Genre Conventions: What is fantasy?
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    Genre Conventions: What is fantasy?

    After a digression that is threatening to take over another thread entirely, I decided I'll pull the discussion back into its own thread. This may not belong in General, as it applies to books, games, movies, TV... but also to games, and since games are on what it was originally predicated, and since it's a spin-off of a thread about the use of a particular style of gaming, I'm starting it here at least until I'm told it needs to be moved or something.

    Anyway, what is fantasy? In a discussion with Zander on the latest "do you use psionics" thread, he refers to a long-standing debate and editorial summarization by the editors of the Realms of Fantasy wherein fantasy was defined as a set of images; fantasy has to have knights in shining armor, swords, dragons, and stuff like that, or it isn't fantasy, it's fiction. Specifically, the point was that psionics, because it was coined by a nominally science fiction author, and because it surrounds itself with "pseudo-scientific-sounding jargon" it is a science fiction concept. Zander then went on to point out stories by authors like Weis, Hickman and Poul Anderson that play around with the standard genre conventions, put them at odds, and compare and contrast them, stating that if the trappings of the genre didn't actually make the genre, then the stories wouldn't make any sense.

    Personally, I think this is complete rubbish. I've read dozens of books on authorship of science fiction and fantasy by folks like Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova and others, and they define the genres completely differently, and in a way that makes much more sense, IMO. Science fiction depends on scientific principles, or extrapolation of scientific principles. Aliens? Scientifically they are plausible, so they can exist. FTL space-travel? Sure, we have scientific theories that could explain that, even if its certainly beyond our reach today. Psychic powers? Uh, no. We have no reason whatsoever to believe that they exist. Therefore, they are not science fiction.

    Technically, to be True Science Fiction, the plot itself of the stories needs to hinge on that bit of science, but I'm not that rigorous; plus I think that's a bit snobbish. But technically, if a story has only the trappings of science fiction, it is considered space opera, not science fiction.

    Fantasy, on the other hand, is defined by including elements that are flat-out impossible to explain. It's not about imagery, it's about including stuff that cannot be. Magic, being a good example. Elves being another. It is not necessarily about knights in shining armor rescuing princesses, although it could be, and obviously often is. There's a whole slew of books about elves in the modern day slumming at Ren Faires, for example. Is it not fantasy just because it takes place in the modern day, doesn't have any knights or swords or dragons? Of course it is! How about Urban Arcana; the setting for d20 Modern? According to Zander's definition, that is also not fantasy; a notion that I find absurd. Star Wars is steeped in science fiction trappings, but features no science at all, and in fact a core element of the plot is this whole mystical Force thingy, making it a fantasy. Warhammer 40k has elves, dwarves, orcs, etc. in space in the year 40,000 A.D., and has magic, daemons, and whatnot, although the mages are renamed psykers. I find it telling that some of the "psychic powers" are (or at least were in earlier editions of the game) identical to the "magic powers" of the fantasy battle game. So again, despite some superficially science fiction-like trappings, it's fantasy.

    Zander also seemed to define fantasy that does not feature the traditional fantasy imagery as merely fiction, rather than fantasy, a notion that boggles my mind. Clearly there's a spectrum of "made-up" starting at fiction as the broadest scale, and moving towards fantasy at some point, and branching off another direction towards science fiction. But where do you draw the line? Is it fantasy only if it's classical, traditional fantasy? Or is it fantasy anytime you say, "that couldn't ever happen?"

    Zander's arguing, based on the claims of the editors of Realms of Fantasy for the former, which is probably a good marketing move for them. They don't want to hint to their audience that they're playing around with the type of material that will be featured between the covers of their magazine. I'm arguing for a line much closer to the latter. If I want to devise in a setting that is more steampunk than High Fantasy, it's still fantasy.

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    This is why most "scifi" authors refer to themselves as Speculative Fiction authors. SpecFic is setting independent. Whether the plot hinges on a scientific or fantastic element is not important. The important part is to speculate: What if ...?

    So while I agree with you JD, I also feel the "argument" is spurious. Whether or not fantasy must contain certain elements is not important. If Terry Pratchett add psionics to his diskworld does that cause the series to shift out of humorous fantasy into humorous science fiction? Not at all. I think the most telling point that scifi and fantasy are not hard genres comes from bookstores that intersperse these two genres on the same shelves. Arguably, all scifi contains fantastic (not-real) elements. That doesn't mean all scifi should contain knights and swords.

