Is that a Hobbit in Your Rocket?

A Roundtable Discussion With Lois McMaster Bujold, Dave Duncan, and Michael Swanwick

EosCon Note: This feature is the transcript from a live event produced by for HarperCollins. The live event took place online during the annual Internet-only science fiction/fantasy conference, EosCon 4.0. The topic of this panel was "Is that a Hobbit in Your Rocket?" The panelists were bestselling fantasy authors Lois McMaster Bujold, Dave Duncan, and Michael Swanwick.

Moderator: Hi everyone, welcome to EOSCON 4.0. I'm your Moderator Ben Trumble for SCIFI. This hour we're chatting with writers Lois McMaster Bujold, Dave Duncan, and Michael Swanwick. The topic is how and why some authors choose to write both Science Fiction ("SF") and Fantasy, and the creative freedom this affords them.

Moderator: First Question: Did any of you start your writing careers thinking that you would write either SF or Fantasy, but not both?

Michael Swanwick: Absolutely. I was going to be J.R.R. Tolkien, Jr.

Dave Duncan: I think I started my writing career amazed that I could write anything.

Michael Swanwick: If Terry Brooks hadn't beaten me to it, essentially my ambition had been to write The Sword of Shannara.

Lois McMaster Bujold
Lois McMaster Bujold: The whole difference between SF and mainstream is that the tech or magical differences from our here-and-now world matter. To be satisfying, a story does seem to need to examine those postulated differences on some level. I've always read both, indiscriminately; I've always regarded the two genres as a continuum, not as separate things. And with examples like Poul Anderson to follow, the idea of restricting myself never crossed my mind.

Dave Duncan: I think the distinction between Fantasy and SF is largely a marketing one. It's also a matter of convention -- time travel and FTL and so on are mostly fantasy.

Michael Swanwick: I really started as a stone fantasy reader, but that was in 1967 and it took me about a year to read every work of fantasy in existence, so I started reading SF because it gave me a fantasy-like kick.

Michael Swanwick: I actually disagree, Dave.

Dave Duncan: Good.

Michael Swanwick: Fantasy and SF were originally distinct things, but there was really not a fantasy market.

Lois McMaster Bujold: If I had to distinguish, I think the existence of a supernatural makes it fantasy for me.

Michael Swanwick: So people who were natural fantasy writers wrote SF. Or rather, they wrote fantasy disguised as SF. If you go back to the stuff of the 40s and 50s, you can see that the serious SF writers were terribly annoyed by this.

Dave Duncan: I agree, but if you mix the two at all then you finish up with Fantasy not SF. It's like a mouse and elephant sandwich -- you can't taste the mouse.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Ew.

Moderator: Continuing along the lines of Dave's comment on marketing, is there market pressure to write one or the other? Certainly fantasy seems to get the face outs...

Dave Duncan: My fantasy always sold better than my SF.

Michael Swanwick
Michael Swanwick: Having written both SF flavored Fantasy and Fantasy flavored SF, I discovered that the true distinction between the two genres is that SF operates in a knowable universe and that Fantasy exists in a universe which is ultimately unknowable and mysterious.

Lois McMaster Bujold: There seem to be more people out there willing to buy some fantasy than SF; it makes it a larger potential market.

Michael Swanwick: Eos has never pressured me one way or the other.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Flavors matter; whether the unknowable is inimical or benign, for instance.

Michael Swanwick: It's easer to sell good SF than it is to sell good Fantasy, because editors see less of the former.

Moderator: Next Question: Should the Hugo and Nebula awards have separate categories for Fantasy and SF?

Michael Swanwick: Nobody would ever be able to settle that.

Lois McMaster Bujold: No, because the argument over what was what would go on forever.

Michael Swanwick: The Pern novels are SF...Anne McCaffrey is very adamant about that. But most of her fans read them as fantasy.

