m. c. de marco: To invent new life and new civilizations...

Nuclear Fuel Cells Made by Dwarves

Someone somewhere in the news aggregator linked to an old post of John Scalzi’s with his final word on the perpetual debate over the difference between SF and F:

You walk up to the main character of the story in question and say: “Hey! Main character! That deus ex machina doodad you have on your belt, does it have, like, a battery?”

If he says “Why, yes, there’s a tiny nuclear fuel cell in there that will power this baby for 10,000 planetary revolutions,” well, then, you’ve got some science fiction there. If he says, “Of course not, it was forged in the eternal flames of Mount [insert typewriter spasm here] by the dwarves who serve the elder and/or fallen god [insert second typewriter spasm here], and holds captive his immortal soul” or some such, well, that’s fantasy. Everything else is pretty much elaboration and variation on the point.

If the story features a nuclear fuel cell made by the dwarf servants of the dread god Typewriter Spasm, what you’ve got is an editor asleep at the switch.

Now if you’re like me and you have a NaNoWriMo novel with a passel of dwarves industriously creating nuclear fuel cells, then you need to either find a sleepy editor or figure out whether you’re writing science fiction (and will be done in another 30,000 words) or fantasy (and will be done in another three and a half novels).

Ted Chiang distinguished between SF and fantasy doodads not by the language associated with them but by the mechanism powering them—impersonal physical laws vs. the “conscious intention” of the user. In Ted Chiang’s terms, it is not the case that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. As long as the technology is universally accessible at the push of a button rather than a special (not universally accessible) act of will, it’s not magic.

This establishes firmly that my dwarves’ nuclear fuel cells are SF devices, but what if they were the only ones who knew how to make them, and they refused to sell any to the hobbits, who were still using steam? Magic, I would posit, is as much about access as willpower. If everyone had exactly the same magical powers—say, every human had a D&D-style Wand of Lightning, we’d be in a second grey area between fantasy and science fiction:

            Science                        Magic

Hierarchy   Dwarves w/fuel cells           Magicians with wands (F)

Democracy   Humans with light bulbs (SF)   Humans with wands

So what makes advanced technology seem like magic is not just our lack of scientific understanding, but our lack of access to such doodads. The average person doesn’t understand electricity, never mind nuclear reactions, but they don’t consider light bulbs magical—because they have their own.