Late in 2018, I kicked off a project to dig into the history of the
fantasy and science fiction genres. I returned to some of the science
fiction literary criticism I had read before and picked up some new
pieces as well. I decided to start my newest round of investigation with
what I thought would be a simple procedure: establish what is science
fiction, what is fantasy, and what is neither.
Answering this question turned out to be neither simple nor
straightforward. Instead of clearly defined boundaries between science
fiction and fantasy, I found instead blurry regions where those two
intersected with themselves and all other genres. This should not have
surprised me too much, as I regularly blend elements from many different
genres in my own writing.
The other thing I discovered in reading and re-reading all that research
was that the genre boundaries are heavily tied into science fiction and
fantasy writers’ self-conception as a marginalized group. This idea is
perhaps hard to understand in the present, particularly for anyone in
their twenties or younger. We have shifted into a world where “literary
merit” has been replaced by “market appeal,” and science fiction and
fantasy are decidedly profitable genres. However, before roughly the
turn of the millennium, when the literary establishment held more sway
than market forces, there was much talk of science fiction and fantasy
being relegated to the “literary ghetto.” In other words, authors
attempting to write in these genres felt excluded from the systems of
book reviews, and literary conferences and awards, which writers in
realist genres had ready access to. Having gotten an undergraduate
literature degree myself right around the turn of the millennium, I
became acquainted with this “genre elitism” as a number of my professors
What has interested me most in recent years, especially after spending
three months trying to tease apart science fiction, fantasy, and realism
to no avail, is just why realism got so entrenched in the literary
establishment in the first place. Answering that question led me to some
really interesting places.
When viewed on the other side of multiple decades, all of my
conversations with individuals who believed in the superiority of
realism over the fantastic came down to a relatively simple idea, whose
logic goes like this:
Literature exists in order to provide the reader with access to
novel perspectives on the human experience.
The events of fiction are, by definition, never “real;” they have
never actually happened anywhere on Earth.
If an author crafts a work of fiction depicting events that are not
only unreal, but also impossible in reality, then such events have
no power to teach the reader anything about the human condition.
I accept positions 1 and 2. I disagree with position 3.
My position aligns closely with the first science fiction literary
scholar, Darko Suvin, who understood that fantastic events can teach a
reader about their real world, especially when they help the reader
escape doctrinaire thinking and envisage a world of vastly different
social and economic relationships1.
Consistent with prominent lines of thinking in the 1960’s and 1970’s,
Suvin was mostly interested in literature that would advance democratic
socialism, and his definition of science fiction has been criticized for
closing the walls of science fiction too narrowly around politics and
for excluding fantasy entirely.
My argument is that Suvin’s thesis is easily extended to all forms of
liberated thinking, not just those narrowly concerned with economics and
social class. Science fiction and fantasy, if they are well enough
crafted, are capable of helping a reader think about any number of
aspects of the world that could be better than they are—politics, the
environment, religion, art, technology, philosophy—you name it.
And so, I find myself in an interesting place. If science fiction and
fantasy can be utilized to expand a reader’s worldview about absolutely
any element of the human condition, how do their boundaries relate to
those of “literature?” My current conception has “literary” as a
superset that includes all well-written fantasy, science
fiction, realism, and every other genre, all of which have porous boundaries, with numerous
works occupying the hazy, indistinct zones of overlap.
Not an easy concept to grok, for sure. Perhaps one day I’ll ask Zhivko
Zhelev to craft an illustration of it. Or, better yet, perhaps I’ll
invent a science fiction narrative capable of eliciting the concept.
How’s that for meta?