Table of Contents
2. The Roots: Fantastic Literature
2.1. Science Fiction: The Literature Of Change
2.2. Toward A Definition Of Fantasy
3. The Three Novels
3.1. What Makes The War Of The Worlds A Science Fiction Text?
3.2. What Makes Dracula A Fantasy Text?
3.3. Frankenstein: Something In Between
What makes a text a science fiction text? What makes it a fantasy text? In this study, I would like to discuss why it is impossible to clearly draw a line between these two genres. In order to do so, I am going to focus on the “justification” of the unreal, respectively, the supernatural elements of a story. I shall be discussing why a text can be considered a science fiction text or a fantasy text - and why, in some cases, there is no clear answer to the question of which genre a text is belongs to. While one might answer the two questions put at the beginning of this study rather quickly by stating a rule of thumb - scientific elements make a text a science fiction text, magical ones make it a fantasy text - it is obvious that this would lead to a very broad definition. It is thus necessary to go into detail, which I am going to do. In order to investigate what, apart from the technical and the magical elements, are the characteristics of the respective genres mentioned at the beginning, I am going to give the definitions of these terms which can be found in standard reference texts. In order to go into detail, I shall add more information from academic literature about the fantastic genre, which both science fiction and fantasy are part of. I would then like to go a step further by testing the definitions with the help of three texts - H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds as an example for the science fiction genre and Bram Stoker's Dracula as an example for a fantasy text. In addition, I shall be discussing Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein. In this text, there are elements of both science fiction and of fantasy. After this, I would like to conclude my study.
Any selection of texts will necessarily be arbitrary, as it is impossible to include everything into a study like this. I chose three texts from approximately the same period, as this will provide a sound basis. In addition, these texts are widely known, and there is generally no dispute over the fact that they are part of the fantastic genre.
2. The Roots: “Fantastic” Literature
Both science fiction and fantasy derive from a common basis. Both genres can be seen as sub-genres of “the fantastic”1, which is “a general term for all forms of human expression that are not realistic (...)”2. In addition, there is one more aspect.
Within the inner circle of fantasy - the fiction of the presently unreal - is a smaller circle still, a subset of a subset, and this is sf. It shares with fantasy the idea of a Novum: some new element, something that distinguishes the fiction from reality as presently constituted. A novum could be a Vampire or a colonized planet. The sub- subset that is sf insists that the novum be explicable in terms that adhere to conventionally formulated law; the remainder, fantasy, has no such requirement. To cut the definition to an irreducible minimum: mimetic fiction is real, fantasy is unreal; sf is unreal but natural, as opposed to the remainder of fantasy, which is unreal and supernatural. (Or, simpler still, sf could happen, fantasy couldn't.)3
This brings us back to the rule of thumb mentioned at the beginning of this study: if there are scientific devices which do not exist yet (at least not at the time during which a text is written), it is science fiction. If there is magic, it is fantasy4. However, in order to get a clearer insight into the issue, it will be necessary to have a closer look at the two genres.
2.1. Science Fiction: The Literature Of Change
In order to thoroughly discuss the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, it is essential to first clearly define the two terms. Encyclop æ dia Britannica defines science fiction as “a form of fiction that deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals”5. Scientific development is most obviously the most important aspect of the genre. It is also the most, possibly the only, undisputed one. Yet, it is only one aspect. The definition has to be stated more precisely. James Gunn does so in his essay “Toward a Definition of Science Fiction”. He writes:
Science Fiction is the branch of literature that deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected into the past, the future, or to distant places. It often concerns itself with scientific or technological change, and it usually involves matters whose importance is greater than the individual or the community; often civilization or the race itself is in danger.6
This definition is more precise, as it mentions two more aspects which can be found in a number of science fiction stories; these are the projection into another place or another time and the threat against a civilization. Yet, this definition is still too vague. The aspects mentioned in it, apart from the scientific one, are not a sine qua non. Jules Verne's stories, for example, are clearly set in the real world of his present day. It is unclear whether the “distant places” Gunn refers to are the centre of the earth or the seabed, as is the case in Verne’s stories. In addition, there is no element in them which could be considered a threat to the human race or to a civilization. Apart from that, at least in more modern science fiction texts, it does not necessarily have to be the human race which is in the focus of attention. As can be seen from the example of James Cameron's Avatar, it is also possible that it is the human race which poses a threat to other races. It is obvious that the world of Avatar, namely the planet of Pandora, is not the earth of the early 21st century. Yet, the film features a group of people from earth who travel to another planet. They are only able to do this because of their advanced technology - a central aspect of a science-fiction text, according to Gunn. Nevertheless, this indicates the difficulty of proposing a satisfactory definition. In one of his other texts about science-fiction, Gunn addresses this problem. He writes:
