Defining the genres: the edges of science-fiction and fantasy

I meant to write and post this yesterday. I didn’t get to it because I was finishing up a work deadline — updating an index I’d worked on a few years ago. I was really happy to get the index done, and other commitments sort of slipped my mind.

Science fiction and fantasy, on the whole, are fairly easy to recognize: we see a space ship on the cover, and we think science fiction; we see a dragon or a fancy sword, and we go with fantasy. There is a lot in the speculative field, however, that defies easy characterization. It may blend SF and fantasy, or it may lurk on the edges where it’s easy to say, “Well, it’s not mainstream, but I’m not sure what to call it.” Today, I break out a few of those tougher-to-call subgenres for you.

Science fantasy: Fantasy in space. Not horror — Aliens can be safely called SF/horror. A number of people consider the original Star Wars movies (You know, 4 through 6) to be science fantasy because the Force is just magic by another name. Plus, swords!

Cross-genre or interstitial fiction: This is where the author really mixes things up, so people don’t know what to call the books. Before historical fantasy became an acknowledged subgenre, it wound up here. Weird West may fall here, if you don’t want to call it its own subgenre. If you’re interested in seeing what sorts of things wind up here, check out The Interstitial Arts Foundation or Crossed Genres.

Magic realism: Although this can be written by English speakers, magic realism was pioneered by others, particularly Latin American writers, and it involves a blend of mysticism and the everyday. One Hundred Years of Solitude is considered a good example of this subgenre.

Weird fiction: A blend of horror with fantasy and contemporary writing. Historically, this includes fiction that pre-dates genre categories, such as Lovecraft. More modern writers use the category also; for example, Caitlìn R. Kiernan describes her writing as weird fiction.

Slipstream: In my opinion, slipstream is very similar to weird fiction but tends more toward the science fiction end of things. It has been described as writing that creates a cognitive dissonance. Odds are very good I’m not going to be talking about a lot of things that fall into this category.

Superhero fiction: I throw this in here because superheroes can be described by either fantasy or science fiction tropes, or both. So it doesn’t belong clearly to one or the other.

Secret histories: These can be fantasy, science fiction, or simple fiction with no speculative element whatsoever. A secret history is a story of “what really happened” with some event in history, what was going on behind the scenes, the story behind the story that everyone knows.

That’s most of what I can think of around the edges of the speculative genres. There are others — specific cross-genres, such as science fiction western or fantasy romance — but this covers most bases, and those cross-genres are self-explanatory in their names, I think. Did I leave any out you think I should have included? Comments, questions, quibbles, differences of opinion? Let me know in the comments!

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  4. I’ve always wondered what other authors think. Are ‘The Dragonriders of Pern’ science fiction or science fantasy? I’d go with science fiction, but to the uninitiated, the first thought is going to be fantasy.

    Also, along with secret histories, you have alternate histories and retrofuturism, which both live in the speculative fiction ghetto, too. Not to mention the strange newcomer of bizarro fiction, which also tends to get lumped into spec fic (normally for good reason).

    Of course, I could just be blowing smoke…

    • I didn’t think about retrofuturism or bizarro fiction. I don’t think I’ve ever read either. I did mention alternate histories when I did a post on defining sub-genres just for science fiction.

      Pern . . . always read like fantasy to me, even with the talk of planets. When they started exploring more about the past and found remnants of the original tech, I could see that it had been intended to be SF, but that didn’t change my opinion about the earlier books much.

      Thanks for commenting!

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