If science fiction is speculative fiction set in a naturalistic world, then fantasy is speculative fiction that is set in a non-naturalistic world.[1] In a fantasy universe, the rules of the universe can (1) violate any of the characteristics of the rules of a naturalistic universe, and (2) interact directly with things that aren’t reducible to inert matter. Let’s explore each in turn.

Fantasy can involve non-inert things at the substrate of the universe

Unlike science fiction, the rules of a fantasy universe can interact directly with what Richard Carrier refers to as “mental things.” For example, in a naturalistic universe, the world of meaning, intention, love, hate, language, etc., are all things that exist only in the minds of the people who dwell there. However, in a universe where the supernatural exists, the things that we would normally see as purely matters of the mind can find presence outside the mind. They can be baked into the universe itself. Or, as Carrier puts it, “at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things.”[2]

This could include the animism of some fantasy worlds. For example, the mountain itself might seek to repel trespassers (e.g., Cahadras in Lord of the Rings). The stars themselves might join in the battle between good and evil (A Wrinkle in Time). But importantly, the animistic elements cannot be reduced to the workings of non-animistic matter or energy; otherwise, we are not dealing with animism per se. Carrier provides an example:

In Harry Potter’s world, a wizard speaks a word and something happens. … In a similar fashion, in the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the rocks and trees and winds respond to verbal commands, despite having no brains or ears or nervous systems, or anything structurally analogous to these. … It relies on irreducibly mental powers and properties of the universe. Words directly cause what they request, without any mindless mechanism connecting the spoken word to the realized effect. Such a universe would have to be fundamentally supernatural, because it would be fundamentally mental to some extent.[3]

Carrier’s thoughts roughly fall along the same contours of animism: a universe that responds directly to human thoughts, wishes, aspirations, intentions, language, or any other “mental” thing is a fundamentally animistic universe. The substrate of such a universe involves something more than inert energy or matter passively complying with universal laws. It is a universe that is active rather than passive; it responds rather than merely reacts. As Neil Postman puts it, there is an “irrevocable difference between a blink and a wink,” and a fantasy universe can do the latter.[4]

Fantasy can defy each of the characteristics of naturalism

  • In fantasy, the rules of the universe can vary across space — without there necessarily being a universal rule underneath to explain the changes. Sometimes, the magic just works differently in different places. You could have cursed communities, or enchanted forests.
  • In fantasy, the rules of the universe can vary across time. The magic can die. Or revive. Or only work during full moons on the fourth month of the year. You could have a magician create magic, rather than merely discover it. You could have characters or deities rewrite the rules. At any given time, the rules are not necessarily what they have to be.
  • In fantasy, the guiding rules or forces of the universe can be active. They might have intention. They might wish good or evil upon the world. The magic might seek out the magician as much as the magicians seeks out the magic. The “powers that be”, fate, or destiny might orchestrate the events of the world.
  • In fantasy, the guiding rules or magic of the universe can be partial. It might matter who is trying to seek out the universe’s secret, and what they intend it for. Magic might work differently for different people. Heritage and family might matter. Further, there can be a “chosen one,” a character with destiny. A character chosen by the universe might become a magician and do magic through no merit or desire of their own.
  • In fantasy, the guiding rules or magic of the universe can be morally inflected. You can have good magic that enchants and uplifts, or dark magic that inevitably corrupts and destroys. You can have good forces and evil forces working against each other. Goodness and badness can be baked into the universe, and transcend the mere preferences of the characters involved.

Fantasy does not need to do all of these things (or necessarily any of them); but they are flags that signal that we are dealing with a non-naturalistic universe and likely in the realm of fantasy.

Fantasy can involve systematized rules

Some mistakenly assume that this means that a fantasy universe cannot have rules that are systematic (or in particular, that can be discovered and that make sense). But this isn’t true. First, if a magic system has rules that fly all the flags of naturalism — e.g., its rules are universal, unchangeable, passive, impartial, morally neutral, and would function just the same were all sentient beings missing — then yes, that magic system is indistinguishable from an alternate-universe science fiction (and in fact might be such). In fact, when we read the first installment in the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, we thought we might have encountered precisely this.

For those unfamiliar, Mistborn involves a magic system called allomancy, in which characters ingest different metals, and when they do, they gain certain powers. The rules of allomancy in Mistborn were heavily systematized, and — at least in the first book — checked all of the right boxes for alt-universe naturalism: universal, unchangeable, passive, etc. It turns out, however, that the rules were changeable: we find out in later books they had a beginning, in which they were created by a dying god in an attempt to distribute his creative power through the world.[5] This non-naturalistic element puts allomancy squarely in the domain of fantasy.

In this way, Sanderson shows us that it is perfectly possible to systematize magic in ways that are non-naturalistic. Magic does not have to be mysterious to be magic. It just has to violate one or more of the characteristics of naturalism. Understanding this distinction might help some authors see the implicit, unexamined naturalistic assumptions in their writing: not all explanations or systems need to resemble naturalistic explanations or systems.

In fact, we think it’s good to have strong examples of non-naturalistic worlds that are amenable to systematic analysis. It can be easy to assume that naturalism holds a monopoly on reason and enlightened observation, but Christians the world over believe in a morally inflected universe with a God who is a moral sovereign over the physical world — and yet also believe that scientific rationality is a valuable tool for illuminating their world. (We will discuss this in more detail later.) This kind of fantasy advances and legitimizes that notion in the realm of imagination — something that we see as an intrinsic good.

References   [ + ]

1. Note that the term “speculative” may not be strictly necessary when discussing fantasy. Naturalism is the prevalent dogma of our age, and so deviations from naturalism are assumed to be speculative. However, works of fiction that involve the Christian God (for example, The Prince of Egypt) may be non-naturalistic, but they are not always speculative (to the extent that people accept that the in-story universe resembles reality). Such religiously-inflected works are not always labeled fantasy.
2. Richard Carrier, “Defining the Supernatural,” 18 January 2007.
3. Richard Carrier, “Defining the Supernatural,” 18 January 2007.
4. Neil Postman, “Social Science as Theology,” Et cetera, Spring, 1984. http://neilpostman.org/articles/etc_41-1-postman.pdf
5. If allomancy was baked into the universe instead of created by a god, Mistborn might have been a candidate for an accepted fantasy that was actually alt-universe science fiction, under our definitions. The metals could have been conceptualized as differing from each other in their effect on human experience the same way different drugs do, as an “alt-universe biochemistry.”