Category Archives: Literature

Drawing a Line Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

So I’m currently about halfway through Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series, a “dying earth” style tetralogy which has been described as both science fiction and fantasy and has won awards in both categories. Whether or not the series is science fiction or fantasy is a good question, but simply trying to decipher the answer raised a new question: can a story be both science fiction and fantasy, or are the two mutually exclusive categories?

To answer that question we must first define science fiction and fantasy, which we can do with a little aid from Wikipedia and the internet.

The traditional definition of science fiction is a genre that encompasses stories with speculative elements that are at least scientifically plausible, if not necessarily scientifically possible. What does this mean? Well, if we ask ourselves if a story is possible based on our current understanding of science and the laws of nature and the answer is yes, then that story would be considered science fiction.

Consider some of the common elements of science fiction stories:

–       Space travel: We know this to be possible, the only question is how we could travel long distances through space.

–       Aliens: Given that mankind exists, and that we can extrapolate from current data that there are probably trillions of planets in our galaxy alone, then it is likely that alien life forms do exist.

–       Sentient computers/robots: Not a far leap considering computational advances over the last 60 years.

–       Time travel: Many theoretical physicists believe this to be possible. Time travel forwards in time is known to be real (see: time dilation)

Other common elements of science fiction include teleportation, advanced weaponry, genetic modifications, and more. Essentially, as long as science does not indicate that something is impossible, then it can be considered science fiction.

Fantasy stories, on the other hand, feature elements of the impossible like magic and supernatural creatures, including vampires, dragons, and trolls.

While there are other important differences between science fiction and fantasy genres, including thematic elements, story structure, and accepted tropes, at its core, science fiction is possible, whereas fantasy is impossible.

However, this definition falls short, and the reason why is a matter of perspective.

Cover of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which published both genres, though not necessarily simultaneously.
Cover of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which published both genres, though not necessarily simultaneously.

There is a famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke in which he stated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I’ve seen people argue vehemently against this, stating that either something is technological in nature or it isn’t. This is true – simply because someone does not understand how something works does not make it magic. However, Clarke was an author, and his quote is referring to stories.

You see, stories we read are told from particular perspectives, and from a single, uneducated perspective, technology and magic can be indistinguishable. Imagine a story about technology written by two different people, one who believes in magic and one who does not. The individual who believes in magic will tell a very different story than the one who understands the inner workings of technology.

So, whether or not a story is science fiction or fantasy is not dependent upon whether or not the fundamental story elements of a story are possible or impossible, but rather whether the individual telling the story (either first person or third person) believes the events taking place to be possible or impossible, or more accurately, whether the narrator understands technology or believes in magic.

It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

So going back to The Book of the New Sun, is it science fiction or fantasy? We simply have to look at the narrator, Severian. As it turns out, he has no knowledge of science or technology whatsoever, and so the story comes across as fantasy, even if it is set in a plausible* future earth scenario. Of course, The Book of the New Sun is an interesting case, because it’s not traditional fantasy either. Given Gene Wolfe’s rather unique literary voice, reading the books feels more like embarking on a peyote smoke-induced fever dream than reading a fantastic tale, but given a choice between sci-fi and fantasy, fantasy gets the nod.

*Honestly, the story is not plausible. It’s totally bonkers, but some elements of what Wolfe throws at the reader are certainly based in technology.

Image credit: Featured image by DanilLovesFood ( (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0), via deviantART. Post image by Steve (alittleblackegg) (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via Flickr.

How The Wheel of Time nearly smothered my love of reading… and yet miraculously also rejuvenated it

Wheel of TimeStrap yourselves in folks, because today we are talking about the one, the only, The Wheel of Time.

What is The Wheel of Time you ask? Well, in the broadest sense, the ‘wheel of time’ is a concept found in several religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, which regards time as a cyclical process whereby events repeat themselves over the ages as if they were notches upon a spinning wheel.

But here I’m talking about The Wheel of Time, a series of epic fantasy novels begun by the late author Robert Jordan and finished by Brandon Sanderson. If you’re a fantasy fan and you have not heard of The Wheel of Time, then quite honestly, I’m surprised. It is arguably the second most widely read and influential epic fantasy story ever written, behind only The Lord of The Rings. With at least 44 million copies sold, it is also one of the best-selling fantasy series of all time, behind only Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Twilight, and Terry Pratchett’s never-ending Discworld series.

But what The Wheel of Time is best known for is its length. As Derek Zoolander might say, it’s really, really, really, really, ridiculously long. You want numbers? Let’s talk numbers.

