There are, as I see it, two major subdivisions of speculative fiction.
There’s science fiction, in which the setting and all (or at least most) of the props and trappings have a basis (albeit sometimes implausibly) in known science. Within the context of the story, the aliens, whiz-bang technology, and special effects are presumed to be scientifically explicable. We may not know how to create warp drive or gravity plates, for example, but if the people of a science-fictional universe figured it out, the story implies that they did so using scientific principles and (importantly) without violating any known laws of physics.
And then, there’s fantasy, in which imagination has free rein to disregard physics, or any other scientific constraint if the author so chooses. In fantasy, mythological creatures, mystical forces, and magic dominate the setting, and their scientific inexplicability (or impossibility) is no detriment to their existence within the story.
This is, of course, a purely academic distinction. It defines different genres of fiction, but individual stories are often a mix of several. Fantasy, romance, sci-fi, adventure, comedy, and mystery can all coexist happily in a single and entirely enjoyable story. Star Wars is one well-known example that mixes both science fiction and fantasy. The setting, with its space ships and blasters, looks like science fiction, but it’s the mystical Force that drives the story.* If you want to attach a genre label to it, ‘science fantasy’ works about as well as any.
But, getting back to reality…I mean fantasy, there is a subgenre sometimes referred to as ‘magic realism’. This may sound like an oxymoron, and I suppose in some ways it is, but stories in this subgenre place magic and supernatural elements in a setting that otherwise feels realistic. Within the story, the characters may regard magic as an ordinary part of everyday life. The distinction between natural and supernatural doesn’t exist. While immersed in the story, the reader is encouraged to suspend disbelief and accept that the magic could exist in the real world.
Counter-fantasy is the reverse of that. The stories are set in worlds that feel like traditional fantasy, but either the magic doesn’t work the way characters in the story think it does, or it is clear to the reader that the magic can only exist within the confines of the fictional fantasy universe. Rather than blur the line between fantasy and reality, it emphasizes it.
The idea for counter-fantasy came to me due to the influence of two great writers, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. For reasons I could not explain at first, their books seemed different from those by other writers. I enjoyed them more, and it wasn’t simply because of the humor. After several re-readings, the underlying reason finally dawned on me**; they don’t ask me to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. They don’t require that I abandon reason, intellect, or common sense to visit their fictional worlds. It is always clear that their settings are not real and that the reader is not supposed to believe that they could be real. They’re fiction, pure and simple. The stories aren’t to be taken seriously, but, at the same time, they present serious truths beneath the absurdity. They do what traditional fairy tales were intended to do. They provide a clearly fictional example to convey a serious nonfictional point.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a short book about some poor sap named Arthur Dent who hitches a ride with belligerent aliens just as they’re blowing up Earth…but that part of the story is nonsense. The aliens are ridiculous. Their motive of creating a hyperspace bypass is absurd. It’s a surface story, and the reader isn’t supposed to regard it as anything other than that. It is simply an entertaining framework that ties together several observations about humanity, from the soulless momentum of bureaucracy to the human search for meaning in a vast, uncaring universe. Kind of depressing, that, but couched in humor, the point, the ultimate point in the book comes through. Don’t Panic! The universe is what it is, it will do what it does, and if we think we can make much of a difference in that, well, that’s funny.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy stories make a different point—several in fact***. They don’t laugh at the ultimate absurdity of human action; they stress its importance. Humans choose what they will do and what they will be. This may not matter to the overall fate of the universe, but it matters to individual people and to those around them. Pratchett’s stories address greed, sexism, prejudice, jingoism, religion, belief, tradition…. And they do so in stories featuring witches and wizards. But unlike magic realism, Pratchett isn’t trying to make the setting feel real. After all, the stories take place on a flat world resting on the backs of four huge elephants standing atop a planet-size turtle. This absurdity provides a constant reminder that the surface story is fiction and shouldn’t be regarded as anything else.
Both of these great authors create superbly entertaining stories that readers should not take seriously to convey points that they should. That’s what I saw in them, anyway, and that’s what most impressed me. I have a fairly skeptical nature. I don’t suspend disbelief easily, and both Adams and Pratchett provided meaningful and enjoyable stories that didn’t require me to.
A lot of modern fantasy, and even some science fiction, carries a serious tone that clashes with settings that simply cannot be taken seriously. Basic absurdities are presented as if they are not. It’s as if the author expects the reader not to notice clear violations of the laws of gravity, motion, thermodynamics, or probability. Perhaps I have a hair-trigger BS**** reflex, but things like this tend to ruin the story for me. If the story has a serious tone and I read, for example, that some witch or wizard turned someone into a frog, my immediate reaction is, “Where did all the extra mass go?”*****
The thing is, I like fantasy. I enjoy fairy tales. But a good many of the more recent fantasy stories I’ve read (or began to read and gave up on) seemed to take themselves far too seriously. It was as if the writers forgot the meaning of fantasy. It’s not real.******
So, that’s how I got the idea for counter-fantasy. It’s lighthearted speculative fiction with a fantasy-like feel, but it doesn’t try to make the fantasy elements in the story seem as if they could exist outside of it. It maintains, even emphasizes the lines between natural and supernatural, rational and irrational, and knowledge and belief. This, I hope, allows readers to enjoy the story without triggering their BS reflexes. It’s a bit less immersive, a bit less escapist than some fantasy, but I think it provides a good alternative for readers who like to keep one metaphorical foot grounded in reality even when enjoying a work of speculative fiction.
* I’m fairly sure George Lucas intended Star Wars to be a fairy tale with space ships. “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…” is far too much like the traditional fairy tale beginning (“A Long Time Ago, In a Land Far Away…”) to be a coincidence.
**I can be a terribly slow learner at times.
***With over 40 Discworld books in the series, a lot of points can be made.
**** BS, of course, stands for Balderdash & Stupidity. What else could it possible mean?
*****In Pratchett’s story A Hat Full of Sky, a young witch turns an unlucky fellow into a small frog and Sir Terry wisely notes that the extra mass manifests as a pink blob nearby.
******Sometimes, I also suspect that there must be some kind of competition going on to see who can create the darkest, most depressing, and unenjoyable books possible, but that’s a separate issue.
- 2015 Towel Day / Wear the Lilac Day – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/2015-towel-day-wear-the-lilac-day/
- The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/the-difference-between-science-fiction-and-fantasy/
- More on the Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/more-on-the-difference-between-science-fiction-and-fantasy/
The 25th of May celebrates the lives and works of two innovative and inspirational writers, Douglas Noel Adams and Sir Terry Pratchett.
Towel Day came about two weeks after Douglas Adams died unexpectedly of a heart attack on May 11, 2001. He was only 49. The ‘Towel’ in Towel Day, of course, refers to the iconic towel that all intergalactic travelers are advised to carry in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.*
In 2007, Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with are rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease known as Posterior Cortical Atrophy. Wear the Lilac Day began in 2008 with ‘Match It For Pratchett’, an unofficial fan initiative that called on Discworld readers to donate money for Alzheimer’s research and to wear lilacs on May 25th to promote awareness of the disease. The symbol and the date derive from a fictional event in Pratchett’s book Night Watch, which was published in 2002. Sadly, Terry Pratchett died on 12 March 2015 at the age of 66. Wear the Lilac Day now appears to be evolving into a general commemoration of Sir Terry.
Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett have often been compared. Both were British, both wrote humorously meaningful speculative fiction, and both might be described as cynical optimists with strong humanistic outlooks that came through in their fiction. The style and content of their writing, however is quite different. Adams’ has more of an absurdist, laugh out loud, quality. Although Pratchett’s books may also provoke laughs, they tend more toward quite, contemplative smiles and richly constructed settings and characters. Both, however, provide insights into what it means to be human. What humans are. How they behave. How they think.
In Adams’ books, the world happens to people, and they deal with it. His widely acclaimed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with a normal fellow going about his normal life, concerned about normal things, when, to the surprise of all, Earth is destroyed by aliens creating a hyperspace bypass. What he’s telling us is that, in the cosmic scope of things, our normal concerns are not all that important. This is good to remember. When you find yourself wallowing in personal troubles, step back and get some perspective. At least there isn’t a Vogon constructor fleet in orbit above you threatening the extinction of all life on Earth.
Pratchett does much the same with Discworld, but rather than the world happening to people, people happen to the world. In the cosmic scope of things, we may not be all that important, but what we do matters, at least for a while. Many of his tales are like morality lessons in which the human characters take a stand against sexism (e.g. Equal Rites), prejudice (e.g. Unseen Academicals), dogmatism (e.g. Pyramids and Small Gods), jingoism (e.g. Jingo), slavery and oppression (e.g. Snuff)…. Well, you get the point. He wrote over 40 Discworld stories (and about 30 others), and most of them point to some human foible worthy of examination.
Both writers also clearly maintain a distinction between fantasy and reality. Adams demonstrates this with absurd aliens (e.g. Vogons) and such things as the Infinite Improbability Drive. Pratchett does it by having a flat world that rides on the back of four elephants atop a spacefaring turtle. The settings aren’t intended to be taken as even remotely possible. Their fiction is, well, clearly fiction. You’re not supposed to take story on the surface seriously, although the stuff behind it is a different matter entirely. Don’t be confused by the humor. There is some serious literature going on here, and the obvious lies these authors tell us reveal subtle truths about human nature.**
Both writers have a large and devoted following, with considerable overlap between them. Chances are good that if you like one, you will like the other, which is why I think 25 May is a good day to celebrate both. I admire both of them. Much of who I am and who I am becoming is due to the influence of their writing. Words have power.***
So, for all you hoopy froods out there, Happy Towel Day, and to all Discworld visitors, Happy Wear the Lilac Day. If things are getting you down, don’t panic. Read (or reread) one of their books. They can help make your journeys through life, the universe, and everything more enjoyable.
* See my 2012 post In Recognition of Towel Day (link below)
** Personal note: I have a pet peeve with fiction that attempts to portray fantasy settings as ‘realistic’. They’re not. I have a rather incredulous and highly skeptical nature, and, consequently, an aversion to suspend disbelief. In fact, I dislike stories that seem to take themselves too seriously because it feels like intentional deception. Fantasy can, however, highlight and magnify things that are true. Both Adams and Pratchett do this extremely well.
*** “…words can be even more powerful than magic.” Quoted from Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, a parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/169437985
• Discworld – The Final Sunrise (A Fan-Fic Tribute Mar. 2015) https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2015/03/15/discworld-the-final-sunrise/
• A Tribute to Terry Pratchett (Mar. 2015) https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/a-tribute-to-terry-pratchett/
• Marvin’s Towel Day Present (A Poem for Towel Day 2014) https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/marvins-towel-day-present/
• ‘Twas The Night Before Towel Day (A Poem for Towel Day 2013) https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/twas-the-night-before-towel-day/
• In Recognition of Towel Day (2012) https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/in-recognition-of-towel-day/
It is difficult to imagine something coming from nothing, but whole universes are made this way. It’s quantum. Nothing is a need that strives to be satisfied. It’s an empty hole, a vacuum, and nature, as we all know, abhors those. Nothing needs to be filled with, well, with something. Sometimes that something is hard and logical and makes sense—if you take time to think about it. Sometimes, however, it is a bit more…creative.
Open your imagination and focus your eye on a dot that has appeared in the inky blackness of space. It is something extraordinary, a spark of brilliance struggling to fill a previous void. As you approach, you see a small and unlikely sun illuminating a flat world riding on the back of four elephants atop a giant turtle swimming through space. This is the Discworld.
One of the enormous elephants lifts a leg to let the miniature sun go by as it circles the disc, providing what many hoped would be a never-ending cycle of days and nights. Light moves slower here, but it gets there eventually. It’s not in a rush because it’s already been everywhere, from its perspective. That’s quantum, again.
A more rational universe would scoff at such a world, although many of its inhabitants would swear that it, or something much like it, was absolute truth for a few millennia first. But after a suitable time, some wars, and a dark age or two, such an absurd cosmology would be sent off to its metaphorical retirement.
But in this universe, it survives quite well. It has a purpose. It provides a clear distortion of a harsher place that is taken far too seriously by those who live there.* The Discworld welcomes visitors from that other universe and offers them a place to rest and reflect for a while. Some have found it a positive and fulfilling experience.
But today, the small sun rises over the far edge of the Disc and flairs, once, twice, forty times or more, before it falters and grows dim.
The inhabitants of the Disc notice.
Far below, in one of the better sections of the great and memorably fragrant metropolis of Ankh-Morpork,*** a grizzled man, far from young but not quite old, stood outside watching the spectacle with a boy who looked much like him by his side.
“The sun’s gone out, Dad,” the boy said. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know, Sam,” his father replied. He glanced at the nearest clacks tower. The operators had lit the lanterns inside against the gloom, but the shutters flashed no urgent messages warning of impending disaster. “It’s probably those overstuffed idio…” He caught himself in time. He had been trying not to infect his son with his own chronic cynicism. “Those gentlemen at Unseen University,” he continued. “They must have opened another hole into the Dungeon Dimensions or something. Nothing for you to worry about. It’ll all get sorted in the end. I’ll run down to Pseudopolis Yard and see what I can find out. You stay here with your mother. Help her feed the swamp dragons their breakfasts, okay?”
Sam Vimes, knight, duke, and Commander of the Ank-Morpork City Watch raced through the dark streets, judging his location and speed by the feel of the cobbles beneath his thin-soled boots. His wife, Sybil, kept buying him new ones, to the great benefit of beggars with his shoe size throughout the city, but he preferred these. Even in the dark, he literally knew where he was with boots like these.
He rounded a corner and slipped on the remnants of one of Dibbler’s infamous sausages, no doubt discarded by someone with functioning taste buds or a healthy respect for their digestive system. Vimes would have fallen except for the quick action of a tall, broad shouldered man with red hair who was wearing a shiny breastplate that smelled of metal polish.
“Captain Carrot! What are you doing here?” Vimes said.
“I was coming to get you, sir,” Carrot said. “Lord Vetinari has called a meeting with all the leaders of the city.”
“Why didn’t you just send a clacks?”
“He doesn’t want to cause a panic, sir.”
Vimes glanced at the gray sky. “You mean because the sun has gone out.”
“I expect people have noticed already.”
“It is rather hard to miss, sir, but those were his orders.”
“Okay, let’s see what this is all about.”
They arrived at the Patrician’s Palace a short time later to find a crowd demanding action. None of various constituents of the growing mob outside the walls seemed to have any suggestion as to what specific action this might be. That’s not what crowds are for. Crowds gather to say they’ve noticed they have a problem and want someone else to fix it for them. This one was doing that in the traditional fashion with placards, chants, and slogans, most of which specified that NOW is when they wanted this action to occur. Even for a place like Ankh-Morpork, where dramatic street drama seemed to be able to form spontaneously from even the most minor occurrence, this was quick.
