Is your god insane?

Had a fabulous informal chat-over-drinks with a dozen spec fic writers, including the most wonderful Karen Joy Fowler (who has written a great deal more than the bestseller you might associate with her name; more about all that in another post), and one topic of many we hit was the dividing line (if there is one) between science fiction and fantasy.

One writer floated a definition I’d never heard (and I’m paraphrasing here, so I hope I get this right): That if the world of your story is “ruled” by an interventionist or insane/unpredictable god(s), one who might grant miracles or select a chosen one or otherwise bend your characters’ reality to her purposes or theirs, it is fantasy; and if your world has a clockwork or hands-off god, who has created a world that follows a set of knowable rules under its own momentum (e.g., physics), it is science fiction. (And I suppose that if your world had no god at all, perhaps it could be either, depending on how your world functioned? Or maybe the fact that your world exists implies some organization or lack thereof — it’s not so much the god per se as “how this world works.”)

This would mean that, for instance, a world with learnable, predictable magic (even if dependent on talent) would be sci-fi, whereas, say, Neal Schusterman’s EVERLOST would be fantasy (since whether you end up there appears to be random… although, once you’re there, the rules are pretty coherent. So maybe not.).

And I suspect that many young readers, at the mercy of those who have authority over them, feel as though they live under insane gods, not sane ones. Which may help explain the attraction of fantasies to so many.

I can see the merits in this definition,  but it is considerably different from some of the criteria I’d use. What do you think? (And if you really want to procrastinate a lot today, see this marginally related post from Greg a year ago. And link through to its inspiration, which has some great stuff in it. I especially liked John C. Wright’s.)

Is your god sane, insane, or absent? Which kind of worlds do you prefer to read about, and why?

— Joni, who has successfully resisted the temptation to bring world religions into this post

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Is your god insane?

  1. I’d disagree with that definition myself. I think it’s perfectly possible to write an atheistic fantasy world, in which magic exists as an elemental force which can be manipulated by the skilled user, but is unconnected to any kind of spiritual devotion.

    I think it’s also possible to write science fiction in which the ultimate origins and laws of the universe come from a divine being, but where reliable scientific laws and principles exist and human beings are making use of them to discover their world and their universe and advance their society for good or ill — without any blatant deus ex machina interference.

    IMO it’s not the nature of the fantasy or SF sub-genres themselves that defines whether there’s a god involved or what that god is like. It’s the author who makes that decision. However, it’s certainly true that traditionally speaking fantasy is more open and amenable to the supernatural, and SF tends to shy away from it. Any attempt to blend the two (as in C.S. Lewis’s planetary trilogy) is apt to get labeled science fantasy, not “real” SF.

    • Yeah, I agree with you in that it seems to me that the trouble with this definition is that it’s lumping two separate things — a rationale universe (or not) and the concept of a god or gods — into one.

      What might be interesting is to delve a bit into the whole concept of “supernatural.”

  2. Hmmm…an exception to that rule might be Sherri Tepper’s book, Sideshow, in which several people become gods, and are utterly insane, thanks to the magic of science fiction….

  3. Woo-hoo! I’m marginally relevant!

    Where does our own world fit into that definition? Some people are absolutely sure our universe is overseen by a deity, while others would strongly disagree. If there is a God, we have many stories about His illogical, contradictory, and interventionist nature, but many believers say there’s a logical purpose for everything that human perception is too limited for us to see. Even just within the realm of science, there are universal constants that seem arbitrary as far as we can tell.

    Since the real world is the baseline we use to judge fictional worlds we encounter, a taxonomy that can’t be mapped onto our own world just doesn’t work for me.

    • Interesting criteria, Greg… and I don’t mean to defend this definition — I just thought it was interesting — but I think there are plenty of people who would say that the idea that events have MEANING would not be mappable to our “real” world, but that doesn’t stop us from creating fiction that, at its heart, is a search for or assessment of meaning.

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