Fantasy fiction is not a language I normally speak, I’m mostly fluent in science fiction. I avoid the fantasy genre but I often end up reading fantasy stories. I’d prefer to only read science fiction, but for some reason, many editors and publishers mix the two together as though they were the same. When I read an anthology of SF/F stories it feels like I’ve gone to a rock concert but every other song is a chamber music quartet. Normally, I only buy science fiction, but the only best-of-the-year anthology on audio this year is Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 13. Since I love listening to science fiction short stories on audio, I bought the audiobook. I’ve now patiently listened to more fantasy than science fiction. I think I’m starting to understand fantasy’s lingo better even though I’m trying not to.
Distinguishing between science fiction and fantasy is more than dividing stories with magic and dragons in one pile and starships and aliens in another. I admit that sometimes fantasy and science fiction have similar goals, and even motifs and settings. I also admit that the qualities that make me shun many fantasy stories are also contained in many science fiction stories. Trying to discern those specific elements is the goal of this essay. But it’s very hard to point to what I feel by instinct.
The word fantasy can have different meanings. We often use it for the genre that includes magics, elves, wizards, dragons, etc. But the word also means something that is made up. All fiction is made up, but some fiction is philosophical about real life, while other stories are just stories. Trying to define genre labels is an impossible effort, but if we don’t work to precisely define our words we can’t communicate our feelings. What I call science fiction are stories that speculate about the future or the possibilities of what science has yet to discover. Stories about spaceships, aliens, and galactic empires that aren’t speculative or philosophical I call also fantasy. But that’s confusing because most people use the word fantasy for stories about magic, dragons, etc. To confuse the matter more, some stories labeled fantasy do seriously speculation about the past, or about alternative views about now or the future. Should that kind of story be labeled fantasy?
There is a third way to define the word fantasy. It is believing in something that’s not real or reacting to the world based on false assumptions. We often tell such people they are living in a fantasy world. Any genre can produce fantasy stories under this definition. In other words, we can have a fantasy tale, set in a fantasy genre, that is a philosophical fantasy.
Some people say all fiction is fantasy, and I can see their point. But we don’t need two words that mean the same thing. Yes, fiction is made up, but sometimes it’s about something, and sometimes it’s not. All the best fiction, regardless of genre, helps us model reality. At my stage in life, I want to avoid certain kinds of fantasy. But pointing to exactly what that means is difficult.
I have to even admit that some of the best stories in Strahan’s volume thirteen were the ones some people would label fantasy tales. Most reviewers consider The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to contain the best writing of all the printed SF/F magazines. It’s just damn hard to avoid fantasy. Yesterday, I read “Girls Who Never Stood a Chance” by Deborah Coates in the July-August issue of F&SF. It was a good, well-written, entertaining story. My friend Mike complained it ended abruptly as if it was the opening of a novel. I could see that. I did want to read more. But thematically, it was self-contained.
“Girls Who Never Stood a Chance” is a post-apocalyptic type story, and they are among my favorites. But here’s the problem for a science fiction reader – South Dakota has to be abandoned because of an infestation of dragons. WTF? Civil authorities issue a mandatory evacuation order for a good portion of the state, and this story is about a handful of girls who get left behind. The dragons are never developed or explained in this story other than to occasionally land on rooftops and look menacing. They do a fair amount of damage to the houses in their landings and take-offs, but they don’t breathe fire or show a desire to consume people.
Now here’s one difference between fantasy stories and science fiction. The threat in a fantasy story doesn’t have to have a real-world foundation. Something imaginary that’s scary is all that’s required. In science fictional after-the-collapse stories, science fiction writers take pains at providing a believable explanation. Science fiction readers want to believe what they fear can really happen in our world. If Deborah Coates had used an Ebola outbreak or radiation leakage as the cause of people fleeing South Dakota I would have been happier, and this story would have been science fiction because it contains no magic or other magical creatures.
In translating fantasy tropes for science fiction readers I think it’s important to understand fantasy uses ancient memes. Because these ancient memes have all been discredited by science it feels reading fantasy isn’t reality-based. Dragons, ghosts, malevolent fairies, pesky ancient deities, etc. are all part of make-believe or play-acting. Anything imaginative will spice up a fantasy story. And if you think about, science fiction is overrun with unbelievable aspects too. However, in Coates’ story, the real point of her post-apocalyptic story is to get her characters into a collapsed society. A storyteller needs a reason to eliminate 99.9% of the population to create a post-apocalyptic story. I guess a dragon infestation would run off most people.
