The thing that surprised me most about my last essay for IROSF was the level of emotional outrage caused by my expanding SFWA as “Science Fiction Writers of America.” Now of course that was the original name, which is why it is still abbreviated with just one F. But as a SFWA member myself I guess I should have known that these days it is “Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.”
Sadly that sort of thing doesn’t register with me. I’m one of those terrible people who tend to lump “science fiction” and “fantasy” all in the same bucket. It never occurs to me that the “World Science Fiction Convention” would try to ban fantasy fans from becoming members, and of course it never has, but I still regularly meet people who are absolutely convinced that it does. And my forgetting that vital little “and Fantasy” from the full name of SFWA engendered the sort of reaction you might get if I carelessly described the USA as a British colony, or Pakistan as part of India.
I can see at least two possible reasons why I might have got people so upset. The first is that some time back in the dim and distant past some people in SFWA might have tried to bar fantasy writers from membership (though quite what they’d be doing banning the likes of Fritz Leiber and Roger Zelazny is a mystery to me). Certainly the SFWA web site says that the “and Fantasy” was added as an important signal to people who felt that they might not be welcome. It may also be the case that some of the fantasy-writing members of SFWA believe that their craft is special and unique and does not deserve to be hidden under the catchall term of “science fiction”. After all, a lot of fantasy has little or nothing to do with science, even though it generally appears on the “science fiction” shelves of bookstores. Terminology is important, and people get upset about it. Ultimately, however, I believe that attempts to draw a firm dividing line between science fiction and fantasy are not only doomed to failure but are foolish. Here’s why.
Let’s start right back at the beginning. When Homer was recounting The Iliad to rapt audiences in ancient Greece no one worried about whether his stories were fantastical or mimetic. They probably didn’t even worry very much about whether the events he described were true or fictional. People accepted that the Trojan War had happened, and that the Gods existed. If Homer embellished a little on the truth to produce a better story, well who cared, except of course the lord paying the bard’s keep that night.
When Japanese court women started writing novels (monogatari) back in the 11th Century I am pretty sure that they would have written about spirits. It would have been expected. Shinto is an animistic religion. Even as far forward as the 16th Century, when Shakespeare put witches in Macbeth and fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, no one buried their heads in their hands in horror and raved about how poor, foolish Will was ruining his reputation by turning his back on the purity of historical plays and instead was writing—shock! horror!—fantasy.
Civilization, however, moved on, and by the time that Samuel Richardson helped the Western world catch up with Japanese culture there was a distinct whiff of science in the air. Things were either real, or they weren’t. Richardson’s novels were entirely about ordinary people facing ordinary moral problems. And when Mary Shelly came to write Frankenstein, it was generally understood that there were two kinds of books that a novelist might write. Either one based one’s story on the real world, or one wrote a book in which one “phantsied” things that did not really exist. Or rather, of course, things that could not exist, for wasn’t much of fiction actually about people that didn’t really exist, or people that did exist doing things they never actually did? When you think about it, the distinction isn’t really that watertight. Whateve; to a reader of Ms. Shelley’s day Frankenstein was a fantasy.
And so at last we come to the late 19th Century and the flowering of science fiction as we know it. We have Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Wells referred to his famous early works as “scientific romances”. This might have been a polite nod to M. Verne, as “roman” is the French word for novel and “romance” is still occasionally used in (British) English to mean a novel rather than specifically a book about love. Generally the term “romance” is used for the more fanciful type of novel, because every Briton is brought up to believe that those Frenchies are not well grounded in things like common sense and practicality. Later in his career, when Wells was attempting to establish himself as a serious novelist, he got quite angry with those fans who wanted him to turn out more books about Martians and time machines. Wells was going to prove that he could write proper books, and so he did, although of course few people remember them today.
