Science fiction and fantasy go together like clichés and blue pencils. When discussing publishing and genres, they are quite often mentioned in the same breath, or subsumed under joint labels such as "speculative fiction." They are published by the same set of houses, for the most part, edited by the same set of editors, and written by a substantially overlapping set of authors—
But are they? And are these two genres Siamese twins, or simply a marriage of convenience?
Admittedly, the appeal of the classic science fiction or fantasy story is very different, and it is easy enough to find avid fantasy readers who dislike science fiction and vice versa. The science fiction Silver Age puzzle story, for example, demands a different set of reading protocols than fantasy in its archetypical forms, such as Tolkeinesque quest narratives.(1) The underlying narratives are demonstrably different, it could be argued, the plot structures and ethos of each form widely variant.
Science fiction stereotypically provides the "Competent Man," beset by determinism, using his wits and his tools to overcome a seemingly impossible adversity requiring a supremely individual solution—
The reality is far more mixed, filled with borderline cases, overlap, and genre bending. The New Wave worked diligently to break down walls of genre, and twenty-first century authors such as Hal Duncan, China Mieville and Jeff VanderMeer work with a cheerfully insouciant attitude towards classical genre distinctions which delight critics and frustrate bookstore shelf-stockers worldwide.
Yet people still walk along the shelves looking for dragons or spaceships on the cover. And within professional circles, the arguments rage on.
Simple logic suggests that the match between science fiction and fantasy could be rethought. Tech thrillers, for example, in some ways might appear to be a much better match with science fiction than fantasy. The crossovers between fantasy and romance become stronger with every publishing season, with authors such as Laurell K. Hamilton and Jacqueline Carey popular with readers of both genres. Perhaps the wonder is not that science fiction and fantasy have been together until now—
So why does this marriage of convenience carry on?
First of all, the money's better than it would be in a divorce—
According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), in 2007, science fiction and fantasy combined accounted for approximately $700 million of the slightly over $4 billion Americans spent buying book-length genre fiction. That's 17.46%. Of that number, original (ie, non-reprint) fantasy novels outnumber original science fiction almost 2:1, with 460 fantasy novels and 250 science fiction novels in 2007.(2)
The RWA tells us that romance accounts for $1.375 billion, or about 34.29%. Religious/inspirational is another $819 million, or about 20.42%. Below the threshold of our genre(s), mystery accounts for $650 million, or about 16.21% of the market, while RWA offers the oddly-defined category of "classic literary fiction" (presumably mainstream lit) at $466 million, or 11.62%.
In other words, if science fiction and fantasy were formally split into separate genres, fantasy would barely squeak past "classic literary fiction" at the bottom of the RWA's list, while science fiction would fall off the bottom of the radar.
Together, the genres amount to something. Separately, mainstream science fiction trade publishing would be in strong danger of going the way of westerns and horror fiction—
This implies that the trade publishing houses in SFF make the bulk of their money from fantasy. Stereotypically, this is certainly true. Look at the raging success of the multivolume "big book" fantasy epics over the past few decades. George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind all have an overwhelming market presence which outweighs even Dune, along with other great evergreen SF titles such as Ringworld.
At the same time, it's worth looking at the talent pool. While there are a number of "pure play" writers working at either end of the science fiction/fantasy spectrum, it's far more common to see authors who view the entire spectrum as a single literary space. Likewise their agents, editors, and publishers. The business of writing (as distinct from the economics of publishing mentioned above) melds the two in ways which border on the inextricable.
Every trade publishing house in our field has both science fiction and fantasy lines. The vast majority of editors and agents who work in one field also work in the other. A reasonable majority of authors do both.
This argues for the Siamese twin theory of the two genres, that the link between science fiction and fantasy is so fundamental to their natures that they can't be reasonably separated. When we look carefully at these two genres, we see strong commonalities. Both science fiction and fantasy rely heavily on secondary worlds, in a way that tech thrillers, mystery, romance and others do not. Both are also characterized at the core by a sense of wonder. One of the biggest rewards for any reader of science fiction or fantasy is the great "aha" moment that comes on the heels of a stunning revelation. Often as not, that's driven by setting, but it can also encompass plot, character, and much of the rest of the machinery of the story. In the specific case of tech thrillers, for example, which have a lot of obvious features in common with science fiction, the answer seems to be that their appeal is rooted in the adventure aspects of the genre rather than the sensawunda which drives virtually all science fiction.
To some extent, the reality of the connection between science fiction and fantasy may also be anchored in historical accident as much as anything. Both genres (at least in their "modern" form) have their roots in the Gothic novel—
But is this common ancestry really an accident? As John Clute and Peter Nicholls point out in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, there is often something of the gothic in the midst of a genre that is often seen as supremely rational:
Certainly from Mary Shelley's day to now, much SF has been devoted to secrets, to inexplicable violence and wildness lurking beneath the veneer of civilization and to the alien and the monstrous bursting in on us from the outside ... (511).
While the drivers of science fiction as a publishing category are diffuse and varied, arising out of the same wellspring as mystery, detective, adventure and other pulp genres, fantasy in its modern form was driven by a single watershed event—
As Wikipedia says, "The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series was an imprint of Ballantine Books. Launched in 1969 (presumably in response to the growing popularity of Tolkien's works), the series reissued a number of works of fantasy literature, which were out of print or dispersed in back issues of pulp magazines" (Wikipedia).
While science fiction may be indebted to fantasy now for a more serious market presence, just a few decades ago the situation was very different.
These economic aspects of mutual dependence seem to bring us back to the "marriage of convenience" theory of science fiction and fantasy—
Both take the reader outside the bounds of experience, opening up the walls of the world instead of reinforcing them. That, at the bottom, is perhaps the entire point.
- We've talked about reading protocols before in more detail. See "Approaching Genre" and "Genre Tropes and the Transmissibility of Story."
- Source: Locus 2007 Book Summary, February, 2007.
- This is not to deny the even older roots of fantasy, going back to medieval romance and beyond, but to point out the common roots of science fiction and fantasy at the time when genres as such within the form of the prose novel were beginning to be distinguished.
- For a brief introduction to gothic literature, see the overview on the Norton Anthology site: http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/romantic/topic_2/welcome.htm
- Source: Locus 2007 Book Summary, February, 2007.