Sir Francis Bacon

Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend.

--Of Studies--

SF&F -- Distinction Through Modes of Plausibility

~800 words

New Interesting Words!

mien - noun - air, bearing or aspect indicative of character.

bedizen - verb - to dress or adorn in a showy, gaudy or vulgar manner.

catechism - noun - A statement of beliefs or principals, or a particular book, a summary of Christian beliefs and values in the form of questions and answers.

Let me start by saying that I originally conceived this article as bridging the great gap between these genres, but that quickly stepped in far out of my depth (literary criticism is a really deep well). Instead of doing something crazy (and dare I say academic), I will talk about things I have read and things I would like to read.

I was researching this article (surprised?) looking up science fantasy authors I seemed to recall, when I happened upon a pair of articles on the Internet that lend some insight on this topic. The author was Ursula K. LeGuin, whom you might know from the Earthsea novels, or The Left Hand of Darkness, which won both Hugo and Nebula awards. She has written quite a lot of prize winning science fiction and fantasy since the mid sixties, and has a very good website.

I had been researching her because I remembered her name appearing on a list of science fantasy authors. A couple of sources cite her as being mildly unconcerned with genre boundaries, but neither did I find a billboard declaring this or that novel to be science fantasy.

I probably should mention, stories that deliberately contain science fiction and fantasy elements have their own sub-genre called science fantasy. My excellent friend Jeff Chapman recently wrote an article clarifying the somewhat misty boundaries between sci fi and fantasy, which inspired this article, and I am here to expand somewhat on his classification. I tend to think of science fantasy as having two approaches, over-explaining fantasy or under-explaining science fiction.

There is one book that I will tentatively place in this category. It is a book I have been meaning to read for some time now, and have read a fair bit about. The book is The Iron Dragon's Daughter, by Michael Swanwick, and it says right in the first line of the wikipedia article that it "combines fantasy and science fiction."

So there you go.

Michael Swanwick was an author I first read in Best SF 14, an anthology of science fiction short fiction (with occasional novellas). The story was called "The Scarecrow's Boy", and it was about a world in which robots have more common decency than humans do.

The Iron Dragon's Daughter focuses on the misadventures of Jane, a young female changeling who is a slave in a dragon factory. She meets an rusty old dragon and they escape, and I believe she goes to school afterwards. The book is more or less a criticism of the rash of recent fantasy authors who prey on the success of J.R.R. Tolkien. That is to say, he takes all the tropes and archetypes of the elf-man-dwarf-dragon stories and turns them on their head. I believe there's also some social satire mixed in there as well, but as I've said I haven't read it. Yet.

So yes, when we find a book (or set of books) that doesn't quite fit in our set of pigeon holes, we create a brand new hole for it. The interesting thing to me is whether science fantasy gets listed as a sub-genre of fantasy or science fiction. Wikipedia's index of genres has a special category for "cross-genre".

One other note: more than once, when reviewing story markets on Duotropes, I have noticed that publishers will say something to the effect of "Cross-genre is more than fine" or similar. I could be mistaken, but it looks to me as if publishers want that sort of thing.


In her articles on plausibility in Fantasy and Science Fiction, LeGuin draws a clear line between the two by demonstrating the different methods by which they become plausible to the reader.

Fantasy, according to LeGuin, is made plausible through detail. Vivid, realistic description, reference to events in the past or the future, and above all coherence and stability in whatever rules govern the world are the staples of a plausible fantasy novel. She also says that ulterior motives completely spoil the mood. If the writer is a victim of wishful thinking, political intent or didactic purpose, fantasy stories are hobbled by their intent. In order to be a free expression of imagination, it has to truly be free from these harmful psychological influences.

Of science fiction, she says that it is very similar to realism. Science fiction relies on "accurate, honest observation and intuition of reality". Science fiction often avoids comparison with the present time, because contradicting the reader's experience of modern life seriously compromises the plausibility of the story. The most important question, when testing the plausibility of a science fiction story, is whether this might have happened, might be happening, or might yet happen, so the science fiction story must subjugate reality, but also keep its distance from it.

They are very good articles, I would encourage all my readers to take a look at her website, as well as her books.

Image credit to ~Rawbot of, who likes to draw ROBOTS (and is also pretty good at it).


  1. Another interesting way to think of the distinction. Thanks for the links to the LeGuin articles. I had never read anything by LeGuin until I started The Wizard of Earthsea a couple days ago. It's a wonderful story with great writing. I'll have to finish the series then try The Left Hand of Darkness.

  2. Yes, I read the Earthsea trilogy not that long ago, though I haven't read the new ones she's written. I think there are five now...

    LeGuin also has some very interesting advice for people trying to write and sell their own stories on her webpage. I'd encourage you to take a look if you haven't already.