“Defining science fiction is like measuring the properties of an electron: you may think you're measuring a solid object, but it's really a wispy cloud.”7 This is absolutely true. When we look for a definition of the term, we will soon enough find that there is not one single definition, but rather an enormous amount of different attempts to clearly describe what is being referred to when one talks about “science fiction”. Gunn writes:
The difficulty with science fiction-and proceeding from that to definition-is that science fiction isn't just one thing. It has no recognizable action, or recognizable milieu, like the western, or recognizable relationship, like the romance. It is about the future-except where it is about the past or the present. It can incorporate all the other genres: one can have a science-fiction western, a science-fiction romance, and, most commonly, a science-fiction adventure story.8
In his essay On the Origins of Genre, Paul Kincaid gives an example of how the difficulty of defining the term could, at least partly, be surmounted. He compares the problem of defining the term of “science fiction” to that of clearly defining the term of “sport”:
We use the word to identify a clearly understood set of activities, but what it is that defines those activities as sport is not so clear. Some sports use a ball, but not all do. Some use some form of racket or bat, but many don't. Many involve strenuous physical exercise, but some (diving, snooker, target shooting) don't. Some require acute hand-eye coordination, many don't. Some demand brute strength but not grace, others demand grace but not brute strength, still others don't demand either. And so on.9
While Kincaid's example is very helpful on the one hand, one problem remains, as Kincaid himself admits: while we may agree that a text A is science fiction, we might not agree whether a text B is or whether it is not.10 In order to discuss the question which text is can be considered a science fiction text and which cannot, it would be necessary to agree on a minimum of elements which would be “obligatory” in order to make a text fit into the genre. However, any selection, apart from the element of the scientific progress, will necessarily be arbitrary. Yet, a number of fantastic texts will always be identified as science fiction. Others will be identified as fantasy texts. In yet other cases, it will not be possible to put the text into the one category or the other. A clearer insight into the fantasy genre might be helpful in order to make a distinction between this genre and the science- fiction genre.
2.2. What Makes A Text A Fantasy Text?
As has been shown, a standard reference work like Encyclop æ dia
Britannica will usually only be able to give a rather broad definition of something as complex as the genres of fantastic literature. This is true for the term of science fiction, and it is true for that of “fantasy”. It is thus necessary to look for more detailed information. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy defines the term “fantasy” as follows:
A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative. When set in this world, it tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it (…); when set in an otherworld, that otherworld will be impossible, though stories set there may be possible in its terms.11
The term “text” in this case does not necessarily refer to a written story, but to “[a]ny format in which a fantasy story can be told (...)”12, which includes, amongst other things, films and television series13. The perception of something as being impossible, as is mentioned in the definition given above, is dependent on the time at which a story is being told. Before the 16th century, when the sciences became more and more important in Europe, “most Western literature contained huge amounts of material 20th-century readers would think of as fantastical.”14 As the three texts which are being discussed in this study are set in the real world of their authors, it is not necessary to mention any further details about the “otherworld”. However, it is essential to provide some detail about the structure of a fantasy text, as two of the texts this study focuses on contain supernatural elements and as one contains not a “supernatural”, but still an (at least until the present day) “unreal” element, namely intelligent beings from outer space. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, we can find the following:
A fantasy text may be described as the story of an earned passage from Bondage - via a central Recognition of what has been revealed and what is about to happen, and which may involve a profound Metamorphosis of protagonist or world (or both) - into the Eucatastrophe, where marriages may occur, just governance fertilize the barren Land, and there is a Healing.15
The term “bondage” in this case refers to “a state of being contained or trapped in a particular place, time, physical shape or moral condition.”16
“Recognition” refers to “anagnorisis” in the Aristotelian sense of the word17, but the definition has to be extended. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, we can find a more detailed explanation:
It is at this moment of Recognition that the inherent Story at the heart of most full fantasy texts is most visible, most “artificial”, and most revelatory. At this moment in the “structurally complete fantasy tale” (Brian Attlebery's phrase) protagonists begin to understand what has been happening to them (…). They understand, in other words, that they are in a Story; that, properly recognized (which is to say properly told), their lives have the coherence and significance of Story; that, in short, the Story has been telling them.18
“Eucatastrophe” means “the final “turn” of a plot which gives rise to “a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story.”19 The term “Land” refers to “a venue in a Secondary World - and in certain kinds of secondary world only.”20 It can be ignored in this study, as all the primary texts to be discussed here are set in the real world of the 19th century.
