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My Way or the Anime – What Makes Good Sci-Fi Good

My Way or the Anime is a series of editorials about storytelling. As a creative writer myself, I spend a great deal of time analyzing anime from a meta perspective – how well a particular story is told, and how any story can be told well. These posts contain the latest theories, rants, and/or conclusions that have trickled up from the depths of my insane mind.

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It’s like science, but with lying!

This is the season of sci-fi, so it only seems appropriate that I come roaring back to the editorial scene with a dissertation on the subject. Today, let’s plumb into the very heart of the matter: what makes a story sci-fi, and what makes a story really good sci-fi. Naturally, I’ll be pulling examples from this season’s bountiful supply, though that won’t be the only place.

Everyone thinks they know what sci-fi is – it’s spaceships, aliens, intergalactic wars, exploring the galaxy, and technology we can only dream of, that sort of thing. Yet I’ve always thought that was limiting. Must spaceship always = sci-fi, like dragons apparently always = fantasy? Of course not, and I think anyone asked that question would answer the same way. Yet in practice, that always seems to be the case. So, why?

I posed the question to our resident sci-fi expert, Zephyr, and I think he nailed it on the head. The key component to sci-fi is possibility. With fantasy, we know it’s impossible. Magic, dragons, all that other jazz…those have never existed and nothing about the world indicates they ever will, so it’s fantasy. The reason that most fantasy stories are set in the past (or a world technologically similar to our past) is that it proves the impossibility. Think of dragons – there are almost certainly sci-fi stories that include dragons, because couldn’t they be artificially created or discovered on another planet? But if the story is set in a less modern time period, those reasons go out the window, and we’re back into the realm of impossibility. Basically, it avoids Clarke’s third law: that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Rule out science, and it must be magic. It must be fantasy.

Sci-fi, on the other hand, has an element of possibility. It doesn’t need to be likely necessarily, it’s just a feeling that, as Zephyr put it, makes you go “Hmmm…this might not be entirely impossible to achieve.” When I look at Suisei no Gargantia, I think, alright, this seems like something that could actually happen…eventually. The future time frame of much of sci-fi helps to enable this possibility, because it implicitly argues that hey, while we might not be able to do this now, maybe we can in the future. Of course, that’s not necessary – Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle took place in what was then more or less the present, and while Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey took place in the future in comparison to when it was published, it’s still sci-fi even though we passed that a while ago. There are even those rare works like Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which not only delved into the potential future, but actually got quite a lot of it right. How cool is that?

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Cthulhu lesbians. They’re coming. Count on it.

Of course, the line between these can blur. Take Star Wars – if the Force existed, wouldn’t we have a bunch of Jedi running around already? Okay, sure, it’s set in a galaxy far, far away, but you know what I mean. That’s a fantasy element tacked onto an otherwise sci-fi setting, so it blurs the line. I call that “soft” sci-fi. In the same way, Fullmetal Alchemist is “hard” fantasy – everything about it is very consistent and logical, even if alchemy is just magic by another name. This season’s Shingeki no Kyojin is another good example – the impossibility of the Titans and the past time frame both technically make it a fantasy story, even if it struts around and explains everything like it’s sci-fi. Then there’s To Aru Kagaku no Railgun, which is ostensibly a mix of sci-fi & fantasy (esper and magician), though I’ve never bought that. Those esper abilities have always looked like “hard” magic to me, though that’s an argument for another day. Or the comments, I suspect.

So sci-fi has this element of possibility. This implies a great deal of creativity, imagination, and above all, detail. Of those, I think it’s the detail that most helps convey the possibility, and most makes sci-fi so interesting. It’s also one of the main elements that makes good sci-fi good. Whereas other genres don’t feel the need to explain themselves, sci-fi feels the need to explain everything. As it was once explained to me, it’s an engineer’s view of the world, wanting to know how all the little fiddly bits work because how else can you get into the story if this crap doesn’t make sense?! This is enormously difficult – and, I think, something we should all give sci-fi authors a little more slack on – but it’s enormously powerful when done right. In sci-fi, it’s almost as if the world is a character in a way that only the highest of fantasy – think Lord of the Rings here – can touch. To continue throwing out western examples on an anime blog, Dune has always been one of the most shining examples of detailed sci-fi world building to me. Frank Herbert not only told a great story, but he constructed an entire planet with a radically alien but totally believable ecosystem for his characters to inhabit. That’s sci-fi at its finest.

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It all gets a bit shifty after the first book, but it’s still interesting. All hail the God Emperor!

At the end of it all though, I think the thing that makes for the best sci-fi is when it’s thought-provoking. This is where your Star Wars separates from your Star Trek, which goes back and pulls Shingeki no Kyojin into the fold. In fact, that’s why we have a predominately sci-fi writer blogging Shingeki, and why sci-fi fans are loving it so much. A good sci-fi world is so richly detailed and different from our own that it stimulates the imagination, and makes you think “Hmmm…how can we bring this about?” (Or in many cases, how can we avoid this at all cost.) It makes us curious! Which is the root of all scientific thinking. Without that shred of possibility and the mountains of detail, the dial turns back to the realm of fantasy, where it is not thought but wonder that rule the day. Which is fine! I am more of a fantasy guy myself, being a squishy, wordy, marketing-type by trade, so I don’t demand explanations for everything. I cannot deny the power when they’re given though, of thinking about how this story might just be possible, and beginning to trace the path from here to there. See: everything about Space Bros. I rest my case.

One last thought: You might have noticed that I barely spoke of anything like characters or plot or emotional arcs in this article. Those are still important! Sci-fi stories are still stories, after all, and without all the necessary elements they would just be fictional manuals or text books. The world is only one of the reasons I’m enjoying Suisei no Gargantia so much. Still, it remains that the setting, the possibility inherent therein, and all the details they’re hitting us with are what makes that story great sci-fi. Everything else just makes it a damn great story, period, full stop.

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An anime so good, I featured it twice.

Random Notes:

  • Remember to hover over the pictures for alt text!
April 23, 2013 at 8:50 am
122 comments »
  • April 23, 2013 at 9:03 am†Croos†

    What Makes Good Sci-Fi Good?
    For me?

    PEW PEW PEW PEW(laser shooting)..

  • April 23, 2013 at 9:06 amThe Moondoggie

    >The key component to sci-fi is possibility.

