It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

The apples and oranges of genre


Apples and oranges are fruit, and you’ll find them in fruit bowls and packed lunches around the world. They’re sold in supermarkets and greengrocers, but not in fishmongers and betting shops. Some people prefer apples to oranges. They like the appleness of apples more than the orangeness of oranges. Or vice versa. Some people like both equally. But the fact you can find apples and oranges in a fruit bowl doesn’t make an apple an orange or an orange an apple.


Just like science fiction and fantasy.

Everyone knows what apples and oranges are, and they could give any number of reasons why one is not the other. Yet when it comes to science fiction and fantasy, most people can only say, “they’re fruit”. As if that’s all that matters. Of course it isn’t. Otherwise everyone would like the two genres equally – and fantasy wouldn’t outsell sf by five or seven to one.

But because sf and fantasy stories both take place in invented worlds, people lump them together. But not every sf/fantasy story has an invented setting; and not every story which takes place in an invented world is sf or fantasy. So that’s a piss-poor definition. And where do we stop with the invented elements? Robots. Dragons. FTL. Magic. What about an invented organisation? Like… SPECTRE? Are Fleming’s Bond books science fiction? Maybe it’s the degree of invention in the story, then. Like that’s not a movable bar…

The point is, when you start looking at what science fiction and fantasy have in common you soon find yourself tied in knots. However, when you consider why they’re different… then things begin to make sense. Which, logically, implies they must be different things.

So they share a “fruit bowl”, and have done since fruit bowls were invented – but they still exhibit more readily-definable differences than they do similarities. Please stop trying to insist apples are oranges, and vice versa. Accept that they are each their own thing, no matter how many fruit salads you make.


8 thoughts on “The apples and oranges of genre

  1. I wonder if its the idea that SF and Fantasy are, in many ways, *convergent* rather than *divergent* genres. They are genres that have come toward each other, from scientific romance on one side, and myth and legend on the other. Marketing and public perception has put them together in ways that thematically they often are an ill fit for

  2. Writers tend to jump back & forth over the fantasy/sf line much more than they jump into other genres or mimetic fiction.

    Just off the top of my head, Gene Wolfe, Heinlein, Tanith Lee, Avram Davidson, Michael Moorcock , Jack Vance have jumped over the line a fair bit. I could probably go on and on.

    So I think that these two genres are more allied than it at first seems.

    • Fruit salad. It still doesn’t change the nature of each. Just because historically they’ve been lumped together, it doesn’t make them one thing – or indeed, all that similar.

  3. You like opening cans of worms, don’t you, Ian?
    Or, in this case, fruit.

  4. This is obviously one of your favorite themes Ian and I guess this is aimed more at people who are not already readers of either genre. But I’m not sure I agree fully with your central point.

    There are characteristics that are unique to each and there are characteristics that they share. There are probably few novels/stories that contain characteristics only of one or the other genre, most being hybrids to some extent (even if they are predominantly in one or the other).

    Yes, they are different but it is more than historical accident that they are so often grouped together.

    • But what are these shared characteristics? Everyone goes on about them but never actually says what they are. So some authors write both, so some tropes appear in both… The same is true of literary fiction and crime fiction. Both sf and fantasy are set in invented worlds – except when they’re not, of course – yet the Dalziel & Pascoe novels are set in an invented town… If sf and fantasy were the same, then why is the first fantasy story thousands of years older than the first sf story; why does fantasy outsell sf by so huge a margin – why indeed do we have separate terms for them in the first place?

  5. Said the apple to the orange:
    “Oh I wanted you to come
    Close to me and kiss me to the core
    Then you might know me like no other orange
    Has ever done before”

    Al Stewart, “A Small Fruit Song”, from his third album, Zero She Flies (1970) (and not his fourth album, Orange, oddly).

    An argument could be made that sf and “fantasy” (of the sword-and-sorcery sort) are both broad and overlapping subsets of a much larger category, also, confusingly, called Fantasy, or The Fantastic, or somesuch (and including horror, ghost stories, utopias and legendary myths). Here sf is a young upstart and a late arrival to the phantasmagorical ball, clutching a few evidence-based credentials such as orbital mechanics, machines astronomy to demonstrate its different slant.

    SF tropes such as FTL travel, telepathy, time travel and alien beasties are just as fantastical as magic, wizards, talking eagles and dragons, just with more technical hand-waving and generally less mediaevalism in the social settings. Though Dune, for one, is SF with mediaeval trappings; and so is Star Wars. Space opera generally could be seen as more of a fantasy-type romp than anything much to do with “science” fiction, just with spaceships.

    Having said all that, I personally do see a distinction between the two and my preference is definitely for SF. I have hardly read any fantasy beyond Tolkien, various China Mievilles and Ursula le Guins (who write both SF and fantasy of course), and Terry Pratchett (whose work is more like some sort of social satire series).

    I suppose one distinction you could make is that SF tends to assume a supernatural-free and godless universe, matter and life and technology emerging from below in a way that is fundamentally understandable in principle, whereas fantasy has hidden realms of magic and higher beings and secrets and ancient hierarchies that have access to some sort of mystical Truth handed down from On High. So in Arthur C Clarke the ancient aliens of 2001 are just other species of some sort of animal with a high-tech civilisation, whereas in Fantasy ancient aliens really are Gods.

    But anyway, I just wanted to post the Al Stewart song. You can hear it at with some visuals that are evidently edited for the song though most of them have only passing relevance and many are NSFW.

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