We all like our genre labels, even if we argue over their provenance – literary genre, marketing category, or whatever it is we are pointing at. But people have a natural tendency to categorise things, to seek out patterns, in order to make things more manageable. It helps no one to insist that there is no such thing as genre, that all literature is one big amorphous field in which authors play with a selection of tools. Not only does this fail to recognise the nature of those tools, the author’s intent, or the reader’s response, it hampers discussion and confuses matters.
Genre exists. Deal with it.
There are also those who like to lump science fiction and fantasy together as a single genre. Certainly, they can both be found in the same part of a book shop. They call this “speculative fiction”. But sf and fantasy have as much in common as… sf and mainstream fiction, say, or fantasy and crime fiction; than they have in common with each other. Sf and fantasy and crime, for example, share a reliance on plot; or, sf and fantasy can be as mimetic as literary fiction.
In fact, other than the (not obligatory) use of invented worlds, sf and fantasy have very little in common. And there are mainstream novels which use invented locales – such as South Riding, Barchester, Wetherton or Kings Markham. But then, all literature is speculative, all literature is imaginative – but that doesn’t make all literature the same.
Even distinctions between “science fiction” and “category science fiction” are facile. The latter is what some people use to describe books sold as science fiction – the difference, in other words, between an Iain M Banks’ Surface Detail and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The former has “SF” on its spine, and is shelved in the sf and fantasy section of the book shop.
As for science fiction and fantasy belonging to an all-encompassing “speculative fiction” genre… That too is a failure of taxonomy. They are entirely different modes. Science fiction is, at heart, modernist. It may be plot-dependent, which much modernist literature is not, but its modern form was certainly created as a means of explaining an ever-changing industrialised world. It even began in an electronics magazine! Sf’s self-reflective nature – i.e., “a genre in conversation with itself” – is also a characteristic of modernist fiction. As is the gradual shift from a chiefly utopian mode to a dystopian one.
Fantasy displays none of these characteristics. It is not always plot-dependent, though epic/high fantasy (i.e., secondary world fantasies) tends to rely heavily on either the quest or hero’s journey templates. It does not seek to explain the world, but to lend it further mystery; its worlds are not open to explanation. It is neither utopian nor dystopian, but always returns to the status quo. It is not self-reflective, though over the decades it has built up a large toolbox of conventions and tropes.
Without genres, we cannot discuss literature intelligently. Without taxonomy, we cannot know what we are talking about. As marketing categories, sf and fantasy serve a purpose for readers and purchases and fans. But sf and fantasy as definable (however nebulously) modes of fiction provides the context we need to engage and comment on fictions displaying genre characteristics.