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by Joshua Dyal

    Anyway, what is fantasy?
    It's what each reader/gamer/movie watcher defines it as.

    Probably not what you are looking for, but I think the question is too open ended and "in the eye of the beholder" to even come close to an answer.

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    Quote Originally Posted by francisca
    It's what each reader/gamer/movie watcher defines it as.

    Probably not what you are looking for, but I think the question is too open ended and "in the eye of the beholder" to even come close to an answer.
    That's a slippery slope into making the word fantasy completely useless, though. If I write a letter to Penthouse about my night with the entire Dallas Cowboy Cheerleading squad, is that part of the fantasy genre?

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Joshua Dyal
    That's a slippery slope into making the word fantasy completely useless, though. If I write a letter to Penthouse about my night with the entire Dallas Cowboy Cheerleading squad, is that part of the fantasy genre?
    Maybe for you. Though perhaps "wishful thinking" might be more apt.

    I understand your point, however. I just don't think there is any point to defining the term "fantasy" beyond the general idea that already exists. Trying to do so will just end up with lots of discussion and flamage, with some people walking away finding those that have the same ideas about fantasy as they do, others agreeing to disagee, and still others adding more users to their ignore list. In other words, we'll be right where we are now.

  6. #6
    Joshua,

    While the idea of starting a new thread is a good one, I think it is quite unfair for you to do so knowing that I'll be away and not able to respond. :\

    You have misrepresented my position in your post above but I don't have time to respond - I have to pack my bags and a hundred other things.

    If this thread hasn't been too active and if I can find it again when I can next get online, I'll try to reply to your post.

    Adios for now...

  7. #7
    Honestly, from my perspective the differences between fantasy and sci-fi are not large enough to qualify them as distinct genres.

    For my money, sci-fi is a subset genre of fantasy in literary terms and the reverse is true in marketting terms.

    The idea of speculative fiction seems rather spurious to me, though I might qualify it as equivalent to magical realism in that its an attempt to grant literary credibility to fantasy/sci-fi genre tropes that often prove fairly liberating and analytical when applied to literary modes of writing.

    In all of the above I am operating off of a more basic technical division between literary and 'genre' forms of the novel and short story, where said division was, I feel, articulated best by the debates between HG Wells and Henry James where, in my much simplified synopsis, James maintained that the future of the novel lay in character interaction and Wells claimed that it lay in its ability to create worlds and tell stories. I only use the term 'genre' to express Well's view because, well, James's side effectively won the debates and got their own prestigious category where Wells's scions have been relegated to various literary ghettoes.

    Naturally, neither camp would deny the techniques of the other, but it's fairly clear to tell where the nature of the analysis lies.

    Now, none of this is neat from the perspective of audiences for these works, but audiences are always the messiest and worst way to analyze fiction save from the perspective of functionality. And in that case I don't really know that there's enough of a difference. You could argue for a difference in speculative effect, but the potential speculative result of either fantasy of science fiction is still a speculative result.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Joshua Dyal
    Science fiction depends on scientific principles, or extrapolation of scientific principles.
    Sure, that's a handy starting point, but even as such, its problematic. It isn't just a question of a work being 'dependent on scientific principles', but a question of which ones, and how rigorously. Consider a first contact novel that's accurate in terms of its biology, but handwaves FTL travel. What do you do with a book that combines good science with stuff that's little better than magic? And what about soft SF, like Iain Bank's Culture novels? Its space opera about economics (which is takes pretty seriously) , where the science is essentially a parody of both Star Wars and Star Trek, all turned up to 11. Or what I brought up in another thread, Well's Time Machine. Is that best though of a politically-minded fantasy a la Garcia-Maquez, or its it SF? Is "soft SF" even SF at all?

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    I disagree with your definition of sci-fi. Star Trek seems to be classic sci-fi but your definition excludes it because it has mind powers for vulcans. I think Sci-Fi is high tech specific and not exclusive to fantasy.

    So I see star trek as sci fi with a little element of fantasy in it. It is dominated by the spaceships and high tech junk, placing it solidly in sci-fi.

    Similarly many fantasy stories have a background of sci-fi apocalypse in their past (shanara, Wheel of Time, etc.)

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    In terms of describing genre as pertains to derivative art forms like films, tv series & RPGs, I think basically Zander is right and you're wrong - it's the trappings that matter. That hard sf authors wish to distinguish their work by labelling Star Trek or Buck Rogers "not sf" is irrelevant to me.

    BTW I think there's at least as much scientific basis for psychic powers as for FTL travel.

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