Fri
Aug 1 2008 12:00pm

Separating SF and fantasy

In Chapters and Indigo, Canada’s big-box chain bookstores, they separate out SF and fantasy into two separate sections. This always annoys me, and not just because it means that my own books aren’t together, but because they’re not very good at making distinctions. Right now, the new Bujold Sharing Knife book is in SF, and the first two in the series are in Fantasy. Right. Way to go.

There are a number of obvious edge cases we could use to taunt the bookstore clerk, who’s overworked, knows nothing about SF and probably likes to read Kant in her spare time. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books, for instance, where people from Earth encounter people from Darkover who have magic, except it’s really genetically bred psi-talent, except it’s really magic, especially in the books set before the Terrans arrive, which read just like fantasy. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, where the first part of the first book was published in that bastion of hard SF Analog when there wasn’t really a fantasy market, but which really are books about a feudal society of dragonriders, except for Dragonsdawn which is about the settlement of the planet and genetic engineering. It would be perfectly possible to make a good case for parts of each of those series to be shelved in SF and other parts in fantasy, which is clearly nonsense. Then there are Norton’s Witchworld books, and I'm sure you can think of other examples, because to a genre reader they are obvious examples.

In these books, SF is using some of the furniture of fantasy--magic and dragons and castles--or perhaps fantasy is using some of the furniture of SF, spaceships and laser guns, to play with culture clashes. (Exploring culture clashes across very different cultures seems to me one of the interesting things SF persistently does.)

But there’s another kind of book that can’t be neatly filed on one side or the other, where it isn’t the furniture but the fundamental axioms of the world that can’t be categorised. There’s Richard Garfinkle's Celestial Matters, a book with literal crystal spheres you can crash your actual spaceship through. There’s Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (which has a new sequel The Dragons of Babel, which I haven’t got to yet) which is a kind of steampunk fantasy version of Tam Lin, with rusty industrial factories and teinds to Hell. There's Lucius Shepherd’s The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter in which people are living in villages on the back of a dragon, but it’s all rigorously worked out and makes sense. In Lisa Goldstein’s Summer King, Winter Fool there’s a solstice ceremony to make the sun come back--fairly standard. Except they do it wrong, and the days keep getting shorter. There’s Ted Chiang's “Seventy-two Letters” where instead of Darwin some very Victorian scientists discover that the way the medieval world imagined genetics to work is how it works, and we’re running out of homunculi. There’s Harry Turtledove's “Secret Names” where a post-collapse of civilization witch doctor finds a book with the Latin species names of animals, which he uses to summon them to the nets, and it works.

Stories like this reach the fabled “sense of wonder” which science fiction wants to evoke, but from the fantasy side.

And you can't shelve them neatly anywhere.

37 comments
Paul Puglisi
1. Paul Puglisi
There is the same problem with horror. And, other than shelving SF, Fantasy, and Horror together, you're going to get authors that cross genres having their books shelved in different sections.
eric orchard
2. orchard
I love it when the lines between genres are blurred, there's something exciting about it. And it seems as though artists keep a step a head of the markets classification system which is fun. I think that sense of wonder is all important, the strange and the familiar. Finding something original and surprising. I remember Tony Diterlizzi writing about this in connection to his illustrations, that he loves to make illustrations where there is some uncertainty about whether what you are looking at is fantasy or science fiction and I found those paintings very appealing.
And now Chapters has a graphic novel section which places all sorts of genres together.
I wonder if Fantasy and Science Fiction will ever just be absorbed into the literature section, like horror was and sometimes still is.
Bruce Alcorn
3. thornae
OMG! There's a new Bujold out?

Must. Camp. Bookstore.

(Pleasepleasepleaseplease don't let her McAffrey into soft porn too).
Josh Kidd
4. joshkidd
I know some people who believe in the separation of science fiction and fantasy the way most people believe in the separation of church and state. They are science fiction fans that have no time for fantasy. They would probably say: When in doubt, put it on the fantasy shelves.

Presumably, book stores shelve books in a way that helps them increase sales. Perhaps by splitting science fiction and fantasy into two sections and then shelving them badly, they require any fans looking for a particular book to go through both sections in order to find it. In this way, they expose their customers to more books.

