The Chemistry of Fantasy and Hard Science Fiction

I’ve been in many arguments about the relationship between the genres of fantasy and science fiction. I tend to prefer science fiction, but am far from a purist. Recently, I talked with someone who dismissed science fiction authors who dared to “commit fantasy.” The idea that writing a fantasy story is a crime that disqualifies someone from writing real science fiction didn’t sit right with me. Not long after that conversation, I discovered the perfect refutation: Stanislaw Lem’s Mortal Engines.

The stories in this book are, for the most part, about robots living without humans on planets scattered all across the galaxy. Lem writes them in lovely, courtly fairy tale prose. They are about unjust kings, and quests, and the search for treasure. They are also undoubtedly science fiction, based solidly and playfully in chemistry. In many cases, the outcomes of the stories are determined by the nature of the materials Lem has chosen for the planets and the characters, and he litters stories with clues to the endings in the form of clever names and puns.

“Uranium Earpieces,” for example, is a fairy tale about the subjects of the oppressive king Archithorius, who becomes more and more paranoid about a possible revolt, and comes up with ever crueler ways to keep his subjects apart so that they can’t plot against him. The science, however, is front and center, both in the king’s oppression and in his ultimate overthrowing. For example (from the Michael Kandel translation):

In the day, when the sun was too much for comfort, [the people] slept in the depths of their mountains; only at nighttime did they assemble in the metal valleys. But cruel Archithorius ordered lumps of uranium to be thrown into the kettles used to melt palladium with platinum, and issued a proclamation throughout the land. Each Pallatinid was to come to the royal palace, where his measurements would be taken for a new suit of armor, and pauldrons and breastplates were made, gauntlets and greaves, a visor and helmet, with everything glowing, for that garb was of uranium alloy, and brightest of all shone the earpieces.

After this the Pallatinids could no longer come together and hold council, for if a gathering grew too numerous, it exploded. Thus they had to lead their lives apart, passing one another at a distance, fearful of a chain reaction: Archithorius meanwhile delighted in their sorrow and burdened them with ever newer levies.

I found Lem’s writing so refreshing. The science fiction and fantasy elements are so closely married here that I’d be hardpressed to pick them apart. Beyond that, the elements have greater impact when Lem combines them. For example, surely it is not an accident that Lem has the king use uranium as a tool for his tyranny.

This story is one of my favorites in the book, but, for the most part, all the stories are both quirky and moving. I also especially enjoyed “How Erg the Self-Inducting Slew a Paleface,” “The White Death,” “Tale of the Computer That Fought a Dragon,” and “King Globares and the Sages.” Though each story is self-contained, they build up a coherent universe and paint an ever clearer picture of how humans might fit into all this. Many of the stories have a pessimistic, tragic, or cynical tone, but, somehow, I still find them delightful.

The way Lem uses chemistry in his storytelling is inspiring to me, and I’d love to see analogous works that told stories that also adhered to the rules of programming in Python, for example, or the behavior of packets sent through TCP/IP.

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