Now, the average person thinks of a book’s length in terms of pages, but this is a poor way to judge length, as pages can be different sizes and contain text of varying sizes, fonts, and line spacings. So authors and publishers use word count as a true measure of a novel’s length. Let me give you some word counts to feast your brains on:

–       A middle grade novel, for kids of ages 8-12, is usually around 20-40,000 words. Alice in Wonderland, for example, is ~27,000 words.

–       Young adult books, for kids ages 12 and up, usually come in at about 55-70,000 words, but that has been trending upward in recent years. The Hunger Games clocked in at about 100,000 words.

–       Very short adult novels might clock in at 50,000 words, like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but most are around 90-100,000 words.

–       Science fiction and fantasy novels tend to run long, and epic fantasy is the worst offender. 150,000+ words is not uncommon. The Fellowship of the Ring was about 187,000 words.

–       Then there’s really, honkingly huge novels: Les Misérables (~531,000 words), War and Peace (~587,000 words), and Atlas Shrugged (~645,000 words).

–       The longest single novel ever written (though it was published in seven volumes, so I’m not completely sure you can argue it really is a single novel) is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, coming in at an astounding 1.2 million words. Seems like a fitting title for such a long novel.

So what about The Wheel of Time, you ask? Well, the longest single novel in the series is the 4th, The Shadow Rising, which clocks in at nearly 394,000 words, but you have to understand that there are a full 14 novels in the series, plus a relevant prequel, and if you add up the length of all of those books, you get the full length of the series:

4.41 million words

What makes that number even more astounding is that The Wheel of Time is all one single story. Some authors, particularly those of mysteries and crime novels, will write serialized novels, where the main character is always the same but each novel centers around a different plot, but The Wheel of Time series focuses on a singular plot throughout the entire series. As such, I would hazard to say that The Wheel of Time might be the single longest story ever written.

Now, writers will often talk about ‘good length’ and ‘bad length’, and as masterful a storyteller as Robert Jordan was, he absolutely had his fair share of ‘bad length’ within the series. At times, the story slows to a snail’s pace. Then the snail stops moving and as a reader you wonder if the snail might have died.

The 10th book, Crossroads of Twilight, is often considered the most painfully slow and boring of all the novels. The plot summary of the novel on Wikipedia is hilarious. Every main character that appears in the novel simply continues to try to do whatever is was they were doing in the last novel. Quite literally, nothing of any consequence happens within the novel’s 271,000 words. To give you an idea of how poorly it was received by fans, the novel currently sports a rating of 1.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon, which is simply unheard of for a novel with over 2,500 reviews.

The series’ length was the main reason I was tentative about starting it and the reason I didn’t begin reading it until 2007, but embark upon the literary journey I ultimately did.

It almost destroyed my love of reading.

Let me first say that I have the utmost respect for Mr. Jordan. To attempt to create a tale of the length and level of complexity that he did… well, I don’t think anyone had ever attempted such a task before. And I certainly have yet to read any other fantasy series, even one a fraction of the length of The Wheel of Time, that has not traversed through some rocky reading terrain at some point. In fact, most incredibly long novels and series usually transmutate into extended philosophical ramblings (Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series comes to mind), but I never felt like The Wheel of Time became preachy. It’s just a really, really long story.

The problem is that no one, I don’t care how talented, can write 4.41 million words of gripping fiction revolving around a single story. And Mr. Jordan was no exception. As the series progressed, the tale slowed to a glacial pace. With each progressive book, subsequently fewer and fewer plot elements were resolved, nor were new ones introduced. And with each passing book, my desire to keep reading was incrementally diminished.

Now, us fantasy readers are a weird breed. We keep reading novels even when every sense of reason tells us to abandon them, simply because we want to see how a story ends. Honestly, I can think of only one fantasy series I have abandoned part way through, but that was because it had become so violent and poorly written that I lost all interest in the story. (Try to guess which in the comments! Might surprise you…) And so I kept reading The Wheel of Time, as it sucked my love for fantasy like a leech. At one point, I think I read two Wheel of Time books in a calendar year, and no other fiction.

I paused after the 10th book, arguably the most dreadfully boring of them all. I considered not finishing the series. But for some reason, I pushed onward and picked up book number 11.

I’m glad that I did.

Book 11, Knife of Dreams, was miraculously good. I’m not sure if Mr. Jordan was revitalized by his impending death (he suffered from a blood disease known as amyloidosis), but the book was riveting. After his passing, up-and-coming fantasy author Brandon Sanderson was contracted to finish the series, and in my opinion, he has done an astounding job.

