Abstruse Goose: "Dear Book Stores: Please stop putting fantasy and science fiction books into the same category."

Note: this post is about how I disagree with this comic, however funny.

When the TV station formerly known as “Sci-Fi Channel” changed its name to “SyFy”, there was a (small) outcry. Was this because science fiction wasn’t mainstream enough? They had to distance the channel from D&D-playing, Asimov-quoting, Firefly-watching nerds in basements?1 Was it that they wanted to air shows that weren’t science fiction?

That last became the accepted answer: that many of their own shows were non-sci-fi and/or trash TV anyway, and so it didn’t really matter. My mom promptly dubbed the channel “siffy” and the matter died away.

There’s something larger going on, though. As the Abstruse Goose comic above shows, readers of both science fiction and fantasy have objected to them being shelved together…probably since libraries and bookstores starting shelving them together. It’s a little like the old “geek/nerd” dichotomy…it’s hard to pin down what either one is, but you’re certainly not the other one! (The regional variations on this one preclude any final “correct” division.)

When it comes to “science fiction”, though…there’s kind of a problem. The term has become a sort of catch-all for anything that (a) takes place in the future, (b) uses technology beyond what we have in the present day, (c) has aliens or robots, or (d) takes place in space. Often a story has more than one of the above. For its part, “fantasy” is anything that (a) has knights and castles (but isn’t historical), (b) has magic, (c) has mythical creatures (sentient and/or non-sentient), or (d) (weakly) takes place “in another world”. Again, often more than one.

Starting to see why they are shelved together?

But technology is different from magic!

Well, to that, I offer Arthur C. Clarke’s famous declaration:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

…and Larry Niven, Mercedes Lackey, and Terry Pratchett’s derived quip:

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

(Note: I stole those attributions from Wikipedia, though each author probably formulated it slightly differently.)

A lot of “science fiction” doesn’t bother to explain any of the reasons the technology works. Star Trek is particularly infamous here, using “tachyons” as a go-to explanatory particle for about half of the strange interstellar effects encountered in The Next Generation. (I’m exaggerating, but not by too much.) Doctor Who takes so many liberties here that I can’t even enjoy watching it…it’s just deus ex machina all the time for me.2

On the flip side, pretty much all magic systems have some rules, ranging from the fairly precisely constrained abilities of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy to “no mortal man can kill me” of Lord of the Rings. Even if the rules aren’t revealed in the story, it’s sort of tacitly understood that magic isn’t unreasonable or senseless. (Very rarely can someone be brought back from the dead not as a zombie.)

I think the difference here is that with technology there’s an understanding that you could trace how it works all the way down to quantum physics if necessary, whereas magic is parascientific. Orson Scott Card’s philotic theory certainly starts to stretch this, though.

The one time things are explicitly different is what’s known as “hard science fiction”, which tries to minimize what the reader takes on faith. Even that has limits, though: often you still have to assume “positronic brain” or “we have a base on Mars”.

But aliens are different from mythical creatures!

No, they’re not. The purpose of both is to either show that they’re different from humans, or that they’re the same, or both. They may also provide abilities humans don’t have. (Notice that few aliens lack abilities that humans have…in many stories, fantasy and sci-fi, humans are known for their bold recklessness and ingenuity, not their color vision or opposable thumbs.)

Mythical creatures are what people did before they had other planets for aliens to come from; almost all new mythical creatures are variations on real animals or on old creatures from some culture.

Robots are a special case of both “technology” and (usually) “sentient beings”. Isaac Asimov made many stories about logic and humanity using a simple formulation of robots; Star Wars has robots on equal footing with nonhumans (that is, supporting characters).

But space is different from…

Okay, outer space is a bit of an exception…you don’t get many fantasy stories that exist in a gravityless shell. But old stories that talked about cities on Mars are still considered science fiction today, and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series started out as fantasy (mythical creatures) and turned into sci-fi (the mythical creatures were engineered by colonists from other mythical creatures).3 The setting just isn’t that important.

But the future is different from…

Ah, this one is possible. Fantasy stories are often not set in our world, so any stories set in our universe’s future are automatically sci-fi, not fantasy. But do you really want to define science fiction by the year it’s set in?

One of the most famous science fiction movies of the last century started with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away”. While Star Wars may have been tarnished now, it stated explicitly that it wasn’t set in the future. Actually, George Lucas said that it was less “science fiction” and more of a “space opera”, with the same dramatic rises and falls as a classical operatic fantasy. (That last bit is my interpretation.)

