Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Magic and the Class III Impossibility

When I was thirteen, the 1983 movie KRULL blew my mind away.  Not because I thought it to be the greatest movie ever, but because I could not wrap my teenage brain around a mountain floating through space.  The Beast conquered entire star systems with his galactic traveling mountain.  The movie began with the Beast’s invasion of the planet Krull.  I loved how the peak resembled the tip of a star destroyer but then maneuvered onto its base and landed like, well, a mountain falling from the sky.  The slayers who rode out on horses had these lance-style weapons that released a single blue tracer of energy and then, after firing their lone shot, they would turn the weapons and use them as picks to parry the swords of the planet’s medieval knights.  The mountain disappeared with each rising of the binary suns so that the whole world could be conquered.  What a mind block.  I left the theater debating with myself:  Was KRULL fantasy or science fiction?  I didn’t settle on an answer.

In 2000, when the special edition DVD was released, the back cover described KRULL as a “spectacular fantasy-adventure beyond your wildest imagination.”  The debate fired up again in my mind.  I thought of Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  So isn’t that mountain such an advanced technology it seems like magic?
Other recent movies have given me that same mind block.  In the 2010 movie Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the modern day apprentice Dave is studying to be a scientist, but his mentor - the sorcerer Balthasar - is from the time of Merlin.  Their dialogue is like fantasy and science fiction converging: 

Dave asked, “Is sorcery science or magic?” 

“Yes and yes,” Balthasar answered. 

In fact, Balthasar asked Dave, “What causes molecules to heat up?” 

“They vibrate,” Dave answered. 

“Everything we see is in a constant state of vibration,” Balthasar continued, “thus the illusion of solidity, but how do we take that which appears solid and have it burst into flames?  We will the vibrations to go faster.” 

The language of science is used throughout the movie, and even in the big ending when all hope seems lost, Dave announced, “I’m not alone, I brought a little science with me.”  His experience with his Tesla Coil Project, along with his girlfriend’s disrupting one of the satellites used to “direct and amplify the electromagnetic energy” wins the day.  Is Sorcerer’s Apprentice still a fantasy if it includes elements of science?

Then there’s the 2011 movie Thor, in which the Nordic god states, “Your ancestors called it magic, and you call it science, well I come from a place where they’re one and the same.”  I can’t help but think of Clarke’s dictum again with that portal from Asgard to Earth.  What a stunning visual tour of outer space.  It gave an amazing sense of just how far away Thor must travel to get here.  And yet, I’m left wondering if Thor is even human?  Or did humanity evolve on Asgard?  Why does such an advanced species dress in medieval garb?  Why is their greatest technical weapon a hammer?  Couldn’t such an advanced civilization produce a death star instead?  Isn’t this Nordic myth still just magic dressed up as science fiction?    

To help me with these dilemmas I turned to one of my favorite authors:  Orson Scott Card.  In his book How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy, he states that there is an infinite boundary between fantasy and science fiction.  So even though the two genres are stacked together at bookstores, the two are never crossed.  The divide, in its simplest terms, comes down to fantasy using magic while science fiction has uninvented technologies.  Card goes on to write that a fantasy has rules but they do not correspond to reality as we know it.  Thus Card’s “semi-accurate rule of thumb” is:

“If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it’s science fiction.  If it’s set in a universe that doesn’t follow our own rules, it’s a fantasy.”

So by this definition, the movies I cite must be fantasies since they do not follow our rules.  KRULL has a disappearing mountain, Sorcerer’s Apprentice has statues that come to life, Thor has a hammer that’s indestructible.  Yet isn’t the slayer’s lance a science fiction technology?  The same goes for the Tesla Coil Project or the portal from Asgard.  Perhaps these technologies have no place in our understanding of physics thus making them fantasies.  For this dilemma I had to consult a physicist.  

In Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible he ranks science fiction’s most popular technologies into levels of impossibility.  A Class I Impossibility includes force fields, teleportation, robots, starships, antimatter, etc.  As Kaku writes, “These are technologies that are impossible today but that do not violate the known laws of physics.”  This echoes Card’s definition of science fiction.  So have I made a mistake by labeling the movies as fantasies?  Isn’t the Beast’s mountain a starship?  When a sorcerer goes into a mirror isn’t that teleportation?  Wasn’t there a robot in Thor?  How do you classify scripts that do and do not follow the same rules as ours?  Let’s assume these movies are science fiction.  Do they continue to fit Kaku’s definitions? 

