Sarah Jane Elliott
Sarah Jane Elliott
am often surprised by the most frequently asked question I receive when people
learn that I write fantasy. Iím
met with a blank stare, or a smile and a nod, and asked,
ďWhat is fantasy?Ē After
almost three years of being asked this question, finding an answer still isnít
any easier. However, a recent series of discussions on the Forward Motion
Community boards has helped illuminate this dark and murky subject.
(zhan-ruh): "a kind or style,
esp. of art or literature"
- Oxford Reference Dictionary
problem in defining fantasy is that, like all genres, fantasy operates under a
peculiar paradox: the works within it define the genre, but in order to define
it, a work must first be classified as part of the genre. Genre definition is dynamic, in a constant state of flux as
new works enter the market and force us to rethink our previous ideas of genre.
further complicate the matter, each genre can be divided into subgenres.
In fantasy there are divisions such as high fantasy, dark fantasy, urban
fantasy, sword and sorcery... the list goes on.
New subgenres are often created as authors are challenged to write new
works that test those boundaries, ensuring that new works do not ultimately
repeat those that came before. Those
works then become the benchmark for future works within those subgenres, and so
to step back and return to the original topic, what is fantasy?
of the confusion lies in distinguishing it from its counterpart that also sits
under the speculative fiction umbrella: science
fiction. Speculative fiction encompasses all works dealing with worlds
that are not our own, be they worlds created entirely from the authorís mind,
worlds that may be out there somewhere, worlds that may exist someday, or worlds
that exist within our own. Itís
separating fantasy and science fiction that becomes tricky.
Dragons, for instance, seem to belong indisputably to the realm of
fantasy, yet Anne McCaffrey states unequivocally that her Dragonriders of Pern
series, arguably one of the most well-known dragon series, is science fiction.
the lines between the two genres were quite firmly drawn.
Fantasy dealt with magic, and science fiction with technology.
Tolkein versus Asimov. Elf
versus alien. It might be said that
science fiction is what might conceivably come to be, and fantasy is what can
never be. But lately, the lines
have begun to blur.
this is due, in part, to the increasing volume of work in print. All
of the traditional stories have been told and retold, and now authors must
stretch to find new and original ideas that captivate an audience that has
already read so much. In Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson tells a story of Caribbean
gods and magic, set in a futuristic Toronto that has fallen victim to economic
collapse and decay. In Archangel,
Sharon Shinn creates a pre-industrial world overseen by angels who can
communicate with their god, and in Jovahís
Angel she reveals them to be the descendants of interstellar travellers; the
god to whom they pray is the ancient colony vessel itself.
Countless stories blend the seemingly magical powers of psychics with
technology, such as John Wyndhamís The
Chrysalids, which only reveals its
science fiction connections in the last pages.
As old boundaries shift and change, elements of the fantastic, of the
mystical, are becoming more and more tightly interwoven with the traditional
elements of SF.
therefore, is incredibly difficult to define.
Throw a computer into a world of dinosaurs or dragons and you have
science fiction. Throw a vision or a magical power onto a spaceship, and
you still have science fiction, but you might also have fantasy.
The definition of "fantasy" is a very personal thing.
It varies from reader to reader, from editor to editor.
What one person may consider fantasy, another may consider science
fiction (like Pern). What one may
consider horror, another may consider dark fantasy (such as Raymond E. Feist's Faerie
Tale). This is part of the reason why itís sometimes difficult to
find an author youíre looking for: the
author may consider their work part of one genre, the editor another, and the
bookstore owner or librarian may have a different opinion entirely.
(Iíve found each book of Elizabeth Ann Scarboroughís Godmother
trilogy shelved under SF/F, YA, and general fiction, respectively.)
Like an inkblot on paper, genre definitions can change with each person
who considers them.
myself hate to categorize things, and I
enjoy reading stories that play one element off the other.
When writing fantasy I tend to incorporate scientific explanations into
wonders like the biology of magical creatures, and when writing science fiction
Iíll throw in reincarnation, ghosts, and vision quests.
I consider the elements of science fiction to be those that are explained
away logically. Conversely, the
elements of fantasy are those not so easily explained, those shadows and dreams
that leave something to the imagination, and capture an element of wonder.
Where science fiction inevitably runs up against the boundaries of logic
and physics, fantasy lifts the story over them and carries it away.
To me, the definition of fantasy is as limitless as the imagination
is whatever you need it to be.
thanks to the contributors to the discussion:
Dan Goodman, June, Chris Hughes, Holly Lisle, Bryn Neuenschwander, Jim
Mills, Shelby, Andi, Nick Bronaon, Jennifer St. Clair Bush, Venus, Bob
Billing, Shane, Amy Shelton, Robert Sloan, Athlen, Jaedynn.