Lord of the Fire Land : A Tale of the King's Blades by Dave Duncan
Dave Duncan: I'd rather see a separate category for novels and series. It seems unfair to judge part of a series against a stand alone.

Michael Swanwick: It would have been nice if The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe could have gotten some special award for extraordinary achievement.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Series is a different art form than the novel, this is true. But you couldn't judge them year by year -- they'd be unfinished works in that short a time.

Dave Duncan: If there were SF and Fantasy categories, the author ought to be able to elect which his/her book goes in.

Moderator: Next Question: Is it easier to handle some themes in Science Fiction rather than Fantasy?

Michael Swanwick: Well, yes. It's very hard in Fantasy to deal with what machines/technology is doing to us. That's a great theme in SF and it doesn't really fit in Fantasy at all.

Lois McMaster Bujold: I find theme arises from the story, rather than being antecedent.

Dave Duncan: I'd say no, in that all fiction is about people.

Moderator: Unless it's Watership Down and it's about rabbits.

Dave Duncan: Obviously technology fits better in SF, but that's only one theme.

Dave Duncan: But rabbits in fiction or robots are really People in disguise. They have the same feelings etc.

Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
Michael Swanwick: No, I don't agree with that at all. If a robot is just a disguised person, that's not a good robot. The advantage of SF is you can take nonhuman things and write about them. You're engaged in an entirely different discourse.

Dave Duncan: But robots must have wants and that makes us identify with them as people.

Michael Swanwick: No, they don't have to have wants at all. A toaster has no wants, it has functions.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Robots without wants... now there's a story idea...

Dave Duncan: So write a bestseller about a toaster.

Michael Swanwick: And if a toaster could talk to us, wouldn't it be interesting to hear what it had to say?

Dave Duncan: Not unless it wants something.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Disch did... It made a great Disney movie, too. But that toaster definitely had wants.

Michael Swanwick: Wouldn't it be interesting to hear that it wasn't a disguised person at all?

Lois McMaster Bujold: Elevators and trains talk to me now, but the conversation is pretty limited.

Moderator: There's a toaster in the UK now that accesses the Net to burn your local weather map onto your toast...

Lois McMaster Bujold: The elevators just don't listen, that's the trouble...

Dave Duncan: We can't create AI, because we can't make a computer with wants.

Michael Swanwick: Cars have personalities and yet they are not human.

Dave Duncan: Funny, but not true.

Michael Swanwick: We don't even know what an intelligence is.

Dave Duncan: But we can create characters in books.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Good heavens, I thought that map-on-the-toast was a joke. I should get out more.

Lois McMaster Bujold: I don't want a computer with wants, I don't think. My children and pets are bad enough.

Michael Swanwick: I'd really like to meet an AI, because all that we know about intelligence is human intelligence. Having two different kinds of intelligence would be like having two eyes. It would give us parallax. It would give us perspective.

Moderator: As writers of both Fantasy and SF do you ever find yourselves eliminating elements from a work in progress because they are either too much SF in a Fantasy story or too much Fantasy in a SF story?

Michael Swanwick: Never. I find that if something is getting to be too much anything in a story, than that's a good sign.

Lois McMaster Bujold: So far, the world building in each constrains the elements pretty well. I'm a little sorry I let psi powers, or at least telepathy, into my series universe, though.

Michael Swanwick: It's a good time to push it and see how far it will go.

Michael Swanwick: I agree with Lois. I hate that stuff.

Lois McMaster Bujold: I don't hate it, but it didn't belong.

Dave Duncan: Not as long as I can keep the style consistent.

Lois McMaster Bujold: And I was daunted by the demand that I figure out something new and fresh to do with it, if I let it stay. I've been ignoring it.

Michael Swanwick: It's hard to see the advantage of telepathy when you have a cell phone :-)

Moderator: I suppose the real question is whether a book that starts out as one thing ever becomes another during the writing?

Lois McMaster Bujold: I've had plots mutate, and characters develop, but I've never had anything change genres to the extent the question implies.

