View Full Version : Thoughts on Fantasy and Sci-Fi as Genres

07-27-2014, 01:51 AM
Hey all,

So I was pondering the workings of Sci-Fi and Fantasy the other day, and, while doing so, came into questioning their roles as genres.

Some background: I was thinking about how, for me, sci-fi and fantasy seem to do best when they're not the center of a story. If a book's focus is "look we have elves" then it's no fun to read. I want to know what the elves are doing, any why they're doing it. I want characters, three dimensional people, and a story that goes beyond the idea that they're living in a world that isn't ours. Same goes for Sci-Fi (though I must admit, I am more accustomed to sci-fi in terms of video games, not novels). I understand it's the future, and there's cool technology, but I don't like tech to be the focus. It's always more interesting to see the people in these worlds. The worlds create a unique backdrop, but they're just that: a backdrop, not the main event. They are part of the novel's setting.

So why are they considered genres?

You can have mystery sci-fi, romantic fantasy, action/adventure space marines, and horror stories in the depths of a dwarven dig site. Mystery, Action, Horror, Thriller, Romance: These are genres. To me, Sci-Fi and Fantasy both seem like they're just two of the many settings in which the genres can occur, so why are they constantly funneled into their own categories?

Just some thoughts, I was hoping to get some discussion going, and see how other people felt about the matter.

07-27-2014, 02:30 AM
A couple things:
1) Most Fantasy I've encountered doesn't showcase its fantastical elements as it's main point.
2) Sci-Fi doesn't mean futuristic, nor does it have to have higher technology.
You can have a Fantasy story set in the future with high technology, and a SciFi story set in medieval times.

Fantasy and SciFi are very large genres that incorporate many smaller genres and sub-genres in them. For example, there's High Fantasy which has a focus on worldly problems and highlights its fantastical elements, then there's Sword and Sorcery that has a focus on character problems and can never even mention its fantastical elements.

Fantasy and SciFi also can't be boiled down to their settings, but setting isn't just a singular entity; setting changes the plot and characters. If a story is just using the setting as a "backdrop" then the author hasn't incorporated the characters and plot with the setting at all.

And genres are categories that books are stuffed into to better market them.

07-27-2014, 02:34 AM
You have a valid point. Or rather several valid points. Aside from the setting (typically future/tech), most sci-fi also has a distinctly moral philosophical element.

Sci-fi is about using the setting (future, tech) to explore our humanity in a unique (and, i'll say it: scientific) way. Some quick examples from film:

The Matrix (the first one, since the rest blew chunks) is interesting because it's a story of what a man will do when he confronts the idea that everything he knows is a simulation. Do he become like Cyrus and want back in to live in ignorance? Does he become a fanatic like Morpheus? Does he fight against the reality? Does he fight to hold onto it? All of 'human' elements in the Matrix are central sci-fi themes you don't see in other genres (as regularly).

Minority report.. also another easy one that doesn't need a lot of explanation.. or probably the most famous: Blade Runner (Damn, should have led off with Blade Runner).

Sci-fi--from Planet of the Apes to 2001 to Battlestar Galactica to Ender's Game (and moreso the original sequels) to Stargate... it's all about finding ways of testing our humanity to see what our humanity REALLY means.

And that's not as central in other Genres. Romance and erotica is about exploring our humanity carnally... so that' doesn't count ;)

07-27-2014, 03:01 AM
The best science fiction and fantasy is a seamless marriage of setting, character, and plot. You don't want to make your world the whole point, but part of the fun of these genres is the ability of the author to use the setting as a means to develop the characters and plot in an interesting way.

There can be any number of other genres whose elements you incorporate into fantasy and science fiction--from mystery, to thrillers, to romance. I actually think fantasy and science fiction are the most flexible genres out there, and much of it does a great job of combining various elements into a great story.

