Genre Wars: Fantasy vs. Science Fiction

As I have put together my list of books for this site, I’ve been categorizing them into genres. This can be a pretty sticky matter. Should Blood Creek Witch be considered contemporary fantasy, or paranormal? Is Steampunk a subgenre of science fiction, or of fantasy?

At some point in my life, I decided that the chocolate of Fantasy and the peanut butter of Science Fiction should never be mixed, Star Wars notwithstanding.  Fortunately for me, that phase didn’t last long, and I got over it. While I enjoy figuring out the lines between genres, I’m comfortable with the stories that cross those lines. I thought I’d talk about it a bit here, because why not?

You can lump all of it into a category called “speculative fiction” and be done with it. But where’s the fun in that?

If you go back to the earlier pulps, you’ll find a lot more mixing and matching between science fiction and fantasy elements. Sometimes the “magical” elements can be explained by super-science of the vast untapped potential of the mind. But it’s really just trappings. For example, in the Tower of the Elephant, Conan encounters an alien from a space-faring race, and it fits right in with the sword-and-sorcery world of Robert E. Howard’s most famous character. In this, and countless other pulp stories, the line between science fiction and fantasy isn’t just blurred, it doesn’t really exist.

At some point, the pulp magazines began differentiating themselves from the others by branding their style of stories. For Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback coined the term, “Scientifiction,” which didn’t quite roll off the tongue like Forrest Ackerman’s “Sci-Fi.” As Gernsback explained in Volume 1, Issue 1 of Amazing Stories, “By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” Later magazines (notably Astounding Stories, once taken over by John Campbell) also carved out their own branding, which evolved from year to year and from editor to editor. Astounding Stories and several like it focused on evolved to become today’s “hard” science fiction, while others became known more for softer science fiction stories and “space opera”. Still others tended toward stories of supernatural, horror, fantasy, planetary romance, you name it.

I think pulp marketing and branding is where the differentiation between Science Fiction and Fantasy as separate genres began. Not specifically with Hugo Gernsback or John Campbell, but with the various pulps seeking their own unique brand of fiction. It’s all marketing and differentiation, but it also served a purpose for readers to find the kinds of stories they wanted to read. It wasn’t a hard line, and a story that might seem a more natural fit for one magazine might instead have found a home elsewhere.

There was also a weird thing that happened many decades ago that made categorization even harder. Science fiction–at least certain kinds of science fiction–became respectable and appreciated by critics and academia. It achieved a cultural legitimacy that fantasy hasn’t yet, in spite of fantasy generally outselling SF in recent years. Maybe this was another case of clever marketing. Whatever the case, science fiction gained some prestige that caused authors and publishers (especially around the 1970s) to push to have their works recognized as SF rather than fantasy.

While I think that reputation has declined somewhat over the last couple of decades, I think there’s still a residual bias that favors science fiction as being more “important” than fantasy. And “hard” science fiction as somehow intrinsically better than “soft” science fiction.

I don’t think that holds any water, personally–a good story is a good story. But I still have my own categorization, and I recognize that fans of one genre have certain expectations. Violate those expectations at your own risk, and the risk of alienating your audience.

For me, science fiction needs to feel at least remotely plausible in the current or future world (even if it’s an alternate history world or in a galaxy far, far away). Hard SF needs to adhere to most of the known scientific principles or theories of the real world, while soft SF has a bit more flexibility. Even if the technology is basically magic (see Clarke’s Third Law), it should be explained (or at least lampshaded) enough so it doesn’t feel magic. So… the Jedi are fantasy, while Babylon 5‘s telepaths are science fiction.

Because I’m a fan of classic & pulp SF, I also assume that if something was considered science fiction when it was released, it remains SF today even if modern events and revised science destroy the plausibility of it for modern readers. I’m not gonna rip the SF label from Star Trek just because there were no Eugenics Wars in the 1990s, and we never sent Khan Noonien Singh and his followers into space exile. The Barsoom series may be legitimately called science fiction for its time (but of course, that was before we really had those labels), but if I were to write a similar story today, it’d be fantasy.

There are some fun edge cases, like Sword Art Online. It’s science fiction with a generally fantasy setting (an artificial fantasy world in virtual reality), so I consider it science fiction, but you could watch a single episode and think it’s straight-up fantasy.

I consider time travel (or other time-related stories) fantasy by default, but it really depends on how the author presents it. Interstellar is a relatively “hard” SF movie all about time distortion. The Terminator films? Sure, I’ll give it to them, although they got sloppier with their unexplained restrictions as the series progressed (at least as far as I’ve watched). I think the author needs to do more than just invoke the words “quantum” or “tachyon” to make the SF label stick. If the characters instead just jump into a blue box, a phone booth, or a DeLorean and start having adventures, then it’s probably a fantasy. Have at it!

As far as what I prefer to write: It really depends on where the story takes me. On the science fiction front, I’ve written cyberpunk, space opera, and even something kinda like MilSF, post-apocalypse (which I’d probably call fantasy), and more. I don’t tend to write anything very close to hard SF. Everything else tends to be fantasy of some kind, from time travel to paranormal to straight-up sword & sorcery. I’m probably hurting myself on branding, but as I said, I don’t like to stay inside the lines very well. I’m just out to have fun, and there’s plenty of fun to be had all over the world of “speculative fiction.”

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