Perhaps not.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Joshkidd: Maybe... but I'm a fairly persistent bookbuyer, and I'm going to look at everything anyway, and it drives me mad. You wouldhn't believe the number of times I've looked for a book where it ought to be and it isn't there and I assume it hasn't made it here yet. Once I looked in Chapters and failed to see something and so went (uphill, through the snow) and bought it in Indigo, and later found out they did have it in Chapters, just in the other section. Although they're the same chain, they're not remotely consistent about where they put things.
Paul Puglisi
6. SteveofShadows
I've always hated my local library who just lumps all fiction together.


Even though I for the most part hate sci-fi (with a few exemptions) it'd be nice to have them lumped together so I don't have to easter egg hunt.


My biggest pet peeve is stores and libraries that have whole series minus one or two books.
Eric Tolle
7. ErictheTolle
This is why I like the alternate term "Speculative Fiction", that shelves science fiction and fantasy together. Of course you'd still have edge cases like stories which could be horror or SF, but any categorization scheme is going to run into problems.

On the other hand, one bookstore I frequent now has a new section for "Paranormal Romance". Since categorization is supposed to be for convenience, I suppose it makes sense that the vampire porn fans can get their fix quickly and easily.
Chris Meadows
8. Robotech_Master
Another hard to categorize book is John Ringo's There Will Be Dragons, which looks like fantasy but is actually distant-future SF.
Ronald Weiskopf
9. RonBW
Other examples that don't fit easily into only one category are many of the books by Zelazny. The amber series seems like typical fantasy, although there are sort of scientific explanations, and Lord of Light, which turns out to be a colony from earth, and it is discovered that paranormal abilities develop with time, which can only happen through transfering a person into cloned bodies.
Patrick Shepherd
10. hyperpat
It's probably impossible to really separate sf and fantasy. To date, no one has come up with a definition of either category that everyone can agree with or that does not have frequent examples of books that don't quite fit the definition but are categorically recognized as belonging to the genre. Bookstores that try to separate these two are never going to get it totally right, probably to the detriment of authors who are just trying to get their books noticed, whatever genre they are writing in.

And it gets pretty ugly if an author has the temerity to write in multiple genres (one that quickly springs to mind is Dan Simmons, or as another example Emma Bull's Territory - fantasy, sf , or Western?), as his/her books will end up scattered all over the bookstore. As one of the best markers most readers use to determine their next purchase is author recognition (having read one they like, they look for more by the same person), this means that this type of author's sales may be severely impacted by this often inappropriate categorization fetish.

Perhaps bookstores should install computer terminals that customers can access to find out just where any title or author is shelved in the store, as grabbing the attention of a store employee to do this is often impossible. This might alleviate at least some of the problems associated with 'where to shelve this'.
Melissa Ann Singer
11. masinger
hyperpat@10: At least one B&N has such terminals. You can search for any book B&N stocks and find out if it's in the store you're in and where it's shelved. The kiosk screen even displays a little map that shows you which shelfing unit contains your book. And you can print out a slip with the title and author and section name (thought not the little map, alas). Searching for things my daughter needs for school is much easier in one of those stores.
Patrick Shepherd
12. hyperpat
Alas, my local B&N does not (at least yet). But it definitely indicates that brick-and-mortar stores must get with the times if they hope to compete with the internet. Don't know if the terminals you indicate also have the capability of listing all new releases or displaying by category (which might lead right back to the shelving problem, but people do like to browse by the type of literature they prefer, and at least you wouldn't have to strain your neck to try and read a title way up on the top shelf), but they should.

I think it was Asimov who first twigged to the idea that managing information, finding cross-references, and doing intelligent searches is a critical science for today's and tomorrow's world that needs much more research effort. Librarians may be the most important 'scientists' of the future.
eric orchard
13. orchard
Perhaps even more confusing is the YA genre works. I really don't know where to find these books half the time. Like Cory Doctorow's Little Brother or Cherie Priest's books. And I sometimes see Gaiman's work there as well as other sf and fantasy writers.
Torie Atkinson
14. Torie
@ hyperpat

I think it was Asimov who first twigged to the idea that managing information, finding cross-references, and doing intelligent searches is a critical science for today's and tomorrow's world that needs much more research effort. Librarians may be the most important 'scientists' of the future.

There's a wonderful little book called Libraries in the Ancient World which basically chronicles how information management came into being and changed over time.

