Genre Conventions: What is fantasy?

Desdichado

Adventurer
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.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
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. :)
 

francisca

Explorer
Joshua Dyal said:
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.
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
francisca said:
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?
 

francisca

Explorer
Joshua Dyal said:
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. :p

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.
 

Zander

Explorer
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...
 
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.
 

Mallus

Hero
Joshua Dyal said:
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?
 

Voadam

Adventurer
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.)
 

S'mon

Legend
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.
 

Voadam

Adventurer
Joshua Dyal said:
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.
And yet I expect to find star wars novels in the sci-fi sections of the library and bookstore, not the fantasy sections.

I don't deny that it has significant fantasy elements with the force, but I still classify it as sci-fi. Again its the space ships and blasters. :)
 

S'mon

Legend
Voadam said:
I don't deny that it has significant fantasy elements with the force, but I still classify it as sci-fi. Again its the space ships and blasters. :)

Exactly. It's the trappings that matter, to the general public and to the audience. If George Lucas (or Arthur C Clark!) considers Star Wars to be a psycho-sexual melodrama but everyone else says it's space opera, to me it's space opera.
 

Wombat

Visitor
I dunno... I've read a fair amount of works that are categorized as sci-fi that don't seem to fit the definitions above. There is a heck of a lot of what I call "military sci fi" that is merely a series of wishy-washy politics, lots of things going "boom", and little to no scientific rationalization for any of the abilities in the book other than that they seem keen -- would that still count as sci fi? If not, what is it?

I have also read a number of sci fi books that do include psionic/psychic powers over the years. Does the inclusion of these powers drop them out of sci fi?

Is Flash Gordon fantasy or sci fi? What of John Carter? How about Star Wars? These seem to have their feet solidly planted in both camps...

What is fantasy? Well, I can bat around that topic, if not nail it. Usually (this qualifier will be used a LOT!) there is a pre-modern system of government -- maybe imperial, maybe feudal, maybe city-states, maybe absolutist; very rarely is is democratic or socialist. Usually the technology is kept to a Renaissance-or-before level. Usually combat does not involve gunpowder. Often there are non-human races -- elf/fey-analogs, goblin/orc-analogs, sometimes dwarves and "little people sporting furry feet". Usually there is magic involved, but this might be anything from small scale healing to ripping up the crust of the earth. Usually there is a directly identified quest, often either to gain a specific item or to get rid of it. Often there are identifiable Good and Evil sides, but this has become far less common.

That's a lot of "usuallys" in there, none of which are solid and thus the whole definition gets pretty maleable.

One big difference I have noticed over the years between sci fi and fantasy is that often in fantasy literature a single individual (or a very small group) can Totally Change The World; in sci fi, conversely, there is less of a tendency this way, though it does still pop up.

I don't think there is going to be a solid definition of what makes a book Fantasy or Science Fiction any more than what separates Romance and Historical Novels from General Fiction -- often the definitions are left to individual readers.
 

Rackhir

Visitor
I think the important difference is the presence of Technology. Star Wars may have a lot of mystic mumbo jumbo, but they are flying around in machines, shooting at each other with gun like objects and have video displays.

Technology is typically absent from fantasy settings. Usually this means machines no more sophisticated than in pre-modern times, water wheels, carts, creatures used for transport.

While magic and technology can be indistinguishable in terms of effects, how those effects are brought about is really what differentiates the two for me.
 

The_Gneech

Visitor
I seem to remember reading somewhere that Anne McCaffrey (or was it Le Guin? it's been a long time since I heard the story) was told point-blank by a prospective editor: "If it has deck plates, it's sci-fi; if it has trees and dragons, it's fantasy." I think that most casual fans have pretty much that attitude about it.

Being a bit of a genre nerd, my own definitions are basically:

Fantasy-As-Broad-Term: Anything where some or all of the rules of reality go deliberately out the window. Thus, "The Twilight Zone" is fantasy, so is Tolkien, so is Star Wars.

Weird Tales: Stories, generally in a modern or not-too-distant-past setting, where someone in a more or less "normal" world is confronted with the supernatural or at least the extremely bizarre, including ghosts, multitentacled horrors from beyond space and time, telepathic conspiracies, or gray alien proctologists.

Sword and Sorcery: A subset of fantasy concentrating on ambiguous or even dark, relatively low-power heroes, in settings where magic tends to be rare and generally sinister.

High Fantasy/Big Fat Fantasy: A subset of fantasy tending towards long, epic plots with lots of subplots and supporting characters, a lot of magic all over the place, for both good and ill, and usually good or at least well-meaning heroes.

Hard SF: Made-up stories based on accepted scientific theories and/or the plausible extractions thereof. Can have one or two handwavey sorts of things (FTL travel being a common one), but such things are avoided when possible, and the ramifications of their existence are well thought-out.

Space Fantasy: Basically, high fantasy with spaceships and cat-headed aliens. My personal favorite, actually, but pooh-poohed by most editors.

Space Opera: Any kind of massively epic tale set in space. Can just as easily be hard SF as space fantasy.

...

By those definitions, psionics could be an element of hard SF if they were one of the "ground rule changes" and had a convincingly scientific underpinning*. However, they are more likely to be an element of weird tales or space fantasy.