    But it also needs a hint of the fantastic, something that CAN happen, but not with our current state of technology. It’s this two-faces-of-the-same-coin that makes one hell of a sci-i anime.

    It is the big difference between Space Bros.(ugh…) and Miniskirt Space Pirates.

    • April 23, 2013 at 10:24 amStilts

      Actually, that’s a good point. Of course, it could be said to “go without saying”, but I just wrote an entire post about a lot of things that could go without saying, so what the heck lol. Sci-fi definitely requires both the possibility and that it not be here (yet).

      Also, what’s wrong with Space Bros? *glares*

      • April 23, 2013 at 11:42 pmThe Moondoggie

        You really want to know my stance with Slice-Of-Life anime?

      • April 26, 2013 at 2:19 pmZammael

        I do! Space Brothers wilfully abuses its amount of episodes to tell a story, as if it was a luxury, not a necessary tool. Tsk.

        BTW – The provisional distinction between scifi and fantasy is just that – provisional, and not a demarcating law.

  • April 23, 2013 at 9:10 amEmD

    You know what’s the best part about sci-fi, fantasy and the like?

    No matter how likely or unlikely it is,[possible or impossible, how factual or imaginative, how colorful or dull, they will always have two things, regardless of settings.

    Big boobs and explosions.

    God Bless fiction.

    • April 23, 2013 at 9:12 amThe Moondoggie

      >Big boobs, d.f.c. and explosions.

      FTFY

  • April 23, 2013 at 9:15 amCybersteel

    I believe that Shin Sekai Yuri is a good example of Sci-fi. In a post apocalyptic setting where anything is possible.

    • April 23, 2013 at 9:51 amjunglepenguin

      I see what you did there.

  • April 23, 2013 at 9:15 amRakkyo

    Nice post! Personally, I feel the best Sci-Fi stories, or any fantasy stories for that matter, are the ones where there is extensive worldbuilding involved (the more complex the better) and still be coherent.
    It’s always interesting to watch how the author sculpts his landscapes and discovering what makes the world tick.

    Characters and Plot are of course important too, but they’re not as high in my list.

  • April 23, 2013 at 9:25 amkatsudon

    For me, nothing beats a good sci-fi show. There’s nothing quite like it- some of the shows I’ve watched in the recent years are probably some of the better examples of the genre I’ve seen and a couple are now sitting in my top 10. (Horizon, Stein’s;Gate) As an avid sci-fi lover, you have no idea how happy this season makes me, as all the sci-fi shows this season are all pretty good and entertaining, minus one.
    In order for a sci-fi show to be successful, you have to build the world up properly and explain the rules it plays by- the characters and plot come later. (just my opinion though)

    • April 23, 2013 at 10:26 amStilts

      I think they all need to be built up in parallel, otherwise you get that feeling that you’re reading a dry instruction manual rather than the story. I suppose you could say characters and plot are of secondary importance, though.

      • April 23, 2013 at 5:14 pmkatsudon

        I think the reason why I believe that Stilts, is that it’s easier to take in the plot and characters after the world building has finished. I feel that when trying to build them together, a few things get lost along the way. Let’s take Horizon for instance, it tries to build the world up with the characters, but since there’s so much to take in- it’s hard to keep track of everything that the story is trying to tell you. (I had to watch the show twice before it all started making sense, as the whole “re-enact history” thing isn’t very well explained, and then there’s that giant cast the show has…)

      • April 23, 2013 at 8:34 pmStilts

        You’re not wrong, though in that case the honest answer isn’t to do one and then the other, but to take both slower. They threw a LOT of both world building and character building at us all at once, when if they had still done both but taken it easier, we would have been able to absorb it better. The fact that the plot was actually ramping up all at the same time didn’t help. As much as I love that show, that was a storytelling snafu, albeit one mainly brought on by the lower-than-ideal episode count.

      • April 24, 2013 at 3:45 amZannafar

        I agree with Stilts that world and characters should be built at the same time.

        For example when it comes to religions Religions, rather than making someone read a lengthy explanation about how the religions work, it feels a lot more natural to have a short scene where character A performs a daily religious ritual and character B mocks him for “ending up with a lot of pain-in-the-ass rituals for praying to the wrong god” to have the reader find out that:
        - There are at least two major religions.
        - One religion has more rituals than the other.
        - The religion with more rituals is monotheistic.
        - A and B belong to different religions.
        - They are not on good terms because of it.
        - This means the two religions not on good terms with each other either.
        - A values the rituals of his religion.

        Of course these informations are rather basic and a direct explanation could give a lot more information, but the reader might forget most of that before it becomes important again.

  • April 23, 2013 at 9:36 amNgai

    I think good Sci-fi talk is also important. I hate it when the science makes me cringe. Not anime related but when comparing the scientific explanations of most sci-fi compared to the stuff build into star-trek or stargate(sg1/atlantis); they really seem like they’ve been written by someone who has very little scope in actual theoretical science.

    For example:
    Generic sci-fi: They crashed our system with a virus that propagated at a exponential rate of over 9000 terabytes per second!

    Stargate SG1: Samantha Carter: “Entropic Cascade Failure”

    Nuff said.
    Time travel/parallel worlds of course now is somewhat cliche but it’s still done well in Stein’s gate or Muv-luv alternative.

    That’s one part of what makes good sci fi for me ^^ Proper geek talk.

    • April 23, 2013 at 10:27 amcreaothceann

      Generic sci-fi: They crashed our system with a virus that propagated at a exponential rate of over 9000 terabytes per second!
      Stargate SG1: Samantha Carter: “Entropic Cascade Failure”

      “Exponential rate” means that the speed itself is changing rapidly, it makes not much sense to give such a detailed speed afterwards (it could’ve been formulated as “beyond our capacity to measure”).

      And on the other hand, a lot of Stargate tech talk (at least in the beginning) was well-researched and consistent.

      • April 23, 2013 at 12:51 pmNgai

        I’m well aware =p I’m an electronic engineer after all!

    • April 23, 2013 at 10:29 amStilts

      That’s definitely part of it! Getting the words right is certainly one part of providing all those details. There’s nothing more cringe-worthy than when someone tries to use terminology they only vaguely understand (and incorrectly at that). Do your research, dammit!!