Carrot shouldered his way through the milling citizens, making a path for Vimes to follow. When they got to the gate, the anxious guards let them in immediately.
“Ah, Vimes,” Lord Vetinari said when they arrived at the oblong office. “So glad you could join us. It seems we have a problem.”
“Yeah, the sun’s gone out,” Vimes said. “What caused it?”
“We were just discussing that, but I feel it’s safe to say that we don’t know, isn’t that right, gentlemen?”
There was a delicate cough from the back of the room.
“And, of course ladies,” he amended. Queen Molly of the Beggars’ Guild and Mrs. Palm, head of the ever-popular Guild of Seamstresses, both nodded forgiveness for his initial oversight.
Not all of the guilds were represented in the room, but all of the major ones were. Archancellor Mustrum Ridcully of Unseen University, and his brother, Hughnon, high priest of Blind Io were also there. If this wasn’t neutral ground, the Assassins’ Guild could probably make a killing in more ways than one.
“As I was saying,” Vetinari continued in the calm and intimidating tone for which he was so well known and feared, “I need some answers, and am looking to you ladies and gentlemen to provide them.”
Vimes turned his attention to Mustrum Ridcully. Most of the others did the same.
“Humph,” he said. “I already told you it isn’t because of anything we did. This isn’t magic. We think it’s more like god stuff. That’s not our territory.”
All eyes shifted to his brother.
“It’s not the gods,” the high priest protested. “They’re as confused as we are.”
“I have always assumed this was the case,” Vetinari said. “But if it’s not magic and it’s not the gods, what is going on? What has happened to the sun?”
“We’re not entirely sure,” Hughnon Ridcully said. “But it definitely isn’t anything the gods on Cori Celesti have done. It has nothing to do with us or with Dunmanifestin.”
It is important at meetings like this to establish early on that you are not personally responsible for whatever major or minor disaster prompted the call for the meeting. Both Ridcully brothers knew this and were satisfied that they had fulfilled their obligations to their respective organizations. Shifting the blame to an organizational opponent was a bonus, if it could be done safely, but that was a secondary concern to absolving yourself of any and all culpability.
“But aren’t those just the major gods?” Mrs. Palm said. “Could it be some kind of divine retribution by one of the minor deities? Maybe one of the stuffier sort, if you know what I mean?”
“No. We’d know if it was,” Hughnon said. “We’re quite sure it’s not any of the gods. We think it may have something to do with the Creator.”
“Oh, him,” Mustrum said with a knowing look.
“Indeed,” his brother agreed, nodding slowly.
“The Creator?” Vimes said. His grasp on religion wasn’t all that firm, but he had always assumed that one of the gods would have taken credit, deserved or not, for bringing everything about. “What on the Disc are you two talking about?”
As far as he was concerned, the sun going out was a crime, which meant there must be a criminal. That was clear logic. The wise nods and knowing looks of the two Ridcully brothers were not telling him who that criminal might be, and he had a growing urge to plant his truncheon in both of their smart backsides for being unhelpful to the police in pursuit of their lawful inquiries. It was personal, this time. He had a family and a city to protect.
“Well, you see, there is a belief—” Hughnon began.
“A theory,” Mustrum corrected.
The high priest waved a dismissive hand. “Whatever. There is some…speculation that each new day on the Disc is formed fresh from the mind of the Creator. A new day doesn’t just happen; it’s made, intentionally. If the Creator does not imagine a tomorrow, there will be none.”
“So you’re saying the sun has gone out because this Creator has stopped imagining new days for us?” Vimes said.
The high priest and the archancellor nodded sagely.
“Don’t do that!” Vimes yelled. “Explain what’s going on. How do we reach this Creator? How do we get him to stop…or start again? You know what I mean. I want my tomorrows. I have a son, for the gods’ sake. He deserves his future! It can’t all just stop!”
“Commander Vimes is quite right,” Vetinari said. “The Century of the Anchovy has barely begun. I have plans for this city that will bring us a new and prosperous era. Those plans have been progressing acceptably over the past several years. They must continue. The post office and clacks system are working again, our banking system is sound, soon, we will have a new railway and drainage system, but there is work still to be done. You gentlemen are the wise…the most knowledgeable people in the greatest city on the Disc. Surely you can think of something we can do to ensure our future.”
The two brothers shared a look that clearly stated that each hoped the other would have an idea. Neither wish was fulfilled.
A nervous silence filled the room.
“So, it’s over then,” Vetinari said. “Is this what you’re not saying?”
“Well, we’re not exactly sure,” Hughnon said. “I mean, we’re still here, right?”
“That could be an effect of residual belief,” Mustrum told him. “It can sustain us for a while if there’s enough of it. We can’t know how long it will last.”
Vimes sagged where he stood. This couldn’t be happening. It wasn’t right. There had to be some way to appeal, some way to make the future happen. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. He needed the world to go on. He needed…justice.
An old scar on his armed tingled. It hadn’t bothered him in some time, but, on occasion, when things seemed especially dark….
“This is wrong,” he whispered to himself. “The darkness can always be dispelled. There must be a way.”
She stepped outside into what should have been a bright morning, if the sun had been doing its job properly. It wasn’t. A gray orb hung motionless in the sky above her. The air was already beginning to feel chill….
No, that was something else.
“It ain’t my time yet,” she said. “I’d know if it were.”
Witches knew when they would die. This foreknowledge wasn’t the perk it might first seem, but it did avoid unnecessary expense stockpiling firewood, pickles, and such that they’d have no need for.
THINGS HAVE CHANGED, Death said.
“I see that. Something strange is going on, for sure. The entire world is hurting. I can’t tell what’s causing it.”
THE DISCWORLD HAS…STOPPED.
JUST STOPPED. THERE WILL BE NO TOMORROW.
“Don’t be daft. There’s always a tomorrow for someone. Everything on the Disc can’t die on the same day.”
YOU ARE WRONG THERE, I’M AFRAID. ENTIRE WORLDS DIE ALL AT ONCE OFTEN. TRUST ME. I KNOW ABOUT THIS.
“You would,” she admitted. Death was the leading expert on death. It was part of the job description. It went with the scythe, the long black robe, and the perpetual joyless grin. “So everyone on the Disc is dying, then?”
NO, NOT EXACTLY. IN FACT, THEY CANNOT DIE. THEY DON’T HAVE TIME. THEIR FUTURES HAVE BEEN…CANCELED.
“Who canceled them? Is it those…things that wanted to kill the Hogfather and stop time? I heard about that. Not much of that kidney goes on that I don’t hear about, eventually.”
THE AUDITORS. NO, THEIR FUTURE IS AT AN END TOO.
“So what is it? You’re not making sense.”
THE CREATOR HAS STOPPED CREATING.
Granny Weatherwax wasn’t arrogant, well, maybe she was, sometimes, but she appreciated that there might be things that mattered that she didn’t know about. Not many, but a few. She knew quite a big about creation, though. Procreation, anyway. She’d borrowed birds, raised bees, assisted in new births, and sat with the dying to ease them on their way. It was all part of being a witch. That kind of thing wasn’t what Death meant, however. She knew that much, and whatever it was, it was outside her experience, which meant it must be outside everything. She stood silent for a few moments trying to fit pieces of many different puzzles into a single bigger picture.
“So, this Creator isn’t someone on Discworld, physically, I mean.”
THAT IS CORRECT.
“But he makes stuff happen here.”
