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Why there’s nothing fantastic about science fiction

13 Comments

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.

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13 thoughts on “Why there’s nothing fantastic about science fiction

  1. I may not always understand the taxonomy, but I do understand why it is required.

    Good post.

  2. Once again your bizarre prejudice against fantasy is contorting your thoughts into idiotic arguments.

    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”.

    You are moving between two different things here. Book shops group science fiction and fantasy together because (at least historically) they sell to the same audience. It is purely a marketing decision so has no relevance here.

    On the other hand, readers and critics do indeed refer to the ur-genre of speculative fiction. This is in exactly the same way they talk about “mainstream” fiction. This is because it is logical and useful to divide literature between that which is fantastic and that which is mimetic.

    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.

    This is so obviously ludicrous that it is hard to know where to begin. It is extremely arguable whether science fiction and fantasy share a reliance on plot with crime. However, if we accept they do then you are just identifying the divide between genre fiction and literary fiction. In the next assertion you move from talking about mainstream fiction to talking about literary fiction as if they are interchangeable (which they clearly aren’t). Leaving that aside, no, SF and fantasy can’t be as mimetic as literary fiction; if that was the case they wouldn’t be SF or fantasy. They can all take an interest in realism within their own worlds but the same is true of any form of literature. The claim is either nonsensical or irrelevant.

    Nowhere have you actually shown any evidence that SF and fantasy share more in common with other genres than each other (which is hardly surprising).

    In fact, other than the (not obligatory) use of invented worlds, sf and fantasy have very little in common.

    Yes, apart from the tiny detail that they both uniquely depict worlds other than our own, they have 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.

    What is your claim here? Mimetic literature makes up locations and characters and events. Do you think people don’t know this? As with your claim above about realism, all you are doing is saying that all literature (unsurprisingly) shares some very broad techniques. How is this relevant?

    Even distinctions between “science fiction” and “category science fiction” are facile.

    Again, a total diversion; this has nothing to do with your argument about grouping SF and fantasy.

    As for science fiction and fantasy belonging to an all-encompassing “speculative fiction” genre… That too is a failure of taxonomy.

    Here we finally get to the actual argument but it is very confused. You say that science fiction is essentially modernist and self-reflective hence pessimistic yet, in opposition to this, it has traditionally been plot-dependant and optimism. Make up your mind. I would similarly summarise your description of fantasy but it is just a collection of hackneyed criticisms masquerading as objective analysis. There is no attempt to keep your biases in check.

    Suffice to say, one of your key differences between the two is that SF “may be plot-dependent” whereas fantasy “is not always plot-dependent”. There is no difference between those two positions! Not to mention that above you’ve already described them both as sharing “a reliance on plot”. This is hopelessly muddled thinking.

    Without genres, we cannot discuss literature intelligently. Without taxonomy, we cannot know what we are talking about.

    No one is trying to take the words “science fiction” away from you, you are tilting at windmills. How does the fact that people who read and discuss both SF and fantasy need an umbrella term for the two (well, three if you include the majority of horror) make any difference to you as someone who is only interested in science fiction?

    • Once again your bizarre prejudice against fantasy is contorting your thoughts into idiotic arguments.

      I do not have a prejudice against fantasy. I do object to people discussing science fiction as if it were nothing but fantasy with spaceships.

      It is purely a marketing decision so has no relevance here.

      This is what some people call “category sf”, as I later point out.

      Yes, apart from the tiny detail that they both uniquely depict worlds other than our own, they have little in common!

      If this is the only common factor to the two genres, then they are clearly not the same thing. Especially since you agree mainstream fiction often makes up settings.

      You say that science fiction is essentially modernist and self-reflective hence pessimistic yet, in opposition to this, it has traditionally been plot-dependant and optimism.

      No, I said it was initially optimistic and but has since turned pessimistic. True, plot-dependency is not a modernist characteristic, but I never said the mapping was exact. Besides both modes have evolved since their beginnings.

      How does the fact that people who read and discuss both SF and fantasy need an umbrella term for the two…

      Because too many people are conflating the two in their discussions as if they were the same thing, and that is muddled thinking.

      • If this is the only common factor to the two genres, then they are clearly not the same thing.

        Obviously they aren’t the same thing. No one thinks they are.

        Because too many people are conflating the two in their discussions as if they were the same thing

        Who? It is not a view I’ve ever come across and if this is a direct response to someone it would be helpful to link to it.

        • Well, there’s Damien’s comments here. And when people discuss “speculative fiction”, they usually conflating the two. Not to mention all those people who believe Star Wars and the like should be better considered as fantasy…

  3. Personally I think genre descriptions are a useful shorthand as long as you admit their fundamental inaccuracy and inability to really describe what they’re trying to refer to. They’re all wide umbrellas which contain as many different “sub-genres” within them – probably as many as individual works.