Going back to the title of this blog, I’ve mentioned how The Wheel of Time smothered my love of reading, but how exactly did it revitalize it? As clear as this fact is to me, it is a difficult question to answer. Perhaps it is because my instinct to see series through to their conclusions was justified with a quality book delivered by Mr. Jordan before his passing and subsequently by several more from Brandon Sanderson. Perhaps it is because Mr. Sanderson’s online lectures reinterested me in writing and encouraged me to try my own hand at it. But there is more than that, I think.

There is a popular phrase, sometimes attributed to the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, that life is a journey, not a destination. I believe the same is true of a story. The plot of The Wheel of Time is fundamentally basic. It’s a coming of age story, of a young man coming to grips with his power and using it in the name of good to defeat evil. The story’s destination is among the most frequently visited destinations in all of fiction. And yet, the journey presented in The Wheel of Time is one of the most meticulously crafted, most in-depth, most all consuming I have ever read. Like life, it has its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows, its moments of passion and those of inactivity, but also like life, it is a journey worth having taken.

The final novel in the series, A Memory of Light, came out at the beginning of this year. I have yet to read it, but I look forward to doing so. Thanks Mr. Jordan and Mr. Sanderson for a great journey.

Image credits: Featured image by By Heikenwaelder Hugo, Austria, Email :, [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Emotional Payoff and Unexpected Curveballs

BaseballConsider for a moment: what is the most important part of a story? What leaves the most lasting impact? Is it an intriguing plot? Is it a powerful setting, beautifully described? Is it characters that have depth and show real emotion?

There is no right or wrong answer. Each individual story will have some elements that are more powerful than others, but there’s no doubt that creating lasting, powerful emotions plays a huge part in creating successful stories.

Take The Lord of the Rings, for example. What’s more important to the reader, that Frodo destroys the one true ring in the fires of Mount Doom, or that he forges a lasting relationship with Sam that ultimately proves more powerful than the one ring itself?

Or what about Harry Potter? What moved you more, Harry’s eventual defeat of Voldemort, or his ultimate passionate embrace with Ginny Weasley? Or perhaps his reunion with his dead mother, father, and godfather through the use of the resurrection stone?

These are two great examples of what fantasy author David Farland calls “emotional payoff.” As a reader, by sticking through with a story, you experience a powerful emotional ending. But both of these endings (friendship triumphs over evil, boy gets girl) are entirely predictable. That’s part of what makes them satisfying, truth be told. But what happens when an author throws you an emotional curveball?

Recently, I finished reading Glen Cook’s Gilded Latten Bones, the thirteenth novel in his fantastic Garrett, P. I. series. I’ll delve into the meaty details of the series at some point, but for now, suffice it to say that the novels are about Garrett, a private investigator, ex-marine, and general hard-ass, who knocks heads and solves problems in TunFaire, a gritty fantasy city full of everything from sorcerers to trolls and ratpeople.

Garrett is a bit of a womanizer, and though he has passing relationships with a number of women throughout the series, he always seems to come back to one in particular: a fiery redhead by the name of Tinnie Tate.

As a reader, we get treated to the evolving relationship between Garrett and Tinnie throughout the lengthy series (now up to fourteen novels). Since the novels are told from a first person perspective, the reader sees and feels what Garrett feels, so it’s natural for the reader to fall for Tinnie just as Garrett does. She has her problems – she’s bossy, possessive, hot-headed, and often fiercely jealous – but she’s also beautiful, passionate, and caring. And her and Garrett, through eleven novels, seem predestined to end up together.

At the end of Angry Lead Skies, the tenth novel, we finally get that emotional payoff. Garrett and Tinnie, it seems, are together for good. In the twelfth novel, it looks for a moment like they might soon marry.

Which brings me to the curveball Cook throws in Gilded Latten Bones. In the novel, Garrett gets separated from Tinnie for a period of time due to the near-murder of his best friend, Morley. Morley gets placed at Garrett’s house for care, and while getting to the bottom of Morley’s attacker, a host of characters from previous novels come over and spend time at Garrett’s place, including a sorceress by the name of Strafa. Then the unthinkable happens.

Garrett and Strafa fall for each other. Hard.

My first instinct as a reader was, ‘Alright, this is just a test. Garrett will figure things out and patch things up with Tinnie like he always does.’ But as the novel progresses, Garrett and Strafa’s relationship becomes more intense, and Garrett’s relationship with Tinnie completely falls apart.

When I saw the writing on the wall, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The big emotional payoff of Garrett and Tinnie getting together, possibly tying the knot, carefully crafted over twelve (12!) books, just got dashed against the wall like a house made of popsicle sticks in a hurricane.

