Is it fantasy? Or is it science fiction? Some ruminations.

Do we care about labeling a literary genre? What difference does it make?

Ever since I was a pre-teen, I was interested in science fiction.

Fantasy, not so much.

But what’s the difference? And who cares?

First of all, just because there is no bright line between fantasy and science fiction is no reason to pretend that there is no difference. As the Wise Man said, there is no instant when night becomes day, and yet no one would claim that there is no difference just because we can’t pin dawn down to a fraction of a second. Furthermore, it’s not a black-and-white distinction, a binary choice; there is surely fantasy with science fictional elements, and there is surely science fiction with fantastic elements.

Part of me resists labels because they can tend to divide rather than unite. But a larger part of me says that labels can help organize our thoughts, can provide structure and context. The recent controversies about Black Lives Matter make this clear: the statement means something, even if we can’t agree on whether Kamala Harris is Black or not.

The point of a label is to focus our thinking, not to exclude everyone and everything that doesn’t fit some predetermined criterion. With that in mind, we can try to define “science fiction,” but that’s a fruitless endeavor. Does it have to involve science? Surely not, since plenty of science fiction doesn’t. Does it have to take place in the future? Surely not, since plenty of it takes place in the present or even the past. Many people have given up on the label, along with its offensive abbreviation “Sci-fi,” and have just said “SF” — and have expanded that abbreviation to refer to the more general “speculative fiction,” which avoids the science question and clearly includes fantasy.

Problem solved.

Or is it? Personally I like the label “speculative fiction,” perhaps because I prefer being a lumper rather than a splitter. But this label has never caught on, except within the SF community, so I think we have to look elsewhere. I suggested above that I have never been a fantasy fan. (OT: Are those two words, “fantasy” and “fan,” etymologically related? We know that “fantasy” is ultimately Greek, from the word phantasia, and we know that “fan” is from the English “fanatic,” but that still doesn’t tell us whether they are related. The Online Etymology Dictionary to the rescue! We learn that “fantasy” has referred to a literary genre since 1948, and that we learn that “fan/fanatic” is from the Latin for “inspired by a god,” but that doesn’t tell us whether the words are related. I guess more research is needed, as they say.) Anyway, so I’ve never been a fan of fantasy, or so I say, but there is certainly some evidence to the contrary. J.R.R. Tolkien has long been one of my favorite authors (I have read LOTR seven times), and his writings are surely fantasy. And Buffy was one of my favorite television shows (not that I watch much TV), and that is surely fantasy.

More questions than answers here.

Categories: Books