Even in the ancient world books were sorted by genre (with cross-references to authors who wrote in multiple genres). Then again, there were fewer genres...
Kerry Kuhn
15. Kerry
orchard: Even better - when I went to buy the Diane Duane So You Want to be a Wizard series for my son, the first 3 books were in the kids section and the other 5 were in the YA shelves. I read them, too, and I sure don't see that the age bracket they were aimed at changed in any way.
eric orchard
16. orchard
Kerry: And what about the Harry Potter "adult" covers? Where do they go?
Melissa Ann Singer
17. masinger
hyperpat@12: I don't think you can sort by new releases . . . but so far I've only used them to look for specific titles. The kiosk will tell you about books that aren't in stock as well; I assume you can print out a slip and take it to customer service and have them order the book for you. I don't believe you can order the book directly from the kiosk, though I may be wrong; so far, I've found the books I've needed in the store.

The kiosks have both touch screens and keyboards, which is neat.

orchard@13: I find YA confusing as well. My daughter is 12 and reads in both the "older young reader" section and the Teen section (with forays into manga). In our local B&N, these two sections are back to back (not in the children's section). Some authors are shelved in both sections--different books in the different sections--and, as Jo was saying about sf&f, it's hard sometimes to figure out which section to look in for what book or author.

And some sf&f books which are perfectly appropriate for the teen or tween reader are shelved in the sf/f section and only there. Which means that some readers, at least, who may be reluctant to wander the adult aisles, are missing out on good books. When my daughter wanted to read The Hobbit, I had to literally lead her across the store to the sf&f section. She resists shopping there on her own even though she has been reading books from our home library that in a bookstore would be shelved in sf&f.
R O T
18. rogerothornhill
Hyperpat, yes, there's that wonderful bit in Prelude to Foundation, I think, where he talks about how everyone thought the amount of available information would just keep increasing over time, but nobody knew how to store it or index it. The more we all get used to the web and only a handful of search engines (or just Google), the more I think IA missed what our information future was: not data lost through chaos, but data lost because it falls through heuristic cracks.

As for the science fiction/fantasy distinction, I think it changes over time. Yesterday's science fiction plays together as today's fantasy (or "romance," in the Medieval, non-erotic sense). Some of Verne holds up as science, but a lot of it doesn't. Wells is speculative but not scientific when viewed from our time. You read both authors now, not for the science, but for the pleasures of their gestalts.

This all goes back to that other thread about mainstream and alternative. There's just a very, very narrow definition of what constitutes "realistic" fiction and everything else apparently has to get a genre handle.

In adolesence and young adulthood, I do think there's a certain amount of reckless reading by strictly defined genre. By their late 20s, though, most readers I've known have developed a version of the way they believe the world is, and they then look for examples of stories that share or enhance that worldview. For most intelligent non-snobs I know, the types of stories they like (hopeful questing, society-building, taking on the establishment, slow dance of desire, brutal drama of corruption, etc.) tend to be continuous across genre categories.

The categories in book stores, in other words, work better when you're selling to younger readers. This may also explain why Amazon is always doing such a lousy job of suggesting products I might want to buy in the future.
Avram Grumer
19. avram
Zelazny once said that all of his fantasy books contain at least a bit of science or rationalism, because he thought the universe is a fundamentally comprehensible place, and all of his SF books contain a bit of inexplicable magic, because he thought there will always be things we don't understand.

Me, I'd put Iron Dragon's Daughter firmly in the fantasy section. The rusted industrial landscapes make it urban fantasy, not SF.

I consider Geoff Ryman's The Unconquered Country SF (it's set in a high-biotech future), while Kevin considers it fantasy (based on one of the characters apparently reincarnating).
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Avram: I considered mentioning that, and also _Air_, which is all SF except for the magical birth at the end, and thought about _Was_ and _Lust_ and decided all Ryman is actually edge on to genre in a way that's interesting but also complicated.
Michael Gallaher
21. MichaelGallaher
I always considered everything from SF to Horror to the romance novels my wife reads all a subset of fantasy. After all fantasy covers a wide range of topics.
Kerry Kuhn
22. Kerry
orchard @ 16: I don't think those ever made it past the racks at the front of the store and onto regular shelving.
Jeffrey Richard
23. neutronjockey
What I find annoying is that no one is practicing and industry-wide convention. An author may start a book that is sci-fi but by the time the book buyer gets a hold of it the B&N guy says it's a mystery/thriller and the Borders guy says it's definitely mil sci-fi and will be shelved in the sf/f area.

...and when did Anne Rice make it to the literature dept?

Probably about the same time B&N got rid of the horror shelves.

