Defying Definition

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Defying Definition

By Sarah Jane Elliott 
Fantasy Moderator

©2001, Sarah Jane Elliott 

I am often surprised by the most frequently asked question I receive when people learn that I write fantasy.  I’m met with a blank stare, or a smile and a nod, and asked,  “What is fantasy?”  After almost three years of being asked this question, finding an answer still isn’t any easier.  However, a recent series of discussions on the Forward Motion Community boards has helped illuminate this dark and murky subject.

Genre (zhan-ruh):  "a kind or style, esp. of art or literature"

- Oxford Reference Dictionary


The problem in defining fantasy is that, like all genres, fantasy operates under a peculiar paradox:  the works within it define the genre, but in order to define it, a work must first be classified as part of the genre.  Genre definition is dynamic, in a constant state of flux as new works enter the market and force us to rethink our previous ideas of genre.   

To further complicate the matter, each genre can be divided into subgenres.  In fantasy there are divisions such as high fantasy, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, sword and sorcery... the list goes on.  New subgenres are often created as authors are challenged to write new works that test those boundaries, ensuring that new works do not ultimately repeat those that came before.   Those works then become the benchmark for future works within those subgenres, and so on. 

But to step back and return to the original topic, what is fantasy?   

Much of the confusion lies in distinguishing it from its counterpart that also sits under the speculative fiction umbrella:  science fiction.  Speculative fiction encompasses all works dealing with worlds that are not our own, be they worlds created entirely from the author’s mind, worlds that may be out there somewhere, worlds that may exist someday, or worlds that exist within our own.  It’s separating fantasy and science fiction that becomes tricky.  Dragons, for instance, seem to belong indisputably to the realm of fantasy, yet Anne McCaffrey states unequivocally that her Dragonriders of Pern series, arguably one of the most well-known dragon series, is science fiction.   

Traditionally, the lines between the two genres were quite firmly drawn.  Fantasy dealt with magic, and science fiction with technology.  Tolkein versus Asimov.  Elf versus alien.  It might be said that science fiction is what might conceivably come to be, and fantasy is what can never be.  But lately, the lines have begun to blur. 

Perhaps this is due, in part, to the increasing volume of work in print.  All of the traditional stories have been told and retold, and now authors must stretch to find new and original ideas that captivate an audience that has already read so much.  In Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson tells a story of Caribbean gods and magic, set in a futuristic Toronto that has fallen victim to economic collapse and decay.  In Archangel, Sharon Shinn creates a pre-industrial world overseen by angels who can communicate with their god, and in Jovah’s Angel she reveals them to be the descendants of interstellar travellers; the god to whom they pray is the ancient colony vessel itself.  Countless stories blend the seemingly magical powers of psychics with technology, such as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, which only reveals its science fiction connections in the last pages.  As old boundaries shift and change, elements of the fantastic, of the mystical, are becoming more and more tightly interwoven with the traditional elements of SF.   

Fantasy, therefore, is incredibly difficult to define.  Throw a computer into a world of dinosaurs or dragons and you have science fiction.   Throw a vision or a magical power onto a spaceship, and you still have science fiction, but you might also have fantasy.  The definition of "fantasy" is a very personal thing.  It varies from reader to reader, from editor to editor.  What one person may consider fantasy, another may consider science fiction (like Pern).  What one may consider horror, another may consider dark fantasy (such as Raymond E. Feist's Faerie Tale).  This is part of the reason why it’s sometimes difficult to find an author you’re looking for:  the author may consider their work part of one genre, the editor another, and the bookstore owner or librarian may have a different opinion entirely.  (I’ve found each book of Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s Godmother trilogy shelved under SF/F, YA, and general fiction, respectively.)  Like an inkblot on paper, genre definitions can change with each person who considers them. 

I myself hate to categorize things, and  I enjoy reading stories that play one element off the other.  When writing fantasy I tend to incorporate scientific explanations into wonders like the biology of magical creatures, and when writing science fiction I’ll throw in reincarnation, ghosts, and vision quests.  I consider the elements of science fiction to be those that are explained away logically.  Conversely, the elements of fantasy are those not so easily explained, those shadows and dreams that leave something to the imagination, and capture an element of wonder.  Where science fiction inevitably runs up against the boundaries of logic and physics, fantasy lifts the story over them and carries it away.  To me, the definition of fantasy is as limitless as the imagination itself.   

Fantasy is whatever you need it to be. 

Special thanks to the contributors to the discussion:  Dan Goodman, June, Chris Hughes, Holly Lisle, Bryn Neuenschwander, Jim Mills, Shelby, Andi, Nick Bronaon, Jennifer St. Clair Bush, Venus, Bob Billing, Shane, Amy Shelton, Robert Sloan, Athlen, Jaedynn.