Genre Angst — Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

I’ve begun the process of querying a young adult novel I’ve been working on. While writing and rewriting and re-rewriting my query letter, I discovered something entirely unexpected. I might have a different genre of novel on my hands than I originally thought.

sugar-cubeSo, a quick spoiler alert. The idea for my book, Spelunkers, came to me after reading the much-cited fact that the the entire human race could fit into a space the size of a sugar cube if you could remove all the empty space in between our atoms. That’s because matter is almost entirely empty space. I imagined the possibilities if a person had the ability to ignore the nuclear forces that hold particles together in order to mesh their own matter with other matter. Thus: a Spelunker is a person who can walk through stone.

Since the idea of Spelunking is based on scientific fact, I have always assumed that Spelunkers (the book) was science fiction. But is it?

According to “Sci-Fi & Fantasy Expert” Mark Wilson at About.com, “Humanity can look forward to the kinds of achievements postulated in science fiction, while with another part of our brain we can dream of the impossibilities conjured by fantasy. Science fiction expands our world; fantasy transcends it.” This sounds to me like we’re talking about possibilities vs. impossibilities. If I’m reading this correctly, he’s saying that science fiction is about things that are possible (or plausible), given our understanding of the laws of the universe. In contrast, fantasy is about things that impossible (or implausible).

If we take this perspective, we find that lots of stories we always assumed to be science fiction (like Star Wars and Dune) are actually fantasy. I think we have to assume and accept that the categories have a lot of overlap. Many authors blur the lines. Orson Scott Card famously said in an interview, “… Look, fantasy has trees, and science fiction has rivets. That’s it, that’s all the difference there is, the difference of feel, perception.” Ender’s Game (and all of its tag-along books) clearly fits the definition of science fiction. But some of Card’s other books, like his Alvin Maker and Pathfinder series, are definitely fantasy. Similarly, Robert A. Heinlein is known as a sci-fi writer. He wrote Starship Troopers as well as probably the best sci-fi book of all time, Stranger in a Strange Land. But his books Glory Road, Magic, Inc., and Job are clearly fantasy.

Another way people tend to define the genres is based on magic vs. technology. This is problematic, though. Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, stated that “magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.” Clarke explored the idea of possible versus impossible and came up with three laws:

Clarke’s first law: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
Clarke’s second law: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So when Albus Dumbledore casts a spell in a Harry Potter novel, do we just assume he’s using some kind of advanced technology? Probably not. When the spaceships in Star Trek break every rule of science and travel faster than light are they using magic? Who knows?

The problem with genres is that they are malleable. They’re blurry. They have only two real uses:

  1. To tell librarians and bookstore employees where to shelve the books.
  2. To help people who enjoy certain books find other books they’ll like.

The former mostly applies only to bricks-and-mortar stores and libraries. In a virtual library or bookstore (like Amazon.com), a book can be “shelved” under several different categories. The latter is problematic, because it doesn’t account for other factors. For example, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books (fantasy) are more like Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker books (sci-fi) than they are like anything written by either of the “R.R.” authors (Tolkien or Martin).

And sci-fi and fantasy aren’t the only options. There’s “paranormal,” which Wikipedia describes as a subgenre of romance that mixes in “elements beyond the range of scientific explanation.” Luckily, I’m not writing romance, so that’s not an option. Another classification is “speculative fiction,” which includes fantasy and science-fiction and horror and some other stuff. (Annie Neugebauer explains more here.)

The upshot is that I wrote a book that blends elements of both science fiction and fantasy in a book for young adults. How to actually say that in a query is the problematic part.

It only goes to show that just as soon as you think you have something figured out, you realize you don’t.

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