      P.S. Time travel generally pisses me off, but it can still be amazing when it’s done right. Though I suppose you could say that about most plot elements.

      • April 23, 2013 at 11:58 pmCybersteel

        Steins;Gate!!! Love the way they used Everett’s Multiple World Theory rather than using the old single time line theory.

      • April 25, 2013 at 6:56 amNikaido

        You can’t really credit the authors of Steins;Gate for this idea though, since it copied a mildly popular internet hoax a lot more than just taking inspiration from it.

        http://www.johntitor.com

        The original titor story/hoax would’ve made for a much better anime too, showing the world war and the world described by titor in 2036 rather than focusing on a crazy protagonist who just stumbles upon stuff through random luck.

    • April 23, 2013 at 4:47 pmActus

      I don’t mind them making stuff up – like new particles, elements, theories, etc. What really ticks me is when they use terminology that has been adequately defined in the current scientific fields wrongly.

      • April 24, 2013 at 12:01 amCybersteel

        Gundam 0079 did it well with the use of Minovsky Particles that disrupts the precision of conventional military weapons to warrant the use of large, slow moving, bipedal mech.

      • April 24, 2013 at 12:15 amStilts

        Even if I never really got into any Gundam series, I was always impressed by the Minovsky Particles. A good justification for all the crazy shit they get up to.

  • April 23, 2013 at 9:47 amKaioshin Sama

    To me the best kind of sci-fi is something that uses a setting and/or society far removed technologically or biologically from are’s but that is all to familiar to our own at the same time or plausible as something we might become and which uses this set-up to explore an aspect of our own present time society and culture. In this regard I’ve always loved something like Star Trek Deep Space Nine, U.C Gundam (sometimes) or Battle Star Galactica’s ability to make me think.

    After that comes the flashy entertaining sort of sci-fi like Star Wars or Aliens where the goal is primarily just to capture the attention and imagination of the audience. I’m perfectly okay with these as long as they are genuinely entertaining, I like the cast and set up well enough and things make sense within their own context.

  • April 23, 2013 at 9:51 amScullycat

    Great post. Its just fun to think about how much is really going on out there, outside of our view. And we live in a time when it almost seems possible (with all the other planets being discovered nearby) Sci-fi that makes you think (and has good characters) is my favorite anime genre. That is why the movie Contact is my favorite movie. It starts out with a logical scientist whose faith is essentially the rules of Newtonian physics and does not understand the need for religion (or human connections). However by the end of the movie, when she herself has to defend what she saw out there, she starts to understand what it means to believe in something that nobody can see. She wasn’t like converted to religion or anything, but her character developed enough that she was able to empathize with the other side. I watch it once a year and force any poor person nearby with even a remote interest to watch it with me too. :)

  • April 23, 2013 at 9:55 amjunglepenguin

    Needs more Steins;Gate.

  • April 23, 2013 at 10:21 amWindaerie

    Excellent post, Stilts! My favorite sci-fi book, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card falls nicely into the “possibilities” paradigm that you describe here. :)

    It’s really quite amazing to see how things that we’ve seen/read about in sci-fi novels/anime/movies are not so far from reality nowadays. I saw this in the news the other day http://money.cnn.com/2013/04/23/technology/smart-guns/index.html and my thoughts immediately turned to the Dominators in Psychopass.

    And doesn’t this look like a prototype of Sumeragi from Robotics:Notes? :O http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/19/tech/mantis-robot-monster/index.html?iref=allsearch

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

    • April 23, 2013 at 10:38 amStilts

      Dat Sumeragi! So cool.

      Ender’s Game was always a lot like Dune to me, in that the first book was good sci-fi with a well-told story, but the ones after that get increasingly shifty. I would still put the Dune series above the Ender’s Game one any day of the week, not only because the universe is so much more well developed, but up until the fourth book (God Emperor of Dune) it’s tackling some really interesting issues. Really that goes throughout all of the main series, it’s just the later ones go off on really odd tangents, so they’re harder to get into.

      Also, lawl at those “smart” guns. Those people don’t understand human psychology. Who is going to want a weapon controlled by some technology they don’t understand? All they’re going to do is imagine that failing when they most need it, thereby making them feel like they’re unable to trust in the weapon and therefore not feel safe having it. That defeats nine-tenths of the purpose!

      • April 23, 2013 at 11:29 amWindaerie

        I will have to check out the Dune series, it seems. :) I really enjoyed Ender’s Game based on the characters, particularly Ender, although the idea of using genius child soldiers was an interesting premise in itself.

        And as for the smart guns, you’re certainly right. It’s a shame that we have no tangible way of dealing with gun violence effectively in our current political/social climate (in the US), and even with all the technology we have now, the sad reality is that bad people will get their hands on guns and do bad things and that there are so many guns in circulation that adding more guns, even if they are “smart” is probably not the way to go T__T

      • April 25, 2013 at 6:50 amanona

        B-but Ender’s Shadow was also good!

    • April 23, 2013 at 11:04 amd-LaN

      • April 23, 2013 at 11:39 amWindaerie

        This is an interesting article, although the last sentence rings true and probably prevents any sort of predictability application for this study/fMRI. :/ Plus there’s always the nature versus nurture argument that P:P didn’t really deal with–was Makishima’s ability innate or was it a combination of something he learned as well as his natural tendencies towards…being psychotic? Haha. But my personal opinion was that the Sybil System wasn’t so bad. Generally people are content to live in their own little worlds and are pretty desensitized to the violence around them, and the world of P:P seemed to function okay (and continued to function in that way as the series ended). :)

      • April 23, 2013 at 3:19 pmStilts

        Yeah, but living a life without choice is no life at all. To me, the Sibyl System was always horrible.

        I really should finish that show sometime soon…

      • April 23, 2013 at 7:40 pmcruiser2710

        I’d be picked up by SYbil of that happens

      • April 24, 2013 at 7:11 pmWindaerie

        @Stilts: I guess for me the Sybil system didn’t seem like it took away too many tangible choices, minus the fact that you couldn’t really pick what career path you wanted. I think there’s a big difference between the idea of “having a choice/being free” and really having a choice (or something you can actually act on). For all intents and purposes, the people in the show could (seemingly) still choose the things we choose in our every day lives–what to wear, how to design their house, what websites to go to, where to go shopping, where to eat, etc. The only choice they couldn’t make (unless they were like Makishima) was to enact violence, be aggresive, do the “bad things” that we deem are bad even in our current society. And yes, the Crime Coefficient is probably not perfect, but if it catches “criminal intent”/pre-psychotic behavior and keeps 80-90% of the society safe, is it really a bad thing? (The gas chambers seem a bit much, although I guess insane asylums aren’t that wonderful either). Maybe for me I think of it as the Sybil system having stronger deterrents for negative behavior than what we have in RL. I mean, even the cops in Sybil were (seemingly) better! No corruption, even though they’re the ones with the Dominators. You can probably tell I’m a fan of utilitarianism, haha. xD Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the discussion, Stilts!

