Fantasy Discussion Notes

The next Phoenix meeting is going to be a discussion on fantasy. We can address such weighty issues as:

  • How do we characterise fantasy?
  • Is "I know it when I see it" a good enough definition?
  • Is it a subset of Science Fiction?
  • Is Science Fiction a subset of fantasy?
  • Why is there so much fantasy around these days?
  • Why is so much of it rubbish?

Fantasy can often be a contentious topic among SF fans - people just can't agree on what it is. Everybody has their own definition - its just that the definitions don't seem to be the same. Well I have a few ideas of my own, so I'll throw them into the pot - see what you think.

Fantasy is a term that can be applied to all fiction of any sort. This is not very useful to our discussion. What most SF readers identify as fantasy is actually a genre parallel to SF sharing many of the same elements. Perhaps we need another label - suggestions anybody?

In the 60's (yes I'm that old) the people who wanted SF to stand for Speculative Fiction bandied about the idea that what the genre dealt in was possibilities - alternate possibilities, future possibilities etc. Fantasy deals in impossibilities. It goes outside the envelope of what could be into the realm of worlds and settings outside of the parameters of our world view. This is a rather slippery definition - what is our world view anyway?

There is a pretty good working definition for fantasy which is much less general and much less pretentious for that matter. Simply, if a book has magic users, dragons or big swords then its fantasy. Its a pretty good definition - I'm sure that there are exceptions but not many. Personally I find this a rather depressing definition - with much more than all of time and space to play with, why is so much fantasy restricted to these narrow confines.

The boundary between SF and fantasy is fuzzy. No amount of definition will clarify that line. Debating which side of the boundary specific cases lie is not all that useful. This is an easy trap to fall into - its always tempting to put books into specific pigeon holes. That is not why we should be looking at genre definitions. To me, the point is to give us a better set of tools for description. Books don't need to fit in one category or another - however with a good understanding of the terms we use, we can better describe those books. This applies even if the book lies on the boundaries.