Science Fiction. Fantasy. Deal With It.

Posted: November 21, 2005 by Emma Bull in art

I was about to post a comment to this entry in “It’s All One Thing” when I realized my comment was longer than the original post. In the interests of not hijacking the thread, I shifted my post over here. You should read the original post and comments on Will’s blog first, though.

Those of you who’ve been watching the state of the world for the last half-dozen years plus will have noticed how much good polarized thinking has done it.

So let’s figure out this Science Fiction vs. Fantasy thing once and for all. Science fiction is for Republicans, fantasy is for Democrats. Science fiction is for boys, fantasy is for girls. Science fiction is for people who want to strip-mine in wildlife refuges, fantasy is for dope-smoking tree-huggers.

Listen: science fiction and fantasy are two ways to solve the same problem. And the problem is, How do we tell the truth about ourselves in fiction? Neither is inherently better at doing that than the other. They’re just different paths to the same place.

Because no, science fiction isn’t forward-looking, and fantasy isn’t nostalgic. If Stephan Zielinski’s Bad Magic is nostalgic for something, I’m not sure I want to know what it was. And I can recall half a dozen SF works from the last decade whose subject is, “Let’s go back to the good old days when men were men, sex was easy, and authority figures always had your best interests at heart.”

If fantasy did limit itself to ignoring technology, and science fiction did limit itself to embracing it, neither of them would be able to tell us the truth about ourselves.

There is no such thing as a pre-technological society. Look up the history of the stirrup or the horse collar, both of which transformed the cultures that adopted them. And the future of humanity isn’t shaped purely by technology; new philosophies, religions, domestic structures, and laws (among other forces) can and will change us just as much as our gadgetry will.

You can’t write for the world that will exist fifty years from now. You have no idea who those people are, what will speak to them. You may luck out, sure. But you really can’t write for the future. And you can’t write for the world of fifty years ago. It’s dead. The past can’t read.

You write for now. You write to make sense of the present, for people in the present. Whether you write science fiction, fantasy, historical novels, contemporary romance, or anything else, that’s what you’re doing. Different genres appeal to different readers at different moments. And each genre is a different kind of fun–and headache–for a writer. But they all have the same job.

I saw a liquor ad once–I think it might have been for Johnny Walker. It showed two people in a bar. The woman sat in a booth, doing a surreptitious check on her looks in the mirror of her compact. The man in the next booth was sneaking a look at himself in the mirror above the wainscoting. The caption was, “Men are from Earth. Women are from Earth. Deal with it.”

SF is fiction. Fantasy is fiction. However we define them, let’s do it in such a way that we don’t make it impossible for them to do the work of fiction.

  1. MKeaton says:

    It has long been my contention that, if there is a deliniation in fiction, it is only between genre and “literary”. All genre is, in essence, fantasy. Genre (SF/F/Horror/Mystery/Romance/Magic Realism/etc.) deliberately reaches beyond what is into what could or should be. Literary chooses to speak only of what is or was.

    From this, I submit, it is a small step to say that genre, with SF/F holding the banner high in the fore, that becomes the fiction of hope and change. Only the ‘fantasy’ of ‘what if’ is sufficiently broad as a canvas to try to change the world and explore themes of everlasting significance. For a very long time, any fiction which dared to speculate was tossed from the ivory towers and derided as simply ‘genre’.

    There is, in fiction, only ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’. And the potential for greatness lies in the underdog, the fantasy.


    (I posted over here because my idea seems a bit off topic from Will’s post but relevant to yours.)

  2. Grey says:

    Just piping up from the “Amen” corner, Emma.

  3. elizabeth bear says:

    Amen over here, too.

    I’m even going to argue with mk, above, a little bit, and say that literary or mimetic fiction is fantasy too. It’s simply fantasy in which the author’s invention is tightly limited–say, to a city on the northeastern seaboard that doesn’t actually exist, and where a particular police precinct may be, or a hotel in northern New England where there’s a guest who regularly dresses as a bear, or a perfectly ordinary family on a perfectly ordinary street whose surviving son suffers from depression…


  4. sarah says:

    And three for three: amen.

    That’s why I was so in love with urban fantasy when I discovered it, because it wasn’t as limited as traditional fantasy. It’s one step closer to “fiction is fiction.”
    In the last writing class I took, the instructor had a real thing against genre fiction. He would always say that if you want to tell real stories that will speak to and affect real people, you have to tell stories set in real life.

    I’d like very much to show him this entry and see what he says then.

  5. Emma Bull says:

    Yep. The act of making things up is, well, the act of making things up. Maybe it looks different from the outside, to critics, to English teachers, to readers who prefer one sort of fiction over another. But making up a convincing story about a young man coming of age in Boston’s North End in 2005 is the same job as creating a convincing story about a cloned woman mining asteroids, or a homicide detective on his first case, or a schoolteacher falling in love with a handsome but withdrawn Texas rancher in 1900, or an aging Elven nobleman coming to terms with the invasion of humanity.

