Technology, magic, and consciousness
I thought about posting on this topic many months ago, but got distracted; what prompted me to post about it now is that my web surfing brought me to this post on Sarah Monette's journal, about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. Her views on the subject align very closely with mine, but I figured I'd offer some additional thoughts.
I'll start by restating some comments I made a while back on Jed Hartman's journal here: for me, a useful way to understand the difference between SF and fantasy is to consider the difference between science and magic. This isn't a question of conforming to current scientific understanding; we can imagine an alternate set of physical laws without calling them magic. I submit that what distinguishes magic from science -- even imaginary science -- is the role of consciousness. Magic has a subjective component -- the intention, desire, or willpower of the practitioner -- that is explicitly excluded from scientific experimentation.
One consequence of this is that a scientific result can be replicated by a mechanism, and that mechanism can be mass-produced; thus we all own products containing electric motors, lasers, etc., even though such things were once objects of wonder found only in laboratories. This is generally not true of magic; no one expects that a great magician's ability to turn a pumpkin into a carriage will, decades later, result in cheap shape-shifting gadgets. The pumpkin-into-carriage spell is dependent on the practitioner's conscious intention, and that's something that can't be automated or mass-produced.
(In my Locus interview I expressed this idea by saying that magic is esoteric while technology is egalitarian, because only select individuals are able to call down lightning, but electricity works for everyone. This got me into a disagreement with Nisi Shawl. Nisi pointed out that I was thinking of a fairly narrow tradition of hermetic magic, and that there are also traditions of folk magic and communal magic that are available to anyone. She's right. I do think that magic is commonly depicted as being unavailable to people lacking certain innate gifts, but that's certainly not intrinsic to all magical systems.)
So why would some phenomena depend on a practitioner's will or desire? Because, in fantasy, the universe distinguishes between persons and mechanisms. The universe recognizes intention; it can be understood as being, in some loose sense, a person itself. And in the same way that we respond differently to real mail and junk mail, the universe responds differently to an action performed by an individual and an action performed by a mechanism. In fantasy, successfully interacting with the universe requires acknowledging that you're dealing with a person and not a rule-bound system.
This doesn't mean that a fantasy universe is necessarily ruled by a capricious god or gods; being a person doesn't mean being arbitrary or inconsistent. But one consequence is that, in a fantasy universe, certain things are not susceptible to mass production. For example, you could say that, in order for your magical radio to function, you need to appease a certain deity, and so you say a prayer each time you make a radio, and your radios always work. That's consistent with dealing with a person. But if you've got a machine that is stamping out functional radios by the thousands, it's no longer reasonable to say that it's appeasing a deity every time. Instead, it makes more sense to say you're dealing with impersonal laws of nature; your radio is an example of applied science, not applied magic.
Which brings us to the importance of the Industrial Revolution. Sarah Monette says, "It's an oversimplification to say that sf deals with the consequences of the Industrial Revolution while fantasy denies the Industrial Revolution ever took place. But it's an oversimplification with a grain of truth at its heart." I agree. The shift away from a god-centered worldview and toward a scientific worldview had been underway for some time already, but I imagine it could seem like an abstract discussion for most people. Once the Industrial Revolution began, though, everyone could see tangible, practical consequences of the universe's impersonal nature.
Before mass production, technology usually involved the personal touch. Every artifact was the product of an individual's care and attention; every tool was born of a conscious act. If a device worked well, it was usually because someone had been concentrating really hard when they made it. After mass production, that was no longer the case. The personal touch vanished from many aspects of daily life.
This perspective helps illustrate why, even though fantasy doesn't have to be pre-industrial, fantasy works so well with a pre-industrial setting. Before industrialization, it was easier to believe that we lived in a universe that recognized persons. And even though fantasy doesn't have to be nostalgic, it's easy to romanticize the days when an individual's labor mattered, and you couldn't be replaced by a machine.
Similarly, this perspective illustrates why, even though science fiction doesn't have to be about technological advancement, it is so often concerned with the notion of progress. Once conscious intention was removed from the creation of devices, inventions could spread so rapidly that you could see society change within a single lifetime. And even though SF doesn't have to be cautionary, it's easy to worry about the dehumanization that can result when conscious intention is removed from too many aspects of life.
I don't claim that this distinction between magic and science is the ultimate explanation of the difference between SF and fantasy. There are countless examples of SF/F for which this doesn't apply at all, and anyone looking for gray areas can find plenty in any discussion that mentions consciousness. But I do find it a fruitful way to think about these two subgenres, so I figured I'd write a post about it.