It’s Fantastic

Continuing the discussion of genre structure, to which I think we need to add “genre cookies” ie. things that people who read the genre a lot expect, almost as a reward, and are very happy when they find, today we take on fantasy.

Taking on fantasy is frankly like the tiny hero standing before the arrayed army of supernatural creatures going, “Come on all together or single file.  I’ll feed you your own hooves and chew you with your own teeth.”

You see fantasy — perhaps appropriately — contains multitudes, and I’m sure just in enumerating its various branches here, I’ll forget half of them.

We’ve come a long way since, as a young writer, I snorted at Orson Scott Card’s definition of “if it has trees it’s fantasy, if it has machines, it’s science fiction.”

Even then he wasn’t precisely right, nor did he claim to be.  He simply said that’s how New York editors viewed it, and hey, even as a beginner I knew those critters were silly enough for anything.

So what is fantasy?

Fantasy is something that is not, cannot be and will never be true, but which is used as a narrative device.

The gentleman at the back who said “FLT” can take his books and go to bed without dinner.  That’s an “impossible” of a different kind.  Sure, FTL is impossible, but we’re a cunning monkey, and maybe we find a way to sidle up to physics sideways and kosh it.  We’ve been doing the impossible of that sort all along.

Now, if your character uses his FTL drive to go somewhere and there meets fairies elves and gnomes, it’s open for discussion.  Both Simak and Bradbury got away with this as science fiction, but if you’re not one of them, I wouldn’t try.

We’ll dispose upfront of the curious hybrid: science fiction/fantasy.  This is where space societies have elves and magic.  Shrug.  Look, whatever presses your big red button, okay, but it don’t do nothing for me.  Yes, before you ask, I WAS one of those kids who didn’t like her food touching her other food.  Never said I was sane.

Leaving that aside, we still have a spectrum that goes from something you have to squint to not see as romance to something that is or could be science fiction, given the right amount of squinting.

So, I’m going to list them all below, and you guys feel free to pitch in some sub genres I might have forgotten.

Paranormal Romance – There is great argument over whether this is fantasy or romance. It often seems to involve romance that starts from magical something (attraction, fore-ordaining, that sort of thing) and which therefore can’t be fought by the rational mind.

Urban Fantasy – There’s a big bad out there, and he’s hot.  The many illegitimate children of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can shade into paranormal or can be an alluring hybrid of romance, fantasy, horror and a dash of noir.

Traditional/Tolkien fantasy – Anyone who’s ever conducted a campaign in RPG knows this.  Elves, gnomes, gnolls and trolls oh my.

It has sub genres: quest, as done by Tolkien himself (to an extent.)

Heroic, where you have the big picture of kingdom against kingdom etc.

It has sub branches and I, myself, might or might not have a handwritten trilogy taking place in a pre-Micenian society.  No trolls, gnolls, elves or whatever, but a lot of demi-gods, magic, and something supernatural and undefined.  The feel though is Tolkienesque and traditional heroic fantasy ALL the way.

Then there’s “almost real world fantasy”: “It’s almost the real world, but there are dragons.  Or elves.  Or…”  Before you say Urban Fantasy…. not precisely because Urban fantasy has a very precise structure and things like Tea With The Black Dragon don’t follow it.

Then there’s almost-real-world but historical and often in exotic societies.

And then, touching science fiction, there’s alternate history fantasy which is “there was magic at some point” and it has changed our world this way.  Again, a background that often appears in urban fantasy but there the consequences aren’t often worked through very carefully or logically.

On a sub branch we have “paranormal mysteries” which are a form of fantasy, and in which the ghost/demon/whatever can actually be the criminal, the investigator or the investigator’s best buddy.

20 years ago mystery bookstores said these were fantasy and refused to touch them with a ten foot pole, but I’m seeing more and more of it both on the shelves and on Amazon, both from indie and trad.  As a reader I don’t even mind, provided the supernatural element plays fair and it isn’t stupidly written.  If the solution is all “it was the demons” which we didn’t know existed till three pages earlier, your book will most seriously be walled.

Okay, that’s what I can think of off the top of my head.  Feel free to throw suggestions.