    It’s all fantasy. Fiction is making stuff up, fantasizing. The potential for greatness, as MK puts it, lies in how well the made-up stuff reveals us to ourselves.

    And maybe even to others, though we can’t count on that. If the alien anthropologists come and read through the libraries we leave behind, they won’t distinguish by category. They’ll find All the King’s Men, The Great Gatsby, Persuasion, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, A Wrinkle in Time, The Long Goodbye, The Tempest, The Crucible, The Lady’s Not for Burning, and thousands of other stories in hundreds of languages. They’ll read ’em.

    And they’ll know who we were.

  6. Chris McLaren says:


    Now I’m going to have Roger Waters in my head for the rest of the night.

    They ran down every lead
    They repeated every test
    They checked out all the data on their lists
    And then the alien anthropologists
    Admitted they were still perplexed

  7. Emma Bull says:

    Is that a bad thing?

  8. Chris McLaren says:

    In this particular case, no.

    However, if it were his new opera that were stuck in my head, things would be different. Yarg.

  9. Grey says:

    In a review I wrote of Terri Windling’s Wood Wife, I said,

    “Some writers give us stories that are like keys to the door of our cage. They let us escape out of a world that is mostly mundane, often confusing and troubling, into worlds of light and beauty. Because of them, we learn to hope for a better world. Then there are writers who give us stories that are like looking glasses, in which we can see our world with fresh, strangely clear vision. Because of them, we learn to love the world we have more fiercely. In her fairy tale The Wood Wife, Terri Windling gives us a story that begins like a key, but turns into a looking glass in our hands.”

  10. ambr says:

    In a speech, Neil Gaiman said he liked to think SF stood for speculative fiction. I notice, if I say I write science-fiction, I am treated as someone who is geeky, but probably smart and strong. If I say I write fantasy, I am treated like I must be girly. If I say I write speculative fiction, people just look confused, but that gives me a chance to explain the range, and then I just get treated like me.

    Also, amen to Emma’s original post and all…

  11. Will Shetterly says:

    I’ve never liked “speculative fiction.” All fiction speculates: What if you married your mother? What if your captain was obsessed with a white whale? What if you decided to help a slave run away? Neil suggests the second problem with “speculative fiction”: It sounds like you’re ashamed of your work.

    I write fiction. My favorite form is fantasy. What others think of that is their problem, not mine. Unless they tell me their opinion in an insulting way. Then I become their problem.

    Okay, not really. If you don’t get fantasy, I’ll feel a little sorry for you and hope you’ve found some other form of story that makes you happy.

  12. ambr says:

    I hadn’t thought of it that way.

    To me, speculative fiction, as a label, was a way to finally encompass the many different types of things I like to write in one easy phrase. Probably a side effect of my rather impatient personality, that need for an easy phrase.

    Of course, to the point of all fiction being speculative, absolutely true.

    This whole conversation reminds me of why I resist using labels in general. Every label carries with it a stereotype (and that stereotype may vary from person to person), and those are usually too limiting. (I suppose that last makes it pretty clear that I wear a lot of black and got harassed in high school. Heh.)

  13. Anonymous says:

    sf = san francisco. call it a mirror, call it a key, it’s still a fantasy.

    “All fiction is speculative.” I agree with Will. The Great What If. Genre seems to me to be just a different point of view; five witnesses to the same event will tell five different stories. Durrell’s ALEXANDRIA QUARTET. Whittemore’s SINAI TAPESTRY.

    WAR FOR THE OAKS would be a different genre if told by the Queen of Air & Darkness.


  14. Will Shetterly says:

    ambyr, for me the hierarchy goes like this: I write stories. Some are fiction. Some of the fiction is fantasy. Some of the fantasy is science fiction.

  15. ambr says:

    Ah. Okay, Will. That makes sense. I guess I was so set on fantasy and science fiction being at the same level of classification that I didn’t read it as you intended in your original post. (I just went back and re-read, and now it’s very clear.)

    I guess, given how most of my stories come into being, it would make sense to call them all fantasy and then get more specific from there.

  16. Paula Kate says:

    Another amen down here.

    SF and fantasy are marketing categories, or intersecting sets (thank the Maker I was of an age to be taught new math and learn Venn diagrams at an impressionable age).

    I can understand in theory why Will thinks of sf as a subset of fantasy, but I don’t find that model very useful, personally. I think of sf and fantasy as categories, and most things of any complexity can be categorized multiple ways, according to which aspect you are looking at.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Speaking of fantasy, one of my favorite guilty pleasures, The Warriors has just been remastered on DVD, as well as being made into a video game and a new movie. One of the reasons I love it is because it takes a real problem (street gangs), infuses it with classic history, (Xenophon’s march to the sea) and makes it into fantasy (the weird outfits, the unorthodox weapons, the omniscent DJ, not to mention the totally tangled geography).