Then there was the famous spat between Wells and Henry James. James was big on the idea of the novel as an exploration of the human psyche. That was, after all, what Richardson had done. Wells believed that the remit of the novel was much broader. He wanted to write about social relations and politics. After all, wasn’t that what people like Dickens and Trollope had done? And somehow out of this we have, at least in the UK, ended up with a ridiculous divide in the literary establishment between “real novels”, which are never about anything except the real world, and “populist crap”, which is a convenient short-hand term for science fiction, fantasy, horror, mysteries, romance, westerns and anything else that the guardians of literary excellence happen to turn their noses up at. And the symbolic champion of the “real novel” is Henry James, a man who is famous for writing (wait for it. . . ) ghost stories. Well, that’s all very clear isn’t it?
By the late 19th Century, however, there was a new idea in the literary firmament, one that made it easier to distinguish between “real novels” and “populist crap”. That idea was genre. Now I’m not a big fan of genre myself. The whole idea of genre is that the novelist should leave her imagination at the door and instead write to a set of rules, a formula.(1) The best known examples come from the romance industry where aspiring “novelists” wishing to write for the big publishing houses are actually given a set of rules as to when the first kiss should occur, in which chapter the hero should propose marriage, and so on. Science fiction and fantasy publishers are by no means as prescriptive but, as Diana Wynne Jones showed with her fabulous Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, many fantasy writers have voluntarily confined themselves to a formula nonetheless. Doubtless the same could be said of certain subdivisions of SF, particularly those with TV or film tie-ins.
Genre, then, is a form of fossilization of the imagination, but it is fossilization with a purpose. It is a marketing tool, a means by which eager customers can find exactly the sort of book they are looking for. It is, if you like, the McDonalds of the publishing industry. No matter where you are in the world, if you walk into a bookstore and see a book whose cover shows a girl in a chain mail bikini riding a dragon and waving a sword you will know exactly what to expect. If instead the girl is wearing a long, white dress and is snuggling up to a unicorn in a flower-strewn woodland glade then a subtly different type of book is on offer. It doesn’t really matter whose name is on the cover. Authors, however, bless their imaginative little hearts, generally refuse to be tied down. And unless they are writing for one of those publishers that insists on following the formula they quite often get away with some rather clever subversion. Those of you who have ever been to a convention panel on the difference between fantasy and science fiction can skip the next two paragraphs, because the examples I am going to give are much over-used, but they do make the point.
Consider, if you will, a series of books in which space travelers land on an alien planet and use genetic engineering to help mould some of the local fauna to their requirements. Although they eventually lose most of their technological skills, they continue to use logic and ordinary human bravery to combat whatever menaces come their way. Is that science fiction or fantasy? Yep, you got it in one. That was Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders of Pern series, one of the most famous sets of “fantasy” books ever written.
Now, consider instead a story in which an evil sorcerer has taken over the empire and the young prince has been forced into hiding, not even knowing who he really is. Thanks to the help of a set of loyal, if somewhat strange, companions, a sword with strange powers, and a wizened old guru, he succeeds against all odds and defeats the bad guys, because of course it is right that he should do so. Got it? Yes, quite right, that was Star Wars, possibly the most famous “science fiction” movie ever made.
One of the obvious problems with genre, then, is that it is rather easily subverted. Indeed, any author worth her salt should want to subvert it. Writing novels should be about using your imagination, not about following a formula. (Yes, OK, I know that there are those writing courses that say that novels are all about making a living and if you want to get published you have to follow the formula. But IROSF is a serious literary magazine and we have pretensions to creativity here.) But the other problem with genre is that the rules are very hard to apply, even though they seem simple.
Take the obvious thing about magic. You would have thought that it would be easy to decide whether a book was fantasy or not simply by whether or not magical things happened during the story. But you can’t. And one of the reasons that you can’t is that the idiotic divide between “real novels” and “populist crap” really only applies in the English-speaking world. And the white English-speaking world at that. If you look at novels written in Spanish or Italian or Finnish or Russian (to name but a few) you find quite a lot of big-name writers putting magic into their books. If you read books in English by people from India or the Caribbean they too have magic in them. Salman Rushdie’s first novel, Grimus, is an out-and-out fantasy. It is hard to find these days, probably because his publishers don’t want to admit that he wrote “that stuff”, but he did. The bottom line is that if people have won Nobel prizes for literature for writing books with magic in them, then those books can’t be “populist crap”, they must be “real novels”. Which means that they must be “magic realism”, not “fantasy”. Got that? Clear as mud, isn’t it.
