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Theory of Fantasy Literature 102: What About Science Fiction?


The first installment of the series covered the most prominent sub-genres of fantasy, but it has not explored everything that fantasy has to offer. This continuation of the series will look into sub-genres that have been omitted from the previous one. However, it will also discuss some adjacent genres, like science-fiction, fables, and fairy tales, all of which are fantastical, but none of which constitute an actual sub-genre of fantasy.

Theory of Fantasy Literature 102 is divided into six chapters including:

4. What About Science Fiction?

5. What About Fables?

6. What About Fairy Tales?

Most, if not all readers of this article have heard of science fiction (SF); most, if not all, could present a basic definition of what the genre entails and of what is to be expected from a science fiction novel or movie. However, constructing an actual all-encompassing definition of SF might prove to be a difficult task. Using the foundation laid down by a plethora of scholars and writers who pondered and wrote about SF, this article will attempt to present the basic ideas of SF and explain why it cannot simply be placed under the fantasy genre umbrella.

It can be argued that SF came onto the scene gradually as authors begun to explore new technological advancements through already established genres. Utopian fantasy seemed like a natural home, but its positive outlook on progress was met with criticism in the form of satirical “anti-SF” works that themselves, due to their utilizing technological motifs, fall under the broader category of the very genre they are criticizing (Stableford, 2003, 15-17). Later on, Edgar Allan Poe played with futuristic speculation, but some would argue that the first true work of SF came in the form of Marry Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein.

Figure 1. First Issue of Amazing Stories. Paul, F. R. 1926. Prominent authors such as Wells, Verne, and Poe published their SF works in magazines first.

The genre was popularized during “the magazine era” that lasted from 1926 to 1960, its end marked by the fact that the scope of SF texts outgrew the magazine format: “Whereas the early pulps looked almost like comic books, the later magazines more nearly resembled paperback novels” (Attebery, 2003, 46-47). In the 1980s, the genre outgrew the confines of the written form and moved to film, television, and video games (Clute, 2003, 64-78) which, naturally, broadened its audience but also made it that much more difficult to define.

If one were to still try and find a definition, one might look to writers such as Asimov, Suvin, or Todorov as the ones who have perhaps been referenced most often. Asimov’s definition focuses on the interaction between humans and newly developed technology; Suvin writes about a piece of novelty or innovation that receives logical explanation within a story, but that is otherwise absent from consensus reality; Todorov found that the best of science fiction emerges when a novel technological idea at first seems supernatural, but is then narratively brought close to the “real” experience (Cornea, 2007, 3-5).

Even though the aforementioned theories differ, all three authors agree that a science fiction text must present and build around an innovative piece of technology that does not exist in reality—while that in itself does not a definition make, it does present the gist of what is meant by SF.

Definitions of SF, like histories of SF, are manifold not because critics and historians of the form are confused, or can’t agree on key points, but because SF itself is a wide-ranging, multivalent and endlessly cross-fertilising cultural idiom (Roberts, 2006, 2).

The wide range of the genre can be attributed to many factors, but it largely stems from its popularity among audiences and, consequently, among authors. As is the case with any narrative form, each author will approach their own text in their own unique way. While one can think of many formulaic ways in which an SF story can be constructed, the issue remains that very plurality of the formulaic ways. In other words, it is difficult to pinpoint a single narrative structrue or motif arrangement that is natural to SF as a genre—in a sense, SF becomes that piece of narrative that is marketed as SF.

Figure 2. Star Trek; Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk. NBC Television. 1968. Star Trek paved the way for on-screen SF.

However, as poignant as that might sound, it is of little help for someone attempting to understand the genre. The premise of this article is that SF is adjacent to fantasy, but is not subsumed by it. If that is the case, a clear delineation must be made at some point. To do so, it is perhaps best to analyze familiar examples.