    It’s worth watching the Salon ad just for the quote at the end “No matter how sordid a life is, there is room for heroism.” It’s corny, but I love it.

    Blue Jean

  18. Daniel S. says:

    It may not be possible to write for the present, either. Perhaps it’s only possible to write for the near past.

  19. Patrick Nielsen Hayden says:

    “SF and fantasy are marketing categories”

    They are. But they’re marketing categories because, first, they’re categories used by readers–in the neverending task of guessing at what we want to read next based on what we’ve already read and liked.

    I keep pointing out that these “marketing categories” don’t exist because some “marketer” dreamed them up one day out of a venal desire to separate the world of literature into walled ghettos. They exist because when a customer goes into a bookstore, they don’t want to find all the books dumped into a giant heap in the middle of the floor. Readers want to have a fighting chance of finding something they’ll like.

    It’s often embarrassing to us that the brilliant books we love get sold off the same shelf as Xanth. My recommendation: get over it. The teenager who inhaled every Xanth book last year may well be your ideal reader this year. Nor are many of us are all that removed from her.

  20. Emma Bull says:

    “They are. But they’re marketing categories because, first, they’re categories used by readers…”

    Very true. I don’t think Paula Kate meant it as a pejorative. Pointing out that sf and fantasy are marketing categories is just a way of suggesting that the categories may have slightly different uses depending on where you are and what you’re doing at the moment (looking for a book, selling a book, writing a book, critiquing a book, etc.)

  21. Emma Bull says:

    daniel s., you may be onto something. We’ve got a sort of consensual present, which is the point in the near past that we can be pretty sure most of the people we meet are caught up to. But we’ve got a personal present, too, a combination of our direct experience and what we know is going on outside our line of sight.

    Coupled with the time between when an author writes something and when a reader reads it… Yeah. You drop a piece of fiction downstream, and hope that when the upstream water gets to it, it still looks like the story you wanted to tell.

    Okay, now I really feel insecure.

  22. Will Shetterly says:

    Remember the libraries of babyboomer childhood, when all fiction was shelved together, but the spines had labels with rocket ships or cowboy hats to suggest the genre? I liked that. The internet system of “tagging” is a bit like that. I want a tagged library.

  23. MKeaton says:

    My books get the little unicorn sticker. (By the way, the fastest way to build a tagged library is to keep buying stuff at library sales.)

    But that wasn’t what I was going to say. I gleefully conceed that all fiction is fantasy.


  24. Barking Dog says:

    All consumer labels (which Fantasy and SF fall into) are marketing, and they are meant to make it easier for consumers to find what they like (mostly faster and easier) and to help sell things. Isn’t that what we all want, people who may like to read our stories to be able to find them quickly? Why is Umberto Eco’s _The Name of the Rose_ sold in literature when it’s fantasy? Because his agent and publisher agree it’ll sell better there.

    With all the new “categories” of fantasy and science fiction coming in, we’re just replowing the same ground that music did in the 80s. Back in the day you’d go into a music shop and have three categories; Classic, Jazz, Rock (or R&B if the place was hip). You knew the groups you liked, the person behind the counter knew the music and could recommend new choices based on your preferences. Now all those categories are split into sub-genres. It’s a marketing choice to help people find new things they might like because most kids behind the counter can’t even help you find new music in the category they like to listen to, let alone anything else. After all, what is “alternative rock” but R&B in minor keys? It’s all about selling somebody something new.

    We have all these new categories because our genre is alive and kicking. You never read this writer? Well they write (insert name of cross-genre here). You can then say, “Oh, I know what they do now.” That’s marketing. Labels really don’t matter to the larger numbers of people who buy genre stories but don’t pay attention to the internal debates. I doubt very much anybody will ever walk into Borders and ask where the “Interstitial” shelves are. In most major bookstores Fantasy and SF are shelved together. Interleaved with those are all the slipstream, alternative history, dark fantasy, military SF, and every other sub-label you can name (although media tie-in books are separated onto their own shelves, again to help the consumer find them faster, but they still don’t have their own big hanging sign).

    The problems come in when high-priests of each category pontificate and delineate what is acceptable and what is “Not Our Stuff(tm)”, who is worthy to wear the label and who must sit at the kiddie table during the award dinners. Problems also rear their ugly heads when critics jump into the fray and prejudice the masses by also saying what is worthy and what isn’t. It’s the games big people play because they can no longer have the cliques they were so comfortable in back in school. Cliques weren’t so much about who was in, but who was out and how can we keep them there.

