The Genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Some Thoughts

Is steampunk fantasy or science fiction? Is it both? These questions illustrate the confusion inherent in the sibling genres of science fiction and fantasy.

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are the three pillars of the over arching speculative fiction genre. (But are they the only pillars? Chris Gerwal of King of Elfland’s Second Cousin fame makes the case for spy fiction’s inclusion). And within each of the pillars, there are myriad subgenres. And those subgenres either mirror or transition between the various genres.

Steampunk wonderfully illustrates this conundrum. Birthed out of cyberpunk, steampunk (and many of the other punks) originally posited an earlier rise of certain technologies using the primary power source of the age. Therefore, steampunk has primitive computers powered by steam. Baring the near future set punks of cyber, bio, and nano, many of historic punks may also include magic. Keeping with steampunk, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station combines steampunk technology and magic (called thaumaturgy) to create an interestingly unified scientific-magical theoretical system. But Perdido Street Station is more properly science fantasy, a merging of the two genres within steampunk. Would a strictly fantasy story set solely in either the nineteenth century or a secondary world drawing inspiration from said century be called steampunk? Or should it have another name, like gaslamp fantasy? (This is, of course, ignoring the question of whether or not there is something else at work with (prefix)punk speculative fiction. Punk is part of the genre for a reason, but what is the reason and how do any works in any of the (prefix)punk subgenres reflect being “punk”?)

Moving on, there is high and low fantasy, but is there a high and low science fiction? What would a high and low science fiction look like?

While I’m on the subject of high and low fantasy, I have something to say. I despise these two terms. While the terms are not meant to be qualitative, rather they are meant to illustrate the amount of the fantastic present. But does the binary work?

A high fantasy is, usually, a wholly secondary world with, usually, an epic story line. There is also a lot of fantastic stuff going on. Conversely, low fantasy is, usually, set in our consensus reality with, usually, a more “mundane” (for lack of a better word) story line. The fantastic is, usually, limited to one or two specific fantastic elements. Some works fit in wonderfully and others delight in busting this stupid binary.

A Song of Ice and Fire is set on a secondary world. But examples of the fantastic (excepting the planetary quirks) are relatively low, only a few examples in each book. And those books are each nearly a thousand pages! A Game of Thrones reads more like a gritty historical novel rather than a fantasy until the very end with the rebirth of magic. And that is high fantasy?

On the other side is the Harry Potter series. While some critics place it in the high fantasy camp due to the distinct creation of Hogwarts and the Wizarding World within the hidden spaces of consensus reality, others place it in the low fantasy camp for some reason or other (Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus sequence is placed in the same boat).

I don’t get it. This whole high and low fantasy crap is just stupid.

Okay, enough of those two genres. Time to start wrapping things up.

How do I wrap things up, though? The writer in me doesn’t care. What I write is what I write and genre should not matter except as I guide post. But as a critic, as a theorist, I can’t help but obsess. I know it is stupid, but I can’t help myself.

On one hand, perhaps something new can be born. On the other, perhaps I’m too damn distracted with inconsequential details.

I hope it is the former.

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Posted on December 20, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. In general my instinct is to say that all genres are fluid and the lines are not fixed. Still, I do draw distinctions– for my taste any mention of anything resembling magic, even if it’s termed alchemy or what have you, is fantasy. I dislike magic in general, anywhere I encounter it, so when I do steampunk, I much prefer something with more of an alternate history feel, like Stirling’s “The Peshawar Lancers” or “Custer’s Last Jump”– and that last story has been around for nearly forty years.

    Genre ambiguity can be fruitful, but whatever hybrid is produced still needs to make internal sense. For my taste steampunk often leaves me dissatisfied because it seems to mingle sci-fi and fantasy elements without fully working out how they are supposed to coexist.

    • Great point.
      What about more advanced technology masquerading as “magic?” Would that still be fantasy? Or does it depend how that technology/magic is treated in text?

      • It would depend. If you can clearly derive your “magic” from a reasonable technological base, I would call it sci-fi.

        To be honest, I don’t even like magic in my fantasy, that much. It’s rare, but I prefer a style of fantasy similar to Peter Dickinson’s “The Blue Hawk”.

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