I hate to explain. I know some people come to Fantasy for magic systems and political setups the way they go to SF for technobabble, but I came to fantasy from horror and I arrived with the belief that, as with many other forms of human discourse, when you’re explaining, you’re losing.
That said, let me explain: there might be a couple of people reading this who don’t know (and no reason to feel bad about that, no matter what anyone else tells you), but the ansible is a term coined by Ursula K. LeGuin for faster than light radio – a way you can talk to people over interstellar distances in more or less real time. How this gets accomplished is, well, up to the best guess of the author or script writer or showrunner in question. Quantum entanglement is the newest one I’ve heard, but tachyons, sub-space and its twin hyperspace have all done turns as culprits.
Some SF fans are cool with this trope unexplained, some want an explanation and will accept it if it sounds good and some will sniff at it, because in the immortal words of my last super-hero RPG character: “SCIENCE DOESN’T WORK LIKE THAT.” You know, except it might. But it probably doesn’t.
The ansible is a trope. It’s a choice that writers of SF make: Can I have one? If yes, how? If no, what do we do about dudes in space?
For me, it’s become shorthand for a trope that an author is so comfortable with or has so internalized that it operates on a subconscious level, or, at least, on a level that the author doesn’t feel like they need to explain it every time it shows up.
Because I love counting the number of angels dancing on pinheads, this is, in my mind, separate from theme, even though it usually ends up working in service of the theme – the Pevensies and their allies are going to screw things up before one of them (by which I mean Lucy) goes off to gather Aslan to fix things. That’s a trope. C. S. Lewis used it because he wrote Narnia as Christian allegory, and that trope serves the theme.
Professor Tolkien’s elves – moody, grief-stricken, beautiful, passed on (and over) by the world, doomed to watch it tumble from the place they wanted it to be are also folks with pointed ears and bows who live in the forest. Some people lament that more authors choose the last set of traits and not the first set, but elves are sort of an ansible – the bows, ears and forests are tropes, the theme is what those bows and ears and arrows and forests are there to support.
Lovecraft is going to give you motif of harmful sensation, have his protagonists pass out when they see the monster, freak out about how insignificant man is in an uncaring cosmos and the last line is going to be in italics. His friend Mr. Howard is not going to have his protagonists ever worry about their insignificance in an uncaring cosmos; on the contrary, this usually just makes them kind of happier, and the last line probably won’t be in italics, but otherwise, they used a lot of the same ideas and themes – they just thought about them differently and it shows in the characters and tropes they chose.
Ansibles in Fantasy tend to fall into one of two bins, or perhaps, two sides of a divided bin. One side of the bin is usually labeled WORLD BUILDING and the other is MAGIC SYSTEM. In a way, they aren’t too different than THE BIG IDEA and HOW WE GET INT INTERACT WITH IT, which, I am told in new articles that pass my way as regular as the turning of the seasons are the two things SF must have, is running out of, and woe is the fan.
Fantasy’s bins always struck me as a little more author/process focused and less reader/fandom focused than SF, but I don’t see that as worthy of praise or blame, just note. It’s easiest to see anisbles in magic systems – Jack Vance loads his magicians’ minds like chambers in a gun with spells that once fired, are lost; lots of authors from my golden age of SF & F (1987) like Mercedes Lackey and David Eddings made magic a thing you were born with that made you different and special and dangerous. Having just cranked through Stephen King’s The Wind Through the Keyhole, I am struck again by how dangerous, unreliable, situation, single-use and double-edged his magic is, and half the time it’s technology. Lewis has the Deep Magic which must be satisfied with the story as it plays out in the proper forms.
Again, I need to stress that ansibles are different than theme. Theme, to me is what an author is thinking about when they write, and that can be hard to pin on an author. I am reading N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms right now, and I’m told things change a lot, but one of the themes I have seen so far is a really strong take on the humans coming to dominance over forces much stronger than they are, and how that plays out. Don’t spoil me. Sometimes authors are aware of their themes and sometimes… who can tell?
I think I’ve discovered myself writing about why bad people or people who don’t have any external reason to do so end up doing good things, often at great cost.
In parting, I give you one of my ansibles, something that shows up in my head, if not on paper every time I sit down to work on a project in which someone is likely to be swinging a sword. I call it Country Sorcery. It’s not much, really. Take a look at the claims of any current method of healing you might find in our world – acupuncture, homeopathy, reiki, cranio-sacral therapy, what have you, doesn’t matter. Now as an aside, I’m sure all these methods have provided some effect for some people, ranging from mild to miraculous, but their claims remain scientifically inconclusive or unfalsifiable and, for the purposes, I’m treating them as such.
Anyway, take the claims of any alternative method of healing and assume that a) anyone can do this (ansibles are nested – when I think of magic, I have two bottom level assumptions that will almost always be my baseline: that everyone can if they try, anyone could get reasonably good if they work at it, but few will ever be great; and that magic is social in nature.) and b) the results are consistent across populations and time, able to withstand empirical testing. It can speed healing of injuries, recovery from illness, help manage internal systemic diseases, help ward off infection, control fertility. It’s nothing dramatic; no wounds knitting as you watch nor tumors vanishing over the course of a ritual. It’s nothing that that outside viewer would necessarily perceive as magic. Except. Look beneath the surface, play it out for 4 or 10 or 40 or 400 generations and all sorts of interesting things pop up.
The ansible, to me is a fun way of looking a little deeper into the fiction I read (and knowing what mine are or will be for a project makes me understand better what I am going to write); it’s not necessary for those of us who enjoy fantasy, but I was always the kind of kid who liked to take his toys apart and see how they worked, and I think I have only worsened in that with age.