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September, 2008 : Feature:

SF and Fantasy

Siamese Twins or a Marriage of Convenience?

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—even SFWA eventually got into the act of conflating the two genres. But while the distinction was not so strong in the past, SFWA themselves saying, "In those days [1965] the distinction between science fiction and fantasy was much less important and either was generally assumed to encompass both" (SFWA), it is a subject of passionate debate today. Inextricably bound by publishing and marketing practices, driven from a common auctorial and readership base, science fiction and fantasy are nonetheless often thought to be quite distinct.

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—in some ways and some works almost aggressively amoral. By contrast, stereotypical fantasy offers the reluctant hero, pursuing a quest with world-shattering and -renewing implications, usually in a tale with a strong moral axis and a solid dose of Manichaean dualism.

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—the wonder is that they continue to stay together.

So why does this marriage of convenience carry on?

First of all, the money's better than it would be in a divorce—at least for science fiction—at this point in the marriage.

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—vanished as a category except for a handful of market leaders who migrate into general fiction on the strength of their sales volume. Think Stephen King and Dean Koontz, or Larry McMurtry, whose books are not published as genre imprints but as general 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—which in itself is an interesting observation, seeing as the initial impulse of early gothic fiction in the eighteenth century was to embrace the fantastic and the supernatural as a reaction against the scientific and logical tendencies of the Age of Reason.(3) While the works of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and "Monk" Lewis could easily be argued to be the ancestors of horror and other forms of fantastic literature, they also provided direct inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which more than one critic would acknowledge as the incipient novel in the genre which was eventually to become science fiction—the first "mad scientist" tale.(4)

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—the publication of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. Where science fiction novels had been finding regular markets since the Depression, Tolkein opened the door to succeeding generations of fantasists, who found their most ready markets in the science fiction publishers, starting with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series launched in 1969 under the editorial direction of Lin Carter.

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—a dependence in which it has not always been just one partner with the upper hand. At the same time, as we have tried to point out, science fiction and fantasy are related in a fundamental way—through their history, through the writers and editors and critics drawn to work in both fields, and through the readers who find something essential in both genres that they don't find in others. In short, what the genres share is that sensawunda—the fundamental reading experience which comes with stepping outside the primary world and into the secondary world. Science fiction classically projects through time, into the future, while fantasy classically projects into alternate realities.

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.


  1. We've talked about reading protocols before in more detail. See "Approaching Genre" and "Genre Tropes and the Transmissibility of Story."
  2. Source: Locus 2007 Book Summary, February, 2007.
  3. 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.
  4. For a brief introduction to gothic literature, see the overview on the Norton Anthology site:

Works Referenced

Clute, John and Peter Nichols, eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995.

Lake, Jay and Ruth Nestvold. "Approaching Genre."

-----. "Genre Tropes and the Transmissibility of Story."

Romance Writers of America, Romance Literature Statistics Overview (2008, undated, no by-line).

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. "Is it SFWA or SFFWA?"

W.W. Norton Publishers, "The Gothic: Overview."

Copyright © 2008, Joseph E. Lake, Jr. and Ruth Nestvold. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at


Sep 2, 05:29 by IROSF
What do you think about this pair?

The article can be found here.
Sep 6, 09:53 by Ross Hamilton
An interesting essay.

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