Oh, and just in case you think that argument only applies to fantasy, stop right there and go out and read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. That book was shortlisted for the UK’s prestigious Booker Prize in 2004. It consists of six inter-woven narratives, two of which take place very clearly in the future. One of them features a character who is a clone, and the other is set in a post-apocalyptic world. But do any of the mainstream critics who rave about the book describe this as “science fiction”? Dear me no, it is serious literature. A science fiction novel would never get shortlisted for the Booker Prize. (And come to think of it, you quite possibly won’t find Jurassic Park in the science fiction section of your bookstore either. It is too popular to get hidden away in the ghetto.)
And this is how I found myself stuck in a London restaurant seated next to a guy who insisted that “fantasy” only meant books with elves and dragons and wizards in them. Extending the definition of fantasy, he told me, to include anything with magic in it, was a shameful attempt on my part to give spurious and undeserved legitimacy to the dreadful crap that I read. If I had given him a Jeff Vandermeer novel to read he would have told me that it wasn’t fantasy, it was too good. But if I had given him a Jeff Vandermeer novel and had first told him that Jeff was a past winner of the World Fantasy Award he would have told me that he didn’t want to waste his time reading that crap.
And what exactly is “that crap” anyway? Ask people to name a famous fantasy author and there is a good chance that they will very quickly come up with three names: J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and Terry Pratchett. They all write that stuff with elves and dragons and wizards, right? It is all the same.
Well, let’s think about that. Tolkien wrote books set entirely in an imaginary world. Sure there were elves and dragons and wizards, but it would be entirely legitimate to say that they were not real. Tolkien didn’t try to place them in our world. He made up a world in which such things could exist, but it was all a story, albeit a story with a message for us. Rowling, on the other hand, has her magicians and magical creatures very firmly located in our world. Magic does exist, she says. And she pokes fun at the ignorant muggles who don’t understand this. That is a very different approach to using magic in a novel. At first sight you might think that Pratchett is doing the same sort of thing as Tolkien. He too has created an imaginary world. But whereas Tolkien took great pains to make his imaginary world seem real when you were inside it, Pratchett deliberately makes his world absurd. And once you have got into his books you realize that he has done this for a purpose. It is all a joke. The imaginary world is not there to be taken seriously, it is there to allow Pratchett to poke fun at politicians, and religion, at the military, at the media, and at anyone else he thinks needs taking down a peg or two.
So there we have three very different approaches to writing “fantasy” and the relation of the fantastic elements of the story to the real ones. In one set of books the magic is claimed to be real and exist in our world, in another it is real but only within the confines of an imaginary world, and in the third it is a deliberate joke, a vehicle for satire. Three of the most famous fantasy writers in the world, and they are not writing the same thing at all.
We should also note in passing that not all science fiction is the same. One of the most recent literary movements to grace the SF scene is something called Mundane SF. The people involved in this movement believe that SF has become much too fanciful. Everyone knows that if there is life on Mars then it is limited to tiny bacteria. Everyone knows that you can’t travel faster than light. Uploading human minds into computers is an absurd idea. And even the simplest forms of nanotechnology are indistinguishable from magic. No, say the Mundane SF folks, science fiction should be firmly rooted in real science, it should limit its subject matter to what we know is possible. Everything else is just fantasy.
This is all getting rather complicated. But SF and fantasy are commonly studied in universities these days. Do those clever literary professors have any ideas of offer? Can they tell us what fantasy is? Sadly most of them are not much help. Part of being a literary academic is that you tend to study certain writers in great detail. So we might find some professor who knows everything about everything that the Inklings wrote, but who has never even heard of Tad Williams, and only knows of Guy Gavriel Kay because of the work he did on Tolkien’s back catalog. Such people tend to come up with definitions of fantasy that are barely recognizable to those of us who actually read a lot of fantasy. What we need is an academic with a breadth of vision.