  • April 23, 2013 at 10:24 amBlackStealth1989

    Code Geass. I’m done..

  • April 23, 2013 at 10:26 amGermanguy

    Good Point, Sci-Fi is a “future” that can be happening. Fantasy is a World outside of our own, and will never happen.

    Well, first. Both are born from us, deep within in our Heart/Mind. Desire for a “better” Future -> Sci-Fi. But Desire for a peaceful World -> Both.

    Sci-Fi is a Real World taken from our point of View into the Future, mixed with our Dreams, Hope, Fear, Desires. It is a “What if…” World.

    Fantasy is a “Escape” in a World of Dream. This World can be way back from our Point of View. Knights, Warriors, Archers. You get my Gist? Fantasy is more based of our “perception” of Medieval times. Sword, Shields, Horses, Gunpowder(Musketeers) Gunners count also too.

    Sci-Fi are Better, improvement Things

    So, Sci-Fi is a World of our Dreams swift into our Future
    Fantasy is a World of our Dreams swift into our Past (Well, why are they not so many “Shogun/Samurai”, and mostly “Knights” in Armor?)

    And of course, the Story is the Heartbeat or perhaps more, of the entire Anime. Sci-Fi or Fantasy is just “Background”

    Uh.. i lose when it comes to explain it to the smallest corner

    Story = 45%
    Characters = 40%
    Background = 15%

    (not accurate, but how i feel forced into Numbers)

    p.s. Good “Blog” *thumb Up*

    • April 23, 2013 at 10:34 amcreaothceann

      Könntest du mal diese unübliche Groß- und Kleinschreibung unterlassen? Das liest sich besch- …eiden.

      • April 23, 2013 at 10:36 amGermanguy

        I do it my Way, and now get Lost

    • April 23, 2013 at 10:42 amGermanguy

      Musketeers = muzzle loaders

    • April 29, 2013 at 6:15 amtahuti

      Where do you put alternative history (it is considered part of sci-fi), steampunk is popular.

      I would say fantasy invents its own rules, sci-fi on the other hand needs to respect known rules of science as much as possible, it needs to explain why it is different if it breaks the rule, degree by which it breaks indicates hard vs soft sci-fi (2001 vs Star Trek and Star Wars, this one should be labeled more as laser fantasy)

      Space opera as genre of sci-fi is often filmed and both Star Wars and Star Trek fill this category.

  • April 23, 2013 at 10:29 ammac65

    With fantasy, we know it’s impossible.

    It’s an soul thing. Both fantasy and SciFi are impossible and utilize magic, characterized by different names.

    The fundamental difference, IMHO, is Fantasy is “human” powered, so to speak, and SciFi is machine
    or (yet to be) invention powered. So, the starship Enterprise is powered by the process of a machine
    (warp drive is the magic and is explained by yet undiscovered science, etc.), and witches fly because of
    an innate ability/power they have.

    This concept seems to pretty polarized, too IMHO.

    A warp drive has no soul and never deviates from its purpose (except to break); but a witch (e.g.
    Strike Witches just off the top of my head) has a soul and can change their purpose through a series.

    Now, there are crossovers, the most notable being Doctor Who (I haven’t watched enough Anime to know if
    this has happened). The Tardis started off as a complex mathematical machine, but in its latest incarnation,
    the writers choose to give it a soul. So, The Doctor no longer controls it, but by mutual agreement (maybe
    that of a master and his pet), the Tardis does what he wants it to do. The series morphed from a SciFi to
    a Fantasy series and I wonder how many of its viewers noticed? Harry Potter is Fantasy even though it’s
    made to look like a skill (through education and training), a muggle can’t be taught to use magic. You
    have to be born with it.

    So when I think of Fantasy vs. SciFi, the same things can happen in each, its the presence or absence of a
    soul that separates them – that innate ability or lack of, that defines Fantasy vs. SciFi, I believe.

    • April 23, 2013 at 10:41 amGermanguy

      Well, to explain both Worlds Magic

      Sci-Fi:

      It can be happen, through Micro machines inside our Body, Mutation (X-Men i hear?)

      Fantasy:

      It can be happen, through control of Elements Power. Some kind of Shaman or Druid or God invoked Powers. Mutation can also work here

      • April 23, 2013 at 1:08 pmGermanguy

        Sci-Fi:

        or Cyber Implantations (Cyber Punk?)

      • April 24, 2013 at 12:51 amThe Moondoggie

        >Micro machines

        You do mean nanomachines, right?

    • April 23, 2013 at 10:48 amStilts

      While I wouldn’t use the word soul, you bring up a good point. Part of the allure of fantasy is that it tells stories about the people themselves being different, or having powers different from what we mundane RL earth humans do. Of course, that can happen in sci-fi as well – aliens and all that – but it typically doesn’t have this empowerment motif that a lot of fantasy seems to embody.

      Sci-fi, on the other hand, is often about us squishy normals using tools and machines to empower ourselves. That’s one of the mean reasons it’s more realistic…I myself regularly command destructive power greater than most of the medieval world could fathom. It’s called a car.

  • April 23, 2013 at 10:37 amBumgore

    The things that a sci-fi film/anime brings up are always very intriguing but for me a good story shouldn’t only be just about the possibility/impossibility of the settings but what the characters experience in them.

    Stories that really sticks with me are those tragic ones. Where the character’s experiences and circumstances the character goes through in a fictional world are so real that you begin to sympathize them.

    In Sci-fi Steins; gate, The girl who leapt through time, TTGL(episodes 8 – 11), Dennō Coil and Now and then here and there(I think it’s sci-fi) did this to me. Have not had feels on any Holywood sci-fi movies as far as I remember, I don’t particularly care if Tony Stark dies in the next Iron Man movie but still going to watch it though.