138 thoughts on “It’s Fantastic

  1. Speaking of the first subgenre you mentioned, I woild add Anne McCaffrey to the list. The words “Gone away, gone ahead” keep echoing in my mind.

  2. Aha! Glad to see someone else recognize what I’ve been calling the ‘Thousand and one children of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ for years.

      1. Right, for covers.
        My paperback copy of ‘Starship Trooper’ fer example, has a big honken suit of metal armor and a bug in the background. No doubt as to what it’s about.
        But on the other hand, ONE of the reasons I’m so delinquent in reviewing Margaret Ball’s excellent ‘Insurgents’ is that the well-executed cover seems to have pea-turkey to do with the content.

  3. I tend to lump things into three categories when it comes to fantasy. High fantasy, medium fantasy, and low fantasy.
    High fantasy is magic, elves, fantastical creatures and all sorts of things like that.
    Medium fantasy is just magic thrown in the mix.
    Low fantasy is just a fantastical location with only humans and now magic, no fantasy creatures, say ancient or medieval type of environment.
    These things keep it easy for me in defining the genre.

  4. Epic fantasy, which has multiple viewpoints, goes over a long period of time (in amount of writing; the actual events can be as short as months), and which deals with the fate of the world or worlds.

    Fairytale retellings, which can run from precise recreations of the setting, just expanded, to things such as Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, reset in a 1970s college experience. Sometimes they overlap with other categories such as paranormal romance or urban fantasy.

    Portal fantasy, where someone from our world is transported to another world (and sometimes back.) The classic example is the Narnia books, though Barbara Hambly has done that, and a writer I know named Mark Anthony (really) did an extensive Colorado-to-fantasy-world (and back) series called The Last Rune. It had some epic flavor (and even a Weird Western), but was primarily a portal.

      1. Yes. And Zelazny’s Amber series. And technically de Camp’s “Incomplete Enchanter” books. Or even some of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Otis Adelbert Kline.

    1. These were my favorite fantasies when I was a young teen: Steel Magic by Andre Norton (read because of the fantastic Robin Jacques cover art sucked me in.) The Broken Citadel by Joyce Ballou Gregorian, Red Moon, Black Mountain by Joy Chant.

      They’re also the only fantasies for children that automatically give kids total agency, without killing off families, so the author isn’t require to add “kid’s biggest emotional horror story” as a necessary thematic element before you even begin.

    2. Xanth might be part of the portal fantasy section, but actual people crossing into/out of is fairly rare in the series

    3. Hey, what if it was a fantasy where you went through a portal in Kentucky and wound up in West Virginia?
      Mark Twain might have been able to do something with that, but I doubt it, and nobody else could.
      I DARE ya.

      1. In the same time and Earth, after colonization, after the creation of the interstate?

        I can think of a couple of ways to exploit it even with those restrictions.

      2. Working on one where a portal picks up Our Heroine on the Ohio bank of the Ohio River and deposits her near the Danube delta on a (parallel) world called Faerie.

    4. There is so much “go to another world” fantasy in Japanese anime/novels right now that it has a subgenre name – “isekai.” This apparently translates as something like “otherworld.”

  5. “Now, if your character uses his FTL drive to go somewhere and there meets fairies elves and gnomes, it’s open for discussion…” A. Bertram Chandler got away with it at least once.

    1. Chandler got away with almost everything at least once… he wrote a *lot* of books and short stories, just the ones as Chandler. Then his other pseudonyms, and even his real name on occasion.

  6. /me throws money for said trilogy

    (and as i said on the diner on FB, i found a copy off paint shop pro x4 for $2 at wal-mart, and got it with the intent of handing it off to someone…)

      1. I used to use photopaint and its ability to import corel draw drawings helped when i did some stuff…

      2. Hey, it’s what *I* use. And all of its gubbins and widgets work just fine under the Wine Windows emulator on Linux.

        For that matter, I’m still using the DOS text editor I wrote two books with in the 1980s. After three decades my thoughts move from my brain to the screen without any awareness of the arms-fingers-keyboard-commands chain. As far as the editor is concerned, it’s still 1986 in its DOS emulator.