Dennis E. Taylor
07-27-2014, 03:01 AM
Just to add a bit -- the category of SF has been around for a long time, and in the early days it was a lot more about tech and such. But the basic idea of SF and fantasy is that you make one or more assumptions that aren't "true" in the real world, and go from there. In SF, the assumption is that science works and there is a scientific explanation for the one thing, even if it isn't explained. In fantasy, not so much.

But a book that was all about building a space ship wouldn't be a science fiction novel (although a lot of us geeks would buy it anyway, especially if it had diagrams). The fiction part comes from what the people (or martians or smeerps) do in the context of the one thing. That's the conflict, and that's the interesting part.

07-27-2014, 03:30 AM
The problem is that the concept of genre itself is fuzzy. A genre can imply a plot type, a setting type, or a flavour element that isn't exactly either of those things (comedy, erotica . . .) Really, it's just a marketing category. Genre is there to help link readers up with what they want to read, and there are no hard-and-fast rules about what constitutes one.

07-27-2014, 05:23 AM
Great comments. All interesting, valid points.

The problem is that the concept of genre itself is fuzzy. A genre can imply a plot type, a setting type, or a flavour element that isn't exactly either of those things (comedy, erotica . . .) Really, it's just a marketing category.
Very true. Thinking of genre in these terms, it makes more sense. It's easy to understand, in terms of marketing and target audience, how the two fit as their own categories.

Fantasy and SciFi are very large genres that incorporate many smaller genres and sub-genres in them.
Perhaps this is really the crux of the matter. It basically boils down to the idea (which, with hindsight, is pretty obvious) that genre's aren't exclusive, and treating them as such won't get you too far. Most genres seem to share similar themes (as SamCoulson pointed out, "Most sci-fi also has a distinctly moral philosophical element," for example) but the themes aren't exclusive. I suppose the best books out there usually combine quite a few.

07-27-2014, 05:38 AM
I think the expansiveness is what allows it. Both genres can be applied to so much, with so many sub genres to boot.

07-27-2014, 05:39 AM
Even within science fiction, you have Hard SF, Military SF, Space Opera, Dystopia, and Cyberpunk. I would imagine the same for fantasy.

07-27-2014, 05:58 AM
Even within science fiction, you have Hard SF, Military SF, Space Opera, Dystopia, and Cyberpunk. I would imagine the same for fantasy.

This. And I think you're overthinking it. Fantasy is what it is. It contains and is described as what it is. Sci-fi is the same. It matters little what you'd like to see, or what you think it should be about. The hard truth is that if it's got elves in it, it's most likely fantasy in some form or fashion. And if the protag is flying around in a deep-space dogfight, it's probably Science Fiction.
If you want to get into genre-melding, it becomes more difficult. Authors are constantly trying to reinvent genres, and tie different subgenres together into something else.

07-27-2014, 08:53 AM
Fantasy is what it is. It contains and is described as what it is. Sci-fi is the same.

Perhaps you are right. I was never really questioning the validity of their existence, or doubting that they're not what people say they are in terms of "This is fantasy because it has x, y, and z." I was more concerned with the scope of the two 'genres.' The fact that they seemed so broad compared to other genres, and they were genres based not so much on the actions of the characters, and path of the story, but the setting in which the events take place.

Though, now, that view seems a bit short sighted. Yes, they're broad, but so are other genres, and genres overlap all the time. And, as many have mentioned, in any novel, if the setting does not affect the story, then something is very wrong - so in a way, a genre defined by setting is, in a manner of speaking, still a genre somewhat defined by theme as well, however broad it may be.

You have Hard SF, Military SF, Space Opera, Dystopia, and Cyberpunk

Of course. A lot of people have brought up the many sub-groups of fantasy and sci-fi, which I suppose adds to the idea that the two genres are so expansive, while others may be a bit more focused. Still, I wonder why those are all clumped together in the minds of so many (my own not excluded).

07-28-2014, 05:36 AM
It gets trickier of course, when you have space-elves in flying void-submarines. Just see what you come up with.

I eventually had to tell myself, characters are not fantasy or SF.

