I had a whole other post ready to go in continuing with this month’s fantasy theme. (In fact I have a couple.) But as I was writing, I realized some will discuss space, aliens, or other things that could be considered “science fiction” and not “fantasy.” And if you look back at my Wyrd and Wonder TBR, some of the books might be considered sci-fi. So I thought I’d step back and talk about what I mean when I say fantasy.
What is the fantasy genre?
That’s a question with many answers and no one consensus.
For some, fantasy is part of the larger speculative fiction genre. Speculative fiction in this sense being a super category for all genres that encompass at least one element that does not exist in our current world, such as in the context of supernatural, futuristic, or other imaginative themes. Under this definition, speculative fiction includes the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and then also their subgenres, derivatives, and hybrids.
For others, fantasy is its own narrow category typically involving the use of magic or other supernatural phenomena in the plot, setting, or theme. Science fiction, then, is a separate category involving futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life, but nothing magic or supernatural. And the horror genre intends to create feelings of fear, dread, repulsion, and terror.
Of course, that’s where this all gets messy. Right?
Because what if you have futuristic elements and supernatural, like some of the superheroes. that have supernatural elements and things like advance science or time travel.
Or what if you have horror elements along with supernatural? Much of the vampire lore falls into both horror and fantasy with vampires being from myth and folklore (i.e., not seen in our current world), but the stories are meant to create feelings of fear.
And take for instance how fantasy books are categorized in a bookstore. Some bookstores have fantasy books in a separate section from science fiction. But some have sci-fi and fantasy together as one genre.
And I won’t even get started on all the subgenres (fables,science fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy, high fantasy, epic fantasy, superhero, paranormal, dark fantasy, and so on). There’s not even an estimate on how many subgenres there are.
That’s why some simplify and generally lump anything with an element that does not exist in our current world into one super genre. In that sense, fantasy then is the super genre encompassing sci-fi, horror, and all the other subgenres, derivatives, and hybrids.
Of course, since this is a quasi-academic discussion, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take into account the great and powerful OED. (That’s Oxford English Dictionary for the nonword nerds.)
The OED defines fantasy as (1) the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things; (2) an idea with no basis in reality; (3) a genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure, especially in a setting other than the real world.
Of course, I won’t even start to debate what “real” means in the phrase “real world.” (Because what is real? That’s a dissertation for another day. Because my reality, my “real world” is different from yours, and so I use “current world” to refer to the planet Earth that we are currently standing (or sitting) on.)
But I digress. Back to the definition of fantasy.
Honestly, there’s no one consensus other than fantasy includes some kind of element not seen in our current world. These elements may include:
- another world setting (e.g., Middle Earth from The Lord of the Rings trilogy; Mars from The Martian
- a dystopian Earth (e.g., Panem from The Hunger Games, which at an unspecified time in the future has replaces the nations of 21st century North America)
- super powers/abilities (e.g., the Incredibles)
- mythical or fantastic beasts and beings (e.g., dragons, phoenixes, talking cats, werewolves, trolls, vampires)
- magic (e.g., ability to control the elements, cast spells)
That’s why I like the first OED definition: imagining improbable things. Because however you define it, fantasy requires the reader to imagine the improbable.
[I note that I edited the OED definition and did not include “impossible.” Because what is impossible? (Yet another discourse we could have.) Think about it. People in the 19th century thought people flying in a machine was impossible. Yet today, we fly in airplanes all the time. It’s commonplace. So that’s why I only include “improbable.”]
Imagining the Improbable
And that’s the definition I’ll be using throughout the rest of the month as I continue to post about all things fantasy. So if you see me talk about books, shows, or movies that you feel are sci-fi (e.g., Star Wars, Star Trek, A Long Way to A Small Angry Planet), just keep in mind that my focus is on imagining the improbable.
9 thoughts on “Imagining the Improbable (This Post Gets A Bit Academic.)”
This is a really nice look and what we might mean when we say ‘fantasy’. I must admit there’s been the odd time when I’ve seen someone mention a book that I would classify as science fiction rather than fantasy but, like you said, if sci-fi images the improbable then it’s also fantasy, because do we define science fiction as fiction based entirely on science and the probable? It’s such an interesting discussion, and I love that there are so many more books being released today that blur the lines between various genres and are being acknowledged as books that blur genre lines – sometimes we can get so bogged down by genres that we forget to just enjoy being told a story. Great post!
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Thanks! I like that there’s a book imagining the improbable for everyone, no matter how it’s technically categorized.
I love this! I am planning on writing a post on why Star Wars is pretty much Fantasy 😀 I never understood why Unicorns are fantasy but Aliens are Sci Fi (generally) Also Jedis are pretty much wizards! Yes they use science as the basis for their magic, but not just anyone can be a Jedi so its basically magic 😂 I really like the phrase “imagining improbable things” thats pretty awesome! Great post 🙂
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Thanks! I like the flexibility the phrase allows, encompassing all things fantastical.
I look forward to reading your post. 🐱
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Technically sci-fi was once a subgenre of fantasy, but it kind of grew on its own. Which makes the lines pretty blurry indeed.
Well, I’m not sure there’s a consensus on that. I think some have put it as a sub-genre of fantasy, arguing that it only became possible in the 17th-19th centuries with the scientific revolution. But some identify the genre’s roots in early fantastical works such as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2150–2000 BCE). That’s why I like going with “imagining the improbable.”