        Linux: Yes, it *is* a dessert topping *and* a floor wax…

  7. Animal Fantasies. These are right on the borderland of Fantasy / Ordinary fiction, with Felix Salten’s Bambi or Sewell’s Black Beauty not likely to scratch any fantasy reader’s itch, but Watership Down and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH totally doing so.

    In between you have stories like Wolves of the Beyond by Kathryn Lasky (historical fiction writer is her other main hat.) which is clearly epic or heroic fantasy, which can muddy the issue

    1. I think Tolkien called these “beast fables”; the main characters are talking animals, but if they were humans instead, it would be essentially a realistic fiction story. Well, Watership would be. Rats of NIHM is actually a pretty common sci-fi/distopia story: escaped subjects from a science lab must build their own society while staying one step ahead of the scientists who want to recapture them.

        1. Yep. Redwall and Mouse Guard are better examples. I met Mr. Jacques once, back when I was a children’s librarian. For a long time that’s,what I imagined Dave Freer look like until I actually saw pictures of Mr. Freer.

          Speaking of Animal Fantasy, if any of you Indies do one for kids, and I have a clear free window in the comic/librarian/mom job I’ll do your cover for the usual Friend & Family rate. It’s my wheelhouse.

          That is, of course, once the clever and helpful Mrs Sanderson teaches us how to actually get from a Manga studio/scannec watercolour painting into something you writer my types can use on a book cover.

    2. Ratha’s Creatures, and the one about the telepathic cheetah that slipped time. Yes, that one has a lot of sci-fi in it, and is probably really sci-fi, but the “tone” of the book was totally fantasy. No idea how the author did it.

    3. Robert Lawson (Rabbit Hill).

      There was one I loved as a kid, about a bunch of Guinea Pigs who ran away for a life on the road (The Magic Caravan(?)). I used to think it was a Beatrix Potter, but now, I’m not so sure.


        1. I been ripped off. I bought an ebook of the “Complete Works of Beatrix Potter” specifically looking for that book and a dimly-recalled sequel and it ain’t in there.


  8. Fun topic! I hope you’ll expand on this. What are the markers that have to* be in place to signal “this is what you’re getting” what are optional and what tend to muddy the issue.

    *For values of “have to” = “If you don’t you’d better be awfully good at what you do.”

  9. Like to second Epic fantasy, and also throw in Swords & Sorcery/pulp and Dark Fantasy such as Andrej Sarkowski’s Witcher books.

      1. You haven’t read Wearing the Cape series? You should.

        I would put superhero pretty firmly into fantasy, simply because there are too many examples of “magical” events that appear to bypass scientific limits.

          1. Fantasy of Power, overlying a soap opera.

            Seriously, supers are all about wish fulfillment and relationships between characters.

            There has been a lot of argument over the years whether the Star Wars trilogy was Fantasy or Science Fiction. I’d argue that it was neither. It was a superhero story, and the “I am your father.” line defined the series. (Retroactively, in the case of the first movie.)

  10. You’re going to tackle the fantasy genre and all its subgenres? Wow. That’s…well, I think you’re understating the case with your “tiny hero standing before the arrayed army of supernatural creatures” metaphor.

    As an aside, I will say that I’m one of those who loves blending sci-fi and fantasy. I’ve never understood why fantasy worlds always seem to be stuck at a Medieval level. Just because there are wizards and elves and dwarfs, why wouldn’t us clever apes still build skyscrapers and computers and rocket ships? If anything, you would think that some dwarf-mined and refined mythril would let us build things even higher, and imagine how much better the spaceships could be with magic to give our rocket fuel a little extra kick.

    Maybe it’s just me. It seems like even those who write “science fantasy” have a tendency to send their “no it’s not magic I swear its telepathy/genetic engineering/cybernetic enhancements/alien hybrids/whatever” worlds back to a more or less Medieval state (see Pern, Darkover, etc). There seems to be this idea that magic and technology can’t simply co-exist.

    1. Clarke’s Law* cuts both ways, sometimes.

      (*Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law of Science Fiction, paraphrased, holds that sufficiently-advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.)

      1. I do have a story where one character suggests that any magic will seem like advanced technology to those who don’t believe in it.

