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Science Fiction And Fantasy?

The overall trend seems to be that the general market favors either science fiction or fantasy, but not both—at least not in great numbers.
| Sep 15, 2014 | 12 comments |

fantasy sceneCan speculative fiction sustain both science fiction and fantasy?

When I first fell in love with fantasy, a few “big names” captured the genre, which mostly referred to classic fantasy set in a world similar to medieval earth. Star Wars burst on the scene shortly thereafter, followed by the first of the various Star Trek versions. Fantasy faded. In fact, most bookstores had a Science Fiction section and if they carried any fantasy, the books were embedded with the sci fi.

Oddly enough, the pendulum began to swing late in the 1990s. The first Harry Potter book came out and the rumors about movie versions of The Lord of the Rings were confirmed. Along with this shift, science fiction faded from view. Agents, in listing what they were interested in seeing, now included fantasy, but the dreaded “not interested” slid over to science fiction.

BeyondFantasyFictionJul53Eventually another shift took place, primarily within the fantasy genre. Now, with the advent of the Hunger Games and Twilight and Divergent, the swing moved interest away from classic fantasy to urban fantasy or dystopian. Of course, dystopian fiction has a strong futuristic component which means, as part of the worldbuilding, new technology. Perhaps that element sparked renewed interest in science fiction, or perhaps there’s some other explanation. At any rate, it appears that the science fiction door is slowly opening once again.

This overview, of course, covers speculative fiction using a broad stroke, and it certainly is not comprehensive. However, the overall trend seems to be that the general market favors either science fiction or fantasy, but not both—at least not in great numbers.

I’ve tried to understand this progression, if indeed it’s an accurate assessment. Could it be that whatever most popular story comes to an end, there’s a “been there, done that” perception, so that no other story will seem to be as original or vibrant as that one very popular one (which might, in fact, be the only or the primary title many readers/movie-goers experience)?

A second trend seems to be that horror or “dark” quickly follows the shift from science fiction to fantasy and back again. Hence, dark fantasy seems to have superseded epic fantasy and alien monster stories seem to follow space opera. Could it be that the general population turns away from the dark and the monstrous?

And yet horror certainly has its own apologists and seemingly a solid, perhaps growing, fan base. Yet I wonder if the darkness, the fear-inducing elements don’t serve as a catalyst to change to a new and different form of imagination—one that offers more fun, more hope.

Of course there could be bigger issues. Perhaps the influence of postmodernism makes society more open to fantasy elements and less interested in the hard science of modernism. Perhaps a growing anti-religious bias or an increasing belief in relativism is turning people away from a genre based on good versus evil.

Or perhaps there is no trend and my observations are off.

What do you think?

If you agree that there are shifts toward or way from either science fiction or fantasy, and little toleration for the two simultaneously, why do you think these trends exist?

I’d love to know if what I suspect is true and why it might be the case. Any lit majors out there looking for a thesis topic? 😉

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12 Comments on "Science Fiction And Fantasy?"

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Lelia Rose Foreman

I think fantasy has always outsold science-fiction.

D. M. Dutcher

Some ideas from my timeline.

-You had fantasy start to wane slightly in the 70s, as SF turned to the new wave and started to engage real social trends and issues. Fantasy then started to turn darker; authors like Michael Moorcock, Tanith Lee, Stephen Donaldson, and Fritz Leiber became popular then.

-in the 80s, you had fantasy widen some, but the real push was science fiction. The 80’s were a big time of technological change and progress, and that optimism led to a return to soft and hard science fiction. This was the age of the space shuttle and NASA. The beginning of the end of this era came with two events: William Gibson publishing Neuromancer in 1984, and the Challenger Disaster in 1986.

-I think the 90’s were cyberpunk/post cyberpunk, and Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash ended cyberpunk as a respectable genre. Beyond that I’m fuzzy-I wound up falling out of love with the  genre then. I know it seems to have splintered to increasingly smaller genres, like witpunk, steampunk, and bizarro fiction, and then you saw some serious cross-genre pollination with romance, erotic fiction, and horror merging into traditional SF and Fantasy. Then you had the resurgence of epic fantasy, which is pretty much dead with Game of Thrones-apparently Martin was so difficult to work with it soured editors on the genre.