But that also depends on what marketing region you're in.

*FLRUGHRFHG*

Just alphabetize them. All of them.
Andrea Leistra
24. aleistra
@masinger:

And some sf&f books which are perfectly appropriate for the teen or tween reader are shelved in the sf/f section and only there. Which means that some readers, at least, who may be reluctant to wander the adult aisles, are missing out on good books.

The converse is also true, of course, with YA selling well enough now that anything with a young protagonist that will appeal to the proper age bracket shelved in YA, so that adults browsing only the sf/f shelves miss out.

(Edited for formatting).
Sandi Kallas
25. Sandikal
I'm old enough to remember a time when there wasn't even a young adult section. When you outgrew children's books, you moved to the grown-up section.
Paul Puglisi
26. Simon MacDonald
Yes, I hate that Chapters/Indigo does this. It drives me nuts and I used to point out the mistakes in shelving to the clerks but it never helped as these decisions come down from on high anyway. Since I have borderline OCD I have found myself moving books from some of my favourite authors like Bujold and Doctorow to the right places.
Soon Lee
27. SoonLee
All the shops I frequent shelve them in the "SF & Fantasy" (they're very inclusive or is it lazy?) section so it's a moot point.
Melissa Ann Singer
28. masinger
Sandikal@25: I was still reading stuff from the children's section of the library when I started working on the adult section. My parents had to get my card reclassified before the librarians would let me take anything out from "downstairs" (the children's section was upstairs and adults were not allowed up there without children in tow, a policy which still holds today).

The children's librarian at this library established a "teen section" downstairs, in a corner of the adult fiction section, in the early 1970s.

She was a great fan of sf&f and had liberally stocked the children's section with genre fiction (which was how she and I met, because I was reading the stuff as fast as she was bringing it in).

When she got permission to make the teen section, she stuffed it with sf&f (with those wonderful yellow rocketship stickers on the spines). I suspect she turned a lot of teenagers in my neighborhood on to sf&f.
Jo Walton
29. bluejo
Simon: I've been told that it can hurt the author if you move books, because the dumb Kant-loving clerk who put it in the wrong place to start with won't be able to find it at all if you've moved it, so even if you find Le Guin under G in a big bookshop, you shouldn't move it yourself.

Sometimes I have to bite my fingers hard to follow this advice, because they want to start reorganizing on their own.
Debbie Moorhouse
30. GUDsqrl
I encountered this interesting problem on a small scale when separating my GoodReads shelves into SF and Fantasy. Where, for instance, does "Charlotte Sometimes" belong? It's time-travel by use of a particular bed, but the novel never explains how the bed makes this happen. Maybe it's magic, maybe it's technology.

I left it in SF :).
Paul Puglisi
31. Stumblr
Take a moment. Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept series. Taking place on the parallel worlds of Proton(Science Fiction) and Phase(Fantasy). What then? What of his On a Pale Horse? Set on an alternate reality earth were the air travel market is a competition between airplanes and flying carpets. How does one decide?
eric orchard
32. orchard
@GUDsqrl &@Stumblr
I think a fantasy element trumps a science fiction element. If there are rocket ships and genies it's fantasy. It's different if the source of some extraordinary element remains mysterious. Also more like real life.
Sandi Kallas
33. Sandikal
Now that "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" has won the Hugo Award, I've got to wonder if the days of separating genres should become history. In the mainstream section, you'll find a lot of books that could conceivably be labeled "science fiction," "fantasy" or "speculative fiction".
eric orchard
34. orchard
@Sandikal no,it shouldn't. We don't need more people writing for the mass market.
Lydia Sharp
36. Lydia
I agree with the above comment (way up there...) that the term "Speculative Fiction" is more accurate. Whether there are futuristic elements in a crude society or crude elements in a futuristic society, all of it is speculative, not real.

Of course, Speculative Fiction would then have to include certain Horror pieces as well...I tend to sleep better at night knowing that zombies aren't real. Same goes for dragons and certain alien species.
Paul Puglisi
37. Kara Noir
I just wanted to say: I've worked at stores like this since I got out of highschool, and there is a place for everything. It doesn't make any sense and time and time again I did shake my head at the stupidness of it all.

Frankly, I wish there was "this is the crap book section" - then I could avoid certain books with pedophilic tendncies and vamps the tend to sparkle in daylight.

*sigh*
And people wonder WHY I stick to anime/manga.

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