But then I started to think about the situation. Garrett and Tinnie were never really that great for each other. If they were, they wouldn’t have fought so much. They wouldn’t have taken so long to commit to one another. And Garrett wouldn’t have strayed. Strafa, on the other hand, is almost a perfect complement to Garrett. She’s a strong, independent woman, self-secure and confident. And she’s devastatingly gorgeous.

But despite the new relationship perhaps being a better fit, I, as a reader, felt almost betrayed. Why? I got the initial emotional payoff didn’t I, the one from Garrett and Tinnie’s journey together?

Yes, I did. But then things changed. Not everyone lived happily ever after. And even though it’s not particularly realistic, that’s usually the ending that readers like to see.

Cook, of course, dealt with the entire change masterfully. In fact, Garrett’s fall for Strafa happens so suddenly that it surprises Garrett as much as it does the reader, and in that sense, it feels real. We, the reader, didn’t expect Garrett to leave Tinnie, but neither did Garrett. It just sort of happened.

Of course, by changing the status quo, Mr. Cook sets the reader up for another emotional payoff between Garrett and Strafa in future books. Very clever. So all is not lost, I guess. There’s still the potential for a happy ending. Well, except for Tinnie, I suppose.

Thinking back on other books I’ve read, we don’t actually see these sorts of curveballs very often. If you come up with other books that have left you scrambling emotionally, feel free to hit the comments section below.

Image credit: By Sean Winters (theseanster93) (Own work) (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr.

Better Know a Sub-Genre – Space Opera

In my introductory post, I wrote a lot about not only what genres of music and literature I like, but about what sub-genres I like within those genres. As the total wealth of human knowledge becomes immeasurably vast, we as humans have felt the need to sub-compartmentalize genres of fiction and music into smaller and smaller categories, until each one is so specific that it excludes 99.9% of the other stuff that’s out there.

I assume we do this to try and make ourselves feel cool and unique. Instead of being one of millions of people who read sci-fi, you become one of a few hundred people who are really into dying earth/planetary romances mixed with space westerns (I just made that amalgamation up by the way, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had written something along those lines). Suddenly, your passion is a niche that you can lord over your friends, making you seem infinitely cooler than them.

Of course, the problem is that there are so many sub-genres out there now that you might easily be confused by all the nomenclature. What in the world is Bangsian fantasy? Or sword and planet fiction? You need an expert to figure it all out for you.

Well, I’m your expert. Sort of, anyway. At the very least, I know how to use a search engine well enough to fake it.

First up: Space Opera!

Space Opera is a sub-genre of science fiction that emphasizes BIG conflicts and BIG adventures set in outer space, often in the far future, and usually between opponents that possess advanced technologies and powers. In addition, space operas often contain:

–       A focus on a singular, sympathetic main character

–       Elements of romance

–       Elements of mysticism and mythology (as opposed to hard technology)

–       Elements of heroism

–       An emphasis on drama (or even melodrama)

–       Plot elements of war and battle

–       An optimistic outlook and/or happy ending

The term ‘space opera’ was first coined in the 1940’s by a fanwriter by the name of Wilson Tucker as an insult towards stories that he described as “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn[s].” The stories that he referred to first started showing up in the 20’s and 30’s following Hubble’s discoveries that hinted at the immeasurable vastness of our universe, which spurred fiction writers to start thinking beyond the confines of our own solar system. In fact, the first great space opera is sometimes accredited to E. E. “Doc” Smith, whose The Skylark of Space first appeared in the August 1928 edition of the pulp magazine, Amazing Stories.

Amazing Stories Aug1928By the early 40’s, the stories had become so repetitious and hackneyed that fans, such as Tucker, lumped them into a ‘space opera’ category to be summarily ignored. Of course, the type of story did not die, as writers like Poul Anderson and C. J. Cherryh continued to write them throughout the late 70’s. By this point, the term ‘space opera’ had grown beyond being a mere slushy insult and blossomed into its own genre.

Then in the late 70’s and early 80’s, space opera underwent a mini resurgence, not in literature, but in film, thanks to the release of Star Wars, which would go on to become one of the most successful movie franchises of all time.

Star Wars closely follows John Campbell’s monomyth, also known as the hero’s journey, which is something that I’ll go into at a later date. For now though, consider some of Star Wars’ thematic elements:

–       A focus on a sympathetic main character (Luke). ✓

–       Elements of romance (the Luke/Leia/Han Solo love triangle). ✓

–       Elements of mysticism (the Force). ✓

–       Elements of heroism (throughout). ✓

–       An emphasis on drama/melodrama (Luke. I am your father. … NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!). ✓

–       Plot elements of war and battle (the entire struggle between the Rebels and the Empire). ✓

–       A happy ending (the Rebels win). ✓

Star Wars is prototypical space opera, and its success launched a parade of other reasonably successful space opera films over the next few decades. Though space opera literature has perhaps never experienced quite the same popularity as it did in it’s very early days, it continues to have a solid following, and in my opinion, is poised for another resurgence.

