Learning to write fantasy by reading SF

A post by Matthew Claxton: I learned everything I need to know about fantasy from a sci-fi novel

He’s talking about Michael Swanwick, whose work has not usually really worked for me, though I can tell he’s a great writer. But it’s interesting what Claxton says about Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide, a book I’ve never read.

Stations of the Tide is set on the planet Miranda, in a solar system that was clearly colonized centuries, if not thousands of years, before the start of the story. Miranda undergoes “jubilee tides,” long seasons that see vast amounts of water locked up polar icecaps for hundreds of years, only to then catastrophically melt. In the Tidewater, the low, flat swampy zone that flips back and forth between land and ocean, the native biota can take two forms – one terrestrial, one aquatic.

Wow, maybe I should read this after all! What a great idea for ecosystems!

… the bureaucrat is plunged into a world in which almost everyone believes in magic. There are witches and occultism, TV ads for miracles for a price, tantric sex, hallucinatory drugs, false identities, and a strange encounter with what may be the last of a lost species of shapeshifters exterminated by the early human colonists.

Yet this is not a science-fantasy. Every bit of magic is explicable – biotech, nanotech, stage magic and illusion. There are robots and AIs, and when the bureaucrat needs more data, he goes into a truly advanced brain-computer interface to check in which is superiors in the advanced orbital civilization high above the planet’s surface. His only reliable ally on the surface is his briefcase, which chats with him frequently and is quite capable of escaping from theft attempts on its own.

It is definitively not a fantasy novel. But it is more fantastic than 90 percent of what is published as fantasy.

There’s a constant tension in the modern fantasy genre over exactly how much magic should be demystified.

On the one hand, there are books that don’t explain magic much, if at all1. It’s miracles and ghosts and ancient curses and distant unknowable gods, and hostile wizards. On the other end of the spectrum, you have magic at its most explained, the “magic system” books where the author shows you the charts and graphs. This is Dungeons & Dragons magic. Advance a level, now your fireball does 5d6 damage instead of 4d6!

The difference between these types of magic is the way they can make you feel while reading. On the one hand, you have the potential of experiencing the numinous, on the other, you understand the rules of the game.

Stations of the Tide may not contain any actual magic (probably) but it is numinous as hell! It manages this despite the fact that the bureaucrat sees through, or has explained to him, the tricks used against him by magicians in the service of Gregorian.

This sounds really, really interesting.

This is what drives how I think of fantasy. It’s not whether or not the magic is real. It’s how it works in the story. Is there magic on Miranda? You could argue that magic is a very real force in the story, precisely because it is widely believed to be real.The important thing is that the book’s sympathy is with the magic. The bureaucrat may lift the veil on cheap magic tricks, but at the end, he’s the one in the role of the mystic.

The description on Amazon refers to this as “surreal hard SF.” That’s an interesting description.

Here’s the opening of the novel:

The bureaucrat fell from the sky.

For an instant Miranda lay blue and white beneath him, the icecaps fat and ready to melt, and then he was down. He took a highspeed across the stone plains of the Piedmont to the Heliostat terminus at Port Richmond, and caught the first flight out. The airship Leviathan lofted him across the fall line and over the forests and coral hills of the Tidewater. Specialized ecologies were at work there, preparing for the transforming magic of the jubilee tides. In ramshackle villages and hidden plantations people made their varied preparations for the evacuation.

I love this, and also, I want to just point out that Swanwick has worked the word “magic” into the first real paragraph. Somehow I bet that’s not random chance, given the linked post indicates that this story is presenting SF as magic in a very different way than anything I’ve heard of previously.

Okay, I’m picking up a sample.

Have any of you read this? What did you think?

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4 thoughts on “Learning to write fantasy by reading SF”

  1. I have tried other Swanwick and bounced, but gave this one a try because that opening and the remarks about how it kept the numinous sounded appealing.

    didn’t bounce off the sample, more of indifference. I’ll keep it around in case it’s me and trying it again in a few months works better.

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