      1. One can nuke the local low-rent Mordor with a low-orbit ion cannon. Or, as I did, fire on Cthulhu with a 90cm plasma gun. Flying squid bigger that a football stadium,with eldritch Powers that men know naught of, vs. two megatons per second.

        Attacked the Black Gate with a brigade of Mobile Infantry jump suits too. Heinlein would be shaking his head. “Why kid, why?”

        Why? Because ever since I read the Lord of the Rings, I’ve wanted to nuke those orc sons a’ bitches. B1B flies down the Udun valley at Mach 1.5 and lobs a big one in the front door of Sauron’s tower. Hell yes.

        I waited a long damn time for that story, so long that I finally wrote it myself.

    2. Heinlein wrote “Magic, Inc”- modern world where magic replaces tech.
      I’m surprised we haven’t seen more stories like it.

      1. Turtledove’s Case of the Toxic Spell Dump is in the same vein.
        (Considering how weighty some it his other works are, he has a very deft touch with humor. I wasn’t expecting it, and was very pleasantly surprised. Definitely worth a read if you come across a copy.)

      2. And Poul Anderson’s “Operation Chaos.” Haven’t read the sequels, but the original (actually a trio of novellas) rocked.

    3. I’ve never understood why fantasy worlds always seem to be stuck at a Medieval level.

      Yes! Exactly this.

      I think that’s one reason I like the Dresden Files so much. I don’t mind the Handwavium psychic whosis (Paging Andre Norton!) But I don’t think it’s required. Tip of my mental tongue, a Galactic Empire series with magic in that I just adored. The author was dribbling out chapters at a time at erratic intervals and I lost track and quit reading.

      Hmmm.. I need to go look over that Kindle purchase list and find his stuff.

  11. It’s helpful to remember that, while the plot defines genres like romance, mystery, and thriller, the milieu and world-building define the fantasy genre. That means you can have just about any plot-type and call it a fantasy if you’ve done some appropriate world-building.

    That makes it critical for fantasy covers to communicate not just milieu but the plot-type and tone of the novel.

  12. One thing I picked up from a panel at LibertyCon 29 was that in “dark fantasy” there is no pre-knowledge of the fantastic element until it appears, and there is always hope, even if things look really, really grim. Horror has no hopeful element (99 percent of the time. The goal is survival and sanity, not defeat of the Big Bad.) Urban Fantasy includes an element of knows/suspects something Odd exists on the part of the protagonist, or acceptance of the Odd once it is revealed (see _Monster Hunter International_’s opening chapters).

      1. No idea, because I have not read it and it is not mentioned in my notes. (For those who were there, Kiltie Dave was on the panel, and it was at the exact same time as the Cosmic Horror: Lovecraft panel.)

  13. I would have parsed between “High Fantasy” (Tolkien’s Hobbits) and “Sword-and-Sorcery” fantasy (Howard’s Cimmerians and most of the pulp entries). But that’s sometimes just hairsplitting.

  14. My favorite, from childhood until now, has always been “magic is real, but hidden and small.” Falls within “almost real world,” but really only workds for me if none of the characters know about the fantastic element in advance. Until they stopped into the magic store that won’t exist yesterday or tomorrow, or investigate the creaking stairs at night, or put that action figure in the cupboard. (Or the teacher wound up being an alien, I guess I didn’t care what kind of a secret world it was.)

    *sigh* I probably wouldn’t like the books anymore, but I’m getting a hell of a nostalgia kick talking about it.

    1. Tim Powers’ _Declare_ is a brilliant Cold War spy story — except that it’s a secret history fantasy. Actually, much of Powers’ later works are secret history fantasy stories — I’d almost say that he provides the exemplars of what a secret history can be.

  15. Pre-Micenian? A world before mice?

    What about a world where all the fantastical beings left earth using FTL spaceships, leaving normal humans behind because they were too boring?

    1. …but one batch had a malfunction, and had to turn back. When they return to the solar system and come upon mankind just as we had begun colonising Mars after building a successful automated outpost on the Moon

      And now we’re … interesting.

  16. Now this is exactly why I can’t take Science Fiction seriously as a genre apart from Fantasy. You start out by defining Science Fiction as being scientifically possible and then right away you start making exceptions for things that are known to be impossible.

