Updated: Jun 11, 2020
Questions of genre dominate convention programming. “What is urban fantasy?” we ask. “What is grimdark?” Where is the line between high fantasy and low? What makes a fantasy epic? We love to argue about these things, but no one ever seems to have a definitive answer. Like Justice Stewart’s famous definition of pornography, we know the kinds of fantasy when we see them.
I can’t stand these debates, myself. Discussions trying to distinguish, say, grimdark from low fantasy, have less in common with artists discussing the difference between still lifes and portraits and more in common with an argument over which colors are allowed in certain kinds of painting. Much of what we call genre or genre convention is indistinguishable from trope, and it is certainly the case that any work of art may borrow the tropes or conventions of several genres, and so defy simple categorization. In our rush to classify and delineate our books into micro-categories meaningless to the casual reader, we raise the barriers of entry around the entire field. Labeling a book “Gothic space opera with notes of cyberpunk” or “flintlock fantasy alternate history” is way more obscure and obfuscating than simply calling something “science fiction” or “fantasy.” I can understand it from a sales perspective: booksellers need to know what shelf to put their product on (and it’s especially relevant in the shark-infested waters of indie publishing, where the difference between success and failure hangs on the balance of the odd keyword or two).
But from an artistic point of view? I don’t even understand separating science fiction from fantasy. The hyperdrive is as real as necromancy, and is likely to remain so. Vulcans are as real as elves, and that—certainly—will not change. For all the talk of the power of science fiction to predict the future, Blade Runner should have happened last year, and I see no flying cars or cyclopean pyramids rising from the hills above Los Angeles (A shame, that).
Some years ago, when this convention removed H.P. Lovecraft’s face from its award, many people expressed their surprise that the man should have anything to do with fantasy in the first place. He was no Tolkien, after all, no LeGuin! Leaving aside the issue of Mr. Lovecraft’s manifold character and philosophical defects (enough ink has been spilled on that subject by better men and women than me), his historical association with the fantasy genre in the first place should demonstrate my point: there did not used to be two major genres. Writers like Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, and Edgar Rice Burroughs blurred these lines with regular abandon because in their day there were no (or few) lines to blur.
The wall between science fiction and fantasy is an old one, carefully curated by the likes of Campbell and Gernsback, and even of Verne, whose casual dismissal of H.G. Wells’s more fanciful offerings as mere entertainments is now legendary. Campbell and Gernsback weren’t publishing entertainment! They were speculating! They craved legitimacy—hence Gernsback’s famous insistence on listing whatever professional credentials his writers might have, even when not strictly relevant; hence Campbell’s fetishizing of the engineer-hero and preference for technical, problem-driven stories. The planetary romances of Burroughs and Brackett—and the cosmic horror of Lovecraft—were right at home inside the fantasy label in their day. Now they defy categorization.
So-called science fantasy writers like myself are more or less homeless—a strange position to be in considering one of the largest sci-fi film franchises in history revolves around an order of telekinetic space monks. Perhaps that is why I find these genre panels so frustrating. After all, the mere existence of science fantasy stories illustrates the science fiction/fantasy dichotomy is a false one. If there is no hard line between science fiction and fantasy, then I despair of finding even a dotted one between the various shades of fantasy. If these genres and subgenres exist at all, then they do so alongside Plato’s forms and are not to be found on Earth.
I would as soon skip all that hard work (and those particular panels): It is all one genre.
But alas, this will satisfy neither the booksellers nor the sophists among us. A lecture about the fantastic nature of scientific speculation—however informed—is not suited to the aisles of Barnes & Noble. Time is of the essence if you want to make a sale. And I suppose if we all agreed we were all writing the same kind of story, we’d have less programming at our conventions. Nevertheless, that we all go to the same conventions should tell us something: we’re all far more alike than we are different, no matter our opinions or differences in taste. We were all the odd kid in the back of the classroom at some point, wishing we were somewhere else. Astronaut or knight—or knight-astronaut—it doesn’t matter.
It’s the wishing itself that makes us alike.
Christopher Ruocchio is the author of The Sun Eater, a space opera fantasy series, as well as the Assistant Editor at Baen Books, where he has co-edited four anthologies. Christopher lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife, Jenna.