    • April 23, 2013 at 10:50 amStilts

      Very true, and that’s why I’m more of an emotional storyteller myself, or at least I try to be (my level of success is thus far unknown). However, that’s a topic for another day, as my closing paragraph points out : )

  • April 23, 2013 at 10:43 amHogart

    The line’s quite blurry between science fantasy and science fiction, if you’ll indulge the word-wankery. For instance, Gargantia started out as a science fiction show about how people used science and tech to survive in a desperate war, but as of episode 3 it feels more like a science fantasy about normal people having normal problems, with the science/tech just being part of the backdrop. It’s more Star Wars than Star Trek, if you will.

    To me, a “good” sci-fi will impress that it’s set in a real place with real people. Just people with “future problems” or “science/tech problems” instead of simple political or survival ones you could find in any other story. Without feeling like I’m there watching real problems, it’s just a bunch of ideas or cliches slapped together in a (hopefully) creative way.. not necessarily what I’d call “good” sci-fi, though.

  • April 23, 2013 at 10:46 amDelwack

    That was very well explained. A detailed, internally consistant and sufficiently explained world certainly what defines sci-fi, and is definitely a core component and cornerstone of the genre.

    All my favorite sci-fi series have awesome characters and carefully constrcuted plots, but what really sets it apart is a world where detailed, consistant rules are followed. The basis for the greatness often does seem to come from exploration of the consequences of that consistant and carefully constructed ruleset upon humanity.

  • April 23, 2013 at 10:50 amjaen

    Since you mentioned Shingeki no Kyojin in a sci-fi related post…

    How wacky would that be if the english subtitle of “Attack on Titan” actually makes sense because the story turns out to take place in future on a terraformed Titan?

    • April 23, 2013 at 2:47 pmGan_HOPE326

      Fascinating hypothesis XD. But how do we put it with, uhm, earth-like gravity, intense solar illumination, and lack of a ringed gas giant in the sky?

      Also, if that ever happened, astronomers would be forced to rename the moon in question “Eotena”. That would be a drag.

  • April 23, 2013 at 10:52 amd-LaN

    For me, one of the most defining part of SF is their really cool techs/gadgets XD There are exception to that statement though (SSY).

  • April 23, 2013 at 11:13 amDuelistdusk

    The difference in fantasy and Sci-fi? For me, it’s the sparkle of hope.

    Because they both are a dream, one where technology and machinery dominates the lands or that willpower, magic and swords dominate. Both of them are a dream, yet in which we all can agree: fantasy is indeed impossible.

    HOWEVER (yes, all in caps ppl) we don’t know what might happen in the future (at least, normal people can’t) and since our timeline features robots and space there might exist something such as Star trek (an utopia of future ideals), Gundam (humanity divided by weapons and war) and much and much more in a world where our imagination would turn into reality with much more awesomeness to it.

    So the possibility where one might ride on a dragon and go on an epic adventure full of clashes of swords and where land is vaporized by brawls with top-of-the-notch wizards (and I mean Dragon ball Z destruction level) might only exist in a computer file. While something like Gundam (yes, I love this franchise) where a young lad might stumble upon a cutting-edge humanoid robot while his colony is being devestated might actually be more possilbe. Even if the possibility is less than that JB will hit puberty, that living without internet is possible (note: internet supplies anime), that every teenager stops being such a pain in the ass and (if that all still hasn’t convinced you) the precentage is less that 0.00000000000000000000000000001 there still is a possibility.

    And that is where (for me) sci-fi defines itself from magic. There is a possibility people. A small one, but atleast there is one.

  • April 23, 2013 at 12:01 pminfo600

    It’s rather refreshing to go all the way back out and just look at genres instead of sticking our “pens” into characters and traits, settings, locations, story, etc.

    ps. I hate to think of a time in the future where we read more character trait bashing.

  • April 23, 2013 at 12:02 pmJhacks

    I NEED MOAR STEAMPUNK ANIME!!

  • April 23, 2013 at 12:57 pminanis

    im so sad gargantia is just gonna be 1 cour >,< Epic Fail!

    • April 24, 2013 at 12:55 amThe Moondoggie

      Last time I checked, one season of Urobucher had people screaming AOTY and BAOAT and “…an anime that redefined the mahou shoujo genre, deconstructing and then reconstructing it.

      One season is all that the Urobucher needs…

  • April 23, 2013 at 12:58 pmlivevoid

    Ahhh I’ve missed these great posts. It’s been too long Stilts.

    • April 23, 2013 at 3:23 pmStilts

      I’ll try not to make you all go without for so long in the future : )

  • April 23, 2013 at 1:24 pmewok40k

    Well, if you look at me, there are so many facets to sci-fi that it is hard to find truly definite traits besides
    1.having base in at least some science, and
    2.leveraging the base into storytelling
    Dune leveraged both then-nascient in public knowledge ecology and social speculations.
    Space Odyssey and Star Trek leveraged extrapolated space travel tech of it’s era.
    Look at the society around us and in the omnipresent security cameras (see Boston) we can see fledgling Sybil.
    The genre of time-travel was much boosted by relativity theory and its derivatives like alternate universes originating from points of divergence. (Stein’s Gate!)
    This also created a genre of alternative history, from “Man in the high castle” to “163x” series.

  • April 23, 2013 at 2:03 pmAkoriko

    I really hope Kuuko-style Cthulhu lesbians are science fiction and not just fantasy, because then there is at least a chance (however miniscule) to happen.

  • April 23, 2013 at 2:12 pmGoodwill.Wright

    After reading your post, makes me wonder what Kyoukaisen would fit into. I may have misread some details but it kinda feels like it would fit into fantasy more than sci-fi. Just want to know what your opinion on that is?

    • April 23, 2013 at 3:26 pmStilts

      Kyoukai Senjou no Horizon is High Fantasy, so it’s more similar to Lord of the Rings than Suisei no Gargantia. While some things certainly have roots in science-ish type things, mostly they’re not bothered about explaining themselves beyond what is necessary to make the world consistent and (fairly) logical and all that, so that’s what makes it fantasy. The ridiculous detail and scale of the world, the cast, and the events is what tacks the high on there.

