SF vs Fantasy, or “Do I Really Care How Many Angels Can Dance on a Bar?”

 Every so often, you know it’s going to happen. Like a dormant virus, it waits until conditions are right and then there’s the sudden outbreak, often triggered by a particular novel or story—“Is Deadbeat Downbelow really sf? I mean, its tone is very sfnal, but where’s the speculation?” or “Magic Wind Fairies reads like sf, I mean, everything’s very logical and thought out.” I follow the conversations with interest (it’s nearly always interesting when intelligent people discuss matters near and dear to them) but I don’t really have much to contribute. Maybe there really is a line, maybe there isn’t. Yet even those who agree that you can draw a line and say, “This side fantasy, this side sf” are never going to agree on where that line is going to be drawn.

Cases in point: “A Hint of Jasmine” (Asimov’s, August 2004) was reprinted in Hartwell & Cramer’s YEAR’S BEST FANTASY #5. Seems reasonable. It had ghosts in it, and that’s fantasy in most people’s book. Not necessarily mine, and especially not in this case. I consider the Eli stories science fiction (or more precisely, alternate future history). The one change in Eli’s universe is that a guy named Nigel Flaggard proved the existence of ghosts and designed an instrument to reliably detect them back in the 1980’s. In our timeline that didn’t happen, but in Eli’s it did, and everything that’s happened there since follows logically from that. Eli’s universe is a totally rational one and, so far as I’m concerned, that’s science fiction. On the other hand, I’ve had readers in all seriousness tell me that the Goji Yamada stories are not fantasy, despite the fact that they have ghosts and demons and fox-spirits and…well, you get the idea. I mean, think about this–We’ve got a defensible construct of sf that includes ghosts and another such of fantasy that just as easily excludes them. Good luck building a consensus from those two points.

Back to that Year’s Best nod. So. Was I going to thank the Hartwells politely and tell them they’d made a mistake? Not likely. Still, and while I tend to fall into the camp that believes all fiction is fantasy, I do think it’s useful from a writer’s perspective to think of genre fantasy and genre sf as different–if related–things, just as red and blue are different colors. But those constructs are for our individual use and convenience, as ways to qualify what we’re writing, and when desired, show us at least the ballpark of where the line is. You know—in case we want to cross it. Yet the construct I usually envision isn’t a line at all–it’s a spectrum. So where in the spectrum does a color stop being blue and start being red?

That pretty much is and will remain in the eye of the beholder.

4 thoughts on “SF vs Fantasy, or “Do I Really Care How Many Angels Can Dance on a Bar?”

  1. It’s true the reader will bring his own ideas to a story and see it how he wants to see it, no matter what the writer intended. I always thought the Mothersbaugh stories were SF because a scientific instrument was always part of the story. But I can see how they could be viewed as fantasy, too.

    No matter what they are I still like them. 😛

  2. So true. It’s rather amusing to watch how the community gets so bent out of shape over it too, really. Some authors I swear start drawing those lines in blood…even though the boundary varies so greatly, and one can never speak in exacts with such matters.

    And while it may not pertain specifically to the sci-fi/fantasy debates, god help any discussion among the classification groups where someone throw up those Twilight books – madness ensues.

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