Anything Can Happen

Rick Ellrod  
One of the things I like about reading science fiction and fantasy is that you never know how things might turn out. What’s different about F&SF, as opposed to what we might call mainstream or mundane stories, is that at the end the world can be radically different from what it was at the beginning.

The More Things Change . . .

One of the things I like about reading science fiction and fantasy is that you never know how things might turn out.

Of course certain genres of stories come with expectations. In an adventure epic, we can be pretty sure the good guys will win. In a traditional romance, the couple generally gets together at the end. But what’s different about F&SF, as opposed to what we might call mainstream or mundane stories, is that the worldwide situation at the end can be radically different from the one at the beginning.

I’m talking here about big-picture changes. Of course things can and do change for the people in the story. But in a mainstream story, the world around the characters is pretty much fixed. Our main character may win a million dollars, but the overall distribution of wealth doesn’t change. Our hero and heroine may fall in love and marry, but it won’t be front-page news. In a TV hospital drama, the imperiled patient won’t be cured because aliens suddenly arrive with a universal regeneration technique that makes illness obsolete; the cure will come on a more individual scale.

The World At Stake?

In a science fiction story, however, world-changing events may occur. The movie Independence Day depicts an alien invasion after which, as I pointed out in a previous post, things will never be the same. A nifty new invention may change the world. Discovering people with strange powers among us may affect our whole history, for good or for ill. A revolution may succeed in overthrowing the oppressive tyranny. Things will not always reset to their “Gilligan’s Island” starting point.

Not all F&SF stories involve such events. A perfectly good fantastic tale may result in changes only for the central characters—in Jo Walton’s Among Others, for example, or Becky ChambersThe Galaxy, and the Ground Within (2021). But the potential is there. The set of possible outcomes has a wider range: the resolution does not have to confine itself to the resolutely mundane.

Even mainstream thrillers where it appears The Fate of the World Is At Stake—James Bond, say—usually don’t take that step. The world-changing fate is averted, the status quo is restored. Even the possibility of radical change is usually hidden from the general public; there’s no sense that Bond’s exploits are a nine-day wonder in the press. On the contrary, we have the sense that the people at large never know how close they came to nuclear destruction or whatever the menace-of-the-week is. When such a thriller actually does postulate a major change for the world—as in, say, Tom Clancy’s now-outdated Red Storm Rising (1986), or the more recent book by Elliot Ackerman & James Stavridis, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (excerpted in the February 2021 issue of Wired)—I’m inclined to think of it as science fiction for exactly that reason.

Hope and Unease

This open-endedness is an effective counter to both complacency and despair. 

When stories teach us that even big overarching parts of our life can change, we are less inclined to rest in the comfortable assumption that the status quo will always remain. This is a good thing, because it keeps us from taking things for granted. America could become a dictatorship; it behooves us to make sure it doesn’t. The world could suffer an ecological catastrophe. An asteroid could strike the Earth again; that’s why we track near-Earth objects.

But it’s equally important to recognize that the big world-picture could also get better. It is easy, especially in a cynical age like our own, to assume that current evils will always be with us; things will continue to get darker and more depressing. But that’s merely taking the status quo for granted again. We cannot assume that there will always be racial discrimination, that some people will always go hungry, that Earth’s ecology will degrade. Not knowing what is going to happen means we can hope for better things as well as fear worse things.

We can thus take comfort, as well as warning, in the open-endedness of the future.

Had she really thought the world didn’t change? She was a fool. The world was made of miracles, unexpected earthquakes, storms that came from nowhere and might reshape a continent. The boy beside her. The future before her. Anything was possible. (Inej’s thoughts, in Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2016), ch. 44, p. 529.)

F&SF fans, then, are encouraged to be both cautious and expectant about the future. That doesn’t prevent them from being either naïve or discouraged—we see plenty of both. But they are a little more likely to look toward the future with interest and curiosity.

19+ Comments


I think this is why I like writing fantasy more than any other genre. Us authors aren’t limited by the laws of contemporary politics, science, or logic. We are free to do anything we want as long as it fits the narrative.

As a reader, too, I tend more toward science fiction and fantasy. When I read, I want to be transported to a place far away from this one—and how much farther can you get than 5,000 years into the future or a different world entirely?

Perhaps this is why these genres are nearly always the most popular, especially as the modern world becomes less and less pleasant to live in.

Nov-27 2023


It seems to me that in addition to Scifi and Fantasy that have the attributes mentioned in the blog, there is a large (larger?) body of work put in that category that would be better classed as ‘space opera’ or ‘sword and sorcery.’ I used to consume a lot of all these categories, but I can no longer read very far into a space opera or sword and sorcery story, and my reading of the other type is inhibited by them all being mixed indiscriminately. That was fine when relatively few books were being published, but now it’s a nightmare.