      By the way, that’s why I love Kyoukaisen so much. While I dabble in nearly every genre, High Fantasy is my favorite of them all ^^

  • April 23, 2013 at 3:16 pmx

    So where do you think Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei fit in? Sci-fi? Fantasy? :p

    • April 23, 2013 at 3:30 pmStilts

      Haven’t read that one, but it sounds like sci-fi. Which proves my dragon point above, as well as Clarke’s third law, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In this case, there’s no difference between the magic and the technology, though the fact that the former is brought about by the latter is what makes it sci-fi.

  • April 23, 2013 at 4:00 pmZzz…

    Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei?

    …hm…

    brocon/siscon romantic tragi-comedy with clearly sociopathic protagonists and a very thin veneer of sci-fi.

    To me the difference between sci-fi and fantasy is a question of acceptance.

    If the majority population of the in story world largely treat the wondrous elements as a understood, even if largely inaccessible force, then it is science even if they call it magic.

    If the majority do not understand, much less have access to, the wondrous elements, then it is magic even if they call it science.

  • April 23, 2013 at 4:01 pmZzz…

    As a corollary, black boxes are always magic

  • April 23, 2013 at 4:17 pmRoguespirit

    Always good to read from you STILTS.

    I’m a bit of a sci-fi nut, and it’s next to impossible to keep track of all the genres and sub-genres out there. In relation to what you said, one of the biggest problems for lot of sci-fi is people putting in too much technobabble.

    See This Vid to find out more. It’s a good vid, especially for aspiring writers.

    • April 23, 2013 at 11:36 pmStilts

      That video was really good! And it also reinforced my determination to never attempt serious sci-fi. I’ll stick with my bullshit made up fantasy thankyouverymuch!

    • April 24, 2013 at 5:03 amZannafar

      THIS is pretty much why whenever I try to write science fiction, I quickly end up dropping all serious scientific explanations and rather have a non-scientist character explain how things roughly work or even a scientist being unable to explain it because it has nothing to do with his field of science.
      Alternatively, I drop the focus on science and make it a social science fiction that relies more heavily on character interaction or science fantasy with bigger influence from the fantasy side.

  • April 23, 2013 at 4:23 pmIchijou Raku

    “Its like science, but with lying!” hahahahaha PEW PEW PEW MADAFAKA!!

    • April 23, 2013 at 11:36 pmStilts

      My favorite kind of science ; )

  • April 23, 2013 at 4:44 pmPrimeHector

    Mahouka Koukou no Tettousei is magic. I only read the first four volumes but only the CAD really involve tech. Otherwise it is similar to Harry Potter.

  • April 23, 2013 at 4:51 pmRickyMack

    The key component to sci-fi is possibility. With fantasy, we know it’s impossible.

    I was having an interesting conversation with a classmate while we were working at the Innocence Project, shameless plug. Both of us are former Catholics and we were discussing the double standard that society takes when you say you believe in the possibility of aliens. If you say you believe in the possibility of aliens you’re automatically a nutbag, but it’s perfectly fine to believe that some dude in the sky made man, ripped out his rib and then made women.

    Which brings me to the documentary series Ancient Aliens. It is nearly universally panned across the internet, but it makes a logical hypothesis. The hypothesis being that our stories of Gods across the various religions and mythologies are really just early humanity describing visitations by technologically advanced alien species. The Marvel Thor films are a great example of, and directly reference, Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    • April 23, 2013 at 11:40 pmStilts

      I find it’s always best to separate thought and belief in one’s mind. When you’re arguing with someone about something they think, there’s room to change their mind, even if they’re stubborn and won’t budge easily. If they believe it though, they’re not using what flimsy logical facilities we humans have, or if they do, it’s only to defend the conclusion they’ve already drawn.

      Aside from that, it merely has to do with the level of social acceptance. A few people get together and worship some crazy god, and it’s a cult, but if you get a lot of people then it becomes a religion. A silly distinction perhaps, but that’s how we humans think. It’s no different from a hill turning into a mountain at some vague, who-knows-where point!

  • April 23, 2013 at 4:56 pmPasserby

    From a narrative level, I would say that science fiction is essentially a subset of fantasy. I think analysing sci-fi by trying to distinguish it from fantasy is really looking at writing the wrong way and an over-reliance on genre labels for analysis.

    Fantasy is not necessary swords and sorcery, no more than sci-fi is just pew pew lasers. I don’t think it is about “possibility” or “past vs future” either. For example, Lord of the Rings sets itself as the past of Earth, and part of its conceit is that its mythology is a history. Star Wars is set in distant past, albeit in a galaxy far far away. And I paraphrase writer Brian Aldiss when I say that science fiction is no more for scientists than ghosts stories are for ghosts.

    The best we can say about sci-fi vis-a-vis fantasy, I think, is that often the fantastical elements of sci-fi are rooted in technology. But fundamentally spaceships, lasers and giant robots are “fantastical” and alchemy can be a pseudo-”science”. The genre tag “science fiction” at best helps us narrow down a number of tropes and offer easy searching in databases, but genre tags should never, and have never, defined a story. The story comes first, the tags second.

    For more relevant examples see: steampunk.

  • April 23, 2013 at 6:47 pmRickyMack

    I also forgot to mention Scrapped Princess. Another examination between the meaning of fantasy.

  • April 23, 2013 at 6:50 pmagr0n

    Great post I hope your episodic reviews will be this good.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Ghost in the Shell SAC and Psycho-pass or are they just Cyber-punk… hmm no spaceships in them so, are still sci-fi or just cyber-punk?

    Ergo Proxy would have been another good one to mention.

    • April 23, 2013 at 11:43 pmStilts

      Great post I hope your episodic reviews will be this good.

      I don’t know, you tell me – I’ve been doing those for over a year!! o.O

      As for your cited shows, while Ghost in the Shell is good sci-fi, I just haven’t seen it recently enough for it to pop to mind, and I didn’t really like Psycho-Pass enough to plug it. As for Ergo Proxy, I’m not entirely sure I ever finished that!

      Still, why pull a ton of old anime for examples when there are so many good ones airing this season? ; )

  • April 23, 2013 at 7:44 pmKairi

    Yep, looking forward to your novel, senpai!