Generally what’s popular matches the spirit of the age, though. After the sixties, the sort of manager-based “we can predict the future” science fiction like from Asimov fell hard out of fashion, since Vietnam and the upheaval of the sexual revolution hit hard. The New Wave died with disco-Harlan Ellison especially sounds quaint and very dated reading today. Classic cyberpunk was influence by the rise of japan as a world power. I think now the trend is reflecting the increased divide between the sexes-the two big growth areas in SF and F are military fiction (male) and paranormal pseudo romantic and historical fantasy (female.)

Interesting to speculate on it though. I have to admit I’ve fallen out of love with the genre some, save for anime.

Leah Burchfiel

Oh, hey, perfect segue to start blathering about anime. So far I haven’t found any online streaming for “A Certain Magical Index” or “A Certain Scientific Railgun,” and that makes me have the sads. Is somebody sitting on the rights to that?

D. M. Dutcher

Both are streaming for free on Hulu. You’ll have to put up with frequent commercials, but Funimation tends to put their anime on Hulu if they don’t have it on Crunchyroll.

Julie D

I am completely at a loss to explain the popularity of *gag* paranormal romance, which seems to be all that exists in B&N’s teen section.   However, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on superheroes and how they interact with the two; or are they not as relevant in print form?

Mirtika Schultz

I would think there is a long history of this, if one includes myths from various nations of women (or men) entranced, enthralled, ensnared by and enamored of demi-gods and gods and magical beings of all sorts. Or having crushes on superheroes.

Mirtika Schultz

sorry –duplicate

HG Ferguson

Thanks for mentioning horror.  It’s rare for…that...to even get lip service here.  🙂

Leah Burchfiel

Shoot, I have to cast back into my memory for that one popular literature course I took on cowboy fiction. Generally speaking, pop lit has a lifespan cycle that has…five? phases: something like prototype; establishment;…high point, high water mark, something like that; cliche; and then parody. It’s not a clean cycle, but I think we’re pretty well in the cliche phase, with genre death somewhere in the nearer distance.

Except that fantasy and sci-fi have a certain…flexibility that cowboy fic doesn’t. Maybe what will happen is that high medieval fantasy and Star Wars/Trek-ish galactical sci-fi will phase out in favor of…some other kind of fantasy and sci-fi, like high medieval fantasy developed out of more fairy-tale oriented fantasy and “galactical” sci-fi developed out of 1950s green-rubber-space-monsters-from-another-planet sci-fi.

Robert Treskillard

The idea that dark versions of these genres were part of the cause that made the swings back and forth happen is an interesting idea.  I’m not sure, though, if it holds up.  For instance, Star Wars and Alien both thrived, but I think with different core viewers (although I’m sure there was quite a bit of overlap).  I can’t imagine, though, that anyone would stop enjoying Star Wars, or movies like it and of similar quality, just because movies like Alien existed.

That’s one of the nice things, though … there is such variety within each genre! Readers (and viewers) can find what they like, and this I think is one of the benefits of more and more books being published.  Carving out a niche as an author, however, gets harder and harder.

Anyway, you’ve given something for me to chew on…

Tony Breeden

As someone who enjoys reading both sci-fi and fantasy, I can tell you that they’re really just two sides of the same coin. One takes Arthur C. Clark’s 2nd Law [“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”] and uses the backdrop of those impossibilities to explore the great themes of the human condition from the relatively safe distance of a wardrobe or a mirror, for example. The other takes Clark’s better known 3rd Law [“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”] and uses proposed future scenarios and technology which will largely turn out to be purest fantasy to explore those same themes in what we hope is a more realistic way. The realism is all purest delusion of course. Science fiction is simply fantasy where the technology is accepted as possible, whereas fantasy deals with impossible elves and equally impossible realms.

With this in mind [and you’re free to disagree with my assessment], I wrote Luckbane, mixing sci-fi and fantasy as much as I could. I freely admit that one of my primary motivations for doing so involved how some Christians view magic in fiction. In general, magic in a fantasy realm is considered unacceptable by some Christians because it is associated with the old pagan superstitions, while sci-fi magic that does much the same thing is considered acceptable because it comes at the push of a button. With that in mind, I dreamed up an exploration of Clark’s 3rd Law where gamers play a sword, steampunk and sorcery game on a terraformed alien world, where the magical creatures are biological robots and the magic is accomplished by technological means.

As you might imagine, my solution has pleased very few of those Christians who object to fantasy magic. The general feeling is either I’m guilty of writing “witchcraft” by association with fantasy magic even though it is obvious that it’s really just technology made to look like magic. Others have admitted that my solution was acceptable to their particular objections. As for me, I’m just having a blast writing this stuff ;]

What do you think?