    If it’s a scientific impossibility, it’s Fantasy. Magic that uses machines with blinking lights isn’t any different than magic that uses candles and incantations.

    1. Are known to be impossible NOW, but we’re writing in the future.
      Consider, sir, that Heinlein said you could write an history of science by compiling everything supposed to be impossible that was proven not so.
      The difference is I can postulate a wormhole or some other way to get around FTL. You can’t postulate dragons. (Well, you could, but it would have to be a different world, and it’s not how most fantasy people write.) You can’t postulate vampires as defined. You can’t–

      1. That’s because of your preconceptions. You have your own ideas about what things might be possible and what things aren’t. Those ideas, though, are not based on science, but on aesthetics. General relativity isn’t intuitive, it takes a fair amount of math just to grasp the concept. So it’s easy to imagine a way around it.

        Something like a dragon or a vampire violates scientific laws that are easier to visualize, and consequently harder to imagine as being real. But if you are postulating that physical laws can be overridden, then anything is permissible.

        1. “Something like a dragon or a vampire violates scientific laws that are easier to visualize, ”

          Which ones?

        2. Didn’t Asaro publish a paper on a possible mathematics of FTL? I do know she used this system for the FTL in her Skolian Empire series.

          Thus making the most scientifically plausible faster than light drive an element in a… Space fantasy romance!

          Bwa with a side order of Wa-ha-ha.

        3. Hmmm. But if you are postulating that physical laws can be overridden, then anything is permissible

          You may be onto something here. Brinn’s The practice Effect my favourite book by him, is what appears to be a typical portal fantasy novel, except the entire premise of this alternate universe is based on the idea that this is a universe in which the second law of thermodynamics has been reversed.

          1. Oh, it’s worse than that.

            SPOILER ALERT

            It’s a world in which we’ve figured out how to bypass the normal laws of physics, as long as we substitute a new (and CAREFULLY defined) set. The portal took our hero through space *and* time to a future colony where they’d done just that–and the colonists had long forgotten it was done.

            Sufficiently Advanced Technology indeed.

          2. Side note- I first read “The Practice Effect” (mumble) years ago when I was in the hospital recovering from walking around for a couple of days with a ruptured appendix. (Don’t look at me like that, when it ruptures the pressure is relieved and you feel better for awhile, till sepsis sets in.) The drugs they were feeding me made the book extra fun. I thought I was going to rip out my stitches a couple of times from laughing.

            It’s not quite as much fun when you aren’t on good drugs, but it’s still a fun and funny story.

      2. I can postulate dragons in the past and have it be history. Simply because, common narrative aside, I know that fossils were not “discovered” for the first time in the 19th century. I mean, isn’t it obvious that people looked at dinosaur skeletons, made of rock, and just *knew* there were dragons? Heck, a pterosaur is a wyvern in all but name.

        1. The Lindwurm in Klagenfurt was absolutely really real…. except it was the bones of a prehistoric wooly rhino. Which makes for a really unusual-looking dragon.

    2. As a college professor put it, relativity only shows that you cannot exceed the speed of light by constant acceleration. That in a story is fantasy. But that doesn’t rule out wormholes and subspace and nice things like that. Then we worry about wormholes not collapsing and navigating in subspace and such, but it becomes more plausible in that they cannot be ruled out yet.

    3. I think that the difference isn’t about if something is possible or not. I think it’s a matter of voice. A SF novel will carry on with a *conceit* of scientific possibility. A fantasy novel will have magic. An SF novel will have someone build a device. A fantasy novel will have someone perform a ritual. An SF novel will have aliens. A fantasy novel will have multiples of races. A SF novel breaches a dimension of space. A fantasy novel crosses over, or under, or around. The hidden princess in a SF novel is an alien race. The hidden princess in a fantasy is an Elf. Genetically engineered furries are in science fiction. Shape changers are in fantasy.

      1. And that’s my point–the difference is cosmetic, not integral. Just as you can make a story a Western by setting it in Utah in 1875, so you can make a story Science Fiction by setting it in space, or make a story Fantasy by setting it in the Kingdom of Ap’Ostra’Phe.

