The Imaginary Line

There is an imaginary line dividing science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction is space and aliens and the future. Fantasy is magic and elves and dwarves. Right? As a reader, I'm glad it's not that simple, but as a writer, trying to find where I fit, I wish it would be a little easier. We categorize books so that readers can find what they like, and so publishers can find the right folks to sell to, but so so many books defy categorization.

Example: Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. The book is no doubt science fiction what with Martians, space travel, a sole survivor of a defunct colony on Mars, etc. But halfway through, and most peculiarly at the end, there are characters both major and minor that have become angels in Heaven. That's not science, is it?

How about McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern? It has dragons, telepathy, medieval societies... but if you've read farther you know that Pern is a colony of Earth, and dragons the result of genetic engineering. The series appeals to fantasy fans, but the author insists it's sci-fi. If there's a line between science fiction and fantasy, then Anne McCaffrey is sitting right on top of it.

Now try this. I'll give you the premise of a story, and you tell me if it's sci-fi or fantasy: "New students arrive at a private academy for witches whose highly-trained agents must oppose a powerful terrorist witch organization."

Fantasy, right? Maybe urban fantasy (the words "agents" and "terrorist" suggest modern-day). What if I told you the sentence originally said "mutants" instead of "witches" and is, in fact, the premise of X-Men?

X-Men is science fiction, but merely by changing the perceived source of their powers - not changing their powers or the story or even their costumes one bit - the genre of the movie suddenly slides towards fantasy. (In fact, Marvel 1602 does just that, calling them "witchbreed" rather than mutants, leaving their powers unchanged).

Granted, if we altered X-Men by calling them witches, the story should change, at least a little. But it doesn't have to change a lot for it to suddenly become urban fantasy. It's all in perception.

What's my point? I don't know if I have one. Just that with every story I write, I find myself sitting on top of that imaginary line and wondering how to sell the story. I wish we could call it all speculative fiction and be done with it, but it's not to be. I know.

Anyway, here's to steampunk and science fantasy. My favorite blended subgenres that will never see their own sections in a bookstore.

1 comment:

MattyDub said...

Oh, see, I thought you were doing Harry Potter, not the X-Men.
I really need to get that Jonathan Norrell & Mr. Strange to you - it's another genre mashup (in my mind). You might also like Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville, as an example of sort of a science-fantasy setting. I personally did not care for the book - I thought he was trying too hard to be "edgy" (or something). Just a lot of gratuitous grossness, that sort of thing.