Monday, August 4, 2014

Fantastic Fiction: An Organizational Chart

I need a little more time to finish Dave Freer's book, so in the meantime, enjoy my first attempts at organizing the science fiction and fantasy genres in a handy-dandy chart:

At the top of the chart is the title: "Fantastic Fiction". Below, I have defined "fantastic fiction" as any story "in which the fictional world differs from ours in a radical and comprehensive way." That means you can't just throw in one talking animal and call the story fantasy -- unless it is suggested that talking animals are normal for your verse.

On the next level down, I have roughly defined the "Science Fiction" and "Fantasy" categories. In my conception, "Science Fiction" is the appropriate label for any fantastic story in which some attempt - however flawed - is made to rationally explain the other-worldly elements. These explanations, of course, exist on a sliding scale from "hard" (scientifically accurate) to "soft" (requires suspension of disbelief), but the explanation is still present or heavily implied. "Fantasy," on the other hand, is the appropriate label for any story that emphasizes "magic" or the irrational.

On the third level, we have our sub-categories. Beneath "Science Fiction," we have:
  • Alternate History: Change one historical event and follow through on the consequences.
  • Time Travel
  • Future Projection: 1) Impact of new tech on society; 2) impact of sociological trends.
  • Military: 1) Boot camp experiences; 2) hierarchy; 3) battle tech.
  • Space-Based: Characters are either not on Earth or they leave Earth at some point. 
Beneath "Fantasy," meanwhile, we have:
  • Epic Fantasy: 1) Quest; 2) clash of empires; 3) Lord of the Rings (as the exemplar)
  • Superheroes
  • Contemporary, or "Urban," Fantasy: 1) Set in present day (usually); 2) monsters; 3) borrows from the horror genre 

Of course, many works exist in the overlap between different categories, so in the above diagram, I have also started accounting for those. For instance, I have drawn a join between "Space-Based Science Fiction" and "Epic Fantasy" for "Space Opera" -- and I have stuck the Honorverse in the join between "Military Science Fiction" and "Space-Based Science Fiction." And if I were to try to classify, say, Larry Correia's Grimnoir series? I'd probably have to draw a big loop to join "Alternate History" with "Urban Fantasy." Whee!

So what do you guys think? Do you have your own mental flow-chart? Does it look anything like mine? Feel free to discuss your thoughts in the comments below!


  1. MIne might look a bit more like Venn diagram bubbles, only unmoored and drifting around all shiny and iridescent…

  2. This does not accommodate "technology of magic" stories, where the background is "unusual but consistent rules" like SF is.

  3. Linnaean taxonomy is a wonderful tool for categorizing the natural world, but I think you're beginning to see why it tends to break down when one tries to apply its methods to man-made creations. This is why it was necessary to invent tag clouds. :)

    The man-made world isn't merely well-populated by edge cases and weird combinations of things that are both X and Y despite neither X nor Y being subsets of each can fairly be said to consist almost _entirely_ of such frustrating creatures.

    So even if you succeed in formulating a defining distinction between "fantasy" and "science fiction" that everyone who matters in either field agrees to (yeah, good luck with that...), you'll still end up with all sorts of works about which, when one asks "is this science fiction or fantasy?", the only plausible answer is "yes".

    And yet, if you stick with the Linnaean method, you just end up with a chart that has lines between everything and everything else...which of course means that you have a chart which adds literally no new information to the universe.

    Whereas with a tag-cloud system, it's not hard at all to simply declare that Correia's Grimnoir series is "Alternate History" and "Modern/Urban Fantasy", while it is not, say, "Mil-fic" or "Space Opera". Any given tag _can_ coincide with any other given tag, and it becomes merely a question of which ones _do_ coincide with regard to a particular work.

    Simple. Easy. Quick. And useful, too.

    (In the end, I really think that the elimination Amazon will be most remembered for, in the book-buying process, is not sales tax, crowds, parking, snotty cashiers with excessive quantities of tattoos and piercings, or even self-appointed gatekeepers at the publishing houses, but _shelves_. Without having to assign _one specific_ shelf upon which a given book will be placed, to the exclusion of all other shelves, the need for a strictly Linnaean categorization of our reading material disappears. And good riddance, say I! :) )

  4. When deciding between Fantasy and SF, ask yourself whether the hero's weapon is made of wood/edged-metal (Harry Potter's wand) OR plastic/unsharpened-metal (Luke Skywalker's lightsaber). Purists will say that Skywalker is not SF, so you might want to draw an example from Babylon 5.

    And when distinguishing between sorts of magic, ask yourself how the magic-user gets his power. Did he bargain with a more-powerful being who lends him some powers (Aladdin), OR does he master some esoteric magic ruleset that enables him to channel powers in the environment (Harry Potter)?

    Larry Correia does something interesting in his Grimnoir chronicles b/c there is a powerful being who lends his powers to heroes, but Faye manages to grok a ruleset that lets her take even more. There is great creative opportunity in mixing elements of one category into another like this.