HE MADE EVERYTHING HAPPEN HERE. HE SPENT HIS LIFE MAKING IT HAPPEN. EVERY DAY THAT WE’VE LIVED, EVERY PERSON WHOM WE’VE KNOWN, EVERY SORROW, EVERY LOVE, EVERY CHALLENGE, SUCCESS, AND FAILURE…. HE MADE IT ALL HAPPEN. THIS WAS HIS LIFE’S WORK.
Granny felt the chilling breeze, heard the leaves of the trees rustle. She extended her awareness to the complex web of life around her. She felt the purposeful pursuit of the bees, the curiosity of squirrels, the life force of everything that walked or crawled or flew for miles around. She was uncommonly impressed.
“He must have spent a great deal of time on it.”
HE DID. HE SACRIFICED MUCH OF HIS LIFE TO US.
“He did good work.”
MANY WOULD AGREE WITH YOU.
“But he’s not doing it anymore.”
She considered some more. “Well, it can’t be because of something we’ve done, because we wouldn’t have done it otherwise, I suppose.”
YOUR LOGIC IS FLAWLESS.
“So, he’s dead then, ain’t he?”
YES, HE’S DEAD.
“I don’t suppose there’s anything you could do about that.”
Death shook his skull. I TOO AM A CONSTRUCT OF THE CREATOR.
“I suspected as much. Still, I thought I’d ask. You never know. We’ll just have to carry on without him then, I suppose.” Granny’s voice carried a determined tone, as it most often did. She never backed down from challenges. She’d always met them head on before, and she saw no reason this time should be any different.
I FEAR YOU DO NOT YET GRASP THE FULL IMPACT OF THIS SITUATION. THERE WILL BE NO TOMORROW. THERE IS NO FUTURE TO CARRY ON TO. IT IS OVER. EVERYTHING IS OVER. THIS IS…THE END.
Granny took a deep breath of forest air. It still felt alive and so did she, and as long as she had breath within her, she could not simply surrender. That had never been her way.
“It ain’t over until I says it’s over,” she said defiantly.
I DON’T SEE THAT YOU HAVE A CHOICE.
“That just shows what you know, and it ain’t everything, despite what you may think, let me tell you. There’s always a choice. That’s what being a witch is all about. That’s what being human is all about. We make choices. All the time, every day, every situation offers choices, and we make them. Sometimes they ain’t so good, but we still make them. Well, I’m making one now, and I’m not going to roll over and allow my world to fade away.”
ONLY THE CREATOR CAN GIVE US A FUTURE.
“That may be. I’m not saying it is, mind you. But it might be. Fact is, I don’t know how to make a future. Not for a whole world. But I’ll be damned to every hell any bloody-minded god ever made if I can’t keep the world we have from dying. If I can keep today alive, then maybe, someday—or whatever—someone will find a way.”
She closed he eyes, extended her senses again, and realized she had been wrong before. The anguish she felt earlier wasn’t touching the lives of those around her. Those lives, or rather the thought of them ending, was causing anguish to someone outside. A great many people outside, she suspected. She didn’t know where that outside was, or even what it was, but it didn’t matter. It was flowing into the Discworld. Riding with it was a power that could make gods, the power of belief, or something much like it. It was the power of suspended disbelief, but it was close enough. This too could make the unreal real, or at least real enough, for a time.
Granny closed her eyes again and provided a focal point, an outlet for raging emotions that desperately needed one. All of the profound grief, the disappointment, the tears over the death of an entire world and its Creator surged into her and sent her to her knees. The Discworld may have been the creation of one man’s imagination, but the passion for it that flowed into her was real. And it came from millions. She had never felt such power. She couldn’t hold it all, and what she could, she could not hold long. It was too much. It would overwhelm her in seconds.
Her iron composure rusted. Tears steamed from her face. The feelings were far too strong to contain, even for her. Still on her knees, she raised her head and lifted her arms to the dying sun. “This I choose to do,” she croaked through a throat choked with grief. “The light of Discworld shall not die!”
Power surged through her open palms and struck the sun. It sputtered and ignited. Daylight happened.
THIS WILL NOT CREATE A FUTURE, YOU KNOW. THE SUN WILL NOT MOVE.
Granny dragged herself to her feet and wiped the tears from her face.
“I know. I’m just trying to keep the light on, as it were. There may be no tomorrow, but today and all our yesterdays will be safe. That’ll have to do, for now.”
IT MAY BE ENOUGH. IT IS NOT LIFE BUT IT IS ALSO NOT DEATH. THERE IS NO DEATH HERE NOW.
“So I guess you’re out of a job.”
FOR NOW, BUT WHO KNOWS WHAT THE FUTURE MIGHT BRING?
Granny nodded. “Since you’re not likely to be busy for a while, whey not come inside and have a cup of tea? I have some nice Klatchian stuff that Nanny Ogg brought over.”
ARE THERE BISCUITS?
“Yeah, some fancy store bought ones that I got from Mrs. Ivy down Slice way for curing their sick cow.
YES. THAT WAS A NEAR THING, AS I RECALL.
Granny led Death back to her cottage to share some tea. There they stayed, reminiscing about the past, and talking about what might have been.
* This is rather in the same way a curious child can use a magnifying glass to examine an ant colony.**
** The ants really hate this.
***An area with more people than rats and there was less chance of your neighbors disposing of their trash by tossing it over your garden wall in the middle of the night.
Written by D.L. Morrese with respect and admiration for Sir Terry Pratchett, one of the greatest storytellers of all time, who died on March 12, 2015.
A PDF Download of this story is available here: https://dlmorrese.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/the-final-sunrise-of-discworld.pdf
– A Tribute to Terry Pratchett (Mar. 2015) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/a-tribute-to-terry-pratchett/
– Hogfather for the Holidays (Dec. 2014) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/hogfather-for-the-holidays/
– My Problem with Terry Pratchett (Jul. 2014) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/my-problem-with-terry-pratchett/
– A Discworld Update (Feb. 2013) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/a-discworld-update-february-2013/
– Will the Discworld End? Should It? (Nov. 2011) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/will-the-discworld-end-should-it/
– Discworld (May 2011) – https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/discworld/
How could someone I’ve never met be this important to me? If you’ve never read his books, you couldn’t possibly understand. If you have, no explanation is necessary.
Sir Terry wasn’t just an author of whimsical fantasy stories. He was an insightful philosopher, an educator, a social commentator, a cultural examiner, and, at times, even a therapist. He was sometimes cynically critical while, at the same time, being inspirationally optimistic. He looked at our round world and reflected it back to us, but magnified (and humorously distorted) on a disc-shaped world so we could see some of the most important bits a little clearer. Above all, he was a great storyteller. He created an unbelievable world that felt real, which he populated with impossible and yet completely recognizable characters.
I’ve spent many hours on the Disc. I know some of its history. I’ve visited several of its countries. I’ve walked the streets of Ankh-Morpork, shared a smoke with Commander Vimes, and even tasted a sausage in a bun offered by CMOT Dibbler. I think I’ve learned a lot while touring Discworld. His stories tell us much about life and what it means to be human—”the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.” If you’ve been there, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, you should go.
I won’t go on about Sir Terry or his books. I won’t list any of his quotable and insightful little aphorisms. I will tell you that right now I have a tear rolling down my face. I feel like I’ve lost a close friend, a favorite teacher, a beloved uncle, someone who was always there for me when I needed him. And yet we never met.
The next new Terry Pratchett story will be the last. The Discworld is ending. This saddens me more than I can say. But his books will endure. They are sitting on my shelves now, waiting to be revisited. I look forward to returning to the Disc. Perhaps I’ll notice something I missed the first few times I was there or recall something I had forgotten. There will be no new stories of Discworld, but the old ones are timeless.