    Interesting stuff in terms of the whole “possibility v. impossibility” viewpoint. It’s certainly true that we tend to look at sci-fi as a futuristic and slightly more possible outlook than traditional fantasy, though in reality both are not as different as they seem. Science that is advanced enough starts to look like magic, and magical-like effects start taking on scientific meanings (such as the historical development of flying machines).

    • April 23, 2013 at 11:46 pmStilts

      True, true. The line blurs quite frequently, and in truth, it doesn’t always matter as long as the story is good. Fun stuff to think about though, eh?

      And no worries! I’ll be sure to tell you all when it’s done and available for acquisition : )

  • April 23, 2013 at 9:25 pmhaseo0408

    You´ve got me thinking real hard on what you said of To Aru Kagaku no Railgun, true thst the story puts two opossite sides with many different explanations for the origin of their powers:

    +Espers, born with those powers (Gem Stones) or given through human manipulation of the brain, that is the cause of most espers in the series.

    +Magicians, learn how to use mana in their rituals to create an anomality in the world through the power of a deity or spirit of some sort.

    That´s simplistic explanation of their status but then, I read the vplume 15 and all the line that separate the factions seemed to turn blury. You should read it and you´ll understand what I´m talking about.

    • April 23, 2013 at 11:56 pmThe Moondoggie

      Well, it was expected that the line between espers and magicians would definitely blur at one point or another since:

      Show Spoiler ▼

  • April 23, 2013 at 10:15 pmsortedevaras

    Mmm I want a Dune anime. Just how friggin crazy it could be, have Wakamoto as Emperor Shaddam IV yelling “the spice must flow!” and then Paul Atreides dropping a bankai on him while riding a worm.

    • April 23, 2013 at 11:54 pmStilts

      Ignoring that “dropping a bankai” comment, that would be awesome! But who would play Paul? Fukuyama Jun? Sugita Tomokazu? …Kaji Yuki? D:

      *throws money at the screen* Someone make this happen dammit!!

      • April 24, 2013 at 1:52 amsortedevaras

        Tomokazu Seki! Only Domon Kasshu’s voice actor could do Paul justice.

  • April 24, 2013 at 3:23 amCobeurn

    Most of the time, I feel that sci-fi is a genre reserved only for the smartest and most diligent writers. The amount of research they put onto world building and tech-tree building must took longer than their writing time. (Not that fantasy writers didn’t have their own set of homeworks).
    Also, the interaction with their reader/viewers seemed very intimidating to me, what with the “[X] don’t work that way!”, “You Fail [Subject X] forever”. IDK, can sci-fi writers ever answer “I wrote that because I think it’s cool”? (I think RuleOfCool is one of the most important example of TropesAreNotBad)

    That said, I always love reading/watching a good sci-fi. Or should I say…’futuristic fantasy’? Since I’m not a science/engineering major I wouldn’t know if the technobabble was all lies anyway, not that I wouldn’t be bothered if it broke my suspension of disbelief..

    • April 24, 2013 at 10:08 amStilts

      I always get worried when people throw out terms like “the smartest writers.” While I won’t argue that true sci-fi writers (those who do true, “hard” sci-fi) need to be very diligent, all storytellers require intelligence of a sort. Being able to juggle multiple characters in one’s mind and string a coherent and interesting plot over even a single book (much less a longer series) takes a great deal of intelligence – emotional intelligence, creative intelligence, and several other sorts besides.

      To me, it comes down to the multi-faceted nature of intelligence. It’s not just “raw processing power”, the ability to churn through a bunch of math problems or understand complex science. Being able to pirouette in the gray areas of human interaction is a kind of intelligence as well, and a very valuable one at that. Or at least I like to hope…it’s the type I’m good at, after all!

      • April 24, 2013 at 12:12 pmActus

        Perhaps it has something to do with the vast majority of people falsely believing that a subject (i.e. science or STEM subjects in general) is inherently more difficult merely based on the fact that they themselves are not well versed in the subject (i.e. STEM subjects), and that a commonly known subject (let’s say, literature) is an inherently easier subject merely because the majority could opine on it. As most are able to opine on subjects that do not require specific knowledge or terminology, most would dismiss those subjects at that and regard them as easier than STEM.

        I would say that the best writing is that which best demonstrates the psychological side of things. Writing that makes you think metaphysically, and which conjures the audience’s emotions.

      • April 24, 2013 at 11:02 pmStilts

        Oh, you’re certainly right, Actus. The reason is that with literature and people and all the squishy things, everyone can think they understand it even though they really, really don’t, and it’s harder for those who do understand those things to prove it. Subjects like science have a much clearer dividing line – most people aren’t even well versed enough to join the conversation.

        My point is just that I worry when people take this to mean that the latter requires more intelligence than the former. It requires at least some degree of it, but not necessarily more.

      • April 25, 2013 at 1:43 amCobeurn

        I can agree with you two and of course my point was not that people who majored in some subject are smarter than the others (I’m sorry if that is what came across, English is not my first language). Your comment to Actus had neutralized my concern about the discussions within the fandom of some works. Thanks.

  • April 24, 2013 at 3:23 amSynchronicity

    But….Dune has WAYYYYY too many time skips.

  • April 24, 2013 at 12:07 pmTheFadingMoon

    Stilt’s post mostly sums up why I love sci-fi in general.

    I missed these Stilts out loud!

  • April 24, 2013 at 1:09 pmIthekro

    So with all this, why isn’t someone covering Space Battleship Yamato 2199?

  • April 24, 2013 at 2:05 pmBear

    I have to disagree on the definition of Sci-Fi as being defined by possibility. Much of what is considered Sci-Fi is not possible or if it was considered possible, events have proven it wrong. Heinlein didn’t even like the term. He preferred to call SF, Speculative Fiction. SF separates itself from Fantasy by logical consistency and a relationship to science where some attributes of science are allowed to change (what if) but the rest of the story remains consistent with know laws and reality. Magic can even be used in an SF story, such as the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett, where magic was developed rather than science but magic has a logical consistency and rules. Dragons can fly and belch fire in the Dragon Riders of Pern stories by Ann McCaffrey, but there are logical and consistent reasons for them. Star Wars, for all it’s spaceships and lasers, is really more of a fantasy story (“use the FarceForce, Luke!”). Space Opera, if you will. Frankly most of the stories written, animated, or filmed today are just fantasy with a spaceship setting. In anime Shin Seki Yori falls into the SF category, because even though the powers defy known physical laws, they and the story are consistent about how they work and are used.