Dave Duncan
Dave Duncan: That did sort of happen to me with Lord of the Fire Lands. The surprise ending surprised me more than anyone and it was a sort of a genre shift.

Michael Swanwick: Cool.

Dave Duncan: Cool what?

Michael Swanwick: I just liked your ending.

Dave Duncan: Thanks.

Moderator: Are there any expectations or implicit assumptions in Science Fiction or Fantasy that you find limiting?

Michael Swanwick: No, because my primary responsibility is to the story itself.

Lois McMaster Bujold: More liberating than limiting, I should think.

Dave Duncan: Heck I think the joy of the genre is that you can do anything.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Every piece of fiction involves selection.

Michael Swanwick: The Iron Dragon's Daughter opens a factory in Faerie. A changeling girl is forced to build dragons. I knew that a lot of habitual fantasy readers weren't going to like the idea of an industrialized fantasy world. But the idea was so beautiful, I had to follow through on it.

Dave Duncan: Very glad you did.

Michael Swanwick: It did displease a lot of people. But it was also my most popular novel.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Escape-fantasy readers are of course trying to get away from just that.

Dave Duncan: But surely we all try to rise above the stereotype darklord stuff and look for change?

Lois McMaster Bujold: By the way, I think that escape is under-rated as a motivation for reading and writing. Analgesic fiction has its place, especially when you are in pain.

Michael Swanwick: I think escape is a little hard. I think all the great fantasists of the past century have been dissenters. From the consensus imagination.

Michael Swanwick: That's true too, Lois.

Dave Duncan: I don't want entertainment that rubs my nose in social problems, so I'll drink to escape.

Lois McMaster Bujold: I mean that pretty literally. Georgette Heyer got me through the night once till the emergency clinic opened. It was a real value.

Moderator: Genre bending as it were is actually something of a noble art. Poe did it. Do any of you every find yourself tempted to push the envelope further...much SF and Fantasy, for example, employs elements of mystery. Could you write a cop novel and comfortably call it SF or Fantasy?

Michael Swanwick: It's been done.

Michael Swanwick: Asimov's Lije Bailly, for example.

Lois McMaster Bujold: I do other genres all the time. My Miles series is nothing if not an attempt to see how many genres I can squeeze into one series.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Now, science fiction and romance -- there was a real challenge.

Dave Duncan: If the author plays fair, the ending must fit the action in much the same way a mystery solves the crime. I don't think there's a huge difference.

Michael Swanwick: In Stations of the Tide I included an act of magic in every chapter starting with a piece of stage magic and working up through tantric sex. But I was very careful never to put anything into the novel that Isaac Asimov himself would acknowledge can exist in the real world. No ESP. No psi powers.

Lois McMaster Bujold: SF and mystery seem very compatible genres to me. Both involve finding out.

Michael Swanwick: When I wrote Jack Faust I didn't know if it was SF or Fantasy. On the one hand it was a deal with the devil story. On the other, it was a mad scientist story. In England it was packaged as Horror. In the US as Mainstream.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Trouble is, novels are manifold, but cover treatment can only say one thing at a time.

Dave Duncan: Incidentally, the one thing that is forbidden is to use hypnotism-like influence to change a personality, whether magic or psi. It messes up the characters.

Michael Swanwick: Delighted Laughter at Lois's comment :-)

Moderator: The tyranny of concretistic cover treatments.

Michael Swanwick: In Schismatrix, Bruce Sterling had a character who had been pre-programmed to change his personality to whatever would fit his social situation best. Most of the reviewers didn't understand what was going on ;-)

Lois McMaster Bujold: Yes to Dave -- the characters must be true to themselves in any genre.

Moderator: Are religious themes more expected in Fantasy than in Science Fiction? Has that affected your world-building?

Michael Swanwick: SF often deals with religion, and I actually think it's trickier to handle in fantasy.