        1. It is integral in terms of story, Misha. The structure of SF invests a lot in making it plausible. Fantasy doesn’t.
          I am one of those people who asks “Why?” so I’m more comfortable in SF.
          That’s like saying there’s no difference between cozies and police procedurals because the later can also focus on relationships, etc. That’s bullsh*t. All this subgenre stuff is “flavor” obviously.

          1. If it’s not plausible — whether it’s SF or Fantasy — then the book gets put down. Fantasy gives you certain “magic objects” that you can use in the story without needing to define them (if you stick to the normal definitions, since otherwise you need to explain the differences), just as SF does (you don’t need to explain how your FTL drive works, just give us an idea of what it does, unless how it works is integral to the plot). But, in either case, you need to stick to those plausible exceptions to the “real world”, or work in the explanation of why it’s a plausible alternative.

            1. Of course. But fantasy often doesn’t explain anything. It just is. Then the internal logic takes over. But I’m one of those people who go “But where did this history diverge from ours? I want to know how this worked in the beginning.” SF at least gives me hand wavium, so I like it better.

          2. I don’t get a believable “why” from most science fiction. Phrases like “warp drive” and “antigravity generator” and “universal translator” are just variant spellings of “abracadabra”.

    4. “If it’s a scientific impossibility, it’s Fantasy.”

      No, it isn’t. A story with “fairies elves and gnomes” is Fantasy, but anyone who claims they are scientifically impossible, or something that is not, cannot be and will never be true has no reason to think so.

      The difference is that Fantasy does not try to appeal to the authority of science when handling those kinds of things that we do not meet with in the ordinary course of our days, and Science Fiction does.

  17. From notes written off line, classified into legitimate, borderline, and outright silly. Descriptions are not perfectly accurate.

    Sword and sorcery. Conan. Magic is used by very bad guys, the good guys use swords.

    Superhero. Originally crime fiction, now its own genre with every flavor of bizarre super human ability.

    Weird Fiction: from before science fiction, fantasy and horror separated out from each other.

    Foreign language markets have a bunch of distinct subgenres, or gimmicks not often seen in English fiction. Shonen is technically demographic, not a genre, but there is a distinct flavor to what is most often marketed to that demographic. Very often a magic system of some sort will be integrated or grafted onto the setting. Shonen tends to be a mix of action and relationships, particularly friendship and brotherhood in arms.

    Reincarnated in another world is widely used in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese light fantasy.

    Video game type stats and levels, with characters who are aware of them are not unheard of.

    Xianxia apparently means immortal hero, and often combines stuff originating from wuxia with ‘world of cultivators’, and so forth.

    Eroge adaptations and the question of whether the magic of star wars makes space opera a fantasy, are borderline as genres.

    Mecha, novels of bizarre racial theories, and pornography are things that I would only in jest classify as necessarily in the fantasy genre. (I can point to fantastical and explicitly magical mecha.)

  18. Ported by request from facebook:

    Three examples that do not seem to fit any named categories.

    Moorcock’s Champion Eternal.

    Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness

    Vance’s Dying Earth

    1. The Champion Eternal stories fall into different categories, depending on the story. The Elric stories, for example, are all either Fantasy Adventure (aka Sword and Sorcery) or Epic Fantasy, depending on the story.

  19. These days, I divide SF from Fantasy by asking myself whether I think the author wants the reader to imagine the story as something that really could happen in the future of our world. Impossibilities don’t necessarily ruin the story, but they are defects in it. Then I divide hard from soft based on whether science/technology is integral to the plot.

    Fantasy I divide between high and low based on whether it takes place in a secondary world or in some version of our world. (I should probably add a “medium” category to cover grossly-modified versions of our world, but at the moment I still call all of those “low fantasy.”)

    I divide High Fantasy between “Epic Fantasy” and “Fantasy Adventure” based on whether the characters are saving the world or just having cool experiences.

    Low Fantasy includes Urban Fantasy (aka “Modern Fantasy”), where the reader is encouraged to believe that this really could be our world. So the police are going to look at you funny if you tell them you saw a vampire.

    Alternate History Fantasy is like Modern Fantasy but set in the past.

    It also includes slipstream, where the magic affects our world in bizarre and wonderful ways. E.g. the vampire’s driver’s licence says “Vampire–valid without photo” on it.

