Like what you read here? Wanna help support me? Consider dropping me a buck! With Patreon temporarily behaving themselves, you can donate there, or you can drop me a one-off via Ko-Fi! All of it is appreciated, deeply.
Last time, I promised that I’d write about how I define various genre terms, and I intend to make good on that promise. In doing so, I’ll have to talk a bit about the murky beast named genre, so we’ll hit that up first.
The official definition of genre is “a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” Which works great when you can draw clean, clear lines to divide the categories, or when you realize your best option is to reach an agreement about vague fuzzy lumps of things being more-or-less what you’re talking about. The world we live in, for all the efforts of critics and marketing specialists, is one where the second option is the truer one.
The problem is when people try to treat it as the former. In practice, most books tend to wander across genre lines. Yes, this book might be a romance overall, but it’s set in a fantastic world with mighty-thewed barbarians and sexy sorceresses. It follow the conventions of romance and high fantasy, more or less. Which is it? In practice they’ll shelve it under romance, but in truth it’s both. Genre’s a messy blob. How many fantasy elements can you slip into science fiction before it slides toward the fantasy end of things? Is Star Wars more sci-fi or fantasy? It has space wizards and laser swords, but it also has spaceships, hyperspace, and blasters. At best you can say it isn’t hard science fiction.
This isn’t the post to go into literary fiction versus genre fiction as categories, and aren’t we all glad for that.
Genre, in other words, is a convenient way of describing about where a story falls in terms of themes that might be of interest to a person, and a story can be several genres at once with no problem. Star Wars is science fantasy with epic fantasy and some western conventions blended in, not just one of those.
This doesn’t mean the genre labels are useless, obviously; so it’s worth talking about how I define them for future purposes. Two major groupings exist, for me – science fiction, sci-fi, science fantasy, and high/low/dark fantasy occupy one group, while the balance of realism versus pulp occupies the other.
Science fiction is also called speculative fiction – it takes what we know and tries to extrapolate out from that as best it can. Sometimes this is just taking some snippet of scientific discovery and running it out as far as the author’s imagination can go; other times it’s taking a social change – or the stasis of status quo – and running into the future with it. Speculative fiction is what you get when you write about the future in a what-if fashion.
Sci-fi, on the other hand, is less speculative. If you’re retelling World War II, but in space, that’s sci-fi. It’s the future, but you’re not trying to speculate about a what-if in the process. Sometimes it’s meant to just be fun to read, other times it’s meant as a critique of society’s view of what’s being written about that also happens to be entertaining to read. It’s in no way lesser than speculative fiction, the nerds who get angry if you call their fandom sci-fi aside.
Science fantasy is a genre segment that tends to get short shrift, and that’s unfortunate. Often, it gets tacked onto stories that are sci-fi with unusual elements, or on fantasy that isn’t willing to stay on the ground. Personally, I define it as what happens when you thoroughly blend fantasy and sci-fi together; a futuristic setting with magic integrated into how the world works, rather than a tagged-on handwave to be convenient. Science fantasy has internal consistency and rules that govern how things work, providing hard limits that can get in the way of what the characters want to accomplish.
Fantasy is a huge wide range; in general, if it has some element of magic in it, or if it’s set in a non-historic past, it’s probably some form of fantasy. High fantasy is full of magic and tends to have enchanted swords, wizards, dragons, and more. Low fantasy has a splash of magic at best, the magic is probably dangerous, and it’s almost certainly set in a world not our own. Dark fantasy could be either of those or somewhere in between, but the world is a terrible place and you’re probably not going to get a happy ending. Urban fantasy is magic in the modern (or at least industrial) time period, with magical things often operating undercover from the curiosity of science; sometimes for the safety of magical things, sometimes for the safety of humanity from That Which We Were Not Meant To Know. Fantasy is really a whole pile of conflicting genre conventions under a great big umbrella, and it deserves an entire article to itself, but for now “it probably has magic and isn’t in the future” is a good rule of thumb.
As for the other grouping, pulp versus realism is the question of how hard the rules are for the story. We generally like to pretend that science fiction is Realism and fantasy is on the pulpy end, but in truth any given genre can be more realistic or more pulpy depending on the writer and their worldbuilding.
The pulp end of the spectrum is full of loose rules, which operate largely by plot fiat – the wizard can do what the wizard needs to do, and can’t do what would wreck the plot, even if sometimes it makes absolutely no sense. Technobabble is the order of the day for the sci-fi side of things, as well – the hyperdrive breaks down, but bypassing the compressor makes it work just fine, and reversing the polarity of the deflector dish saves the day.
The realism side of things has harder rules, higher costs for breaking them, and people who get in a fight pay significant consequences. On the fantasy end, we tend to regard this as “low” fantasy, but all it really requires is that the rules are hard, the costs are high, and there’s no deus ex machina up a wizard’s sleeve or a god’s unknowable navel. Similarly, we tend to regard the science fiction portion as “hard” because the rules as we understand them are generally follow – travel times are defined by physics, there aren’t magic healing tubes of goop disguised as technology to get heroes back in the action quickly, and in general we can imagine a path from today to this possible world.
The key thing is that this is merely a measure of how hard the rules are. A pulp-side fantasy can have people with grievous injuries, major characters dying, and life-or-death stakes. A “low” fantasy story can be full of demons, angry gods, and magic flying around. A pulp sci-fi story can have hands cut off, civilizations hang in the balance, and both aliens and physics that make sense in the context we understand them, while a hard science fiction story can have terrifying Precursor nanogoop that can overwrite machines and people and FTL travel that uses wormholes or other plausible excuses rather than an vague hyperspace drive.
These two different groups are how I define the stories I read. Star Wars is pulp sci-fi; the Expanse is realistic science fiction. City Stained Red is pulp fantasy – magic isn’t readily defined, the rules are obviously there but never explained enough to be a key constraint on the plot, and the stakes are pretty high by the book’s end. Your average game of D&D, thanks to the hard-coded rules of the game system, tends to be more on the side of realism – something you wouldn’t expect, given how it involves throwing fireballs, healing people with divine magic, and fighting everything from gibbering mounds of flesh to titanic dragons – but it has hard and fast rules for all of it, and the exceptions to those rules are generally very relevant to the plot.
At the same time, all of these definitions are subjective, and I think that is where a lot of the conflict over genre comes from. What’s pulp fantasy to me might be more realism-oriented to you. What I describe as science fantasy might be sci-fi to you. Like everything else in matter of personal taste, our definitions and opinions will vary, and that’s fine. Haters will hate, and there’s nothing to do with them (unless they start doing things like sending death threats, at which point they’re no longer just haters but monsters and should be dealt with as such. The world has enough trouble without monsters and Nazis trying to destroy your life and kill you.)
So in sum – genre is fluid, this is how I personally define these things, and I’m fine if you disagree with me. It’s mostly to give us all a base to work from, going forward, as I talk about other aspects of worldbuilding, writing, and not tearing your hair out over fuzzy details.
See you next time!