Dave Duncan: I left religion out of the King's Blades books and have found that this made some situations very tricky to handle. A society without a religion just doesn't ring true.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
Lois McMaster Bujold: If we were to be totally scientific -- nothing allowed but what already exists -- we'd be writing mainstream. SF is about examining consequences of the differences, for which consistency is a virtue.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Yes for me: the new fantasy, The Curse of Chalion, ended up being very much an exploration of religion -- because that's what was most significantly different about its world. The Miles books don't seem to lend themselves to religious themes as readily, probably because the main POV character is at best an agnostic.

Michael Swanwick: Science arose in Europe from the religious impulse, theologians trying to read God's intent from the book of existence. As a result, science is not structured all that differently from theological investigation.

Dave Duncan: Except that there's no one with a red pencil marking the papers.

Dave Duncan: I agree with Michael that religion is easier to handle in SF.

Lois McMaster Bujold: It makes a huge difference if the Gods are real and active, or something more elusive, or merely consensus delusion.

Dave Duncan: Magic is close to miracle.

Moderator: Are writers today more expected to write both Fantasy and SF today than writers in the past?

Dave Duncan: Writers are expected to sell.

Lois McMaster Bujold: I don't think there's any constraint on what one chooses to write.

Michael Swanwick: In response to the new question, the Fantasy and SF field used to be small enough that one person could read everything. Now it's possible for a fantasy writer never to bother to read SF. So the trend is more toward specialization.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Yes; the audience is both larger and more balkanized.

Dave Duncan: I rarely read SF, I confess.

Michael Swanwick: What Lois says is absolutely true.

Moderator: Our time is about up. This has been fun. Final Question: For writers starting out, is there an advantage to picking either Science Fiction or Fantasy in undertaking a first novel? Are there greater pitfalls to one or the other?

Michael Swanwick: It's probably easier to sell an adequate hard SF novel than it is to sell an adequate Fantasy novel. There is a larger potential Fantasy market, but there's a more devoted SF readership.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Write what you love best; it will come out better. A better book has the advantage of being, well, better.

Dave Duncan: Recipe for success in either genre: Get a couple of good characters, put them in a hellish situation and have fun.

Michael Swanwick: There is one particular pitfall for fantasy writers, however, and that is the trilogy.

Dave Duncan: Yeah, I need four books.

Michael Swanwick: Odds are your second book is going to be noticeably better than your first, so your first trilogy is unlikely to read as smoothly as it should.

Michael Swanwick: Also, the publisher is going to wait to see what the sales of the first book are before committing to the second. If the numbers aren't good enough to justify a second book, you'll only find that fact out after you've written it.

Dave Duncan: I find that a lot of series decline after the first book, especially if it is the author's first book.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Readers have loved triple-deckers since the 19th C. -- it's not a new phenomenon. I agree with the comments about the marketing perils.

Sky of Swords : A Tale of the King's Blades by Dave Duncan
Dave Duncan: Homer invented the series. You can't sing the Iliad in less than three days.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Seeing that peril coming, I went to the series of stand-alones, myself.

Moderator: Like the Navajo "sings".

Michael Swanwick: Have fun is great advice. The best books are books whose writers really loved that sort of thing.

Dave Duncan: And my best are the ones I most enjoyed writing.

Michael Swanwick: I agree with what everybody says :-)

Dave Duncan: I'll buy you both a drink.

Moderator: Michael, Dave, Lois. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dave Duncan: Thanks.

Michael Swanwick: It's been fun.

Moderator: I want to express great thanks to everyone, writers and fans alike who took the time to log on to EOScon 4.0 today. It's been genuine pleasure.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Thanks! It was a surprisingly pain-free learning experience!

Copyright ©2001 by HarperCollins. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission. Reproduction or dissemination of this transcript in any manner whatsoever is strictly prohibited.

Photograph of Lois McMaster Bujold by Beth Gwinn.

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