RIP Terry Pratchett – 1948-2015
The midwinter holiday on Discworld is Hogswatch rather than Christmas, and the Hogfather is the Discworld’s counterpart of Santa Claus. He climbs down chimneys, gives presents, says, “HO-HO-HO,” and drives a sleigh pulled by four flying pigs. Many children of the Disc believe in him, which is why he exists. (This is a fundamental characteristic of the magical system in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.) Belief causes the thing believed in to exist, and when belief stops, that existence stops. Teatime, an assassin retained to do away with the Hogfather, plans to exploit this metaphysical law to accomplish his assigned task, but first he must break into the Tooth Fairy’s castle and get control of the teeth stored there. With them, he can influence the belief of their former owners through sympathetic magic. (That’s something of a spoiler, but if you haven’t read this yet, you may be thankful for it.)
Hogfather was the first Discworld book I ever read. This was back in 1999, I think. It could have been 2000. I’m not sure. I didn’t buy it. The book was given to me, not so much as a gift, but as a case of, “Here, I’m not going to read this again, but you might like it since I know you like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
A few months later, I decided to give it a try. I didn’t know what to make of the book at first. It wasn’t like anything I had ever read before. I recall thinking when I was about halfway in that I wasn’t sure I liked it. It was obviously fantasy, but it wasn’t like the epic fantasy stepchildren of Lord of the Rings or the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, which dominated the fantasy genre at the time. Those stories seemed to make a concerted effort to portray their fantasy settings as ‘real’ places, and they were chocked full of dragons, evil warlords and their minions, and powerful magic. Their plots often boiled down to simple, and often bloody, contests between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The reader didn’t have to think much for most of these. They offered an entertaining escape from reality, but not much else. The plots were often a bit like sporting events in which one side is ‘good’ primarily because it’s from your hometown (although there’s a good chance none of the players are). In some, the biggest difference between the protagonist and antagonist was the point of view that dominated the story.
In any case, that was the kind of fantasy novel I was used to. Hogfather is none of the above. It’s not even like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, but the person who gave me the book was right in one regard. If you like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, there is a good chance you will like Discworld. Both are satirical, funny, incredibly clever, and mind-bending.
But, back to what I was saying. Halfway through my first reading of Hogfather, I was confused. This book was far more complex than the fantasy stories with which I was familiar. The setting was comprehensible but bizarre. I mean—really—a flat world carried on the back of four elephants standing on a turtle? Come on! The plot confused me, and there were subplots and multiple points of view presented by an omniscient narrator. There were even footnotes! This wasn’t like watching a sporting event or a cartoon. I had to pay attention. This book was trying to make me (*gasp*) think! To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge.
Then, about halfway through, I got it. I can’t recall exactly what scene or phrase caused my epiphany, but I finally caught a glimpse of what this story was doing, and it floored me. The author wasn’t trying to draw me into the story to the point of total immersion. The setting was absurd because I wasn’t supposed to believe it was possible. The story was fiction, and I wasn’t being encouraged to suspend disbelief to the point where I felt for a moment that it wasn’t. There’s a kind of honesty to that that I still find refreshing. Yes, the story is set on a fantasy world starring a counterpart of Santa Claus and an anthropomorphic personification of Death, complete with black cloak and scythe, but it’s not ABOUT them. It’s about us!
But at the same time, this ridiculous setting was rich and textured. It was unbelievably believable. And the characters, although they seemed exaggerated caricatures at first, had surprising depth and personality. I recall thinking that this Terry Pratchett fellow must be some kind of genius.
I’ve read all forty or so Discworld books since, all them at least three times, and I still think this is true.
Hogfather, like many of the Discworld books, is far more than it appears at first glance. Here are a few things I noticed:
• It is, of course, a parody of the Santa legend.
• It’s a cultural satire about our traditions and philosophies.
• It’s a not-so-thinly veiled criticism of holiday commercialism.
• It’s a morality tale about duty and the importance of family ties.
• It’s a philosophical statement on the nature of humanity.
• It contrasts rational and irrational ways of thinking.
• It provides a brief comment on emergent artificial intelligence.
• It’s a fantasy story that pokes fun at fantasy, while, at the same time, explaining why fantasy is both meaningful and necessary.
• Oh yeah, and it’s funny.
If you have not read any Discworld books yet, you should. Actually, my advice is to read them all and then to reread them. (I find that Discworld stories are often even more enjoyable the second time.) Before sitting down to write this post, I reread Hogfather for what was at least the sixth time. The Discworld books are incomparable. My only problem with them is that after reading the Discworld stories, all other fantasy stories tend to pale by comparison.
When reading Hogfather, one key point to remember is that time is not necessarily linear where Death (the Discworld character) is concerned. It can be frozen, and causality can work in reverse. The future can change events in the past or cause them not to happen at all.
Hogfather, however, is not the Discworld book I would recommend to newcomers to the Disc. Yes, it was my first, and each book can stand on its own, but Hogfather is a tough go without the background provided by some of the others. I hesitate to recommend any particular Discworld book to start with. I’ve seen some forums in which people can become quite heated about this, believe it or not. I highly recommend all of them, but I will say again that Hogfather probably shouldn’t be your first.
If you’re familiar with Discworld, but have not yet read Hogfather, I suggest doing so now. It’s a great book for the holidays. If you have read Hogfather before, it’s a great one to reread for the Holidays. You’ll be glad you did.
HAPPY HOGSWATCH, EVERYONE! HO-HO-HO!
P.S. Hogfather became a made-for-TV movie in 2006, and is now available on DVD. I have a copy, and I’ll be rewatching it sometime soon.
Some wonderful quotes from Hogfather: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/583655-hogfather
My Problem with Terry Pratchett: https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/my-problem-with-terry-pratchett/
A Trailer for Hogfather, the movie… 🙂
I actually have two problems with Terry Pratchett, but they both have to do with the quality of his writing. It’s too good. Now, I’ve never met the man, but he’s clearly brilliant, and I’m sure he’s charming and kind to small animals and all that, but he’s upset my life in ways I am finding difficult to overcome.
Discovering a new author whose work I enjoy used to excite me. When I was young, I would pick up a book based on the front cover or the blurb on the back and, if I really enjoyed it, I’d voraciously consume all of his or her other books I could find. After Pratchett, that seldom happens because now authors have to meet a higher standard. Their books have to be as good as Pratchett’s.
I know it’s not all Sir Terry’s fault. Publishing, after all, is a business, and the big publishers tend to publish books they think will have wide enough appeal to make them some money. The way they predict what will sell is by what has sold well recently, and they therefor produce a great many books that are much the same. I’ve found few new books from traditional publishers that I found entertaining. They tend to have annoying, angst-filled characters, focus on action over plot, and include far more sex and/or violence than needed for their frequently formulaic stories. Even when I find one I enjoy, one that’s original and well-crafted with truly likeable and even admirable characters, my final assessment is normally something like, ‘That wasn’t bad, but it’s no Pratchett.’
So, when I come to the final page of a book now, rather than going to the library or the internet, or one of the few remaining brick and mortar bookstores near me, I find myself going to my bookshelves and thinking, ‘What Discworld book should I reread now?’ When I do pick up a new book, it is, more often than not, nonfiction, assuming in advance that any work of fiction that may catch my eye is not going to be as good as a Discworld novel. So why bother?
That’s my first problem with Pratchett. He’s limiting my exposure to new novelists.
