I discussed some of the following ideas on last week’s episode of StoryWonk Sunday. If you want to hear the main points of the argument enhanced by Lani’s brilliance, go listen.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been wrestling with genre definitions.
Yes, I’m a hit at parties.
Genre in modern publishing is almost entirely a product of marketing. Go to your local Barnes and Noble, and you’ll find shelves full of YA, Paranormal, Humor, Classics. None of those terms meaningfully describe anything about the stories contained by those categories; rather, they try to anticipate something about the reader, either in terms of native demographic or preferred setting. That isn’t a terrible thing, per se, but it makes it exponentially more difficult to talk critically about genre fiction. Knowing that a given novel is steampunk tells you nothing about the story, only that you should expect gas-light and zeppelins; comparing two steampunk novels — without explicit and exclusive regard to the conventions of that narrow genre — is therefore meaningless. One might be a romance, one a thriller; a third may be existential horror, while a fourth is a light-hearted farce. How do we compare them, contrast them, discuss them, understand them?
This problem also lends authority to the literary-snob conviction that genre fiction is nothing more than a collection of tropes and setting details, endlessly remixed. Oh, there’s a sword and a dragon on the cover, so this book is functionally identical to the work of Tolkien, and Feist, and Martin, and therefore interchangeable — or, worse still, derivative.
A year ago, Lani and I recorded an episode of our StoryWonk Sunday podcast in which we proposed a new taxonomy of genre fiction: the genre to which a work belongs is defined by the primary emotional note that the work is seeking to elicit in the reader. If a book is trying to frighten you, it’s horror; if it’s trying to make you laugh, it’s comedy. That may seem self-evident, but it’s actually a treacherously difficult idea to pin down, because you immediately run into counter-intuitive examples. Go listen to the show, it’s pretty good.
One of the questions left unanswered by our discussion was the dividing line between science fiction and fantasy. I’ve been trying to distill a simple definition ever since the show aired, to no avail. For a long while, I thought that science fiction took what was possible, while fantasy embraced what was impossible. That seems to work at a high level, but it fails to address all kinds of fringe cases — Star Trek proposes a possible future, and it works within the bounds of our scientific understanding, so it’s science fiction. What about stories which propose an alternate present, rather than a future? What about alternate pasts? What about stories that are set so far in the future that there are no ties between that world and this?
Here’s the thing: even without the fringe case problem, this distinction relies upon exactly the kind of setting-specific genre convention that we rejected for every other genre. If romance, thriller, horror and comedy fiction are all defined by the intended response from the reader rather than the details of setting, why do science fiction and fantasy behave differently?
It took a long while, but I got there in the end — and of course, it turned out to be fairly simple.
Both science fiction and fantasy stories break the rules of the real world in order to explore ideas we can touch tangentially in real life, but are unable to fully explore without altering our perspective. What is it to be human? What is the nature of time? Do aliens exist? What qualities are universal?
The distinction between science fiction and fantasy rests in how the story engages with these ideas. If it does so intellectually, then it’s science fiction; if it does so emotionally, then it’s fantasy.
I know. It sounds stark, and perhaps even self-evident — but there is another type of storytelling in which we encounter a similar distinction. The line between a thriller and a mystery can also be found between emotional and intellectual entanglement, and as with science fiction, modern mysteries often trade in the deconstruction and analysis of their own narrative structure and technique.
Remember, too, that we’re only discussing the primary focus of the story. If it’s 51% intellectual, but the remainder is a compelling romance, then it’s still science fiction; if most of the story is emotional but there’s a fully-developed magical system underneath it, it’s still fantasy.
One of the consequences of this distinction is that science fiction turns out to be rare. That may seem ridiculous, particularly when you consider the shelves of DVDs in your local Target, but on closer examination, it isn’t so strange. The Avengers features high technology, starships and aliens, and it’s resolutely a fantasy. The original Star Trek movies are science fiction — at least I think so, although I’d need to sit and distill each film down to its essence to be sure — but the Abrams’ reboot films are not. Moon is science fiction; Pacific Rim is amazingly, emphatically, explosively not. Transformers doesn’t care about the systems which underpin its action; Source Code does, even if its conclusion is a little unsatisfying.
For the record, and to forestall any potential criticism, I am not suggesting for a moment that engaging the intellect is a more worthy endeavor than engaging the emotions. Prometheus is science fiction and Avatar is a fantasy, and there’s no question which is the better story.
Or, in case there is a question: it’s Avatar.
You’ll note, perhaps, that the counterintuitive examples that I’ve references are all science fiction stories which are really fantasies, and this definition does suggest that it’s possible to have stories which take place in a standard fantasy setting, but are primarily concerned with matters intellectual, and are thus science fiction. It’s an interesting idea, but I can think of no immediate examples: some of Le Guin’s work comes close, I think, and I’ve heard interesting things about R Scott Bakker, but his work is still on my epic to-be-read pile. It may seem, given the rigorous consistency of his worldbuilding, that Tolkien may be attempting such a thing, but his intellectually thorough style of “secondary creation” only serves to support the emotional impact of his stories.
So there it is. Your mileage may vary on individual stories — The Matrix, for example, seems to be equally interested in the intellectual appreciation of its philosophy and the emotional intensity of its relationships — but the definition seems solid. Personally, it also offers a reason to be excited about the return of a venerable movie franchise. JJ Abrams’ take on Star Trek has left me a little cold because I like my Trek to be science fiction, and he’s making fantasy movies — but Star Wars has always been a fantasy series, and JJ’s style is a natural fit. I don’t expect there to be any time wasted on trade agreements and midichlorians in the new films — only hokey old religions, bad guys in black, and lens flares aplenty.