Science Fantasy = Bionicle
One of the most asked questions about Bionicle is "What genre is it?" There's a lot of confusion about this, and today the Bones Blog brings you the answer to the question (and to why it's confusing!).
There's a standard conversation that I see very often in S&T and other places. It goes something like this.
Member A: "What genre is Bionicle?"
Member B: "It's science fiction."
Member C: "No, it's fantasy!"
Member D: "It's supposed to be fantasy but there's all these machines messing things up."
Member E: "It always had machines! It's science fiction but there's these mystical themes."
Member F: "I agree."
And on and on, ad infinitum. In reality, these members are falling prey to the logical fallacy of false dilemma/dichotomy; also known as the "Either/Or" fallacy.
The answer is really very simple -- it's both! Bionicle is science fantasy. This is what Greg Farshtey has labeled it, and objectively speaking, it has all the elements of this genre. It is a blend of science fiction and fantasy themes.
But you're probably thinking "But bones, but bones, I've never seen a sticky label on a book that says 'science fantasy'!" Very true. Science fantasy is a relatively new genre, and much that is in it is mislabeled as one or the other. Not everyone knows the term; not everyone even agrees that this is the term to use. There are some out there trying to push their own invented term for this new genre, probably hoping for the fame of inventing "the term".
This has happened before. Science fiction was once a new genre too. When it first became popular, a plethora of terms popped up, everybody trying to promote the term they invented. It took a long time for the term "science fiction" to catch on. Now "science fantasy" is going through the same process. If you watch the "Sci-Fi" channel, you might notice that a lot of what they show feels more like fantasy. If you watch Star Wars for example, it's labeled science fiction, but there's the mystical element of the Force that the story centers around.
One of the biggest problems is -- how are science fiction and fantasy defined? If you research this, you'll discover everybody has their own opinion, and they usually try to define it with some clever concoction of words, rather than simply looking at it logically. Well, this logician has his own opinion on it.
Physics Fiction Spectrum
Science fiction, science fantasy, and fantasy are all within a larger category that we could call "Physics Fiction". If you think about it, the common trait of them all is that physics is important to the storyline, as opposed to more "real world" fiction.
What's more, "Physics Fiction" is a spectrum, not three seperate categories. At one end, science fiction focuses on real physics. The story centers around what real phsycists, scientists, etc. know about how our world works and takes it in an imaginative direction. At the other end, fantasy focuses on fictional physics. The story features physics invented by the author; taking physics itself in an imaginative direction. In between, science fantasy merges the two, melding real phsyics with fictional ones to give the fictional physics more of a sense of realism while also giving the imagination freedom.
So here's what the spectrum looks like if you consider examples of popular physics fiction examples:
Bionicle is probably one of the prime examples of "pure" science fantasy. You've got fictional elemental energy, protodermis, Kanohi, etc. and yet you've got machinery, technology, etc. blended together. Star Wars is another good example.
One myth that needs cleared up. This spectrum has NOTHING to do with the physics being "realistic". There's a big different between that and "real". "Real" phsyics are what our world just happens to have. "Realistic" physics is what is logically plausible in a fictional universe; physics that make sense but just happen to be different from ours. So just because Harry Potter's physics of magic spells are not real does not make them "unrealistic", nor does the presence of elemental energy in Bionicle mean that Bionicle physics are implausible.
All quality physics fiction presents its physics as making sense. Some scifi or fantasy might keep the physics secret, presenting it as a mystery, but it's still intended to make sense. Some poorer quality science fiction might have just as implausible physics as poor quality fantasy. Science fantasy is not a compromise on physics making sense -- it simply delves into fictional physics, yet stays grounded in some real physics too. Of course, this excludes comedy examples that use nonsensical physics for comedic value.
Another myth is that science fiction always takes place in the future while fantasy takes place in the past -- this is OFTEN true, but not always. Scifant often plays with this idea; Star Wars takes place long ago, for example, while Dune takes place in the future. Narnia took place in the present, as did Jurassic Park. Back to the Future took place all over time, but was grounded in the present. Bionicle isn't even in our universe at all, so it's not in the past, present, or future.
Still another myth is that the vague concepts of "science" or "technology" are by definition only for science fiction. No, "science" is the study of physics, real or not, and technology is the use of those physics in machinery and the like. Within the fictional context of a world like Bionicle, the fictional physics is "real", and so there's no reason the Matoran cannot study it and use those physics to make machines such as Chutes, Vahki, Zamor Launchers, or Lava Boards. In Harry Potter, for example, there are magical machines and all sorts of technology that makes use of the fictional physics within that world. So don't mistake scifant for a melding of technology and mystical or natural themes. That is simply a theme that is popular in science fantasy because those two aspects do "feel" like either scifi or fantasy. But technically, science and technology are possible all throughout physics fiction.
Lately there's been a shift among the public in popular genres, and story authors and observers are only just beginning to catch on. In the fairly recent past, the "science fiction" end of the spectrum was very popular. There is a giant collection of scifi fiction works out there, but most of it ceased in the late eighties. Some of the popular themes were starships, time travel, and alien planets. Star Trek has stood for all three of those for a long time.
But nowadays, there's been a shift away from science fiction and towards fantasy, largely due to Harry Potter's success. People are tired of real physics, which often feels dry and "heady", and they enjoy the more mystical feel of fantasy, which gives more of a sense of freedom to tell enjoyable stories and focus on characters without the headaches required both to create and absorb quality science fiction. Recently we witnessed the failure of Star Trek's latest spinoff for this reason (among others), and this is also why you're seeing the "scifi" channel delving into fantasy and scifant a lot more.
The negative reaction has been especially strong in the time travel category. Time travel used to be the perfect gimmick for get-rich-quick moviemaking schemers. Throw time travel in your story and BAM, popular. But the public seems to have either caught on or gotten tires of the complex mechanics of time travel. The latest example was "Daybreak" on ABC, which bombed in the ratings, despite it being highly enjoyable to physics geeks like me who love time travel, and even despite being actual high quality in terms of characterization. Even LOST may have been hurt by its use of time travel (or apparent time travel) in Season 3, which had dropping ratings. Thus I'm very, very glad Bioniicle has a rule against time travel, even if I'd personally enjoy it.
At the same time, science fantasy has benefitted from this shift. Scifant that avoids time travel is pretty popular now, with Star Wars even doing well in its latest movies with starships and alien planets. The theme seems to be that enjoyable storyline is what the public wants most, and science fantasy allows this. Delving into fantasy physics frees up the storyline to have epic danger without getting too "heady" and "technobabbly", unlike science fiction.
Also, one of my theories has been that we are living in an over-teched society nowadays, but we are still human -- we still long for nature. At the same time, we wouldn't want to live like Suvivor contestants -- we like some technology. Thus science fantasy that feels like a melding of nature and technology is naturally pleasing to people living in today's society -- it presents a world many of us wish we could live in, even if we don't consciously realize it.
Bionicle is "science fantasy", a blend of themes between science fiction and fantasy. It is in the center of a "Physics Fiction Spectrum", which is fiction that focuses on physics. Real physics are at one end of the spectrum, fictional physics at the other. In feel, Bionicle is a melding of nature, "magic", and technology. Its physics is designed to be different from our own, but to make sense and even feel somewhat 'scientific'.