Genre Wars: My Final Word (For Now)

All right, we’ve talked about themes and things, purposes and settings, and still we haven’t drawn any definite conclusions about what constitutes a genre. So what is the real problem here? Frankly, it’s us.

Take This Definition and Unstuff It

Earlier, I discussed how genres allow people to categorize stories so that they can narrow down the list of books they want to read, movies they want to watch, etc. However, people like nice, tidy, delineated categories with sharply defined borders, and these simply do not capture or reflect the tremendous range of tales that the human imagination can concoct.Genres are not the hermetically sealed glass boxes we want to think they are; rather, they are permeable membranes that hold a lot of stuff together while allowing certain types things to flow in and out of their borders.

It’s time to just accept that our craving for clarity is actually a bit of a hindrance here. If you are so persnickety that only a very specific kind of tale will catch your attention, then you will likely benefit from rigid and peculiar definitions of various genres. But really, genres are meant to be … well, general. Cramming too much stuff into the definition of genre, or into the definition of any one particular genre, is going to be unproductive and maybe even counterproductive.

So, Back to the Science Fiction/Fantasy Controversy

Okay, the whole point of this series was to figure out whether or not we had good reason to lump science fiction and fantasy into a single, mammoth genre. However, the task is a little trickier without knowing what the defining characteristics of a genre are, or even whether there are any such things. However, there were some leads, so let’s revisit those.

Previously, I discussed some of the features and typical settings of the two genres. I discussed settings, though mostly in terms of time periods, and noted that there’s no really clear distinction between the two on that basis. For the most part, physical locations won’t distinguish the two either, although two exceptions pop out immediately: space and medieval settings. While neither setting belongs exclusively to either genre, each is quite likely to be found in either science fiction or fantasy, but not both.

Additionally, science fiction contains fictional science, although to be believable it has to be at least potentially consistent with actual science. If you go around flagrantly breaking physical laws in your stories, your work may get lumped into fantasy, despite whatever objections you may have. Of course, you can imagine that someone has actually demonstrated that Einstein was wrong about the speed of light and then consider the physical consequences of this, but the resulting physics has to be both internally consistent and generally consistent with demonstrated phenomena, aside from those that would be directly affected by this “new science”. Make a mess of that, and your work will just be bad science fiction.

On the other hand, fantasy isn’t really trying to stick to the natural laws as we know them and generally doesn’t even pretend to. Magic carpets and flying broomsticks? Sure. Shape-shifting monsters? Hey, why not?

Once again, though, we still need to remember that particular things and creatures don’t make the genre. Wizards and spells quite clearly fall into the realm of fantasy, but shape-shifting doesn’t — remember Mystique from the X-Men?

Even some methods of presenting magic aren’t even all that unambiguous. For example, we might want to ask ourselves what difference there is between taking gillyweed to breathe underwater and eating spice melange to acquire extraordinary mental abilities. You can try the physical-abilities-versus-mental-abilities route, but you’ll have to fight me hard on this one. When a story treats mental abilities as an extension of physical abilities — which is precisely what you’re doing when you assume that ingesting a physical substance can alter the mind — then there is no practical difference between changing the body and changing the mind. So where exactly does ingesting substances to acquire strange new abilities fall into the science fiction–fantasy spectrum? Why, it lands squarely in that dingy grey area between the two.

And never mind what happens when you treat magic like a science, as Patrick Rothfuss does in his series The Kingkiller Chronicle, where alchemy classes at the Arcanum closely resemble a chemistry lab–shop class hybrid and various forms of magic are taught as methodically as physics.

But, you say, that’s not plausible. My friend, I think it’s time we talked about …

The Plausibility Quandary

I have heard it said by many people in many ways that what separates science fiction from fantasy is the plausibility of the content concerning the natural world. But before we go building castles on quicksand, let’s take a look at what it means for something to be plausible. We often invoke the notion of plausibility when we can’t quite dismiss something but don’t really want to accept it, either. Something that is not impossible is possible. (Big reveal, that one.) Among the things that are possible, those that are likely to exist or happen are deemed probable; however, if the likelihood of something being real or true is low but not quite zero, we like to say it is plausible.

Indeed, many a scientific theory may be deemed implausible by other scientists, only to be redeemed later, likely after some bigwig in the field has decreed it to be worthy of consideration. For example, Everett’s multiverse theory was quickly dismissed by the likes of Richard Feynman and Niels Bohr; now it warrants serious discussion, even if it is not universally accepted.

Now, if actual science based on mathematical models and evidence can be pooh-poohed one day and lauded the next, how can a fiction writer be expected to create plausible fictional science? You can try to fill in all the science-y details for your audience, but be forewarned that if you slip up in an explanation, you may actually destroy the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief, spoiling their enjoyment of your grand yarn.

Worse yet, common definitions of “plausible” often revolve around mere appearance, even deception. Since dictionaries describe the way language is actually used, it’s pretty clear that the word “plausible” has rather low standing in terms of how it describes the likelihood of something being true, so calling something plausible is not exactly high praise. Even some science fiction writers give plausibility the middle finger.

The Grand Pronouncement

All right, I know you’re as tired of chasing your tail as I am, so here it is, my wondrous and awe-inspiring proclamation (cue drum roll):

Science fiction and fantasy are separate but closely linked genres, the conjoined twins of the literary world. While many of these stories have features that place them more within one genre than the other, they regularly share enough features that appear rarely if ever in any other genre, so it’s fair to say they are inextricably linked.

There, I have put the beast to rest, at least for now. I hope like hell it doesn’t wake up.

The Series:

Intro: A Tale of Two Genres?
Part I: Much Ado about Genre
Part II: Genre Should be Made of Sterner Stuff
Part III: Genre: The Theme’s the Thing?
Part IV: Genre Wars: My Final Word (For Now)

About quillsandqueries

My editing experience includes a wide variety of books, articles, and commentary in both fiction and non-fiction. I work with authors of novels and short stories, students preparing for their dissertations, and corporate clients who publish in the financial and education sectors.
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