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from the
November 1998 Locus Magazine


Science Fiction & Fantasy: Describing Our Field

Rob Chilson

Tired of battling over definitions of science fiction and fantasy? Maybe we're going at it the wrong way. There are too many definitions, and the only one that comes close to being accepted is Damon Knight's: ''Science fiction is what we point at when we say, 'This is science fiction'.'' We all agree with this, however much we might disagree with the list of things Knight might point at. We each have our own lists.

Knight is on the right track here – rather than trying to define science fiction, we should instead try to describe it. A proper description might just show us how and where the definitions fail, and show the relationship, if any, of science fiction to fantasy. Below, then, are my own descriptions of these genres, and two more needed ones.

  1. ''Science Fiction'' is that branch of Imaginative Literature which deals with ideas. It therefore appeals primarily to the intellect.

  2. ''Fantasy'' is that branch of Imaginative Literature which deals with images. It therefore appeals primarily to the emotions.

  3. ''Pseudo-Scientific Fantasy'' [PSF] – a term coined by Heinlein; his definition was ''fake 'science' fiction.'' I would define this very useful term as: ''fantasy that uses the images associated with science or science fiction.'' PSF includes what we call Space Opera or ''sci-fi.'' Witness the Star Wars films, actually fantasy complete with wizards, wands, and magic. This is not necessarily a debased medium: consider the career of Ray Bradbury. However, it comprises most of the ''science fiction'' we see on screen, tube, and rack.

  4. ''Pseudo-Fantastic Mainstream'' [PFM] fiction. I use this term to describe the debased popular fantasy genre, lacking all imagination and filled with borrowed images. Some common types are: Romance novels in ''magical'' pseudo-medieval settings; collections of puns involving whimsically-named characters in whimsically-named settings; fat, pretentious novels of political intrigue set in a relentlessly ''magical'' Poughkeepsie. Etc. Bat Durston rides again.

For authority, I refer the reader to Ursula K. Le Guin's essay, ''From Elfland to Poughkeepsie''. PFM fiction also need not be debased, for example see Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana, a thinly-disguised historical novel about Italy.

These various relationships can best be represented by a chart, worth at least a thousand words:


''Magic Realism'' is not in the diagram – it's left as an exercise for the reader. It has been called ''mainstream with fantasy elements.'' It seems to belong to that mainstream genre that likes to be called ''Literature'' but which should more accurately be called ''Pseudo-Literature.'' That is, fiction written to the tenets of the Professors of Literature. Real Literature, from Chaucer to Clemens, is not written to theory.

The science fictional versions of Magic Realism tend toward pseudo-literature. However it seems to me that they deal as much in idea as in image, and therefore classify as SF. Perhaps we need two circles on the diagram?

The identification of such sub-genres as PSF and PFM helps to clear up much underbrush, and the chart helps still further by showing that these various genres overlap. For me, the above descriptions are more useful than any definitions I have encountered, particularly when it comes to the relationships between the genres. For a definition must exclude in order to define, whereas a description is inclusive.

The tendency of some people to call one work science fiction while others call it fantasy, is now more understandable. If one perceives a work primarily in terms of its ideas, it will ''feel'' like science fiction. If one perceives it primarily in terms of its images, it will ''feel'' like fantasy. This in turn throws light on an attitude I've seen expressed repeatedly. It is the attitude that says: ''Science fiction is just a branch of fantasy.'' This is usually ''proven'' by the observation that science fiction commonly makes use of impossible tropes such as – the three almost invariably cited – immortality, faster than light travel, and time travel, and therefore must be fantasy.

A curious argument. The notion that science fiction cannot deal in impossible ideas is of course false. The impossibility may simply be used to take us someplace where we cannot otherwise go. What follows is often as rigorously ''scientific'' as the author can make it.

It seems to me that these people seek to define science fiction out of existence as ''actually'' fantasy, because they think best in images. To them, then, science fiction will ''feel'' like fantasy. Science fiction that is low in images and high in ideas will not appeal to them at all. How many people who believe that ''SF is just fantasy'' are fans of Isaac Asimov? Why this strong need to annex science fiction to fantasy? Why the equally strong feeling on the other side, that science fiction is different from, and superior to, all other forms of literature?

Images vs. ideas. These two ways of thinking go far to explain the difficulty we have long experienced in defining science fiction. Naturally, these two types of readers will find it difficult to agree on a definition. Moreover, if the author is any good, he/she will use images and ideas, both to make you feel and to make you think. If you do both, you may be puzzled as to whether to point at the work as science fiction or as fantasy.

The existence of PSF and PFM further complicate the picture. For my money, these are ''mainstream'' fictions. If I had to describe [not define] the mainstream in one word, it would be ''cuddly'': fiction that reinforces all the currently accepted cultural imperatives and shibboleths. PSF and PFM definitely do that. No wonder Brian Aldiss publicly wished we could outlaw SF again, as it was in the wild old days. I suggest that real SF is still outlawed, that what is popular is PSF and PFM. As Damon Knight said, ''Science fiction will never be popular. It can't stand the suppression.'' The classic science fiction idea story (i.e. ''The Cold Equations'' by Tom Godwin, ''The Roads Must Roll'' by Heinlein, ''The Equalizer'' by Jack Williamson) is subversive, not cuddly. It tells us that Change occurs. That is revolutionary; earth-shaking. No wonder academe still resists science fiction, no wonder it loves fantasy, of whatever mode.

To paraphrase Shakespeare: ''Yon genre has a lean and hungry look; it thinks too much; such books are dangerous.''

Popular fantasy is always conservative; its made-up societies are always reactionary, even when they try to be ''relevant'' and ''liberated.''

Do I decry fantasy? No; real fantasy, the rare stuff, the stuff from Elfland not Poughkeepsie, is as dangerous in its way as science fiction. Real fantasy is not about the gingerbread house, or the witch, or even the oven and the fate contemplated. It's about the wicked stepmother, who is as much alive in these dark days as ever in the Schwarzwald. Fantasy that does not confront her, and the other things that fantasy [and all literature] is really about, is not fantasy at all, it is merely ''pseudo-fantastic mainstream'' fiction. Fantasy and science fiction are equally valid; but they do different things. They are not identical, they cannot even be compared. We bracket them together because the ideas of science fiction generate images that affect us as strongly as any archetype in the vaults of fantasy. Indeed, science fiction's most powerful idea, The Future, is as mythical and fabulous as any of them, so much so that we have generated hundreds of fantasy images to symbolize it.

–Rob Chilson

© 1998 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.