I often wonder if fantasy writers are being symbolic. Is Coates using dragons as stand-ins for climate change, the return to ancient ways, unexplained chaos, or the revenge of Mother Nature? Or is she just wanting to tell a story without getting hung up on details?
If we ignore the cause of why 99.9% of the population rush out of South Dakota, we have the main theme of the story – abandoned young girls having to survive on their own. Coates gives realistic backstories to her girls. They were rejected by society, mistreated by parents and peers, abused by specific males, and oppressed by a male-dominated society. Guys do not come off well in this story. They are the evil threat, not the dragons.
Coates carefully develops the characters of Bess, True, Mallory, Shade, Liv and Jamie, and why each is left behind. We feel for them. We wonder how they will survive. Then the girls encounter a bunch of guys hunting dragons. Their real threat to their survival are males with guns running wild with no laws. Dragons no longer matter at all.
Part of the story’s solution involves the girls getting guns too. In a way, this makes the story a western, another distinctive genre. In westerns, violence is the solution. Threats are solved with guns. The reason why I love westerns is the same reason why I love post-apocalyptic science fiction – few people, no laws, and the survival of the fittest. (To be honest, I’d get my ass decommissioned pretty quick in a western or post-apocalyptic scenario.)
My problem with “Girls Who Never Stood a Chance” is not with the fantasy dragons, but with a fantasy ending. Coates wraps up her story is a realistic way if civilization still prevailed, but not for the normal post-apocalyptic ways of science fiction or westerns. Most male writers telling this story would have had the girls kill the guys. It would have been logical under the circumstances and given the story a finality. Mike and I probably felt the story didn’t end because we knew the guys would immediately come back – thus the lack of an ending. Maybe Coates is going to turn this into a novel and there will be a real ending in this story down the road a piece. I’ll be anxious to read it. (I wrote Coates and she said she’s thinking about it.)
The lesson here for translating fantasy motifs into something science fiction readers can understand. I could ignore the dragons because the core of the story was realistic.
The real reason why I avoid the fantasy genre is it uses magic. Sure, a lot of bad science fiction has techno-magic. Faster-than-light spaceships are no different from broom riding witches. I’m an atheist, so I don’t believe in God, gods, mythological creatures, magic, vampires, fairies, miracles, FTL, time travel, and so on. I don’t know why fantasy writers love those imaginary beings and concepts. I have to chalk it up to artistic aesthetics and personal style. But what I’ve learned from finding fantasy stories I like is to look for a core of realism. That language speaks to me.
One of my favorite stories in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Three is “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow. I’ve read it twice now. It’s moving. It makes me cry. It’s inspiring. But to be honest, the fantasy turns me off philosophically. But it’s going to take some explaining, and I hope I don’t offend any hardcore fantasy fans.
Often when I tell people I dislike fantasy they take it personally. They act like I’m prejudiced against fantasy. Many of my science fiction friends are baffled because they consider science fiction and fantasy to be one thing. But that blows my mind. I see them as distinctively different. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fantasy stories all the time. I prefer not to read them not because they are bad stories, but because they have a different philosophy on reality than I do.
When I first started reading I got hooked on the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. I was ten, and I read maybe all the Baum books and even some of the ones written by other writers after he died. Then when I was in college, and nineteen I decided to reread them. I couldn’t find them at the library. I found an article in an old issue F&SF that said some librarians had turned against Oz books because they promoted unrealistic expectations about life. I ended up buying a set and reread them. I realized those books had given me unrealistic expectations about life. (But I still love Baum’s fantasy world. I can’t let it go even though I know it was fantasy fentanyl.)
In “A Witch’s Guide” a black foster kid discovers books. He obviously has a miserable real life, and the librarian sees he needs hope. She is a witch and is able to use her powers to help him find the right fantasy books to escape into. Eventually, the librarian gives him a book of magic that lets him actually escape this reality. The message is we need the right books to forget our miserable life and with the help of magic, we could escape to a better reality. Nice sentiment, but a complete rejection of this existence.
I had a childhood that would have psychologically damaged many kids. I found happiness (and escape) in science fiction. It was the same kind of solution that Alix Harrow writes about. I guess that’s one reason why I love her story – I identify with it. However, after a lifetime of escaping, I’ve discovered there is no escape. There is no magic. We have to come to terms with this plane of existence. There is probably no other.