The last Discworld book I re-re-re…reread was Maskerade. It has four interweaving plot threads. One is about how Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg need to find a new third witch because two witches are invariably an argument without a mediator. The second is the story of Agnes Nitt, a large young woman with ‘a great personality’ and a fabulous voice who leaves the country for the big city to be a singer. The third tells the story of Nanny Ogg’s libido-stimulating cookbook and provides a few satirical insights about the publishing industry. And the fourth is a parody of The Phantom of the Opera as well as a satire about opera in general. The characters are charming. The story is intelligent, witty, and insightful. I find myself instantly engaged, and at the end, I feel a kind a bibliophilic fulfillment that is probably similar to how a gastronome feels after an exquisite gourmet meal.
This normally would not present a problem to the gastronome unless he is also a chef and knows without a doubt that he could never prepare dishes like that no matter how hard he tries or how long he lives. That’s the feeling I get from Pratchett because I also write stories, just not as well. I’m not saying they’re bad. I wouldn’t write them if I thought that. I personally think they are quite good, but I could never create something like Maskerade, and the sad fact is Maskerade is not my favorite Discworld novel.
That’s my second problem with Pratchett. He’s giving me one hell of an inferiority complex.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to write like Pratchett. The best authors have a unique voice, and you can often distinguish one of their books without looking at the cover or title page. But there is an intrinsically satisfying feeling of completeness I get from reading a Pratchett work that I would love to be able to achieve in my own novels. Actually, I’d be almost as happy if other authors could as well because even though I now have hardcover editions of all the Discworld novels (about 40 so far) they are bound to wear out eventually.
There as some books on my shelves that I reread every few years. Dragging out an old, dusty favorite is like visiting a favorite friend or relative. There is something comfortable, familiar, and relaxing about it. The books we find ourselves especially drawn to tell us something about who and what we are, and they can help us remember that when everyday life is doing its best to turn us into someone else, someone we may not especially like.
Pratchett’s style of writing is different. He violates several ‘rules’ of fiction writing, not least of which is the one against author intrusion into the story. His presence is always clearly evident. The stories are told from the outside looking in, by someone from our world observing one much like it, and he occasionally points out* how odd both places can be. The reader isn’t supposed to believe that the Disc is a real place or that the characters are real people. There is never any doubt that the stories are fiction, but there is also no doubt that the fiction is reflecting something about the real world in often very humorous ways.
Pratchett sums up this idea in the beginning of his novel Moving Pictures. Here is his description of the Discworld, which rests upon the back of Great A’Tuin the star turtle.
“On its back, four giant elephants. On their shoulders, rimmed with water, flittering under its tiny orbiting sunlet, spinning majestically around the mountains at its frozen Hub, lies the Discworld, world and mirror of worlds.
The Discworld is as unreal as it is possible to be while still being just real enough to exist.
He’s letting us know that none what he’s going to relate in the story about to unfold is to be taken seriously in any kind of literal sense. It’s a fairytale, which, like all good fairytales, points out something about the real world and the people who live there.
Yesterday, I finished rereading Moving Pictures. At one level, this story is about the magically inspired development of movies on Discworld. At another, it is about the ability of people to believe unreal things and the dangers of doing so.
I picked this particular book from my list of favorites to reread now because it features Gaspode, a sentient but otherwise unimpressive mongrel, and I was searching for inspiration. I have a somewhat similar character in my books, although my sentient dog, Moe, is an android rather than being magically enhanced, but they share a similar, knee level perspective. Moe makes an appearance in three of my books as a minor character, but he’s more prominent in my current work in progress.
I plan to reread the other stories featuring Gaspode in the coming weeks, not so much for inspiration, but because I enjoy them. If you aren’t familiar with Discworld, you should visit. It’s the most believable unbelievable place you’ll ever read about.
*sometimes in footnotes
As everyone reading this undoubtedly knows by now, Terry Pratchett, creator of the Discworld and all its wonderful stories is suffering from the slow progress of a form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. With the aid of voice recognition software, he is still writing, but may not be able to much longer. Many frequent visitors to his fantasy world are concerned for him — and for themselves. The Disc has become part of their lives, as good, cult classics tend to do. Will the stories stop? Will the Discworld end?
It was reported in many places, including io9, TOR, and Locus, that Sir Pratchett would be handing over Discworld to his daughter, Rhianna, once he could no longer write. Then, of course, people wondered if she could do it properly.
Maybe she can and maybe she can’t, but she won’t. It’s not going to happen. Rhianna will not be writing new Discworld novels. I think it’s obvious from various interviews with her that she does not wish to be a novelist and feels that the Discworld novels are her father’s legacy. The most recent edition of Discworld Monthly confirms this.
I don’t find this surprising. Rhianna has her own career creating fantasy adventure video games, screenplays and short stories. It must be difficult for the child of an immensely popular public figure, especially one as admired for his achievements as her father, to maintain her own identity—to be Rhianna rather than Terry Pratchett’s daughter. I can understand why she does not wish to be the next Terry Pratchett. She must also realize that if she did take on the duty, no matter how well she did, there would be detractors, and who needs that kind of grief?
So what about all those articles and rumors about her taking over?
She will, just not as the writer of new novels. The way it appears now, Rhianna will be working closely with Narrativia, the new production company established to manage Pratchett related multimedia projects. Rhianna may be writing screenplays, storyboards, and scripts, but not Discworld books.
According to the Guardian, Narrativia is planning to produce the long talked about (but never funded) TV mini-series adaptation of Good Omens, the 1990 book that Pratchett wrote with Neil Gaiman, and a thirteen part series about the Ankh-Morpork Watch. (Click the links if you want to read more about these.)
In related news, the Terry Pratchett Facebook page is showing a release date of 20 June 2013 for The Long War, the sequel to The Long Earth, the science fiction novel released last year that he wrote with Stephen Baxter. Amazon.com is showing a release date of 23 July 2013. This may be a case of the U.S. edition lagging behind, as sometimes annoyingly happens. According to the Amazon blurb, this story is set a generation later than that in The Long Earth.
Apparently, the next Discworld novel will not be Raising Taxes, a third Moist von Lipwig book, as had been rumored. Other than that, I haven’t been able to find out anything other than that Terry and Rob Wilkins (his business manger) are hard at work on it.
(Footnote – If an internet search engine brought you here, no, you did not find a Discworld fan site or one devoted to the works of Terry Pratchett. I just decided to write a post about the rumors about Rhianna taking over for her dad and it ended up as a news article. I’ll try not to let it happen again. …….. If, however, you are a Pratchett fan, you might like my books. Not that I’m comparing or giving the hard sell or anything, just sayin’….)
Directly Related Post: Will The Discworld End – Should It?
Kind of Related Posts:
- Book Review – Mort by Terry Pratchett
- Book Review – The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
- Book Review – Snuff by Terry Pratchett
Loosely Related Post: The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy
I confess to being a diehard Discworld fan. I have been ever since the 1980s, which was before the earlier books in the series were available in the U.S. Consequently, seven of Discworld books I own are the U.K./Canadian editions. Mort is one of these. The copy I have (pictured here) came from Canada. I was living outside Detroit when I bought it, and Ontario is just across the river. This was fortunate for me because waiting for an American publisher to recognize that there was an audience here for Terry Pratchett’s unique kind of intelligent humor would have been unbearable. Harper Collins has since corrected this terrible oversight, and now all Discworld books are available in the U.S., although with much less cool covers.
