Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Indistinguishable from Magic

I saw a blog post recently from literary agent Kristen Nelson, in which she mentioned that "urban fantasy" is hot, and "science fiction" is not.  I have no doubt that this is true, or perceived as true by acquiring editors.  But there's no reason this should be so, since science fiction and fantasy are actually the same thing.

Some small subset of science fiction is actually about science or technology.  These stories focus on possible future problems that authors extrapolate from the possibilities of contemporary science.  What are our responsibilities to a self-aware robot?  What happens if some wealthy people are able to create super-children through genetic engineering?  How will humanity relate to alien civilizations?

But the bulk of science fiction uses the high-tech future as a setting rather than subject matter.  "Alien" is about people trapped in a haunted house with a monster.  "Back to the Future" is a wish-fulfillment fantasy.  If you replace "abracadabra" with "one-point-twenty-one gigawatts," you haven't transitioned into a different genre. "A mad scientist did it" is the same concept as "a wizard did it."

Similarly, there's no reason why southern vampire mysteries should be more popular than robot-noir, or whatever.

I am particularly fascinated by the categorization of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story as "science fiction."  The book takes place in a vaguely hyperbolic near future, and I would call it a literary social satire.   The only thing that's even close to a science fiction concept is the main character's company, called "post-human services," which promises immortality to the rich.  But what they're peddling seems to be nothing more than plastic surgery, macrobiotic food and yoga.  Oh, and the characters have slightly-better iPhones than the ones currently available.

One reason "urban fantasy" might be popular right now, though, is that "urban fantasy" is often actually structured more like a romance novel than a fantasy novel.  Mean, rapey werewolves looking to be fixed by the love of a good woman are essentially the same as mean, rapey Fabio pirates and mean, rapey nineteenth-century British aristocrats.


  1. That is a very interesting supposition! I never thought about it that way, but you're essentially right. One thing they talk about though is you're only allowed one "gimme" that is, FTL drives or magic. Supposedly the reader will suspend enough believe for one or the other, but not both. Which doesn't bode well for me, but no matter.

    Do you think there is a difference in the tropes though? And the themes explored? I think sometimes genre is more of a classification of what the story is about, and not so much if there is an alien cyborg or a wizard in it.

  2. Genres are really sales/marketing designations and they're structured by how bookstores are organized. For example, the PG Wodehouse-style "comic novel" is not a genre because it's not a shelf in the modern bookstore.

    Similarly, one of the big "Franzenfreude" criticisms is that a book shelved as "women's fiction" would be deemed "literary" if written by a man.

    I think the story role of certain elements is distinct. For example, a fantasy problem is a vampire's need to kill to survive. A sci-fi problem is a sentient robot wondering if it has a soul.

    By contrast, an FTL drive is just a plot device that allows some element to be possible. It's like the portkey in "Harry Potter."

    And "Star Wars" had both FTL drives and magic.

  3. Nice post. I guess this means that setting matters quite a bit. Even if the story is the same some people prefer a setting of a forest in England than a spaceship and vice versa.