fantasy, sci fi, and the ancient mariner

Ancient MarinerFantasy and science fiction are the dominant categories under the broad speculative fiction banner, but what’s the difference between them? I started wondering about that when I re-read Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which was a source for Jacinta’s Lovers.

The Rime is one of my favourite poems, but a couple of verses have always puzzled me—

‘But why drives on that ship so fast,
Without or wave or wind ?’

‘The air is cut away before,
And closes from behind.’

The Polar Spirit’s fellow-demons, invisible inhabitants of the air, are having a chat here, and in effect they’re giving the reader an explanation for the motion of the ancient mariner’s vessel.

These creatures are magical and fairy-like,¹ so one puzzle is why they need to discuss the ship’s motion at all—it’s just more magic. But more importantly, why is Coleridge bothering to offer an explanation to the reader anyway?

plausible explanations

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is fantasy, not sci fi. There are a quite a few magical occurrences in the poem, and by and large Coleridge makes no attempt at explanations.

For me, that’s a key difference between the two genres. In sci fi, an explanation for weird stuff is usually given or at least implied, and it must be plausible to some degree, although exactly how plausible is open to debate.

Returning to the two demonettes, there’s no talk of worm-holes or warp factors, but it’s still a sci fi explanation. Exaggerating just a little, their conversation could continue—

‘Cool. So there’s a partial vacuum at the front of the ship and an increased pressure behind it.’

‘Yeah, it’s super cool. The pressure difference is almost fifty kilopascals.’

Although the explanation Coleridge gave is implausible, it makes that section of the poem read like sci fi rather than fantasy, simply because he attempted to justify the ship’s motion.

schrödinger’s quantum wand

In speculative fiction, a number of concepts/creatures/devices have appeared so often that they’ve become standards. In sci fi, teleportation, time machines, subspace drives, and so on, now appear with very little explanation. On the other hand, if you’re reading about elves, gremlins, and magic wands, then it’s probably fantasy.

However, if a device has some sort of technical explanation,² even one as fantastically commonplace as a magic wand, then you’re back with sci fi. For example,

The two demonettes are having coffee. An old man with a long grey beard and a glittering eye approaches and starts mumbling about a sailing ship. He abruptly vanishes.

‘Cool wand.’

‘Yeah, it’s super cool. It has a built-in motion detector with a subspace link to a quantum teleporter.’

¹The illustration is adapted from one of Gustave Doré’s engravings for the 1876 edition of The Rime, and it shows his vision of the Polar Spirit’s demonettes.

²For sci fi, explanations have to be plausible or real to some extent. For example, Terry Pratchett’s description of the discworld iconograph (camera), which has an imp inside who paints the scene outside, is a continuation of his amazing fantasy world, and not sci fi.

5 thoughts on “fantasy, sci fi, and the ancient mariner

  1. I like your distinction. I did not think of sci-fi having to be plausible to some extent, but it makes sense since critiques of sci-fi books/films usually include fact-based scenarios. I enjoy sci-fi, but I’m not hard core, like my husband. 🙂

    • Hard core scifi is good. 👍 Yes, the actual subject matter is becoming blurred these days, but I think that any attempt at a “real” explanation (like the magic word “quantum”) moves the story away from fantasy towards scifi.

  2. How interesting. Years ago my cousin invited us to go sailing with her and a friend on his boat. He let me steer for a while which was really interesting in itself. There was not much wind that day but we went along at a nice pace. His explanation was awfully similar to the lines from the Rime. I learned a lot that day 🙂

    • It kind of makes sense, the ironic explanation I added is from the theory of aerofoils. The first time I went sailing I learned a lot too. Three of us rented what I think is called a trailer sailer, we had no idea what we were doing, the weather wasn’t good, and we hit a rock and sank it. Actually, scratch that, I didn’t learn that much. 😄

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