Can there be science without fantasy?

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From the Innominate Eastercon panel ‘Fantastic Lessons for Scientists’ on 15 April 2017, with Adrian Tchaikovsky, Aliette de Bodard, TJ Berg, Christianne Wakeham & Dr Justin Newland

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PART 1: We are all special

The word ‘fantasy’ is derived from the Greek ‘phantasia’ and means ‘to make visible’. This definition immediately places the magical genre in a similar mind space to science; however, are there other connections, like axes of learning? If so, does fantasy inform science or the other way around?

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Imagination certainly has a vital role in science by enabling the conception of theories that eventually become physical realities. To say that scientific theory is fantastic until it can be verified does not diminish either conception or genre; rather, this comparison illustrates the osmotic relationship between the two.

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A good example is the development of the telephone, which has been so comprehensively re-imagined it now resembles that most seductive of fantasy tropes: the magic device. Not only do modern phones provide seamless interaction without any requirement to understand how they work; they are also controlled by touch or a wave of the hand, actions that were once the preserve of sorcerers.

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There is something intuitive, even sensual about our relationship with these machines, which have evolved so far from computers that QWERTY keyboards and monitors have the feel of heavy industry in comparison. Young people are drawn to the ease of the smart phone interface and excel at applications deriving from it, while not necessarily grasping the technical intricacies underlying this apparent simplicity.

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Conversely, magic in fantasy fiction is usually the domain of the old, and therefore does not develop in the way technology does. Fantasy stories often involve restoration narratives, such as a king being put back on his throne or an old way of magical life reasserting itself, rather than a purpose narrative that embraces change. Stories about magic are thus not just about preserving the status quo, but in engaging with something that’s been lost in the mists of time, often with good reason.

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This trope illustrates another aspect of magic, which is that it’s difficult. The difficulty tends to take two forms: one technical, the other social. The technical aspect is that the magic is rendered in an ancient language or requires particular ingredients that are hard to get. The social one is when a person is born to be a wizard, like Harry Potter. There is therefore a genetic factor in magic that has nothing to do with the qualities of the person involved, so if you didn’t have the right parents you are unfortunately still a Muggle.

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There are technical correlatives to this position, from the sheer complexity that has arisen from centuries of scientific research to the practice of companies like Apple, who make their tech hard to understand in order to protect its intellectual property. Protectionism is nothing new of course; traditional crafts like blacksmithing created guilds partly to safeguard their skill set but also to control access to the industry.

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On the whole though, technology exists to make things easier, as the very existence of this post illustrates. However, a popular fantasy fiction trope is the ‘special person’, something the genre has in common with religion. Indeed, an appeal of both kinds of text is the idea that the special someone is the reader. With easy access to extraordinary technology, is this notion of specialness diminished?

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Next: Don’t forget the nuts & bolts

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