I know I have a bad habit of both having zero regard for genre distinctions and constantly trying to make up new ones. I love categories but what I mainly love about them is making up new ones and breaking the ones I just made. In the taxonomic playground there is nothing quite so much fun as the distinction between science-fiction and fantasy. It is emblematic of the creative fun that comes from making then breaking distinctions. Once you come up with a brilliant system of classification, the gods of genre will throw out a counter-example or rather the distinction offers a challenge to writers to create something that straddles the distinction. In the end times God will sort humanity into sheeps and goats but will still struggle to shelve the fantasy books separate from the science-fiction. It is a world of ducks versus beavers which is actually populated by the offspring of a platypus.
So it is always with both pleasure and trepidation that I read essays about the distinction. Here is an essay by James Wallace Harris entitled “Why I see Fantasy and Science Fiction as Distinct Genres”. I’ve read it three times now and while he does state some reasons why he see the two things as distinct, I can’t make head nor tail of his examples. Here is one explanation he gives in the context of apocalyptic/disaster themed stories:
“Now here’s one difference between fantasy stories and science fiction. The threat in a fantasy story doesn’t have to have a real-world foundation. Something imaginary that’s scary is all that’s required. In science fictional after-the-collapse stories, science fiction writers take pains at providing a believable explanation.”
OK, that makes some sort of sense but think of a subset of such stories e.g. zombie stories. Zombies can be supernatural (making them fantasy) or viral (making them science fiction). We certainly can sort zombies in this way but we end up with some zombie stories in which the cause of undeadness is never explained. In either case, the basic tropes and themes of zombie apocalypse narratives are often the same and the underlying cause is a lesser aspect of the back story. Maybe zombies are a bad example though, as they bring in the third genre of horror.
I’ll focus now on three of several examples the writer gives. I’m picking on these three because they are each stories I’ve reviewed and thought about and discussed.
“The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander took historical incidents and turned them into a fantasy tale. However, I have to wonder why she just didn’t go for straight literary realism. It was the historical details that made this story stand out, not the fantasy add-ons.
“When We Were Starless” was a good science fiction story, but set too far in the future to be relevant about today’s problems. I still enjoy far-future science fiction, but I respond to SF about the near future better. The further in the future an SF story is set, the more it feels like a fantasy to me.
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory has the kind of realism I like. It wasn’t completely realistic, but it had a grittiness that I appreciated. I also liked it because it spanned a life-time, of never giving up.
I think I understand the point he is making about “When We Were Starless”. The far future setting and the strange nature of the protagonists gives it an aura of fantasy. I don’t agree with the point about it not being ‘relevant about today’s problems’ but I assume he means the a direct relevance rather than thematic, emotional or metaphoric relevance.
But having made sense of that one I can’t make head nor tail of the other two. “The Only Harmless Great Thing” is about elephants, there’s no magical powers in it as such. There is an imagined elephant mythology/folk-wisdom and the ending is arguably fantastical but otherwise the setting is factually grounded all be it in an alternative history way. The issue of labour exploitation is manifestly a relevant one and the broader questions about intelligence and language are clear, as is the more practical issue of how to ensure future generations know to avoid a nuclear waste dump.
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” makes use of a common science fiction trope of an alien invasion but the focus of the story is time and relationships and slow change. The invaders are never fully explained other than they are plant-like and landed like meteorites. There’s a metaphor there about climate change but it isn’t spelled out as such. If the alien plants appeared by magic and their apparent empathic/psychic powers were described as magical then the story would not be substantially different.
I’d say that there a fantasy and SF aspects to all three and clearly all three writers were drawing from the broader field as well as making use of wider literary genres (folk lore, magical realism etc). Of the three, the one which has the most embedded science-realism elements is “The Only Harmless Great Thing” by which I mean of the three it is the one that would be hardest to make purely technically fantasy using ‘magic’ as a criteria. More to the point I don’t see how having a clear genre distinction for any of them really sheds much light on them as stories. Put another way, where they sit on the boundary between genres provides very little critical insight to them as stories or sheds any light on the authors thinking.