07-28-2014, 07:19 AM
Characters are not fantasy or SF.

There's a good quote if ever I saw one.

07-28-2014, 08:12 AM
At this point theyre more like families of genres. But since we dont have a word for that, we keep calling them genres.

07-28-2014, 11:33 AM
For me, the thing that makes a story fantasy or science fiction is that they take place in a world that doesn't really exist and never has existed. The most obvious examples are secondary world or futuristic settings, but you can also have alternative histories or contemporary stories that contain the not real elements. These not real elements can either exist to free the storytelling from the constraints of actual history or reality, or they can focus on a particular scenario (i.e. a first contact story, or a tale where magic creates unique issues for a character). They can also create intriguing what ifs that allow us to explore important ethical or emotional issues in a special way.

Unreal setting aside, however, fantasy and SF is often very character focused, and it can certainly integrate aspects of other genres, whether it's romance, mystery, political thriller etc.

I think the reason why fantasy and SF merit their own special section in the bookstore is that they have a dedicated core of fans who seek out these kinds of stories. And people who aren't fans of SF and fantasy don't want them sneaking into their mysteries, romances, political thrillers, or contemporary dramas or whatever. As a rule, a fantasy or SF fan is likely to be more accepting of a plot that integrates a mystery than a mystery fan is going to be of a plot that incorporates fantastic or SF elements.

07-28-2014, 12:55 PM
Just to add a bit -- the category of SF has been around for a long time, and in the early days it was a lot more about tech and such.


Genres change over time. Even if we could pin down what each genre means - draw a map showing the boundaries between one genre and the next perhaps? - it would be constantly shifting. So I don't think we can say definitively that genre X is A, B and C and not D, E and F.

Part of this shift is down to the changing world that we live in. For example, people wrote very different science fiction in the 1960s and early 1970s when the Apollo programme was at its height. The cold war sparked stories about alien invaders and body snatchers.

We as writers are also responsible for the changes in genres. For a while my local book shop had whole shelves devoted to Scandinavian crime fiction, for goodness sake. Not to mention books about teenage girls swooning over vampires that we certainly didn't have when I was growing up.

Perhaps that's not surprising. When writers look for something original to write about they are helping to shift genres. Some individual writers can have a huge impact on genre (Tolkien, Asimov, Rowling, Larsson, E.L. James), most of us much less so.

Why are sci fi and fantasy considered genres? Simply because they are a convenient way of arranging books to help readers to find what they want. They came about partly by accident and partly by what people want to read at any one moment in time. The different genres are illogical and messy, but that's what you get when things change as a result of accident and constant evolution.

The genres that we currently use are arbitrary. We can try and look for some logic but it's almost certainly not there.

07-28-2014, 08:11 PM
But what of worlds like in Thomas Hardy novels? They are obviously set in Britain, but I somehow remember the originals being set in a fictional part of Britain.

Then there is Treasure Island, I'm wanting to read.

Gibson's later novels are tough to figure out, the one I'm thinking of off hand is Pattern Recognition. He's also coming out with The Peripheral.

I find it hard to force characters to be Fantasy or SF, though I can get back into SF if I can focus on practical technology over cool gadgets. Crocs Of Science Fiction. Kind of unattractive, but has a specialized purpose while still recognizable as shoes.

Seems like science fiction, but from the POV of someone in that time period it's just every day technology.

07-28-2014, 09:37 PM
We have them as separate genres because there's a core of readers who prefer their stories to be in a fantasy or science fiction setting. If readers didn't care, and they didn't buy books based on those elements, there wouldn't be genres for them. We'd just split things around the other genres.

Genres are not a logical and efficient way to classify books. They were formed to handle the preferences of readers, and so they change as reader preference changes. Trying to make them logical isn't going to go anywhere, because that was never really the point.