    All this leads to the stupidities of Science Fiction being about “Talking Squid in Space” and J. K. Rowling not knowing she was writing Fantasy because she doesn’t like it. Of course when anybody says things like that there is an immediate reaction to define the genres instead of people standing up and saying, “I write genre, I write damn good genre, you ought to be reading it.”

    Anything written is either Fiction or Non-Fiction. Categorization beyond that is marketing. Non-Fiction that uses fictional elements, like Edmund Morris’s _Dutch_, is fiction wearing the mask of non-fiction.

  25. Will Shetterly says:

    barking dog, regarding marketing, I like to say there’s fiction and there’s non-fiction. Fiction is the honest category; its writers never pretend that their work presents the truth.

  26. Barking Dog says:

    Will, I agree completely. There are those, like Richard Clarke who say with his fiction, “The Scorpion’s Gate” that he can tell greater truths through fiction than he can through his non-fiction. I think that’s his own mind game, though. As a foundling professional fiction writer (or is that “fictionally professional floundering”?) I tell lies as truthfully as I can.

    Oh wait, is that a contradiction? Hmm, what did H. F. Mudd say? “I’m lying,” but all he can do it lie. Norman, coordinate.

  27. Neil says:

    It was Judith Merrill, I think, who coined Speculative Fiction. I like it, mostly because in my head it doesn’t exactly mean science fiction — it means a whole gaggle of stuff, the kind of fiction she anthologised in the SF books, particularly the last few, something that included Leiber and William Burroughs and Delany and Lafferty and Charles Harness and Tuli Kupferberg and Carol Emshwiller… the stuff that I’d have to explain why it was SF to people who didn’t know that it was… But it’s not a phrase I’d use to describe to explain what I write.

    I hear from my UK publisher that I’m being moved from the SF-Fantasy section to the General Fiction shelves in the UK. Not sure what that means, if anything.

  28. Emma Bull says:

    Note to self and others: My eyes just bumped over my reference to Stephan Zielinski’s Bad Magic in the original post, and I realized the context might make it look as if I didn’t like the book.

    Clarification–I love the book. It rocks the ceremonial/shamanical/elemental/hoodoo house. Buy, read, go “Ooooh, shiny.”

  29. Will Shetterly says:

    Neil, I’ll grant that “speculative fiction” is useful to describe work by writers in the ’60s and ’70s who were building on or knocking down earlier forms of genre fantasy and science fiction. But once they succeeded, I think the name lost its usefulness. And I’m happier calling that work “new wave,” ’cause it was a new wave then.

    Here’s what’s nice about being in fiction under your name: No one can wonder if readers will think a particular book of yours is misfiled.

  30. Neil says:

    It’s not quite what I think of as New Wave, Will, although the Venn diagrams certainly intersect.

    But mostly it’s probably about being tenor eleven and reading the Judith Merrill article where she explained that while the F in SF stood for fiction, the S didn’t have to stand for Science. She listed a bunch of things and stopped on Speculative. Which made more sense to me than science, because I knew even then there wasn’t a lot of science in the SF books I liked best, but there seemed to be a lot of speculating going on.

  31. Hamadryad says:

    I like the term Speculative Fiction. The reason is that it encompasses more than either ‘science fiction’ or ‘fantasy’ do on their own. It includes science fiction that has elements of fantasy and fantasy that has elements of science. Instead of being a limited, narrow term, it includes all those wonderful cross-genre hybrids that combine science fiction or fantasy with one or more of: romance, western, horror, gangster, mystery, suspense, humour, history… and others that I have probably forgotten.

    One of its positive points is that most people don’t know what it means. Instead of making narrow assumptions about a book based on a one or two-word label, they end up questioning what the book really is about.

    Sure, all fiction speculates, but some stories speculate more than others. The stories I would define as speculative fiction take the reader farther outside of their familiar world than other stories do.

    I like categorising fiction somewhat, because it means I can walk into a bookstore and find what I want to read quicker. But the terms ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’ are too limiting. I think if you have a writer who doesn’t limit himself to the familiar tropes of the fantasy or science fiction genres, there can be a lot of confusion. I found Neil Gaiman in the horror section of a bookstore. What’s up with that *is baffled*

  32. Emma Bull says:

    Uh…maybe there are some bookstore managers who are more easily frightened than others?

    To be fair to the bookstore manager, Neil uses plenty of horror and disturbing horror-like imagery in some of his work; note Sandman storylines up through at least Doll’s House, for instance. And he’s associated with people and publications in the horror field. Depending again on definition, he can be seen as a horror writer.

    But there’s the worm in the category apple: I don’t seek out horror fiction, usually. If I only found new writers based on their spot in the bookstore, I’d have missed Neil’s work on the horror shelves. Luckily, most readers have a highly refined interlocking system of friends’ recommendations, reviews, shelf-scanning, and (in really lucky cases) a savvy indie bookstore staff or knowing local librarians to help them find goodies.

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