Sunday, January 10, 2016

Fantasy and Science Fiction: A Marriage of Convenience

Decades ago, Speculative Fiction, a literature genre that had always been on the outlying fringe of the reading world began to rise in popularity. Within the realm of Speculative Fiction fall main genres such as Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror, with all sorts of child genres spawned off these parents including Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Dystopian, Cyberpunk, and many others. For the sake of this article, I will leave Horror aside, as it seems to have been different enough, with a distinct enough audience, to have managed to break out on its own as a fully recognized genre. The other Speculative Fiction parents, Fantasy and Science-Fiction, were no so fortunate.

The roots of Fantasy arguably date back as far as Homer’s Odyssey or before, with mythology continuing to be an integral part of the Fantasy genre. Swords and sorcery, knights and heroes, and mythical creatures galore are the earmarks of mainstream epic fantasy. Of course the fathers of modern fantasy were greats such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who took stodgy old stories formerly relegated to ancient Greek culture classes and turned them into a vibrant world built by imagination. An entire generation of youth were inspired by these tales, and with the help of the generation of writers to follow and pick up the banner, including Madeline L’Engle, Piers Anthony, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Ursula LeGuin, and many others, Fantasy quickly grew from a fringe genre for youth into a full-fledged genre in its own right. Gary Gygax and the creative team at TSR who turned Fantasy from something one could read about into an adventure that people could participate in via the Role Playing Game Dungeons and Dragons further aided this boost tremendously.

Shortly on the heels of the breakout Fantasy writers came a generation who picked up the mantle of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Johnathan Swift, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and other classicists who experiments with stories about the “what-ifs” of science. The modern classic masters included giants like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Frederick Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Roger Zelazny and a host of other writers dubbed “Futurists” in their time. They took imagination out of the hands of children and brought it back to life in the minds of a generation of adult readers.

Unfortunately, via an odd bias within the mainstream publishing industry, there was a lack of understanding of the distinct and deep differences in these genres. Mainstream readers didn’t understand them, and traditional publishing houses failed to grasp the appeal and distinct market for them. They were, early on, relegated mostly as “boy’s stories”, and despite deep and critical distinctions between Fantasy and Science Fiction, they were relegated for many years into a hyphenated genre. This was much like a shotgun wedding, lumping two very distinctive genres into one.

This to some extent was embraced and encouraged by many factors. Bookstores did not want to spare the shelf space to feature them distinctly, and many mainstream bookstore owners did not sufficiently understand the difference enough to properly categorize and separate them. Thus most bookstores had a section marked Fantasy/Science-Fiction where both were lumped together, usually organized alphabetically by author.

Furthermore, many authors wrote both Fantasy and Science Fiction stories, further confusing book stores who would have ended up splitting author titles by genre. Many authors stick rigidly to a single genre making them easy to label and identify. With Science Fiction and Fantasy, however, much of the creative impetus that drives one also can be cross-applied to the other. In addition many authors wrote blended stories that were more “Science Fantasy” than clearly one or the other. Anne McCaffery’s  Dragonriders of Pern jumps to mind as a prime example. Robert Heinlein’s story Magic, Inc. is another. Even Terry Brooks’ Shannara series is set far in Earth’s future after a set of supernatural events cause the fall of civilization and the rise of a world filled with fantasy creatures such as elves and trolls. These factors all served to further reinforce the involuntary marriage between Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Nowadays, however, there seems to be more and more distinction being drawn between the two. Larger bookstores have started placing the two close together but shelving Science Fiction and Fantasy separately. Online booksellers have recognized the different classifications and begun tagging books appropriately. Online reader lists like Bookbub and EReader News Today have recognized the difference and have distinct lists of readers for each. 

While we can still speak about them as linked but distinct genres that all fall under the umbrella of Speculative Fiction, it is nice to see more and more readers who may love Fantasy but not really enjoy Science Fiction, or vice versa, being given the opportunity to easily find and choose what they prefer to read. It is nice to see it only took a few decades for the publishing industry to catch on that these two very distinct but understandably linked genres should stand in their own right. Speculative Fiction overall has, thanks to the efforts of Hollywood making classics like Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Alien, and the plethora of superhero films in recent years, moved from a fringe genre into a recognized mainstream genre. As we continue to support quality Speculative Fiction authors in their respective areas, we will continue to see more quality choices in Speculative Fiction emerging in both Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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