I will say that a good sword and sorcery novel can still appeal to me, but I open to page one and I don’t see good writing. The eloquent use of the language is critical in this genre, IMO, but most of the writing I see is pedestrian.

Nov-27 2023


That’s the thing I like about F&SF, I look at it as challenge of telling the storyteller “why not”.

Especially, the films like Equilibrium and Dragonheart. The whole thing started with Transformers and Star Trek for me.

Nov-27 2023


Great blog!

It’s the ‘what if’ factor that attracts so many readers, and fantastic authors to SFF. (not that there aren’t fantastic authors in other genres too, but the imagination can go wild in SFF).

The vast scope for mixing subgenres also makes it exciting. As you say, anything can happen (and should, in the what-if scenarios). SFF isn’t just thought-provoking – for its fans, it’s just outright fun!

Nov-27 2023


At some level, I view SFF as one of the hardest genres to write. You really have to be a master of the craft to be able to whittle away at the endless possibilities and write an internally consistent and satisfying story that is relatable to a reader in our world.

Beyond artificing layered characters and weaving a complex narrative, SFF writers often have to sculpt a universe and chisel into it rules, limitations, imperfections, and contradictions.

Perhaps it is indeed the willingness of SFF readers and writers to say “what if” that imparts a certain mental plasticity that opens us up to new possibilities in our own world.

Nov-27 2023


Great article!
I like the unpredictability of sci fi too. :slight_smile:

But it’s equally important to recognize that the big world-picture could also get better.

I think that’s true. And it could get better if more people started believing it could get better. :sunny:

Nov-27 2023


An interesting article to be sure. I quite agree with you.

Since you are mainly talking about the effects and the things that can be taken from SF & F, this made me think about the causes. I don’t read that much Fantasy stories, but if I were to hazard a guess as to why world-changing events are more common in Science Fiction than other genres, I would say that it is a matter of scale, in one of two ways (and sometimes both):

One, because oftentimes the Earth (or whatever planet the action is set on) is part of a bigger domain comprising multiple words, sometimes even a galaxy (Dune, H2G2, Foundation, you name it.), which implies that if a world changes, dies, disappear, etc., it would be like a drop in the ocean (e.g. the countless worlds that met a gruesome fate in the Warhammer 40K universe.)

Two, because imaginary technological breakthroughs (terraforming, FTL travel, life extension, etc.) have rendered total or partial mastery of physical phenomena possible, thus giving the opportunity to reshape the world or the universe more or less at will at a grander scale, literally and metaphorically speaking.

I’ll go one step further, in fact: effectively, this means that in SF the current state of the world is insignificant in light of the possibilities of the universe, if that makes sense. At any point, the “status quo” of things, as you put it, could be modified or broken by intervention from either humans, aliens or the universe itself, which in my opinion invites curiosity and a readiness to change.

Nov-27 2023


I don’t read much contemporary sci fi, but I have seen Independence Day. I’ve also read a lot of HG Wells. The thing that strikes me is, alongside the sense of a world changed, there’s also a return to normality at some level. In Independence Day, Will Smith’s character is reunited with his family, Jeff Goldblum with his love interest, Bill Pullman and his daughter watch the fallout/fireworks. Then in War of the Worlds the Martians are defeated by bacteria and Earth still belongs to the people, for now. The guy in the Time Machine gets home.
So in contemporary sci fi, I’m interested to know whether this is still the case? From what you say, I get the impression a sense of resolution on some level is optional…

Nov-27 2023


I think inventech allows individuals to play a part that historians only pretend that real people do. Prominent people are, in reality, not so much shapers of destiny as symbols of the forces that shape destiny. “The times produce the man.” Scifi and Fantasy both make it easier to focus on those symbolic actors as purposeful agents of change, and audiences generally prefer books of all kinds that focus on individual characters and their emotions over books that leave that behind to relate history in terms of the social/technical forces themselves.
Scifi has traditionally had a reputation of being not so good at the human angle, but even so, characters are essential to readability. The Big Ideas of most scifi books don’t hold up if evaluated on their own merits, but they aren’t intended to (usually). They are an examination by extrapolation of specific ideas, not a tool for predicting the future. A few put forward experiments that give us valuable insights into what does, in fact, happen much later, but for the most part the ‘predictions’ don’t manifest to that degree.

Nov-27 2023


I do agree, though I don’t know if you aim to disprove my point or just take the opportunity to elaborate on a related topic.

Nov-27 2023


Uh… I think I’m elaborating on your point.