Most science fiction is just as escapist as fantasy stories. And most science fiction embraces magical thinking too. <i>Star Wars</i> is pure fairytale and magical thinking. We need to start growing up.
What I want is science fiction that offers hope for living on planet Earth, and maybe Mars, our Moon, and a few other rocks in this solar system. The world is full of kids leading tragic lives like the one in “A Witch’s Guide.” I can accept reading fiction, even fantasy as a possible cure for unhappiness. I can’t accept, even within a story, that magic could save us. That rubs me the wrong way.
We all want to save that lonely kid with the red backpack. The solution is not portals to fantasy lands. It’s friends and hobbies. It’s learning to survive in this world. Jo Walton’s book Among Others covered the same kind of problem, but that book’s solution was joining a book club and making friends.
To me, the difference between science fiction and fantasy genres is an attitude towards what’s really possible. The best fantasy stories are symbolic of living in this world, and the worst science fiction books are those that promote a fantasy about what super-technology might give us someday.
When I read the Oz books as a child, I really wanted to go to the land of Oz. I loved fantasy and science fiction books so much I never wanted to grow up. It’s probably why started smoking dope and dropping acid a few years later. I was looking for a portal out of this world. Now that I’m on the home stretch of this life I don’t want to waste any more time with dreams that can’t come true. Even for fun.
Many of the stories in the Strahan collection are quite wonderful to read, but very few of them, even the so-called science fiction stories offer an old man much hope about my fellow humans surviving this reality in the next century.
I sometimes wonder if fantasy writers also ache for more realism. In “Field Biology of the Week Fairies” by Naomi Kritzer we have a fantasy story where fairies exist, but they confront a very down-to-earth fourteen-year-old girl, Amelia. I loved this story for its realism (even though it had fairies). By the way, there were an awful lot of fairies in this anthology, and not all of them came from the popular 2018 original anthology Robots vs Fairies.
There weren’t many science fiction stories of the kind I want. Some were more realistic than others. “Okay, Glory” by Elizabeth Bear was about an overly protective smart house. More of a realistic horror story.
“The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander took historical incidents and turned them into a fantasy tale. However, I have to wonder why she just didn’t go for straight literary realism. It was the historical details that made this story stand out, not the fantasy add-ons.
“When We Were Starless” was a good science fiction story, but set too far in the future to be relevant about today’s problems. I still enjoy far-future science fiction, but I respond to SF about the near future better. The further in the future an SF story is set, the more it feels like a fantasy to me.
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory has the kind of realism I like. It wasn’t completely realistic, but it had a grittiness that I appreciated. I also liked it because it spanned a life-time, of never giving up.
“You Pretend Like You Never Met Me, and I’ll Pretend Like I Never Met You” by Maria Dahvana Headley is another darkly realistic fantasy tale. I would have loved this story even more if it had had no fantasy at all.
“Quality Time” by Ken Liu is the kind of near-present science fiction story I like best. It riffs just enough on reality to make it relevant.
Strahan’s anthology ends with “Firelight” by Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m not even sure what genre this story is supposed to be. On the surface, it feels like generic fantasy, but I think something lurks below the surface. Is Le Guin working in a genre beyond fantasy or science fiction — maybe adult allegory. Even though “Firelight” is full of tired fantasy motifs I get the feeling Le Guin is trying to tell us something personal, something beyond genre.
All the stories in Strahan’s anthology this year are creative and entertaining. The question for readers: Will every story speak the language of what they like to read? I can imagine I’m not alone in wanting just my favorite genre stories. I imagine some fantasy fans plowing through the science fiction entries wondering why they are in the wrong genre pigeonhole.
James Wallace Harris
I know this essay is going to come across as schizophrenic. I’m struggling to explain why reading some fantasy stories feels like consuming a cubic meter of cotton candy while other stories feel like I’ve eaten a healthy meal. Writing these essays is a kind of self-psychoanalysis. I often fail to express the exact nature of my feelings. Part of this is due to poor writing, and part of this is due to hitting a wall of complexity. I often end up writing on a subject many times over the years to find clarity. I will certainly have to work on this one again.
7 thoughts on “Why I See SF and Fantasy as Distinctive Genres”
Fantasy has a significantly larger readership than science fiction, which may explain the mix and proportions of fantasy vs science fiction in anthologies that want to sell as many copies to as many different readers as possible. And, well, science fiction tends to decay into fantasy as events and scientific advances overrun the finest sf of the day.
