There’s a long, multi-site discussion thread going on the favorite of favorite topics – genre definitions. In this case it’s science fiction and fantasy under the spotlight. At the risk of adding to the websites that are tracking this, I summarize the discussion here. Still, if the topic interests you, I would suggest reading the individual author posts in their entirety.

It all started with fantasy author Sarah Monette’s blog, Notes from the Labyrinth, and a series of “Thinking Out Loud” posts. The first part, Toward a Praxis of World-Building, attempts a definition at world-building in sf/f.

I’ve said elsewhere that it’s a slight misnomer to describe sf/f as a genre (or genres), because what they really are is modes of storytelling defined by their setting. But what I’ve just explained to myself–and to any of y’all who are still with me–is the fact that, yes, they are a genre, because setting in sf/f isn’t setting. It’s world. And the world is part and parcel of the stories that are told and the manner of their telling. If you can transplant a science fiction or fantasy story into a mainstream setting, it isn’t speculative fiction. That isn’t to say it’s a bad story, simply to say that the marker of the specific genre is that the setting and the plot are codependent on each other.

She follows that with Part 2, enticingly subtitled “Fantasy vs. Science Fiction“:

There is a difference between the world-building in fantasy and the world-building in science fiction (although, like every other genre distinction in the world, it can be collapsed if you want to, and there are some stories I’m working on that are trying to do just that), and that difference is actually the refutation of Clarke’s Law. Technology and magic are distinguishable, because the world-building they engender supports different kinds of stories. Characters and cultures (and authors) interact differently with a world that is predicated on technology from a world which is predicated on magic.

Put your surfing shoes on, because sf author Ted Chiang has a response to this with his “Technology, magic, and consciousness” post.

…a useful way to understand the difference between SF and fantasy is to consider the difference between science and magic. This isn’t a question of conforming to current scientific understanding; we can imagine an alternate set of physical laws without calling them magic. I submit that what distinguishes magic from science — even imaginary science — is the role of consciousness. Magic has a subjective component — the intention, desire, or willpower of the practitioner — that is explicitly excluded from scientific experimentation

Not content with merely hopping between two websites, the thread makes an appearance on sf author Jeff VanderMeer’s website, where he has an interesting chat with a hopefully imaginary Evil Monkey that has a weakness for vodka…

Evil Monkey:

So does fantasy work really well in a pre-industrial setting?


If it does, it’s because lazy writers are using old tropes and old backdrops and just dusting them off before they use them. Yeah, there’s a lot of heroic fantasy with pre-industrial settings. I don’t know, though, that the setting is as important as the mind-set behind it. The minds creating these books are still from a post-industrial world. That has to affect how the writer writes the book. Some more than others, obviously.

Meanwhile, Sarah Monette had posted a Part 3: “What the Heck Was I Talking About Anyway?“:

The problem with genres is that they are Ouroboran. They eat their own tales. (I am so leaving that typo exactly the way it is.) A genre is defined by the works in it, and a work’s genre is defined by … yeah. You see the problem. And yet, you can come to a workable consensus of what a genre is, even though no single work will have all the characteristics defined as typical of the genre, and most works in a genre will have characteristics that don’t fit. It’s that kind of discipline, genre theory, and I like it because what it’s interested in are the places where the definitions don’t hold and the boundaries become infinitely permeable.

Not content in the discussion, Sarah has a Part 4: “and why am I talking about it?“:

And trying to define science fiction and fantasy–although most of the time, honest to Pete, it’s as silly a pastime as teaching a duck-billed platypus to tango–has the potential to help us understand what’s going on when we write science fiction and fantasy, and what’s going on when we read it. Entertainment, you say, and yes, that’s true, but if entertainment is all we’re after, there’s no need to bother with stories that invent ansibles and FTL drives and generation ships (on the one hand) or talk about wizards and selkies and ghouls (on the other). Storytelling is the universal, it’s the particular localizations that tell you about the storyteller and the storyteller’s audience.

There are other ancillary comments floating arounnd by others (for example Emerald City and WeirdWriter, from whom I found this thread), so read to your heart’s content. Or, if you prefer, go watch the badgers.

Filed under: Books

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