Software Engineering and the Chasm between Science and Magic
Today I have the honor of being a guest over at Fantasy Book Critic, one of the ten bloggers participating in Mark Lawrence’s 2016 Self Published Fantasy Blog Off. I’ll be talking about software engineering, genre definitions, the merits of having nerve, the subtle yet indisputable element of science fiction in Outpost, and the chasm between science and magic. It’s a geekfest. You can check it out there, or read it below.
“Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.” – Rod Serling
Way back when I had a respectable job, I took some college courses in software engineering. One of them was on compilers, a software program that transforms programming language into machine language used by a computer processor. I sat in there amid a serious bunch of guys wielding thick glasses, pocket protectors and computer science degrees, and I felt like an impostor. For my final exam, I wrote the front end of a compiler in AWK (anyone who knows what that is gets an Award of Excellence in Geekery). I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had imagination and a lot of nerve. I also feared the worst. When the instructor handed me my graded final, I expected him to say, “Who are you and what are you doing in this class?” Instead, he said, “I’ve never seen anything quite like this.” He gave me an A.
Turns out, this is an obscure metaphor for my take on fantasy and science fiction.
I spent the better part of my childhood reading not only speculative fiction but also the esoteric things that inspire it. I was the kind of kid who would do a book report on Hermetic occultism or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. I was more somewhere else than here, but oddly, this taught me about reality. I never bothered to define the difference between fantasy and science fiction; now, I couldn’t say how many novels there are mixing strong elements of both. It’s a challenge to mix them without throwing out the definitions. Genres tend to blur over time, and then split into sub-genres, because gods forbid we can’t conveniently define something.
For the sake of argument, let’s call these genres distinct and go with classical definitions. To my mind, Science Fiction starts on a foundation of what’s known and provable, usually involving technological advances, the state of civilization, etc., and goes from there. Think Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke or Becoming Human by Valerie J. Freireich. Fantasy deals more in the realms of myth, fairy tales and the unreal, usually involving magic or otherworldly forces—and that’s not to say it has to be soft or without rugged themes or realities. In this context, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings is definitive; the Legend of Drizzt series by R.A. Salvatore, Blood Song by Anthony Ryan and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle are exemplary.
In fantasy, within reason, you can do anything if you can imagine it. This is probably why I’ve always leaned towards this genre, particularly the epic or high sub-genres where nearly everything is made up aside from basic references that serve to ground us in the story; for example, a medieval setting. I’ve written some science fiction, but it’s not my first love and despite a long and varied high tech career, I avoid writing it for the same reason I hid beneath an invisibility cloak in compiler class: Impostor! It’s a world full of geeks and somebody will call me out.
And yet, by way of my aforementioned nerve, I went there.
After writing Outpost, which is decidedly fantasy—if not epic or high fantasy if we want to get persnickety—I wrote this little tag line: “Epic fantasy entwined with Norse mythology and a touch of science fiction.” I must have taken out and put back in “a touch of science fiction” a dozen times. Finally, I removed it, but it left a stain. No science fiction here! I grumped, and then I thought about it—an interdimensional portal with specific dimensions and geometry built by extraterrestrial warlords to travel to and from other planets without having to wait for rare planetary alignments, humans trained in the principles of light, crystals, and energy so they can maintain the power source—Yeah yeah, ok. A touch of science fiction.
But it’s subtle. Said warlords are immortal, like elves, they are essentially Vikings—albeit highly evolved ones—and walk alongside warlocks, goblins, draugr and gods. Reprieved! The idea here touches on Arthur C. Clarke’s venerable quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In other words, what’s real? There is a seeming chasm in our society between science and magic; what’s acceptable as real and what’s not; and this is evident in these genre definitions. There’s a feel to it. However, as the advance of quantum theory is showing us, this chasm is itself an illusion.
Ergo, I can write the front end of a compiler in any language I want. Hold my beer.
A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
© F.T. McKinstry 2016. All Rights Reserved.