Nov-27 2023


That’s what I thought but I wasn’t sure, sorry about that. That’s what English not being your first language does to you.

Nov-27 2023


@Josielynn Yes resolutions are still a thing :wink: In forums like this one, I’ve found people often talk about ‘genre’ writing — and science fiction in particular— as if it’s a fundamentally different beast where the normal principles of good writing don’t apply. Being a ‘genre’ writer doesn’t absolve you of the necessity to observe storywriting basics. Science fiction and fantasy publishers constantly emphasise that they want strong characters, and stories with a clear arc and resolution. SFF awards such as the Hugo and the Arthur C Clarke award consistently go to books with classic beginning, middle and end.

I’m talking broad brush strokes here, of course. There are exceptions — but you’ll find experimentalists in all types of fiction. Nonetheless, the vast majority of contemporary SFF writing adheres to established principles of structure and narrative arc — possibly even more than other genres, as world-building demands a certain amount of work from the reader, so the need to anchor stories in easily recognisable storytelling elements (e.g. compelling protagonist, conflict, arc and resolution, etc) is quite high. If you look at the submissions guidelines for leading SFF short fiction publications such as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Apex, Clarkesworld etc, you see the same requests repeated in all of them: character, plot, satisfying resolution (usually with a plea for ‘no more stories about vampires/werewolves’ :stuck_out_tongue: ).

Nov-27 2023


From my observation of what I see taking up shelf/digital advertising space, I get the impression that ‘basics’ is the key word here. SFF has certainly developed in terms of these things, but I do see a bit of a binary between good writing beyond the most basic elements and good science in scifi, and most of the fantasy I read sample pages from lacks anything approaching a Tolkien-esque use of the language. In both, I think the main foci are Big Ideas, on the one hand, and Big Adventures on the other. As always, this leads me to advocate for Sword and Sorcery to be its own genre, and for Space Opera to be a separate genre from Scifi. I don’t expect it will ever happen, in part because writers will always look for overlaps and gray areas, but I think it would save readers a lot of trouble, and probably publishers, too.

Nov-27 2023


Great article. Thanks for writing. I absolutely agree that in SFF, reality is up for grabs and that is one of its strengths.

You made me think of Le Guin, who said: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

Le Guin also said, ‘The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the ways things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary’.

And William Gibson- ‘dystopias give us ‘a useful toolkit for disassembling and re-examining the present’.

Sorry to refer to myself but I said some of this when interviewed for 3AM Magazine here

Nov-28 2023


The title alone reminds me of an iconic scene by Stanley Tucci in “The Core”.

He looks away from the camera, just a little to inspire thought and said “what if we could?”

Nov-28 2023


Great discussion!

@Glitterpen – good point. (Anybody remember the movie “Tomorrowland”?)

@Josielynn, @Lertimo – I think the difference is that the resolution in F&SF is not quite as foreclosed, because the range of possible outcomes is broader. For a good story, yes, there needs to be some kind of resolution, which can be more or less open-ended. But the resolution need not reset us to the status quo ante. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum achieve their romances – but the world going forward will never be the same (as we see in the sequel).

@Honzo – It’s true that we tend to prefer stories that focus on a few individuals, and this leads to perhaps an overemphasis on the deeds of our select heroes rather than the broader forces at work. (Not that the individual can ever be entirely discounted.) That’s probably true in every genre. One does, however, see F&SF stories in which social/technical forces play a key role: the classic example is Asimov’s original Foundation series (note that this does not apply to the Apple+ series), where the whole point, at least at the beginning, is that predictable social forces may lead to certain outcomes regardless of what our heroes do.


Nov-30 2023


One of the great strengths of GRRM’s ASOIAF series is how he uses characters both in the active, heroic sense, and also as observers to other important players and events, while also letting things play out off the page in the great scheme of nations and intrigue. I see a model for this in perhaps an unlikely source: Tolstoy’s War & Peace, where characters take part in the course of history but don’t control it.

Maybe your point about the changing state of the universe is less a feature of SF&F and more a feature of the epic. W&P, after all, ends with Europe in a radically different situation, with Moscow burned, Napoleon’s army routed, and major characters dead. And like many popular works of SF&F, it’s an absolutely massive book :smiley:

Nov-30 2023


You have given me a newfound faith in my fantasy piece. What seemed like silliness when writing now has a new meaning.

Can I get any more melodramatic? I am not about the happy ending. I prefer to break some hearts. Don’t engross yourself in my work if my reader isn’t about not getting the prize.

I want to say your blog is well-written. It’s been a while since I could stay interested in what the blogger is trying to convey.

Thanks for the read

Nov-30 2023
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