    And I’d include superhero stories under low fantasy as well.

    Portal Fantasies I usually think of as special cases of the other types. Usually it’s Epic Portal Fantasy or Portal Fantasy Adventure. Rarely most of the action happens in this world, which makes it a Modern Portal Fantasy.

    You can subdivide these further, and there are still things that don’t quite get covered. Occasionally I’m reduced to just calling a story “Fantasy” or, in extreme cases, just “SFF.”

  20. Classification fails when there are lots of boundary cases, and Fantasy(or SF) is full of them.

    As was already mentioned upthread, you’ve got a story like, “Magic, Inc.”, which doesn’t fall into any of these. For a more modern version, look at Anderson’s _Operation Chaos” (which, in its dedication, references the Heinlein story.

    And, of course, we find dragons in McCaffrey’s Pern stories — and those are SF (genetic engineering, spaceships, etc.).

    None of these classifications seem to cover a story like Boucher’s, “Snulbug”. Yes, it has a demon, but it’s a comedy.

    And, while there really are gods/angels in Brown’s, “Angelic Angelworm”, or Sturgeon’s, “Yesterday Was Monday”, they’re very not “heroic fantasy”.

    Leiber’s _Conjure Wife_ is clearly, umm… — well, maybe it’s a romance, or horror, or “almost real world”, or …. And his _Our Lady of Darkness_ is almost classifiable in as many categories, except “romance”.

    DeCamp’s “Nothing In the Rules” is a typical Saturday Evening Post story, except for the mermaid.

    I’m really uncomfortable with trying to put Fantasy (or SF) into rigid boxes. Just tell me a good story.

    1. I wouldn’t say classification fails when there are lots of boundary cases. It certainly fails if most cases are boundary cases, but that’s clearly not the case with SFF. If you read through the latest stories in Asimov’s, F&SF, etc. you can easily classify 95% of them more-or-less as indicated above.

      1. At any rate, this is descriptive, so people know where to find their fans when they put a book up on AMazon you know where they’re likely to be. NOT prescriptive as in “you can only write this” Border cases — I SHOULD KNOW — just take a ton more work to sell.

        1. But I read your books because they ignore the “go through the story collecting all the plot coupons that this type of subgenre requires”, and simply tries to take interesting characters and lets things happen to them which they need to resolve. It’s a more interesting story that way.

          1. Of course. I’m mostly telling people where to find the bulk of their audience. With this bunch of cats, I don’t expect them to follow the points exactly, but I can see them going “Well, this has the feel of an urban fantasy, so I should put it in…” when they’re publishing.
            I am so far from thinking of this when writing (and I think it’s a post writing system, mind) that it took Illona Andrews to point out that DST has the structure of an urban fantasy.

            1. it took Illona Andrews to point out that DST has the structure of an urban fantasy

              It does? Now you’re just trying to torture me. And I’m taking it personally.

    2. of course. All I’m trying to do is point out what readers of certain subgenres expect. And only those I read.
      This is mostly because I keep finding books that start as mysteries, then wonder off into horror and are published as mysteries because self-publishers don’t know better.
      If you read anything I write, you know “rigid adherence to type” is NOT one of my strengths. Or even in the general area.

  21. Question? I know that most urban fantasy starts with… oh, say werewolves. This quickly parleys into vampires, fae, skinwalkers, you name it, we got it monsters. But even though there’s a multiplication of magical baddies, there rarely seems to be a similar appearance of magical goodies? I mean, I have yet to read one where the vampire gets asked, “Okay, so werewolves, fae, and vampires are real? What about Santa Claus? Or the Easter Bunny?” and the vampire gets a very strange look on her face and says, “Well, to tell you the truth, yes, they are out here too. But we don’t like to talk about them.” Or something like that. How come all the magical good folk never seem to turn up? (Eeep, I think I may feel a story nudging. No, no, not another one…)

    1. In a story I’m working on, the magical goodies are the ones ensuring everyone stays secret, because they are the ones that need the most protection.

    2. “But even though there’s a multiplication of magical baddies, there rarely seems to be a similar appearance of magical goodies?”

