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An Essay by Justin Alexander

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud carefully constructs a very detailed and specific definition of what the term "comics" really means. With that definition in hand, he goes on to explore the incredible depth and breadth of the art form without any preconceptions or biases.

I first read Understanding Comics when I was fourteen years old. This approach to critical analysis had a profound effect on me. Forever after I understood the importance (and power) of having precise definitions.

Which brings me to the definitions for the various genres of speculative fiction which I devised and then perfected over several years of participating in discussions of science fiction in the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup and at various other places face-to-face and around the 'net. If you, like me, are heartily dissatisfied every time you read someone quoting Damon Knight's definition of the genre ("science fiction means what we point to when we say it"), then this should be right up your alley.

SPECULATIVE FICTION: A form of fiction in which the story takes place in an imaginary world which exists as a result of one or more "what if?" questions.

SCIENCE FICTION: A form of speculative fiction in which the "what ifs" which define the imaginary world are based on science and/or technology. Usually this setting is an imagined future, but this is not always the case.

FANTASY: A form of speculative fiction in which the "what ifs" which define the imaginary world are based on the existence of magic. Usually this setting is an alternate reality or an imaginary epoch in Earth's ancient past, but this is not always the case. 

MAGIC: The term "magic" can be applied to any ability, effect, phenomenon, or creature which cannot be explained through the rules of science as they exist in *this* universe. This does not include theoretical future revolutions in scientific theory, the technology which those revolutions make possible, or authorial mistakes. If a work explicitly refers to an ability, effect, phenomenon, or creature as 'magic' (or synonymous term), then the ability, effect, phenomenon, or creature should be considered magic, regardless of its other characteristics.

SCIENCE FANTASY: A form of speculative fiction in which the "what ifs" which define the imaginary world are based on magic and speculative science and/or technology. In other words, any work which meets the definitions of both science fiction and fantasy.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: A form of speculative fiction in which the "what ifs" which define the imaginary world are based on hypothetical changes in the way that history actually played out.

And a couple of clarifications: 

First, certain technologies (like non-relativistic FTL and most time travel) are grandfathered into the SF genre. By this, I mean that they have become so traditional within the genre that it is no longer necessary to actually invoke the speculative science necessary to justify them. Thus, if you have someone using a jumpgate, stepping through a time portal, or using psionic powers, it's not necessary to launch into an explanation of the speculative scientific revolution which made them possible: The reader will simply assume that such an explanation is lurking under the covers.

Second, there are a few works in which characters will describe something as "magic" even though the author's intention is for the reader to recognize that the "magic" in question is actually science or technology that the characters don't recognize as such. Even though the definition of "magic" might lead one to classify such a work as fantasy, they are more properly classified as science fiction: The characters may be referring to it as "magic"; but the work is not.

This, of course, is all my opinion. But, in my opinion, these definitions do a better job of matching "science fiction" and "fantasy" to the stuff which is actually labelled as such on the shelf than any other objective definition I've seen.

Final thought for the day: It can be argued that there is a continuum between fantasy and science fiction, and the line between "speculations with magic" and "speculations with science" is a fuzzy one. But for the sake of argument, let us call this division the Clarke Line, in honor of Arthur C. Clarke's famous Third Law.