Some notable space operas, other than those already mentioned, include:

–       The Buck Rodgers stories, first written by Philip Francis Nowlan

–       The Flash Gordon universe of fiction

–       Select novels from Iain M. Banks’ Culture series

–       The movie The Fifth Element (which amusingly enough features a scene with a real opera in space – well, on another planet really)

–       The Mass Effect series of video games

For those fantasy readers out there, I tend to think of space opera as the science fiction equivalent of epic fantasy. Both deal with big, epic stories, both focus around a powerful, sympathetic hero character, both often feature battles between forces depicted as good and evil, and both emphasize magic/mysticism over realism. If you like one, chances are you’ll like the other as well.

So, what do you all think? What are some of your favorite space opera stories? What important contributions did I miss? Duke it out in the comments.

Image credits: Featured image by Andre35822 (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Post image by Frank R. Paul [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

Forgotten Gems: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Yet another recurring segment here on this blog, Forgotten Gems will take a look at great speculative fiction books of years past and offer up thoughts on why they’re still worthy of a read.

In this inaugural post, I’ll look at one of the great classics of the fantasy genre: Lewis Carroll’s literary nonsense books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Let’s see a quick show of hands: Who here is familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland? Virtually everyone, I see. Alright then, let’s see another show of hands: Who has actually read the two novels? Ok, good, a fair smattering of hands, but far fewer than those who know the story.

For those who have gone through life somehow sheltered from any exposure to this classic work of literature, let me provide you with a quick synopsis. Published in 1865 by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll), Alice in Wonderland starts with young Alice following a white rabbit down a rabbit hole, only to be plunged into a nonsensical fantasy world populated by anthropomorphic animals of questionable mental faculties. Throughout the story, Alice makes numerous somewhat mad acquaintances, eats and drinks various foodstuffs that either grow or shrink her in size, and ultimately encounters the Queen of Hearts, who rules over the magical kingdom with an iron fist.

Even though many people have not read the books, they are familiar with them, I would think, primarily due to the classic 1951 Disney adaptation of the novels, which was actually a commercial flop at the time of release. Surprisingly, the movie follows Alice in Wonderland fairly accurately, omitting only a few scenes and adding in a few cherry-picked from Through The Looking Glass, most notably Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee’s rendition of the “Walrus and the Carpenter” and the inclusion of the poem, “The Jabberwocky.” In fact, the Disney movie has become so iconic that it seems like many subsequent reproductions of the works have been influenced to a greater extent by this movie than by the original novels themselves. For example, Alice’s dress is almost invariably depicted as blue, like in the video game American McGee’s Alice, despite not being mentioned by color in the original manuscript.

AiW 2Despite being a classic, however, Alice in Wonderland doesn’t seem to be a part of many school curriculums. I’m not an educator, but I can come up with a few reasons why that might be the case. For one thing, the book doesn’t really seem to make any moral statements. Not that the book doesn’t encourage thought, which I would argue it certainly does with it’s liberal use of mathematical symbolism and logic puzzle-style dialog, but Alice in Wonderland doesn’t try to make any overt moral or political statements. Also, I can image educators are hesitant to teach Alice in Wonderland because it is a children’s novel that breaks many of the rules of the English language. At the age level when the book might be taught in schools, I would assume that teachers are more concerned with making sure their students know how to use language properly than showing them how to play with it whimsically.

So why is Alice in Wonderland worthy of your read? Well for one thing, it’s one of the original works of children’s fantasy, predating J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, and Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows by about 30-40 years. Its imagery has influenced countless artists over the past 150 years, and spawned numerous derivative works. Despite being a children’s novel, it’s well regarded by mathematicians and logicians because of its numerically-oriented themes. And on top of all that, it’s short, clocking in at about 27,000 words, which would take the average reader about 2 hours to read. (Through the Looking Glass clocks in at about 30,000 words).

Last but not least, because it was written so very long ago, Alice in Wonderland is in the public domain, meaning that it’s 100% free to read! You can find it on numerous spots throughout the web, or you can download a free e-book via amazon here. Similarly, Through The Looking Glass is also freely available. Even better, all the original images illustrated by John Tenniel are also in the public domain, meaning you can find them in e-books, and I can display them on my website to my heart’s content without having to worry about copyright issues.

So what do you think? Did you read Alice in Wonderland as a child, or as an adult, or not at all? What are some of your favorite parts of the books?

Image credits: John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.