A Class II Impossibility goes to the next level with time travel or hyperspace.  I think hyperspace is implied with the Beast’s mountain.  I believe the same is true for hyperspace/wormhole travel from Asgard.  The magic vase which held Balthasar from the time of Merlin might be a sort of time travel device.  Kaku writes, “If they are possible at all, they might be realized on a scale of millennia to millions of years in the future.”  The problem with Class II is that hyperspace and time travel may never be possible.  This is a fuzzy deviation from Card’s definition of science fiction following our own rules, but he has a defense:

“Time travel and faster-than-light (FTL) starships respect the real boundary between fantasy and science fiction:  They have metal and plastic; they use heavy machinery, and so they’re science fiction.  If you have people do some magic, impossible thing by stroking a talisman or praying to a tree, it’s fantasy; if they do the same thing by pressing a button or climbing inside a machine, it’s science fiction.”

I get a sense that Card is telling us that we should know it when we see it.  Philip Athens in his book The Guide to Writing Fantasy And Science Fiction takes Occam’s razor to this boundary and shaves the two genres down to this maxim:

“...fantasy is fiction in which the impossible is possible without a logical explanation.  Science fiction is where the impossible is possible with a logical explanation.”

Yet even this definition is problematic.  Sorcerer’s Apprentice is loaded with references to science when magical things happen.  So what is going here?  Magic with a false logical explanation? 

Card emphasizes that a “good fantasy must also establish a whole new set of natural laws, explain them right up front, and then faithfully abide by them throughout.”  Now I’ve run into the greatest problem yet:  Kaku’s final category approximates the one Card uses for fantasy.  A Class III Impossibility falls outside of what our contemporary society has discovered to be possible.  Kaku stresses that “These are technologies that violate the known laws of physics.”  The holy grail is the perpetual motion machine.  Such a technology is like Thor’s hammer, which never loses its power.  Is the Nordic god’s hammer magical or a Class III Impossibility?  Once again, since Class III means the laws of physics have to be rewritten, how is that different from Card’s “universe that doesn’t follow our rules” definition of fantasy?

Maybe I need to accept that there is no infinite boundary between fantasy and science fiction.  Like a Venn diagram, the set of new natural laws for magic and the set of new natural laws for Class III Impossibilities can intersect.  When there’s a spaceship mountain in KRULL, or a Tesla Coil Project in Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or a Norse god who is an ancient alien in Thor, these screenplays take fantasies and crossbreed them with science fiction so that, literally, magic and science are “one and the same.”  Magic, then, is a Class III Impossibility. 


  1. On my best high school sick day ever, my dad rented Krull for me. I also almost reviewed it as a streaming on netflix post.

  2. I don't think there really is a point in drawing the ultimate line that clearly separates Sci-Fi from Fantasy. There will always be works that have some of both genres and will challenge any definition.

    One major problem in this possible/impossible treatment is that it enables one to classify almost every work in any of the categories, according to one's knowledge of science.

    Think of superheroes. Superman. He's an alien from Krypton, and Earth's lower gravity combined with a yellow sun give him superpowers. That made perfect sense for Siegel and Shuster and to most of the readers back in the 30s, and it made sense to me when I was a child. Now I know this explanation is absurd and Superman's powers are no more feasible than Dumbledore's (see "The Science of Superheroes", by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, for other examples).

    If you read Dante's Divine Comedy, it's packed up with what was the dernier cri of cosmology and astronomy in his time. His views of Earth and the afterlife were very close to what most people believed (at least, most of the Academy). It could be perfectly be labeled as Medieval Sci-Fi, if they had this category then. Now it's much closer to Fantasy.

    (That's my "Inverted Clarke's Law": any sufficiently old science is undistinguishable from superstition)

    Even in your examples (Sorcerer's Apprentice, Thor), what we have is a pseudo-scientific discourse that could be easily dismissed as impossible, but a very high dose of suspension of disbelief may find acceptable as Sci-Fi.

    So, instead of a "it was Sci-Fi to me when I was in elementary school, now that I'm a doctor in Physics I'd say it's Fantasy" approach, I'd go for an in-story definition (again, if I really did have to draw a line here).

    Let's try this one: Sci-Fi proposes a theory; Fantasy does not. It's still far from perfection, it's full of grey areas (Aslan explaining how the laws of high magic work makes it "scientific"? Space opera with no technical majo still qualifies?) but at least it doesn't need to refer the work to a real world (any real world).


    Oh, and about Krull - who could not love the cyclops?

    1. I'm an instant fan of your "Inverted Clarke's Law." I want to hear more. And your "Sci-Fi proposes a theory" is a much better definition than the others I cite. Yet this whole discussion, for some reason, makes me wonder if the Force in Star Wars "is a pseudo-scientific" theory "that could be easily dismissed as impossible..." This all leads me back to your opening. I too think there isn't a point in drawing a line, but it is fun to discuss. Sci-Fi and Fantasy are both fiction about the impossible, thus leading us to an impossible definition.