SF or Fantasy? — Six Works That Defy Easy Classification

Online warfare is easily unleashed. Ask a simple question like “Is a pizza a sandwich and if not, is an open face sandwich a sandwich?” and then sit back to watch the carnage unfurl.

Many people like categories to be clear cut and mutually exclusionary: food is either a sandwich or not a sandwich, a story is either science fiction or fantasy, and a nation-state is either vaguely rectangular or a democracy. In practice, boundaries are often fuzzy, and placing a work into one set or another fails because it satisfies criteria for both. Or for many.

See, for example, discussions about where to place The Fifth Season and Gideon the Ninth. Both works have elements generally associated with science fiction, as well as elements traditionally associated with fantasy. Hard classification will fail because the assumption that things are only one thing at a time is wrong. Utterly wrong.

[sarcasm] I am certain that having explained this so clearly, there will never be another argument on such matters. [/sarcasm]

Real world or online, classificatory warfare is nothing new.  Here are some novels that straddle borders and genres, novels over which readers might legitimately disagree as to classification.


Kindred (1979) by Octavia E. Butler

In this classic novel, Butler’s young African-American protagonist Dana is inexplicably drawn back across space and time from 1970s California to antebellum Maryland. In modern-day America, she is a writer. In pre-Civil War America, every white person she meets assumes that she is a slave, or at least someone who can be abused and exploited without consequence. Dana’s experiences in the past illuminate the unpleasant realities of American history, and shed light on more recent history as well.

But is it science fiction or fantasy? While I will grant that the physical mechanism is never explained, Dana is caught up in a stable time loop whose logic dictates much of what happens to her. Very much the same state of affairs (minus the insightful social commentary) can be found in Poul Anderson’s There Will Be Time, generally classified as science fiction. Butler thought Kindred was fantasy, but it also seems perfectly reasonable to call it science fiction.



Metropolitan (1995) by Walter Jon Williams

Aiah is a Barkazil, a despised ethnic minority, who has the misfortune to live in the city of Jaspeer. What middling prosperity and status she possesses results from years of hard work in Jaspeer’s Plasm Authority, which regulates the energy source powering this civilization. Plasm, the product of geomantic currents, is valuable. Aiah uncovers a secret trove of plasm that could mean wealth beyond her dreams. It’s far too risky for one minor bureaucrat to move that much on her own—exploiting her treasure requires partners, and considerable risk.

Nothing delights an author quite like an audience deciding that a book the author intended as an unambiguous example of one thing is instead an unambiguous example of something else entirely. To quote the author:

So here I had written what I considered to be an exemplary high fantasy, full of magic and mystery, but what did my readers see?

They saw science fiction.

There is considerable discussion at the other end of the link as to why readers disagreed with the author. Perhaps it is as simple as treating high fantasy elements in an SF manner? The geomancy that powers Aiah’s society is magic, but the manner in which the product is used feels more SF.



Sabella, or The Bloodstone (1980) by Tanith Lee

Nova Mars was the world that the SFF authors of the early 20th century imagined: an ancient, dying world rich in relics of a once-complex ecology and advanced civilization. It was saved from lifelessness by human terraformers, New Mars is now a thoroughly human world. It is Sabella’s home world. There the recluse indulges her fondness for dark clothes, gloomy shadows, and human blood.

On the one hand: space travel! Terraforming! Planets named “Mars.” On the other, Sabella is pretty clearly a vampire. Surely her sort of vampire is creature of horror, or at least fantasy? But Lee does not appear to have sorted her tropes by genre, preferring to use whatever was most suitable for the story she had in mind.

Perhaps Lee had a specific planetary romance in mind when she wrote Sabella. This book has echoes of C. L. Moore’s famous Northwest Smith story, “Shambleau.”



Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry by C. L. Moore

Speaking of Moore reminds me that she too straddled genres—I am thinking of two of her characters.

Northwest Smith is a hyper-promiscuous ray-gun-waving genre-blind smuggler who stumbles into near-death situation after near-death situation in a futuristic Solar System, surviving only thanks to his remarkable talent for convincing beautiful women to sacrifice their lives for his. His adventures often end badly—but not for Northwest. Clearly SF.

Jirel of Joiry flourishes in Medieval France. She protects her fiefdom of Joiry with an impressive capacity for violence and an indominable will. These are deployed against ambitious lords, wizards, and demons. So, fantasy.

Two characters, so two distinct settings? NO. Moore makes it clear that both settings take place in the same universe, a few centuries apart. Thanks to time travel, there’s even a crossover between Jirel and the hapless hunky nincompoop of tomorrow (Jirel is, and I am sure everyone is relieved to hear this, completely immune to Northwest’s charms). Regarded separately: two characters, two genres. But together…?



The Roads of Heaven Trilogy: Five-Twelfths of Heaven (1985), Silence in Solitude (1986), and The Empress of Earth (1987) by Melissa Scott

Star pilot Silence Leigh has the misfortune to live in the comprehensively misogynistic Hegemony, consigned to second-class status because she is a woman. She escapes this social trap by agreeing to marry two strangers who are willing to grant her liberties the Hegemony would deny her, provided she help them legalize their relationship. The Hegemony does not recognize same-sex marriages; polyandrous marriages, on the hand, are just fine.

Alien worlds and star-spanning empires are nicely science fictional. In this case, however, the means by which all this advancement has been achieved is applied Hermetic/neo-Platonic magic. Geases abound. Silence’s eventual mentor is a Magus. These details appear to undermine the unambiguous way in which the book’s original publisher sold this as SF. Not that it matters in the end how one classifies books, as long as they are entertaining. (But it may matter in the beginning, as books are being marketed and sold.)



No doubt there are other examples I could have included. And no doubt some of you are annoyed that I did not, so feel free to mention them in comments…

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.



Back to the top of the page


Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.