The Fantasy Gap

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.

Every fantasy story ever.

Every fantasy story ever.

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.

Boldly going to intellectually engage the audience.

Boldly going to intellectually engage the audience.

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.

Now we know why Luke was wearing the blast shield.

Now we know why Luke was wearing the blast shield.



5 thoughts on “The Fantasy Gap

  1. I think the splitting of genre hairs is still relevant in this indie publishing climate, so this is a good thing for all writers to keep in mind. The Kindle and Nook divide by genres that the author tags their e-book with, and there is a limit on the number of tags you can apply. I suspect that most Fantasy authors would want to throw a Sci-fi tag on their book just to cover all the bases, but they would sacrifice putting some other label on it. Comedy, mystery, etc. Those other labels might be more helpful for readers.

    One thing to consider in this discussion is a scale that these two genres share at some point. At one end of the scale, you have Hard Science Fiction (Asimov, Crighton) and at the other end you have High Fantasy (Tolkien, Martin). There are gradients between those extremes. I would say that Star Trek and Star Wars might both be closer to the middle since Trek plays loose with physics (warp speeds are faster than light, subspace) and Wars has wizards with laser swords and giant death rays.
    If you’re looking for Science Fiction in Fantasy clothes I would suggest The Wheel of Time. The world is a High Fantasy setting, but the magic system is rigorously designed around genetics and certain aspects of physics. The magic-user’s potential is limited by what they were born with instead of knowledge or faith. Then there are alternate worlds that line up with chaos theory and issues of causality and the possible repetition of history that is linked to one of the Big Bang Theories (Big Bang followed by Big Collapse followed by Big Bang).
    The Pern books start off with a feeling of Fantasy as well, but as the series goes on you learn that it is very much a Science Fiction story. It could even be slotted near Hard SF.

    One thing I’m not clear on in your post is if the author’s intention matters in the difference between emotion and intellect. If it does, I’m not sure how useful your idea is. How can we know if the author meant to punch you in the heart or the brain?
    Last year I read a book called “Among Others” by Jo Walton and I was very intellectually stimulated by it. It seemed like a strait-up reaction to the Urban Fantasy genre that has become so popular (Harry Potter, Twilight, Dresden). The book is a love letter to the foundation of Fantasy and Sci-fi, but it seems that Walton is exasperated with modern fantasy jumping through strange hoops to maintain a premise. Vampires live among us, but they don’t rule over us because…why? they are shiny? sensitive? Witches and wizards use the same train stations we do but we don’t notice because…why? Why don’t they just use magic all the time and make us their slaves? Walton creates an urban fantasy where people who use magic CAN’T be detected, because the use of magic manifests as coincidence or luck. If you put a hex on someone, they might trip on some stairs two days later when you were no where near them. Was it magic?
    That seems to be the question of the book. Is the main character able to use magic, or is she a lonely girl who WISHES she could. Is she so lost in her books that she thinks she has the powers she reads about, or does she actually have them?
    When I was done with the book I looked up what Jo Walton had to say about her tale and I was shocked that this tension was not on her mind AT ALL. She was disappointed that people thought this was a dynamic of the novel and seemed to take it as a critique of her abilities as a writer.
    She was aiming for Fantasy story about a daughter and her mother that broke your heart. I read a meta-textual exploration of what it means to be a fan of Fantasy in a time of Urban Fantasy- that cracked my brain like an egg. Now this might be Fantasy any way you slice it, but there is a big gap between intention and effect. Is it possible to know the difference, and does that difference matter?

  2. Interesting distinction. Not sure I completely agree (or I’m severely emotionally attached to Star Trek being scifi and verging on nerdrage about it) but I’d need more coffee before mounting a cogent argument. Either way, good brainfood and a more sophisticated demarcation than spaceships/faeries.

  3. Now, unlike Inkgirl, I like the Space vs magical/incredible creatures. That I can wrap my head around. I’ve been thinking about the fantasy vs Sci Fi split lately myself. Probably because I’d always equated sci fi with space, and yet that doesn’t quite work. What about stories with technological advances that don’t include space as an option. What about “A Wrinkle in Time?”

    And yet, my mind is stuck. Fantasy = magic, sci-fi = space.

    I’m not saying your construct isn’t viable, Alastair, just that my mind doesn’t want to go there. It likes the familiar. And truthfully, I find that the industry delineated genres cramp my style. I think they ate limiting and unnecessary. Why the heck should anyones story be shoved into a genre? It’s like taking a three dimensional object and flattening it. Things ares lost – or at least unseen, until you open it up and read.

  4. My BFF’s ex-husband used to practically foam at the mouth when trying to convince the rest of us Luddites that what we called SciFi was, in fact, Fantasy. (I think you’d like him, actually – lol!) I very much like your distinction of emotional vs. intellectual impact. It makes for a larger playing field, setting-wise and that can only be a good thing.

    As far as Fantasy set SciFi stories go, I read a series a hundred years ago called Guardians of the Flame. A D&D group gets sucked into their role playing setting as their characters and they have to figure how to survive, get back, etc. The thing I remember was that they kept their 20th C intellect and applied it to the fantasy realm, inventing gun powder, plumbing, etc. Of course it had the obligatory swords and spells and fighting of trolls, but (and I read this a LONG time ago) if I remember it correctly, a lot of the story seemed to focus on the impact they were having on that world, good and ill, which strikes me as a more intellectual approach to a fairly typical Fantasy trope. (

  5. For intellectual fantasy, I would argue that Samuel R. Delaney’s world works, because the main thing he was interested in (I forget the name of the series) was the influence and invention of coinage. (I also think Babel-17 is an especially beautiful example of a novel that is technically sci-fi but is so bizarre that it’s really fantasy.)

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