    I observe a tendency in the sort of science-fiction I like to contemplate what human beings will become under radically different conditions – often technological, but equally societal, philosophical, biological, and so on. Naturally that’s not a universal phenomenon – there’s plenty of popular space opera and even “hard” science-fiction which deals with essential modern-day humans in extraordinary situations, but personally I enjoy the transformative themes of scifi – it’s my own preference.

    Fantasy, in my experience, tends to do this less, but again obviously not exclusively so. Often fantasy fiction is imbued with a kind of emotional nostalgia – a yearning for a simpler world of moral absolutes and heroic lives. Good fantasy of this type, imho, makes us admire what is best in ourselves as we are right now. However, some fantasy fiction is also transformative – it explores what human beings become under extraordinary conditions. I see Tolkien and Moorcock as two big exponents of that approach.

    Like all genres, fantasy and science-fiction ultimately fall apart with many writers, who effortlessly slide between the divides – Le Guin, Moorcock, Niven, M. John Harrison, to name but a few. I’m not sure where I’d place Dancers at the End of Time or the Viriconium stories, for example.

    Nice article, Ian. And nicely provocative, too! :D

  4. Well said, I think.

    But here’s a question for you, at risk of talking of sub-genres:

    A while ago, there was some considerable noise about “mundane SF” – SF that didn’t break the rules of science as it is understood today.

    But there is another subgenre of hard-ish SF that is becoming apparent to me which I don’t think I’ve ever seen mentioned or discussed. It’s the intensely character-driven stuff. Very strong emphasis on character development and interaction, but of fairly normal, unremarkable people; lots of description of relatively everyday people, places, times and settings, set against the backdrop of a Big SFnal Idea.

    The prime exponents, I’d say, are Jack McDevitt and Robert L Sawyer. Both are pretty big in the US and quite small over here.

    I reckon it merits discussion and analysis.

    • I’ve always thought of McDevitt and Swayer as “sf lite”. The plots may be based on scientific or technological puzzles, but everything else about them seems designed to be “readable” – e.g., a world not too different from the present day, identifiable and sympathetic characters, a focus on the ordinariness of everything. I don’t recall getting many sense-of-wonder hits from the McDevitt novels I’ve read. And I’ve never heard anything good about Sawyer’s.

      I know McDevitt used to be published in the UK – I had a couple of UK editions of his books. According to isfdb.org, Sawyer’s last novel to be published in the UK was in 1999. Both have won lots of awards, so you’d sort of expect them to be in print here.

  5. So true. Why we have such a desire to lump things together I’ve no idea…but lord, the debates you see rage between the SF and Fantasy community over such things. In some cases, I suppose, reasonably enough, they have a hard time “drawing the line” in what constitutes one or the other…but does that mean we should just throw up our hands and they should all be lumped together? Certainly not.

    Genres and subgenres…both Fantasy and SF have a lot of the latter, so the fact that they can’t seem to get situated into their own genres, often enough, is quite infuriating.

    Great post, gives a good bit to think about.

  6. Pingback: Why there’s nothing fantastic about science fiction « It Doesn't Have To Be Right… | Hold Your Future

  7. Well Ian, whilst it is most definitely the case that fantasy and SF are distinct genres, I do think there is defeinitely merit and utility to the term “speculative fiction” as an umbrella term for these genres (including much of horror too).

    It has always seemed strange to me those people that like SF but not fantasy or vise versa. In my experience, more often than not, people who like one also like the other. While there is much to seperate these genres, there is much to unite them and this fact is borne out by the fact that they usually are shelved together in bookstores.

    I put it to you that it would prove exceedingly difficult to shelve them seperately in bookstores, particularly by people who aren’t fans of these genres. I would contend that while there often cases of overlap between all genres, it is within “speculative fiction” that these genres prove most difficult to seperate.

    I know that you have quite firm ideas about books always falling firmly within one category or the other but, quite frankly, there is little consensus in the field. Given the lack of agreement amoung the fans as to exactly which books are fantasy and which are SF, how can we expect others clearly demarcate the genres? And given how these genres share fanbases more closely than most other genres combinations, then how can you deny the merit in a broad category of definition?

    • Despite Martin’s comment above, I do like fantasy. Some of it anyway. I’ve worked my way through a number of epic fantasy series, but I no longer see the appeal. None of them are doing anything new – it’s like one D&D campaign after another. And though the fans may claim “this is different!”, none of it ever really is.

      Of course, there are those who say the same about sf.

      I see nothing wrong with people discussing boundary cases as boundary cases. But heartland sf does not map onto heartland fantasy, and I don’t think you can intelligently discuss one using the language of the other.

  8. I find the terms science fiction and speculative fiction BOTH useful. I recently agreed to do a science fiction writers’ surgery at the Bath Festival of Literature, which would have involved me and one other science fiction writer. However a couple of other writers were persuaded to join us – one specialising in fantasy and the other in horror. So the title of the event was changed to speculative writers’ surgery. It has a much wider appeal to the prospective, yet limited, catchment audience in that it covers more genres. The Festival organisers were enthusiastic about the change. So this is a practical example beyond the bookshops of where the different terms are useful.

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