3. The Three Novels
It has been mentioned that each Shelley's, Stoker's and Wells' texts feature at least one element which can be considered a novelty - beings from outer space, a vampire, and a dead person who is being brought back to life. All these elements are what makes their respective story a “fantastic” story. Yet, the way they justify this categorization is a different one in each one of them.
3.1. What makes The War of the Worlds a science-fiction text?
Most probably, nobody will disagree that H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds belongs to the science fiction genre. When asked why, the answer will be that there are beings from outer space in the story. These beings from Mars are the “Novum”, which, as has been shown, are essential for a text in order to be considered a “fantastic” text. In order for a fantastical text to be considered a science fiction text, this new phenomenon has to be possible according to the law of nature. This is clearly the case here. The fact that mankind has not yet made contact with beings from other planets does not mean that this will never happen. Much less does it mean that the existence of life in outer space is impossible.
The Martians in Wells' text are a novelty, in two respects. First, they are intelligent beings from outer space - something that, until Wells published his text, has not existed before, not even in the science fiction genre. Even Jules Verne's and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's texts do not mention any beings from outer space. However, this idea has remained a prominent (and a recurring) motif in science fiction texts until the present day.
The second aspect in which the Martians are a novelty is the fact that they are intelligent beings. This can be seen from their far advanced technology for one thing - their weapons21 and their spaceships22, for example. For another thing, it can be seen from the fact that they attempt to invade earth for a motif other than expanding their territory. Instead of that, the Martians much rather foresee that they will be forced to do this, as a consequence of the dilapidation of their own planet:
That last stage of exhaustion, which to us is still incredibly remote, has become a present-day problem for the inhabitants of Mars. The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts. And looking across space with instruments, and intelligences which we have scarcely dreamed of, they see, at is nearest distance only 35,000,000 of miles sunward of them, a morning star of hope, our own warmer planet, green with vegetation and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent of fertility, with glimpses through its drifting cloud wisps of broad stretches of populous country and narrow, navy-crowded seas.23
The War of the Worlds clearly fits to James Gunn's definition. It does in fact mention something about the effects of technological change on mankind. Yet, in Wells' text, it is not mankind whose technology has changed. The change in technology has happened on another planet, which, in consequence, lets the Martians become a threat for humanity, as the humans cannot defeat them:
“And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them [i.e., the Martians] at least as alien and lowly as are the monkey and lemurs to us.”24 In this respect, Gunn's definition is imprecise, as it does not give any more details about who it is who is a threat to whom.
In addition, Wells' story is an example for the “impurity” of the science-fiction genre. The technological aspect is, as has been shown, characteristic for a science-fiction story. So is the thread to the human race. Yet, this motif can be found in Dracula as well, despite the fact that the count is not from another planet.
1 The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, see “Fantastic.” Web.
2 Ibid., see “Fantastic.” Web.
3 The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, see “Fantasy.” Web.
4 The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, see “Fantasy.” Web.
5 "science fiction." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011.
6 Gunn, p. 6
7 Gunn, p. 9
8 Ibid., p. 11
9 Kincaid, p. 47
10 cf. Ibid., p. 48
11 The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, see “Fantasy.” Web.
12 Ibid., see “Fantasy.” Web.
13 Ibid., see “Fantasy.” Web.
14 Ibid., see “Fantasy.” Web.
15 Ibid., see “Fantasy.” Web.
16 Ibid., see “Fantasy.” Web.
17 Ibid., see “Recognition.” Web.
18 Ibid., see “Recognition.” Web.
19 Ibid., see “Eucatastrophe.” Web.
20 Ibid., see “Land.” Web.
21 cf. Wells, Chapter 6. Web.
22 cf. Ibid., Chapter 2. Web.
23 Wells, Chapter 1. Web.
24 Ibid., Chapter 1. Web.
- Quote paper
- Christoph Ewen (Author), 2013, Science Fiction And Fantasy, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/276802