Liosse de Velishaf
07-28-2014, 10:55 PM
While Polenth makes a good point about genres as marketing categories, there's also a lot to be said for Science Fiction and Fantasy as genres in the classical sense. It may seem like the tech or the magic is what defines them, but actually it's much more complicated than that. There are narrative structures, such as the quest in fantasy, or the alien ibvasion story in sci fi, and themes such as the effect of technology on society in sci fi, or the triumph of the just in fantasy. And it gets a lot more nuanced than that.

You point out the issue of the setting. The setting--and its corollary, world-building--are important in the umbrella genre of speculative fiction, which encompasses sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. But that's only one aspect of it. In fantasy, it tends to be realized as magic, religion, or politics. In sci fi, it tends to manifest as technology, social issues, or topics of contemporary debate like climate change or space travel, or nuclear war.

You argue that the other genres are more true genres than sci fi and fantasy. But consider: Romance is an incredibly broad genre. You can have a romance mystery, a romance with thriller elements, a historical romance. The same goes for mystery. But in a fantasy romance, the focus of the story is still on the romance, not the fantasy. It doesn't generally make use of the themes common to books defiend as part of fantasy. It just uses the trappings. The same goes for a sci fi romance. You'll often hear sci fi fans complain about a romance novel masquerading as fantasy that's really just a rom com in space. If sci fi is really just a setting, then what would be the basis for such a complaint?

Especially in the modern era of publishing, genres tend to be overlapped and combined more and more often. But going back to Polenth's argument about genres as marketing categories and you example of a horror story in a dwarven dig site: Who do you think the major market for that would be? I'd predict that you're more likely to appeal to fantasy readers with such a story than horror readers.

07-29-2014, 02:51 AM
So I would wonder then, why it's important to worry about whether your character is an elf or a cyborg in your story?

Then there is the issue of portal fantasy, that doesn't necessarily have the trappings of epic fantasy (though it could.) I prefer classes more typical of SF and thrillers juxtaposed into a portal fantasy setting.

From a reader POV, I suppose genre still has it's place.

07-29-2014, 05:24 PM
The problem is that the concept of genre itself is fuzzy. A genre can imply a plot type, a setting type, or a flavour element that isn't exactly either of those things (comedy, erotica . . .) Really, it's just a marketing category. Genre is there to help link readers up with what they want to read, and there are no hard-and-fast rules about what constitutes one.

Genres are useful for readers and writers. They provide a common ground where the writer can make some assumptions about how the reader is going to read and experience the book -- ie a rough idea of what the reader is expecting. The writer can use these expectations in different ways. Hopefully with enough sophistication to delight and surprise the reader occasionally.
For example, right now I'm writing a kind of magical realist alternative history thing. It's basically fantasy with some additional generic conventions. Some generic problems might be that fantasy often implies a "magic system" seemingly in part derived from role-playing games and in my placement of my idea of how to help the reader -- there is none of that. The focus is more on magic as it happens in say Arthurian Romances, ie there just are magical beings and powers and curses etc.etc. This is something of a risk in the way fantasy is understood (or rather the generic expectations that fantasy implies), but it is not particularly unusual, its just a generic focus adjustment of sorts.

03-03-2018, 04:31 AM
It does strike me that science fiction and fantasy are often labelled more by their trappings than by what sort of stories they tell, which is just as wide in scope as other genres can be.

I guess its because they require an additional layer of suspension of disbelief when it comes to the aspects of the world being presented.

Maybe the term 'genre' is just that, a further segregation from other literature. Really, if judging by the types of stories available, all that differs science fiction and fantasy from most other fiction genres is their features and an in-built advantage when it comes to telling bigger stories, if done properly. Again though, bigger stories also require additional suspension of disbelief.

03-03-2018, 07:48 AM
Another long-buried thread. Is there a reason you are dredging up years-old threads to reply to instead of finding ones that are more recent?

Laer Carroll
03-04-2018, 07:16 PM
It does strike me that ...

SERIOUSLY, You have brought back to life something like TEN zombie threads. What the Heck has gotten into you?

03-04-2018, 07:53 PM
Teching to 50 posts is my guess (for syw)