Classifying Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as more similar to pulp fiction StarCraft books4 than to Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran5 just because they both take place in the future is a little ridiculous. Shelving Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress and The Da Vinci Code in different areas of the library is silly when they’re the same type of action book—one just happens to include some cryptography. Present-day cryptography, almost. And, if being in the future makes something science fiction, then what happens to George Orwell’s 1984 and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Are they alternate history now?

Let’s keep the “future” aspect (speculative fiction) separate from the “science” aspect (science fiction).

Setting vs. Plot

What we call “science fiction” and “fantasy” are really a collections of settings. This world has magic. This world has aliens. This world takes place in the present. This world takes place on Earth but also on other planets. Any of these are enough to classify a book into “sci-fi/fantasy”, even though they have nothing to do with the characters or the plot.

It’s true that there are some plots common to each genre, or to both combined. The reluctant “chosen one” is a pretty common plot that’s found more in sci-fi/fantasy than in the real world; in the real world the few instances are almost universally accompanied by religion. (I’m thinking of Joan of Arc, which is about the closest you can get to a historically-verified fantasy story.)

I’ve certainly been in the mood for a more “sci-fi” setting or a more “fantasy” setting, sure. But that’s like preferring detective mysteries or criminal mysteries or locked-room mysteries—you have to group them somehow, and you choose “Mystery” because of the general structure of the plot.

So ultimately I’d like to see “sci-fi/fantasy” broken up and filtered into the rest of the library…maybe with a new “quest fiction” to contain “chosen one” stories. (I know, I’m ignoring a lot of problems with this.) But I don’t think that’s gonna happen anytime soon.

Not “science” fiction

Still, it’s silly to argue over the grouping “sci-fi/fantasy”. As I’ve pointed out, the elements of “science fiction” and “fantasy” stories are often there for the same purpose; we’ve just gotten used to thinking of them differently. I want to target “science fiction” in particular as a misnomer in this day and age…there is very little “science” in Julie Czerneda’s Trade Pact Universe books, besides evolution. The rest of it is mostly a magic system with rules, just like any other fantasy.

When writing this post, I considered using the term “technological fantasy” to describe how I feel about what we call “science fiction”. But then I realized I was thinking of “science” in the wrong way. “Science fiction” describes worlds in which it is assumed that all additional technology, creatures, and abilities are due to the way the universe works, and that there are basic nonarbitrary rules about that.6 This is pretty much the basic assumption behind the scientific method…so with that mindset, “science fiction” isn’t so bad. Maybe “science fantasy”.

In both science fiction and fantasy you’re asked to take things on faith. Science fiction just includes the illusion that you could ask how something works.

Still, to group Timothy Zahn’s The Icarus Hunt (mystery/action) with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty (politics), just because they both happen to make use of technology we don’t have…well.

Categorize This

To close, here’s a few books and series which either straddle the sci-fi/fantasy barrier, or which are barely in either genre at all, to illustrate that these classifications are at least somewhat artificial, and to underscore the point that it’s not worth arguing about.

  • Oath of Fealty (Niven/Pournelle): city-in-a-building in LA, but other than that it’s just politics.

  • Digital Fortress (Brown): sci-fi only because it has cryptography in it; otherwise, (bad) action.

  • The Young Wizardry series (Duane): present-day magic on Earth, but including aliens, other planets, magical technology, and cities on Mars.

  • The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood): “speculative fiction”, i.e. future fiction but without huge extra amounts of technology. Speculative fiction has broken away from sci-fi a little, so I won’t include any others, but it’s certainly a gradient.

  • The Dragonriders of Pern series (McCaffrey): mythical creatures turn out to have been bio-engineered.

  • The Star Wars series (Lucas et al): technology and starships makes this sci-fi, but the Force throws a magic system twist into things.

  • The Left Hand of Darkness (Le Guin): a human on a planet of aliens; pretty much equivalent to a human on a continent of nonhuman magical creatures.

As for “literary” vs. “genre” fiction…well, I’ll save that for another post.

  1. I liked (most of) Firefly a lot, have been known to quote Asimov, and will someday actually play a game of D&D. ↩︎

  2. This is personal preference; nothing against all my friends who like Doctor Who or even against the show itself. ↩︎

  3. I like to believe that all of Anne McCaffrey’s books are in the same universe: Pern, Doona, Acorna, and Pegasus. It’s not like there’s much evidence to the contrary. ↩︎

  4. The StarCraft books I’ve read vary from “okay” to “very bad”. Warcraft books are a little better—I actually really like Christie Golden’s Lord of the Clans. ↩︎

  5. This is the only book in this article I haven’t read yet. ↩︎

  6. Magic systems are permitted to have arbitrary rules. ↩︎