Most Of Our Favorite Pieces Of Media Are Fantasy
Almost all “speculative” fiction is fantasy fiction. Horror is fantasy. Most science fiction is science fantasy or just fantasy with some aesthetic changes. Superhero fiction is fantasy fiction. Time travel stories are fantasy. It’s only a matter of magic systems.
I don’t mean to demean any of these genres with that statement: I love subgenres, mashups, and different approaches to these ideas—but I’m also taking a cold, hard look here, and this is the conclusion.
In Doctor Who, the Sonic Screwdriver can open any door and disable any technological device unless it’s “deadlocked” or is made of wood. That’s a magic system. Regeneration is an absurd idea unless you consider it a very specific type of healing magic.
Science Fiction Obscures Its Magic Systems Better
Q’s powers are handwaved as being something a higher lifeform can do, but that whole species consists of omnipotent beings with reality-warping magic. Star Trek’s teleporters are—conceptually—so far outside of what we are capable of doing with modern technology that it may as well be magic. It is magic.
Superman can basically do anything physical he wants as long as it occurs to him—but that enchantment doesn’t work in the presence of a specific magic item called Kryptonite.
The only major exceptions I can think of in speculative fiction are hard sci-fi properties like The Martian or horror movies with no supernatural elements.
It’s Hard To Find Speculative Fiction Without Magic
Outside of that, the real distinction between each subgenre is how rigid the magic system is and how based on known technology it is. Spider-Man’s webs are absolutely outside the bounds of our current technological abilities—and very well might never be possible—but because it’s “closer” to reality in how it’s described to work, we accept it as science fiction. Being able to conjure fire from one’s hands is just as absurd, but if it comes from “internal energy,” we accept it as fantasy.
I could keep giving examples. Horror is full of things like this. Even ghost stories tend to have a few hard and fast rules—and don’t get me started on monsters like vampires and zombies. But you get the point. It doesn’t make these genres less fun, the research put into them less valid, or the genre distinctions less important, but almost all speculative fiction is simply taking a magic system of some kind and applying it to characters, settings, or scenarios.
Hard magic systems, soft magic systems, closer or further from real science: it’s magic systems all the way down.
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