stun to kill’; lightsabers.

    I remember some book or other where aliens had seven sexes, which is far worse then three.

  7. Rachel

    Okay, I totally agree with:

    Instant cloning with full-grown clones who have all the right memories. That is the worst kind of ridiculous and I loathe magic cloning as much as hive minds, maybe more.

    Shapechanging aliens. I’m not so sure I believe even the less extreme versions, far less the ultimate shapeshifting as on DSN. Though I liked Odo as a character, because while I don’t *believe* in shapeshifting aliens, I don’t find that particular type of silliness as offensive as magic evolution or magic cloning.

    Insta-translation. Fine for Douglas Adams, too silly for everyone else.

    Auto-doc. I agree. Some abbreviation of healing is okay, but magic healing ought to be in fantasy.

    The ones I’m not sure about:

    Ray guns and force fields. Both sort of seem to me like the kinds of things that *ought* to be possible with only slightly advanced technology. I might easily be wrong when I feel that way, but still. Light sabers, I dunno. Even if they were possible, why would you ever use one instead of a gun?

    Remember when Indiana Jones pulled out a gun and shot the huge guy who was waving a sword or knife or whatever? That’s what I think ought to happen when someone turns on their light saber.

    And, Matthew, thanks! That was it. RELIC, Preston and Child, the Pendergast novel. Yep. Sorry if anybody loved that book. The evolutionary theory was really, really wrong. Shoot, now I wish I had my copy so I could flip through and remind myself what was wrong with it.

  8. Elaine T

    Energy weapons of a sort are possible, just see anything worrying about EMP apocalypses. It was the super adjustable hand-held version that husband calls fantasy.

    Also anything that has something like ‘spores’ or Thread achieving excape velocity from home planet and surviving to get to another. To tie this back to the origin of the thread. :-)

  9. Rachel

    Achieving escape velocity looks pretty unlikely, I grant you. I think some viruses and bacteria and things can survive vacuum, though, in encapsulated form, so surviving to get to another planet is not so totally impossible.

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