What’s a “Fantasy”?

What’s a “Fantasy”?

Fantasy. Why does it get grouped in with science fiction all the time? It seems to be its own distinct subgenre of speculative fiction, but if you go to any of the local Barnes and Noble stores around your home or employment, you will see that this corporate entity has determined that the two are, if not one in the same, alike or at the very least enjoyed by the same reading audience. A whole row of books under the title “Science Fiction & Fantasy” include things as diverse as a Robert Heinlein outer space novel to a Robert E. Howard barbarian adventure.

Okay, so that may be true. If you do love science fiction, fantasy may be right up your alley. But that over simplifies things … just a bit. And it actually has to do with the very fact that both these genres of storytelling are themselves splintered. If fantasy and science fiction are both subgenres of speculative fiction, then they themselves are splintered into further subgenres. And in many cases, they overlap. They in everyway can and do have similarities, if not so obvious.

How so?   Let’s take the fact that science fiction itself can be a very contradictory term. Science is technically not a fiction at all, its fact. But when an author goes to the word processor and begins to churn out sentences to the figurative page, the fictional world of what can be evolves. But it’s more than that. A science fiction story can take place a year in the future where the combustive engine has been banned and oil has been depleted, therefore we all become horse riders, and bicycles built for two are once again vogue. So with this tale, there isn’t much scientific advancement at all. Actually such a scenario could be considered backward progression. But a science fiction tale also can be technological advances where quantum physics and Kelvin absolute zero are the main thrust of the story, and everything written is just conjecture. Magnificent, and scary things in some cases, are possible and the author now makes it so. Thereby, this is why science fiction encompasses as large and vast umbrella.

But this isn’t a discussion on science fiction alone, it is why fantasy and science fiction are sometimes interchangeable. And there is good reason. Before such ideas are pointed out, let’s look at pornography. Say What you say? Well, during the obscenity case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart spoke of pornography and he determined one thing, “I know it when I see it.” And so can be said of fantasy, right? Isn’t it cliché? Doesn’t fantasy include classic mythos that include elves and centaurs, trolls and dragons, wizards and witches? Isn’t there a hero dressed in bear skins or a large suit of armor who journeys to kill some mammoth evil? I mean, come on, “I know it when I see it.”

And there lies the flaw of the “I know it when I see it” approach. I mean, someone at Barnes and Noble felt otherwise. Sure, that person may be some corporate manager in Atlanta that knows nothing about speculative fiction. She could have been staring at a picture of the store layout and determined, just as was done with horror, space was needed. Why not remove sections and either merge them or condense them? But also, maybe she saw something that the typical defensive fantasy fan would never see. That it’s more than just floor space in a store. It’s bigger than that. Much bigger.

Again, science fiction is the place to start, not fantasy. See, with science fiction, it has its roots in fantasy. As folks began to disregard things like Baba Yaga, demon possession, or Athena pulling the sun across the sky, populations began to consign science on what was once unexplained. It wasn’t Venus who made you fall madly in love, but instead hormones and chemicals. And so speculative fiction began to turn to a mash up of the fantastic and the scientific. Laser beams, airborne discs, and green men from Mars, if not replacing, at least became the vogue substitutions for magic spells, flying dragons, and pixies.

With space opera, science fiction all but fully encompassed what a fantasy tale had once been. Rather than an alternate earth, we had a foreign planet or a spaceship. A dashing hero in an oxygen suit would save a beautiful and latex dressed woman from the four armed evil alien that had invaded our world. The weekly movie serials all the way to Star Wars and Dune brought with it telepathy (“Luke, use the Force”) and pseudo-religion such as the Kwisatz Haderach, the promised one. Besides a few things, interchange a knight, a wizard, and a princess with the latex suit and alien, and it’s so much alike.

And that’s why the Venn diagram is so central to speculative fiction, and specifically to that newly created category that Barnes and Noble gave us no matter how contradictory and generic as it seems: Science Fiction & Fantasy. When Paolo Bacigalupi released his acclaimed novel The Windup Girl, the book appeared on best sellers lists and best of lists back in 2009 on numerous genre categories … for a reason. Was it fantasy? Was it science fiction? Or was it something else? Not to go through the plot, but most folks would agree the book had elements of both. And that’s where subgenres come about. This one was classified as biopunk. Don’t know what it means? It’s got a wiki. But there are more. There’s steampunk, cyberpunk, space opera, hard science fiction, post-apocalyptic, techno-thriller, high fantasy, sword and sandle. And don’t get me into horror fiction and its subgenres, but to skirt around it, there’s dark fantasy and urban fantasy, and then the zombie apocalypse itself.

Steampunk is probably the very best example of where the line between fantasy and science fiction can get lost for many who are diehards. Oddly that wasn’t the case for that Barnes and Noble corporate manager who made such a strange decision while drinking her Starbucks latte (with stevia and soy milk, of course.) For us, the diehard, we know that DNA manipulation is different than a doppelgänger from Dungeons and Dragons. But for a science fiction fan, how can a world filled with gears and engines not be anything but science fiction. Yet a fantasy fan can see (with no issues) a walking tin man fitting nicely into a fantasy world. Didn’t Ray Harryhausen show us Talos as a giant steel man in Jason and the Argonauts?

Maybe this is a bit of oversimplification, but there is an argument to be made that determining what is fantasy, science fiction, and for that matter, horror can in many ways be a bit troubling. Sure, there are certain tropes that cannot be disputed. George R.R. Martin with his alternate world where dragons and zombies (or wights if you prefer) exist is in no way anything but a subgenre of fantasy. But when you start getting into blimps, mechanical men, the “Force”, promised saviors, demon possession, and zombie apocalypses, the activist debater will liberally throw up both facts and straw men that will erase ones thoughts of what is and what isn’t fantasy. And with variably degrees of success.

So the next time you think you know it when you see it, instead think out of the box. Besides retail space, that pretentious Barnes and Noble corporate manager, between bites of her portobella sandwich, may actually know something that a true genre fan that’s deep in the woods may not see. Eat your forty-eighth wonderfully salty French fry, but keep in mind that the zombie apocalypse is nothing more than a whole group of wights in a horror novel that started out as a psychological thriller.

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