Well actually what we need is an academic who is also one of the world’s leading reviewers of SF&F books. Gary K. Wolfe, the Locus reviewer, happens to fit the bill, and he has come up with some interesting ideas that revolve around the mode in which a book is written rather than the tropes that the stories use. What does that mean? Well, let’s go back to our examples. A science fiction book, by Wolfe’s classification, is one that takes a logical, scientific approach to the plot. How does that affect Anne McCaffrey? So Pern is threatened by Thread. But Thread is a natural phenomenon. Its appearance in the skies of Pern is explained by studying astronomy. And if Lessa, F’lar and co. are the people who defeat it, that is because they are unusually intelligent, determined and brave, not because they are of royal birth.
In contrast, Wolfe argues, a fantasy story is one in which the threat to the heroes is somehow morally wrong. It isn’t just that there are enemies; it is that they are Evil. And in general they can only be overcome by someone who is fated to do so. Often that person has to be of royal birth, although this isn’t essential. Some fantasies require that the hero be particularly innocent (Parsival being the classic example). But the point is that the heroes don’t succeed because they work things out—indeed doing so is often shown to be totally impossible—they do so because they were meant to do so. The Grail myth is a classic example of this. Gawain fails, Lancelot fails, all of the best knights of the Round Table have no chance at all, because only one man is destined to complete the quest.
Take the end of The Lord of the Rings, for example. For all of his effort and heroism, when Frodo finally gets to Mount Doom he finds himself unable to destroy the Ring. In the end, Good only triumphs because Gollum bites Frodo’s finger off, and in his excitement falls into the volcano. Sure it took great heroism for Frodo and Sam to get to Mount Doom in the first place. But Tolkien can’t allow the Hobbits to succeed in their own right. He is writing a fantasy and he has to make a moral point, presumably one about evil carrying the seeds of its own destruction.
Personally I rather like Wolfe’s classification. It makes a lot more sense to me than relying on tropes. But it isn’t everyone’s cup to tea. We are back with Star Wars again. There is no way that Han Solo could ever have done what Luke Skywalker did. It wasn’t because he wasn’t skilled or brave enough. He just wasn’t the right hero. Heck, George Lucas openly admits that the whole plot was based on the ideas about hero tales developed by the famous mythologist, Joseph Campbell. But you try telling most people that Star Wars isn’t science fiction. It has space ships in it, for heaven’s sake. And Wookies and Ewoks are aliens whereas Elves and Dwarves are, well, you know, magical. Not the same things at all. Dear me no.
So I say to myself, why bother? Why get so hot under the collar about what “fantasy” is, or what “science fiction” is? It is hard enough to define in the first place. And if you come up with a definition there’s a good chance that most people won’t agree with it. Besides, both science fiction and fantasy are all about imaginative writing. And if your writer is imaginative then there is a good chance that she will want to blur the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy anyway. OK, so the marketing people at the publishers will want to have their little boxes. But it is our job to break out of boxes, not to invent new ones in which we can confine ourselves. Is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? Clearly there are a lot of people out there who care deeply about this issue, and these things are fun to argue. But given the difficulty of coming to a conclusion, and the fact that the best stories are generally those that are hardest to pigeonhole, you have to wonder how important the distinction really is and why we get so agitated about it. Isn’t the quality of the story rather more important than whether the characters are wielding ray guns or swords?
1. OK, this isn’t a usual definition of genre, but it is the only one that works for me. I’ll probably write more about this later, but in the meantime readers are referred to my “Searching for Copernicus”essays in Emerald City #91 and #92 and in particular the essay by Gary K. Wolfe that I talk about in them. Those essays also talk a lot more about definitions of “SF” and “fantasy”. [Back]