    • April 25, 2013 at 7:41 amFarHorizon

      Yes, this is the classical definition of SF. The exploration of how people, society, culture, etc changes based on on some huge shift in technology or reality.

      SSY does this splendidly at first, but sadly focused way more on character angst in the last 2/3rds of the series. I also would not say it was completely consistent with the explanation of things, but it was still a gripping story.

      Pretty much 10% of american “Sci Fi” TV/movies are really sci fi (eg Fifth Element), so I’d say SSY is better than most of them anyway. The last true Sci Fi tv series I watched was Battlestar Galactica & that also veered off heavily on character driven arcs that were not hard sci fi for the last few seasons.

  • April 24, 2013 at 2:44 pmMrBrownSound

    I think what makes Sci-fi good is when they nail down the feeling of scale. The feeling of worlds difference from our lives. In Star wars, the concept of the Galactic Republic, and the idea of conquering worlds, and moving on to conquer more, blew peoples heads off.

    The anime, Suisei no Gargantia expresses this wow factor feeling of scale, when they show their gravity controlled, enclosed land masses, like from the Gundam series. Also because they show the main character equipped with a AI controlled super weapon, potentially powered by dark matter, lol – go back in time, to a simpler time on earth. His weapon can basically destroy off life on earth. But yet, in his original home, his mech is just one of many, and not that powerful in scale. I don’t necessary think having the main character go through tons of hurdles and fight stronger enemies throughout a story is really important to a plot. The way that series is going now is great.

  • April 24, 2013 at 4:29 pmTiffany

    i whis someone would make a elementary sci-fi anime.

  • April 24, 2013 at 7:23 pmsealouse

    Shingeki no Kyojin is Sci-Fi? You kiddin me? You should watch this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkzQxw16G9w

    • April 24, 2013 at 11:05 pmStilts

      I’m going to avoid clicking on that video because I don’t want to be spoiled, so I’ll just say that I never said Shingeki no Kyojin was sci-fi, merely that it walks around and acts like it. It’s “hard” fantasy, at least to the limits of my current knowledge about the series.

      • April 25, 2013 at 7:54 pmsealouse

        It’s actually a Vsauce video explaining that stuff like the titans are completely impossible.

    • April 26, 2013 at 1:36 pmMrBrownSound

      Meh I wouldn’t say it’s exactly sci-fi either, but in the manga and anime of that show, they explain how the titans are light as air, blah blah… they try to explain it with science. I won’t say any more, but you get the trend. The entire show is about finding out what and who the titans are, and their motivations.

  • April 25, 2013 at 8:03 amYummy

    Don’t forget authors also like to create new genres of science fiction or hybrids that don’t have anything to do with fantasy. There are post apocalypse genres that poped in the 80′s (Mad Max), dystopia (Brave New World), psychological horror (Cube)…

    I think too that an author who manages to make of the world he created not only a framework but also an element of influence (as a character) has become aware that simply telling a story in a space station might not be enough as a plot.
    What if the universe the characters live in suddenly rejects them?

    I think Sci fi might be disguised thoughts on several random views from a human perspective about the course of worlds. Post apo? How to survive. Space pew pew? War between countries (yeah yeah obvious is obvious). Transhumanism? Immortality and fear of death. Biological weapon? Dread of disease.
    And so on.

    Stories much convey, or so I think, a way to transgress these fears, and use cool things to do cool things.

    • April 25, 2013 at 10:37 amActus

      It makes you wonder if a writer would be as audacious as to come up with a story incorporating science fiction into anthropomorphism. Although such a story does not sound too appealing.

  • April 25, 2013 at 9:18 ammanifest

    Dune, Star Wars and Star Trek was best references for western Sci-Fi. They are emphasis on the storyline and space battle which lead us hook to them years ago up today.

    Meanwhile, Anime Sci-Fi such as Cowboy Bebop, Mouretsu pirate, macross frontier and gundam series. They are more explore on technologies possibilities according to their era beside selling their storyline. More importantly, anime Sci-Fi makes improvement each year. I like that aspect.

  • April 25, 2013 at 4:16 pmMatt_D

    IMO what makes a good Sci-fi is the same as what makes a good anything else, solid characters and well executed plots along with theme. Take Legend of the Galactic Heroes, you could happily take away all of the technological elements, replace them with fantasy elements and end up with an excellent fantasy series. The same is true of Dune (though it’d be more complex to pull off) while Star Wars is a fantasy series with space ships.

    Star Trek is harder to move from its time frame as it was idealism of the time, Russians, Chinese, American, etc, all together on the same bridge working together as friends and allies. The general notion being “if we all bond together we can achieve great things.” It’s a lot less relevant now that we don’t have a cold war.

    You could also take Game of Thrones, and transplant that into a sci-fi setting and it would still be awesome.

    For example is a story about a man on a space ship slowly going insane while doing the same mundane job for months on end sci-fi while a story about a man in a factory slowly going insane while doing the same mundane job for months on end a modern psychological thriller?

    Near Future Sci-fi of course doesn’t survive the conversion test as one of the reasons near future sci-fi is so interesting is it tends to ask questions about where we are and where we’re going and sets them in familiar real world settings but xx years in the future. Things like dealing with transhumanism and post scarcity economies. These don’t work as themes for fantasy. Shows like Eve no Jikan, Eden of the East, Serial Lain and Robotic;notes.

  • April 25, 2013 at 4:58 pmDavid

    [quote]Remember to hover over the pictures for alt text![/quote]

    You put the title attribute on the anchor tag, not the image tag, so “hover for extra text” won’t work.

  • April 25, 2013 at 8:21 pmAnFuSti

    god these stilts out loud posts are so bad, I wish he would stop doing them, or stop blogging for RandomC outright.

    • April 26, 2013 at 1:39 pmMrBrownSound

      I think he did a good job, and bought about a interesting discussion.

  • April 27, 2013 at 2:14 pmMikoto

    Possibility is one thing, but it all depends on the storytelling, character development and overall elements just like any other genre.
    I highly recommend playing the visual novel Ever 17 -Out of Infinity- to anyone who loves sci-fi and hasn’t. Please don’t spoil yourself by reading wikipedia about this game.

  • April 28, 2013 at 11:57 amgrey

    I”m also in love with Gargantia.