A brief story of Science Fantasy

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Image by sykosan

Earlier today, someone at the FB writers’ group to which I belong, asked (and I quote):

“I have long been assured that ‘Science Fantasy’ is a ‘thing’? So why can’t I find this genre in the BISAC fiction codes?”

It’s an interesting and fair question, moreover, because it is a discussion my publisher and I have had regarding under which genre list my novel at Amazon (ultimately, the distributor opted for Science Fiction, which well, might work, although I still argue it is Science Fantasy or Futuristic Fantasy).

So I replied the following. Bear in mind that this is what I recall from several consultations at the usual sites (Wikipedia, TV Tropes), The Complete Guide to Fantasy Subgenres by Best Fantasy Books, my recollections of Issac Asimov’s essay compilation and my own readings.

Currently, it is difficult to get a clear cut classification of Science Fantasy for two reasons:

1) As shown in the Complete Guide to… there are tons of Fantasy subgenres, and if you recall my previous posts on Science Fantasy, I see it more as a grading scale. So they often get mixed between them and with Science Fiction, that has become an umbrella term for the general public and thus, for several bookstores.

2) History. So sit down, grab a cup of coffee and listen to old uncle Ricardo explain it the best he can:

Originally Science Fantasy was published in the same magazines as Weird Fiction and original Heroic Fantasy (think Lovecraft for the former, Robert E. Howard for the later) during the ’20s and ’30s. Often got confused with straight fantasy, being fantasy an umbrella term for non-literary work or noir. That’s why you get things like the Cthulhu Mythos that mix horror, magic and science or stuff like Planetary Romances such as ‘John Carter of Mars.’

Science Fiction as we know it today was a counterproposal of that, encouraged by  John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, who as per Asimov’s recollection, was adamant of having sound scientific knowledge behind every story he published (what we now know as Hard Science Fiction). It slowly pushed away from the mixture of genres and laid out the rules of what we know now as classic Science Fiction (Asimov, Heinlen, and Clarke). But if you read their older work, especially of authors like Bradbury, many of them wrote still a mix of Fantasy and SF.

With the advent of LOTR in the later part of the ’50s ( trivia time: incidentally helping to create the environmental movement), the division between Science Fiction and Fantasy became more entrenched. And the weird/horror part of the mix got separated into horror and the new weird (Charlie Stross for example). But if you notice, for example, some of the works of Stephen King go back to those roots (The Dark Tower, The Stand even It). But for many years, authors and readers tried to keep them separated, although there are stories that get them mixed.

You have cases where authors adamantly said their work belonged to one or the other, which was the case of Anne McCaffrey and the Dragonriders of Pern series (she might say it was straight SF, but they read like fantasy to me). Authors that started writing their sagas as fantasy and through connecting them with their other work or as result of worldbuilding created fantasy worlds in post-apocalyptic future Earth, like Terry Brooks and the Shannara series or The Book of Swords Series by Fred Saberhagen. Finally, the third group of authors never bothered with such divisions, instead of looking for the best mix of elements to tell the story at hand, like Terry Pratchett and the Discworld series or Roger Zelazny and his various works, like was the case of Creatures of Light and Darkness or Lord of Light.  And then you have authors such as Steven Brust of the Dragaera series that abide by the rule of cool as prescribed in the following quote:

“The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows: All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ’em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ’em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.

The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.”

― Steven Brust

Personally, I abide by that rule too.

So as you can see, Science Fantasy hasn’t truly disappeared, just mutated, sometimes ignored, sometimes confused. The only place where Science Fantasy has been published continually since the ’20s as it’s own genre is in superhero comics (which started as pulp fiction), but now they have their own sub-genre in the literature (in part, thanks to Wild Cards by GRR Martin).

However, its existence has influenced our pop culture in ways are not that obvious. That’s why we have Star Wars and Saturday Morning cartoons from the ’80s (e.g. Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors or Thundercats), because Lucas and those other creative artists grew up watching old pulp serials, reading classic comics. For them, the mix of genres was obvious and useful. But the literary world -always influenced by commercial interests and marketing strategies- changes slowly. I recall as a kid, that fantasy was still considered SF in many places (and I’m an 80’s kid) and bookstores still tend to put fantasy books in SF shelves. I recall a bookstore chain in the UK that puts Patrick Rothfuss’Kingkiller Chronicles’ next to Star Trek novels. Because for the general public, they are the same.

There is however one country where Science Fantasy does have its own classification as a literary and cinematic genre: Japan. They do like their eclectic mixes and both their video games and anime show that. We don’t notice because when they get ported this side of the world, they get classified in our rigid system. For example, Dragon Ball started as fantasy (with super advanced technology) and now has aliens fighting deities and androids, with a not so healthy mix of time travel and multiverses. Or Final Fantasy, that started as a somewhat straight fantasy and by VII had megacities, modern tech, spaceships and schizo mix of magic and technology known as magitech.

With the advent of superhero franchises at the cinemas and book adaptations for modern sensibilities, I believe that Science Fantasy is on the rise again, but it will take some time to catch up in renown as its own subgenre.

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One thought on “A brief story of Science Fantasy

  1. Pingback: Ricardo Victoria – Science Fiction Tropes

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