I pulled this dusty old gem off my bookshelves a few days ago because the SciFi and Fantasy Bookclub on Goodreads chose it as their selection to read for January 2013. I tried to pace myself, taking three days to read it in order to prolong the enjoyment. I had forgotten how incredibly good it is.
Mort is the story of a gangly young man who becomes Death’s apprentice. If you are familiar with Discworld, you may know Death – tall guy, boney, wears a black cloak, often seen with a scythe and in the company of a white horse named Binky. He is the anthropomorphic personification of the ultimate and final reality – and he likes kittens.
In this story, Death apparently wants an apprentice for two reasons. One is that he has an adopted daughter, Ysabell, whom he thinks could use some company. The backstory for this is vague, but it seems that Death either took pity on her or was simply curious after he ‘collected’ her parents. It’s hard to tell with him sometimes. He has a wonderfully odd way of looking at things.
The other reason to have an apprentice is that he wants a break from the ‘duty.’ This turns out less well than Death might have hoped. On his first solo mission to free souls from their mortal anchors, Mort does something wrong. He saves a young princess from the knife of the assassin fated to kill her, and this disrupts the interrelated web of causality and creates a cosmic paradox. The world thinks she’s dead, but because of Mort’s intervention, she’s not, at least not from a biological perspective. This leads to complications.
Like many of Pratchett’s books, Mort is full of clever wordplay and philosophical humor. For example, at one point Mort says, “I’ve heard about boredom, but I’ve never had a chance to try it.” This cracks me up because it’s dryly funny in the context of the story, but it also philosophically insightful, or at least I found it so. This book is filled with such little Easter eggs, little bits of prose that provoke a smile in passing but can be opened to find even more inside them.
This, in my opinion, is one of the best of Pratchett’s books, the worst of which are some of the most enjoyable stories I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it.
Both science fiction and fantasy present things that do not exist. All fiction does this, of course. That’s what makes it fiction. But science fiction and fantasy include not only imaginary characters and events but settings, creatures, concepts, or devices that are qualitatively beyond our normal, everyday experience. If you are fortunate enough to have a brick and mortar bookstore near you, you are likely to find science fiction and fantasy grouped together in the same section of the store, probably labeled (logically enough) “Science Fiction / Fantasy,” and although they share some characteristics, there is, I think, a clear and unambiguous distinction between them.
Fantasy may be as old as speech. From the time we, well, not us specifically, I mean our ancestors, could communicate more than simple facts, people probably made up stories to explain the inexplicable, like where rain, thunder and babies come from. I’m talking about our earliest ancestors here, not those now living at a ’55-or-older’ community in south Florida, although they probably made up some good stories, too. The people I mean are those who first discovered that they could chip flint to make sharp points to put on the end of long sticks, which they then used to hunt for food and intimidate their neighbors who had wild cave-painting parties late into the night or played their music too loud. I can easily imagine them huddled around a fire, once they got around to discovering that, telling tales filled with imaginary creatures and mystical forces, which remain the defining characteristics of fantasy to this day. Fantasy is as old as mankind.
Science fiction, on the other hand, is a relative upstart, a form of fiction that has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment. Science was an element in fiction as early as the Seventeenth Century, included in works by Francis Bacon (New Atlantis 1617), Johannes Kepler (Somnium 1634), and Francis Godwin (The Man in the Moone 1638). The term ‘science-fiction’ wasn’t coined until 1851 by the English author, William Wilson. The first known reference to ‘science-fiction’ appears in Chapter Ten of his book A Little Earnest Book on a Great Old Subject, but it did not come into common use, apparently, until the 1930’s. I’m not quite that old, so I can’t say I have any first hand knowledge of this, but I have it on good authority that this is true (see references below).
It may be hard for us living in the 21st century to imagine, but people did not always regard the scientific method, that is, empirical evidence obtained through observation and experimentation, as the best way to understand things about the world. In many societies prior to the Enlightenment, reality was what your tradition, king, or priest said it was, and you had a much better chance at living to a ripe old age of about 40 by not questioning them. (The average European life expectancy in the 17th Century was 35.)
According to my old and somewhat tattered copy of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, (you knew I’d include a dictionary definition in this somewhere, didn’t you?) science fiction is “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.” In other words, science fiction relies on a scientific foundation for the speculative elements of the story. The tone of such stories was originally a positive one, supportive of a scientific outlook and optimistic about the possibilities science creates. Wilson’s usage of the term in 1851 is in reference to the laudable goal of using science fiction to popularize real science. The best of the genre, in my opinion, still does this.
Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are two of the earliest true modern science fiction writers. Both stretched the bounds of what was known at the time to posit things that did not exist. Unlike earlier, and even much of the other speculative fiction of the time, though, they based their plot devices on extrapolations from current science and technology. Previous visits to improbable lands, encounters with strange creatures, and even fictional travels through time were often the result of a dream or mystical insight. Both Wells and Verne presented their readers with fantastic machines, but these were based on scientifically explained principles. They included strange creatures, but they were natural rather than supernatural, with abilities explainable, at least in theory, solely in terms of biology and evolution.
Fantasy is less constrained. It can include just about anything — magic wands, vampires, dragons, demons, werewolves, genies, talking rabbits in waistcoats with pocket watches, … well, you get the idea. These things just ‘are’ and don’t need to be explained from a scientific, naturalistic, post-Enlightenment perspective. The magical elements must be internally consistent, but they don’t need to be based on known science. If the story includes supernatural or mythological characters or forces that cannot be supported with plausible sounding techno-babble in scientific terms, then it is fantasy. Well known examples would include Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and (my personal favorite) Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.
There are, of course, books that fall into a gray area and even merge these two genres. A term that has been applied to these is ‘science fantasy.’ An example would be Star Wars, which is mainly a fantasy adventure with some science fiction trappings. The fantasy element is the Force, which is described as a mystical ‘energy’ field. The science fiction elements, obviously, are extraterrestrial aliens and space ships, although there is never much of an explanation for how the latter are supposed to work. Another example would be Star Trek, which is mainly science fiction but with some fantasy thrown in. One of the science fiction elements is super-luminal space travel, which the various series explain is achieved through a matter/antimatter reaction creating a warp in space-time. The fantasy aspects of Star Trek include such things as the scientifically unexplained psychic abilities exhibited by Vulcans and Betazoids.
Although there are many exceptions, science fiction stories also tend to take place in an imagined future or futuristic setting while fantasy tends to be set in an imaginary past, often a medieval type setting. This is not always the case, of course. There seems to be a growing popularity for fantasy that is set in current times with stories such as Harry Potter and a plethora of vampire and zombie novels. The possible combinations of settings and mixtures of fantasy and science fiction elements are extensive, and many subcategories of both genres have been identified. I won’t go into these here because they are beside the point of this post, but if you are interested, SF Site put together a good list (http://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm).
When asked to explain the difference between science fiction and fantasy, Isaac Asimov, the prolific writer of mystery, science, and history but known mostly for his science fiction, replied, “science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” (http://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm) Although I am a great fan and admirer of Asimov, I think this statement is presumptuous because it implies that we know everything that is possible. I’m inclined to believe we don’t.
A distinction I like better was provided by the Canadian science fiction writer, Robert J. Sawyer who I had the honor of chatting with at the 100 Year Starship Symposium hosted by DARPA in 2011. He said, “Succinctly: there’s discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there’s continuity between our reality and science fiction.” (http://www.sfwriter.com/2007/08/difference-between-science-fiction-and.html) To expand on this just a bit, I believe he is saying that fantasy proposes the existence of things we can’t begin to explain rationally. Science fiction, on the other hand, must present at least some backstory for how such things could exist and at least imply a plausible theoretical explanation rooted in what we currently know. Where did they come from? How might they work? What allowed them to evolve the way they did? Works of science fiction don’t need to answer such questions in any detail. They don’t require elaborate explanations in the stories, but the reader must feel that scientific explanations for them are possible. Somehow, the fictional marvels that are components of the plot or setting must link back to our current scientific understanding of the real world.