Star Wars is a multimedia franchise created by George Lucas that began in 1977 with the film Star Wars that was retroactively renamed into Episode IV: A New Hope. When one observes the imagery of this franchise, it becomes immediately apparent that technology used throughout is outside of what is possible and attainable in reality. Thus, Star Wars is frequently promoted and spoken of as SF (or space opera, a sub-genre of SF). However, technological advancement is not presented as Earth-bound. This is to say that Star Wars does not present innovation as something that could happen on Earth and possibly affect mankind, but instead displaces the narrative entirely into fictionalized space. Furthermore, lightsabers, to name one example, are not necessarily innovative technology: they are functionally identical to fantasy swords wielded by knights in shining armor. This is to say that the “innovation” within Star Wars is basically a re-skin of long standing fantasy tropes and tools. Yet, to this day it remains marketed as SF.

Figure 3. Frankenstein; Frankestein’s Monster. Universal Pictures. 1931. Although Shelley's Fraknestein is often read through the lense of gothic or horror, it functions perfectly as a proto-SF text.

Consider, on the other hand, a work such as Shelley’s Frankenstein, one primarily studied in the scope of gothic literature. Despite the obvious difference of medium, the core function of innovation in Shelley’s work is much different from its functionality in Lucas’. The monster created by Dr. Frankenstein is presented as a scientific marvel—it is the genius of an obsessed man that brings about progress. This progress is then figuratively and literally set loose in a realistic society to observe how the world would react to it, opening the gate to many interesting philosophical and theoretical discussions. The key idea explored by Shelley that distances her work from gothic predecessors is the construction of the protagonist: "[Frankenstein] undertakes a decisive change of direction when he decides that it is modern science, not ancient magic, that will open the portals of wisdom for scholars of his and future generations" (Stableford, 1995, 48). Such speculative science that pushes the limits of what is known and possible remains a common element of SF stories to this day.

One must respect the differences in intended effects and intended audiences of the two stories: the primary goal of the first was to entertain a broad audience after all. People gather to watch lightsaber duels and space warfare; to many people that is what SF entails in much the same way as some people consider fantasy to be synonymous with The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

Figure 4. Star Wars; Aboard the Millenium Falcon. Lucasfilm. 1977. Marketed as SF/space opera, Star Wars remains the quintessential representation of SF for many people.

In truth, SF and fantasy share many familiarities; a simple delineation might be that a work of fantasy has magic, while SF has none. Yet, Star Wars has the Force which seems rather magical—it certainly is not a product of technological advancement and does not exist on Earth.

In an attempt to be as inclusive as possible, one can claim that the difference between SF and fantasy lay in the juxtaposition of science and magic. It would perhaps be unfair to claim that Star Wars is not SF because of how lackadaisically it approaches technological progress and scientific ideas; not every work of SF has to be as poignant and as academically/socially relevant as the work of Shelley or H. G. Wells. Sometimes fantasy means slaying monsters with swords, and sometimes SF simply replaces swords with lightsabers and calls it a day.

As of today, SF as described in the example of Frankenstein has received significant amounts of academic attention; when written in such a way, it retains a closer connection to reality and fewer hoops have to be jumped through in order to distill a critically sound and significant analysis. This is to say that SF as a genre carries more gravity than fantasy does; while both continue to see large scale success in popular culture, the gap between them in scholarly research is vast even though there exist plenty of fantasy texts that deserving of proper critical attention.

Bibliographical References

Attebery, B. (2003). The magazine era: 1926-1960. In The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (pp. 32-47). Cambridge University Press.

Clute, J. (2003). Science fiction from 1980 to the present. In The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (pp. 64-78). Cambridge University Press.

Cornea, C. (2007). Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality. Edinburgh University Press.

Roberts, A. (2006). Science Fiction. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Stableford, B. (1995). Frankenstein and the origins of science fiction. In Anticipations: essays on early science fiction and its precursors (pp. 46-57). Syracuse University Press.

Stableford, B. (2003). Science fiction before the genre. In The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (pp. 15-31). Cambridge University Press.

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Dino Mušić

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