-The Gneech :cool:

*ESP and the like has been scientifically studied; the problem is/was/probably always will be that it's not reproducable. You can't prove a negative, so therefore you can't really prove that they aren't there ... but there isn't enough solid evidence to solidly prove that they ARE there, either, at which point science throws up its hands and says, "Whatever, I've got some atoms to smash." Suffice to say, the people at the Cayce Institute certainly believe that it's real and work from the assumption that it is, so a hard SF story that included it would basically start from the premise that they're right and project from there.
 
Game Convention Fantasies?

See: 'Booth Babe'

Sorry, you meant GENRE conventions.

Economically, it's what is in the Fantasy Section of your local bookstore.

Interestingly, most book stores have combined their Science Fiction & Fantasy into 1 single section.

I mean, whether Isaac Asimov calls I: Robot, Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Satire; it mattets where somebody goes to actually read it (whether the fantasy section at Barnes & Noble, or the Sci-fi section of the local library).

Publishings a business, people. Where the head honchoes of Publishing Companies & book sellers decide to call a book, that is what it is.

Would you go look for Anne Rice in Fantasy or Fiction (85% of the time she's in fiction).

Personaly, once you start labeling yourself, that's what you'll write.
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
Zander said:
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. :\
Actually, I had written all of it before I saw your post saying you'd be out of town, so I didn't do so deliberately to misrepresent you when you couldn't defend yourself!

Anyway, if I've misrepresented you, please feel free to correct me! I thought I summarized quite clearly what you had said in the earlier thread. I look forward to your responses when you are back. Maybe you could subscribe to the thread, so it doesn't get lost in case it's quiet next week?
 

RSKennan

Visitor
I wouldn't say that fantasy *has* to get rid of any laws of reality to be 'in genre'. My loose, working definition of fantasy is the presence of magic. That alone does it for me. Fantasy is a template that can be applied to any base genre. It could also be thought of as a metagenre.

One thing that I haven't seen so far is the fact that any decent imaginative work replaces any rules it gets rid of with others. For example, if instead of becoming inert, a murderer's corpse reanimates with a spirit of rage, you've replaced one rule (the rule that dead people generally stay dead) with another.

Every set of writer's guidelines I've seen for novels rightly says that any magic system you create for a novel to be published has to be rigorous and self-consistent.

I don't see how this is complicated.

This may seem hypocritical in light of the above, but:

Worrying about what defines a genre is fine for academics and publishers, but I don't see it as a practical excercise for the rest of us. In my opinion, all a genre is, is a percieved pattern in a set of stories. The best stories redefine a genre for the simple reason that genre is artificial. If a story is beloved, it gets wedged into the closest genre, breaking any constraints it has to to set the taxonomist's mind at ease. I guess my position is that genre is a matter of convenience. I might say that my story is fantasy or hard science fiction when discussing it, but ultimately, I don't believe in genre in the strict sense that critics and such do.

The rules of drama and storytelling are more important than any arbitrary rules of genre; which is at best a convenience.

I hope this doesn't come across as rude, I don't intend it to be.
 
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Desdichado

Adventurer
Voadam said:
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.
Well, for the most part the definitions predate Star Trek anyway. Like I said, folks like Arthur C. Clark, Ben Bova, Isaac Asimov; they're the ones who formulated the categories.
Voadam said:
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.
I see it as completely fantastic. More about James Kirk geting into fisticuffs with various bad make-up jobs and making out with alien babes. I don't know whats so sci-fi about that. :heh:
Voadam said:
Similarly many fantasy stories have a background of sci-fi apocalypse in their past (shanara, Wheel of Time, etc.)
Neither Shanara nor Wheel of Time have a "sci-fi" apocalypse, they have a higher technologically advanced civilization that was destroyed, and the present is a sort of "dark age." That's not sci-fi.
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
S'mon said:
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.
I think that in terms of the mainstream public, there may not be any difference at all. And yes, the mainstream public is completely concerned with the trappings, and to them, sci-fi is the trappings. It's not like a movie or a T.V. show has much time to spell out the scientific basis of the premise without losing their audience anyway.

But, like The_Gneech, I'm a bit of a genre nerd, and I like to take my hobby a bit more seriously. After all, the general public also doesn't see much different between Beowulf and the Iliad, but just because they don't see it doesn't mean that differences aren't there. I'm also a bit of a splitter; I like to have lots of categories to put stuff in, rather than more generic buckets. So, I prefer to split even further than simply "sci fi" or "fantasy" and recognize that there's a very broad range of works that share many features with each other and differ in other respects, that can be described better with various sub-genres; sword & sorcery vs. high fantasy vs. planetary romance vs. hard SF vs. space opera, etc., etc., ad nauseum. Even then, you don't have a perfect picture, as some works end up both defining and being the single work in an extremely specialized little compartment.

What sparked the conversation in the first place was the idea that psionics didn't belong in a fantasy campaign, because they were a sci-fi element. That struck two nerves with me, the first being that since there's no scientific basis for psychic powers, they actually are, by definition, a fantasy element, and the second being that I don't accept such a limited definition of "fantasy" that only includes a narrow subset of all that's out there.
 

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