This is the key distinction. Fantasy does not require such things to have a basis in known science. Science fiction does. Science fiction, in the original sense of the term, is supportive of a scientific outlook and optimistic about humanity’s ability to use science to explain the universe and create a brighter future. In this respect, it is almost the antithesis of Fantasy, which has a mystical basis, positing the existence of things science cannot explain or, quite possibly, deal with.
To appreciate the distinction between the two genres requires some knowledge of science, of course. Without it, the reader has no foundation for distinguishing between ideas that are plausible, unlikely, or almost certainly impossible from a scientific point of view. You don’t have to be a scientist; you don’t need to have a firm grasp of general relativity or quantum mechanics (I certainly don’t), but you must have some familiarity with the major findings of science and an appreciation for how science approaches questions about the world through careful observation and experimentation. As Carl Sagan once said, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” (Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, 1979)
This, I believe, may be the major cause of confusion about these two related but distinct genres. Scientific literacy, especially in America, could be better. If readers believe an opinion is the same as a theory or that intuition and insight are as likely to provide as reliable an answer to a question as controlled testing, then they will not be able tell the difference between fantasy and science fiction. Regular science fiction readers may be more scientifically astute than the general population and therefore more likely to understand the difference, although I know of no survey or study that has been done on this. I do know, at least from anecdotal evidence, that many current scientists and engineers were inspired by reading or watching science fiction when they were young, so at least in that respect, there is a connection.
But even people who believe a magic wand is no less implausible than a TV remote control or that telepathy is as likely as reliable cell phone coverage can read and enjoy fantasy and science fiction. Stories from both genres can be insightful, thought provoking, mind stretching and evoke a sense of wonder. Both can take us to strange and fascinating worlds. There is a difference between the two, but you don’t need to recognize it to enjoy the tales. Personally, I would imagine they are more enjoyable if you do, but this is just my opinion. It’s not science.
Related Post: More on the Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy (15 Oct. 2013)
- Science Fiction & Fantasy: A Genre With Many Faces http://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm
- Science Fiction – Sci Fi Books ~ The Development and History http://www.booksellerworld.com/science-fiction.htm
- Fantasy (Wikipedia entry) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasy
- Science Fiction (Wikipedia entry) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_fiction
- Science Fiction Studies http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/notes/notes10/notes.html
- Full text of A Little Earnest Book on a Great Old Subject by William Wilson
- The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=7&ved=0CFIQFjAG&url=http%3A%2F%2Fsciencefiction.org.rs%2Findex.php%3Foption%3Dcom_docman%26task%3Ddoc_download%26gid%3D396%26Itemid%3D55&ei=3YWHT8WTHeiW8AGz96GnCA&usg=AFQjCNFggg_vtA91t9AXlWO6HEraK6XNkA (full text in PDF)
- The Perils of Scientific Illiteracy http://chiefexecutive.net/the-perils-of-scientific-illiteracy
- Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future http://www.alternet.org/environment/141679/unscientific_america:_how_scientific_illiteracy_threatens_our_future/
- Science Fiction & Scientific Literacy (Incorporating science fiction reading in the science classroom) http://science.nsta.org/enewsletter/2007-07/tst0602_38.pdf
(This article is cross-posted on 1889 Labs – The Future of Fiction: http://1889.ca/2012/04/the-difference-between-science-fiction-and-fantasy/)
In December 2007, Terry Pratchett, the much honored and award winning author of the Discworld fantasy series as well as other books, publicly announced that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Many of his fans since then have wondered if Discworld can continue once Sir Terry can no longer write or if it even should.
I came across a discussion on this very subject a couple of days ago on The Morporkian, a Terry Pratchett discussion group on goodreads. The question posed asked how people felt about the Discworld series continuing on without Terry Pratchett. You can see the discussion here if you’d like: A Surrogate Pratchett?
I visit Discworld often and I actually dread not being able to look forward to the next new book but I have sadly concluded that there is only one Terry Pratchett. I have looked long and hard for other writers who can capture a similar tone and mood and I have found none – none at all.
Pratchett is unique and (need I say) my favorite author. I’ve mentioned him several times in my blog as both a writer of wonderful stories and as an inspiration for my own but I’m doubtful anyone I know of can do justice to the series. Pratchett’s ability to create believable and truly likeable characters in an unbelievable world and his ability to create entertaining and humorous stories while providing deep cultural insights is enviable and wonderful.
I won’t say that it is impossible to find someone to carry on. Perhaps there are writers out there who can and if Terry Pratchett names a successor, I will certainly give his or her books a try. Quite honestly, I hope he does. A round world without a Discworld to reflect the truly important bits would be a much sadder place.
I have several Young Adult books in my library including those by J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, Suzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, among others. The Wee Free Men tops them all by an order of magnitude in my opinion. I’ve read it several times to try to figure out why. The first thing I’ve noticed is how well the main character, Tiffany Aching, is developed. Pratchett presents an amazing girl, thoughtful, intelligent, strong-willed, and observant and you feel you know her and can’t help but admire her after the first twenty pages. All of the supporting characters are also done well, and have distinct and interesting personalities. I won’t summarize the plot. Other YA books have interesting and exciting plots as well, but what makes this book stand out from those, I think, is how deeply you understand the motivations of the main character and how much you find yourself wishing the real world had more people like her. It also presents many interesting ideas about how people and cultures view the world in very humorous ways but does not try to dumb them down for young readers. It assumes they, like Tiffany, can think and actually want to. Read this book. Give it to your children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. You’ll be doing yourself and them, and possibly the world, a big favor.
Discworld is the remarkable creation of Sir Terry Pratchett. There are now thirty-eight Discworld novels (counting his Young Adult books) and another adult targeted fantasy focusing on Vimes of the Ankh Morpork City Watch is due out later this year. The series is immensely popular, spawning Discworld conventions in England and the United States, as well as movies and television series. My first introduction to the Discworld was through the novel, Hogfather, and I have to admit that at first I didn’t like it. I couldn’t tell where it was going until I was about a third of the way through it and then I got it and I remember thinking, “Wow!” This wasn’t your normal fantasy novel. This one was saying something. In this case it was about the human need to believe in things that, while not real in a physical sense, were real in an emotional and psychological sense. I didn’t expect that kind of message in what looked at first glance like a comic fairytale. After that I was hooked and I had to read everything Terry Pratchett ever wrote. I had a problem though. I lived in the U.S. and many of his earlier novels had not been released here. (This has since been corrected.) Undeterred, I ordered the first ten books from England or Canada and consumed them voraciously. In the first two, ‘The Colour of Magic’ and ‘The Light Fantastic’ it seems as if his thoughts about where he wanted to go with this ridiculous but amazing world were still congealing and these are the two weakest books. All of the others, in my opinion, are five-star fantastic. When I read a Discworld novel I find myself really liking the characters and concerned about what happens to them. What makes the Discworld novels unique though is that they combine laugh-out-loud humor with philosophical insights and cultural satire. They are populated with wonderfully interesting characters with distinct personalities overcoming obstacles that might just remind you a bit of things that happen here on our round world. I really wish I could write stories like that. The world needs more of them.