      Because its hard to get a Hugo for a book with the Forces Of Good in it. It also seem hard for people of a certain bent to imagine a being with power who isn’t Evil as its defining trait. Because if they had Power, they’d do every evil they could think of.

      These are the ones who write the dystopias, the anti-heroes, the “everybody does it” stories, the noir novels where even the Detective is a frigging sociopath killer. Like the prick who wrote the story about Elfland coming to Earth and causing a social apocalypse, main character some guy and his unicorn. That one really torqued me off.

    3. Probably because they figure that having the magical good folk would somehow decrease the Dramatic Tension of their story.
      I’ll note here that the Dresden Files includes both the Christian archangels, who are presented as unambiguously good if not always nice, and Santa Claus. Who, spoiler alert…
      Is actually Odin.

      1. *Nod* I’ve seen that trope before…. and it doesn’t surprise me; the Church has a long history of repurposing paganism to make the transitioning easier.

    4. Well, there’s the question of how much source material for ‘goodies’ versus ‘baddies’. There’s also the question of the slider for the baddies being ‘deeply, no fooling, evil’, ‘evil’, ‘regular folk, like you and I’, etc… (I.E., are, say, fox women exclusively Tama no Mae and Daiji personalities?)

      Then you have the confounding factors of the civil rights metaphor and of the types of people that seem to dominate the management of mainstream publishing.

    5. The magical Good Folk never turn up because nothing bad enough to warrant their arrival has ever appeared? Sort of like “What would it take for King Arthur, Sir Francis Drake, and Barbarossa all to awaken, and for Holger Dansk to open his other eye? And do I want to be on the planet when it happens?

      1. *Scribbles madly*

        Though, a couple of times I parsed ‘Good Folk’ as referring to the soulless ones of Underhill.

  22. …and then there’s LitRPG. Which I know exists as a seperate budding subgenre with its own reader cookies, but I haven’t gone reading in it to find out more. Yet.

    And subgenres by tone: Grimdark is definitely not my thing. (I spent three days trapped by weather on a broke-down FBO couch with a copy of a Joe Abercrombie that someone had left in the howling Canadian wilder… uh, oil sands, and couldn’t get more than a few chapters in. Instead, I explored the airport, helped repair the magnetos on someone else’s plane, made friends with some local workers, worked on my own planes, found wifi and updated my blog, and called my husband and told him I loved him. And even managed to take a bath with five cups of lukewarm water, a paper towel, and a shampoo bar. Because even staring at the rain was more pleasureable. I did not need to be depressed, thank you!) But there are people who like it, and while it’s usually low fantasy, um, there’s also WarHammer 40K and all its media tie-ins.

    Interestingly enough, there’s pushback against the grey goo and endless dreariness on multiple fronts. In fantasy, there’s noblebright (direct kickback against grimdark), and across SF/F, there’s superversive and human wave, as well as a couple other names I’ll think of when the coffee kicks in tomorrow. Who will win out? Why, the readers, of course!

    1. BobtheRegisterredFool mentioned LitRPG above, the bit about “Video game type stats and levels, with characters who are aware of them are not unheard of.” though technically it doesn’t have to be a “Video Game” like system, as there are a few that try for more of “Pen & Paper RPG” mechanic.

      LitRPG seems to have been fairly big in Japan, Korea, & Russia for a while, with certain titles generating a lot of fan-fiction, not only in those countries & China, but across the rest of the world, which then spawned the English-language LitRPG genre (& an attempt by one such author to trademark the term, in the US at least).

      [Why yes, I have been reading mostly LitRPG for the last few months, both “published” & Webfic].

      1. I was most strongly thinking of some examples I’ve seen of Korean, I think, webnovels. They struck me as more on the videogame spectrum. Which can be a true statement for me even if most of them are on deep examination based on pen and paper. 🙂

        1. I believe Legendary Moonlight Sculptor & Ark are the big titles in Korean LitRPG, & both are set in fictional video games (specifically MMORPGs with a “Virtual Reality” interface, aka VRMMORPG), so it’s probably only natural that most of the resulting fiction as the genre expanded from fan-fiction of them (in Korea & China) is either explicitly in a computer game, or have a “system” based on the tropes established for VRMMORPG based LitRPG.

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