This is an interesting topic: why do some of us like sf better than fantasy?
I’d disagree it’s the age of the themes. Sf has some pretty ancient themes: immortality, apocalypse, changing the past, machine servants, and travel to other worlds.
I think it’s a couple of things.
Sf seeks to rationalize its wonders with something other than an act of will or some occult study. Its characters may spout techno-babble, but it has the language of science and natural philosophy, not some “as above, so below”, appeal to ancient gods or animistic principles, or esoteric studies.
The plausibility may be non-existent, but the gadgets and labs create a different aesthetic than fantasy does.
As a former South Dakotan, I’d be interested in a post-apocalypse version of the state. But those dragons are going to create a different feel in my mind than a state wracked by a future war or plague or supervolcano. Such a different feel, I have no interest in that story.
The wands and witches and monsters of fantasy create a different feel even, as you pointed out, for a similar plot. Similar, not identical, because the furniture of the story, the aesthetics of the speculation, matters.
As you point out, far future stories can be almost magical in feel however much they throw around references to bosons and quantum vacuums, and uploaded mind. The sf author can mitigate this by going into details not rhetorical handwaving via by a few words of jargon borrowed from science. (I was reminded of this recently when I read some Greg Bear after not reading him for a number of years. Frankly, some of it struck me as more fantasy in flavor than sf. An author like Peter F. Hamilton can tell similar stories — and definitely longer — stories, but they seem more science fictionish because of that detail.)
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Funny. You say you’re not prejudiced against fantasy, but you tell people who read it they need to “grow up.”
Also, explain Philip K. Dick, please. Why the hell is his stuff “science fiction” then? It’s all psychic powers, aliens out of the weird channeled books you find in the back corner of the metaphysical bookstore, and drugs.
I was including myself in that group who needs to grow up. Too much of my reading is pursuing the same kind of reading highs I got at 13.
Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite writers. But I’m not sure I’d call him a science fiction writer, or fantasy writer. He was a philosophical writer. His books used science fiction themes but his characters were always searching for ontological or epistemological answers. PKD was a kind of tragic lost soul. I don’t think he believed in psychic powers, but maybe. He was more of a gnostic, thinking there was something going on behind what we see. That this world could be evil and better worlds could be hidden from us. I’m not gnostic. I think reality is exactly what we can measure. Reading PKD makes us think harder about reality.
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A totally fair answer! Thank you!
I would dispute dismissing the fantasy stories we loved in our youth as just a “high,” myself, but I respect your right to hold that opinion. To me, fantasy is about examining our cultural myths, which all too often have problematic elements but still move us. I enjoy the current trend of expanding them to be more inclusive, or of deconstructing them.
But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pure escapism once in a while, either. Sometimes, especially in a world of such grim news, I think it’s healthy to explore our imaginations for a while. I think it’s good for us not to forget how to play.
But it’s fair if you don’t hold the same opinion, especially if you include yourself in the “growing up.” That changes it from something that initially sounded dismissive of others into a philosophical opinion. I may not agree with it, but I can respect it.
I’m glad that you would not consider PKD a science fiction writer by your personal definition. His books are often ranked among SF classics, however. I’m reading the entire SF Masterworks imprint as a personal exercise and they have included 14 of his books, more than any other author. I don’t think he’s a science fiction writer either, having now read several of them, and that means your point of view is consistent. Which is a good thing!
Thank you for a thoughtful answer.
Not all the reading I did as a kid was to get a fiction high. I read a lot of books that were formative. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with escapism. Have you ever seen the film Sullivan’s Travels? I’m just getting old and running out of time, so frittering it away on escapism is too indulgent. Although, I do need a good escape every now and then.
I went to your blog looking for reviews of those PKD novels but didn’t find a search button. Have you written about them? I’ve read many biographies on PKD and even went to visit his grave. He haunts me. I’d love to know more about what you think of him and his work.
I also discovered from your blog that you are into magick and Wicca. Do you have a link that explains your philosophy and how it relates to fiction? You have a lot of posts and articles at Patheos, but I don’t see what I was looking for by just clicking around. I’m going to assume Wiccan is your religion. How do Wiccans evaluate fantasy stories that use magic and witches?
Did you see the PBS show American Masters last week on Ursula K. Le Guin? I loved her upbringing with her anthropologist parents and Ishi.