Stress Test the Fantasy Algorithm

My most recent bad take on distinguishing fantasy from science fiction used a simple case of judging a book by its cover. If the title used type with serifs then it was (probably) fantasy and if it used sans-serif then it was probably science fiction (or at least marketed as such).

The Goodreads semifinalists have been announced (http://file770.com/goodreads-choice-awards-2020-semifinalists/ ) and that present a perfect opportunity to test the serif-fantasy-spotting algorithm.

I count 14 out of 20 with serifs, 6 without and one (Seanan McGuire’s) which is hard to classify but which I put in serifed.

The genre defying works are:

  • Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
  • Storm Cursed by Patricia Briggs
  • The Dragon Republic by R.F.Kuang
  • A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie
  • Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

Meanwhile what does science fiction offer?

I count 15 sans-serif titles, 5 serif titles and one (Charlie Jane Anders’s) that is ambiguous but I’m lumping in with the sans-serif (the T’s have serifs and the other letters not so much).

The genre busting titles are

  • Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
  • This is How You Lose a Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
  • Dark Age by Pierce Brown
  • Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn
  • The Deep by Rivers Solomon

So, if you tried to use the rule to classify books by genre while ignoring the content you’d get this table:


Actually Science Fiction Actually Fantasy
Serif 30% 70%
Sans Serif 75% 25%

That’s effectively terrible. It’s enough to show there’s method in the madness but practically it would be wrong a quarter of the time. Mind you, we should judge a method not just on basic results but how it compares with other methods and I think it holds up quite well compared to other schemes I’ve seen for genre classification. 🙂


16 thoughts on “Stress Test the Fantasy Algorithm

  1. FWIW both Gideon the Ninth and The Deep have far more Goodreads users shelving them as “fantasy” than “science fiction” – clearly that didn’t factor into the decision-making of whoever came up with the first round of nominated works.

    I’ve not read either, but I understand that Gideon the Ninth could be argued either way, whereas on a recent edition of The Coode St Podcast, one of the hosts had just read The Deep, and was adamant it was fantasy, not SF.

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    1. I haven’t read The Deep but based on the Clipping song’s backstory, I’d call it fantasy

      Gideon the Ninth is 70:30 fantasy. Space Necromancer but there’s a lot more necromancy than space in the book.

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  2. Personally, I’d class This Is How You Lose The Time War as fantasy. But I also know that I’d be in a distinct minority on that one.

    As to the actual hypothesis – I’d also tend to back the argument that it’s the best one we have derived so far, even if it has a moderately terrible strike rate.

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  3. The Thrawn Star Wars book uses a serif font, because Star Wars has used a serif font (first Times and then Trajan) for its posters from Return of the Jedi through Revenge of the Sith plus Rogue One. Luckily, the The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi ditched the bland serif font for a genre-appropriate sans serif font, but the books apparently kept it, especially since Thrawn is a retro character who appeals to EU fans.

    Also, I really, really dislike Trajan, since it’s so overused.

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  4. Middlegame is also about as scifi as fantasy, to be honest.

    Having read The Deep, I’d agree it is definitely far more fantastical (it takes place in an alternate time period probably similar to our own, and certainly not futuristic) than SciFi.

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  5. Oh I get it, if the type is fluffy and curly — old-fashioned — then it’s fantasy, and if the type is modern and straight, it’s science fiction. Cute.

    The problem you have is that contemporary and futuristic/post-apoc fantasy will tend to have modern and straight type. It’s the epic/secondary world (pre-industrial,) and historical/steampunk fantasy works that will have the serif type more often, to say that the work is not industrial or modern in setting, but old-style. Steampunk SF will tend to have serif type, as do often post-apocalyptic SF works in which the world has lost its tech and industrialization. SF works that have an Asian bent/focus will tend to have serif type in order to indicate an Asian feel, as will Asian focused fantasy works.

    So your not really an algorithm, more of a rule of thumb theory can’t really work because it is confounded by sub-genres in SFF. In fantasy, sub-genres are divied up by type of setting for the fantasy work: contemporary/urban, epic/secondary world, futuristic, historical/alt history/steampunk, portal/multiverse fantasy — multiple worlds connected, comic fantasy — which can have different types of settings but a comic atmosphere/set-up, and dark fantasy — also different settings but a dark, mysterious, tragic atmosphere/set-up. In science fiction, the sub-genres are divvied up mainly by the type of science that forms the backbone of the work: hard SF — stories focused on biology, physics, chemistry and engineering, sociological “soft” SF — stories focused on sociology, anthropology/alien contact, political science, philosophy/culture, cyberpunk — thrillers featuring tech and political turmoil, steampunk — SF elements in a steam industry historical/alt history situation, military SF — stories on military tech and soldiers, space opera — science in the background and involving space travel and large nations, time travel SF — time travel machines/science, comic SF — science used in the background for comic effect, etc. So a space opera involving big space empires and princesses might go with a serif type to show that it is exotic and swashbuckling, and a contemporary fantasy work involving computers run by magic might go with a sans-serif.

    So if a sub-genre can be signaled by the type on the cover, they’ll do that, which may involve not going with your rule of thumb. Plus sometimes they do it just for artistic effect because that’s trendy in cover art design at the particular time. But if you were just to set up one sub-genre against another that usually relies on one or the other type to signal — epic fantasy against military SF, say, then it would probably be pretty rare that it would go against your rule of thumb.

    Additionally, Goodreads is not particularly accurate in how they’re divving it up for their awards. The Deep is a fantasy novel based on African myths. I’m guessing that because the slaves magically evolve into sea creatures, somebody thought that was science fictiony. And Gideon the Ninth is also a fantasy work. How to Lose a Time War is science fiction — the time travel agents do not travel through time by magical/supernatural means. But since it has a strong romantic sub-plot to the spy thriller story, and I’m guessing they think the main audience is women thereby because the industry is sexist, they went with serif type — the “feminine” type.

    That’s another issue you will have. Curly type will be seen as softer and therefore more “feminine” because we’re sexist, and straight blocky type will be seen as hard and sharp and therefore more “masculine” because we’re sexist. So if they (wrongly) guess that the audience will be mainly women, because we’re sexist, even if it’s a hard SF novel, they may give it a feminized cover with serif. That’s particularly the case when it’s a woman author with a woman protagonist. And if they (wrongly) guess that the audience will be mainly men, because we’re sexist, with particularly a man author, they’ll go with the manly serif. Women authors call it getting a “girl” cover — a hyper-sexualized or frilly/lacy/floral “feminine” cover that will often have serif types. They congratulate each other if they get a “boy” cover with manly spaceships or swords instead and where the type might be sans-serif. Because boy covers often get more book reviews from the pool of predominantly men reviewers and get taken more seriously by booksellers and the field at large. Because we’re sexist.

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      1. It’s not even a hypothesis. It’s genuinely how they do it, at least in the English language market. The gender stuff has of course been problematic for years, and the Asian inclination is fairly iffy but isn’t consistently done. The sub-genre stuff has been pretty standard. Serif indicates old, non-tech and sans serif indicates modern, tech. So that would work for fantasy versus science fiction except that fantasy is not limited to non-tech settings and science fiction can use non-futuristic and low tech situations.

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  6. I actually came up with a system for determining whether something is fantasy or science fiction, which I will unveil after I’ve finished NaNoWriMo so that everyone can laugh at it. (I think it’s reliable, though. Well, sort of. Depending on certain of the readers’ opinions….)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Your mention of “space” as being sf while “necromancy” is fantasy within Gideon the ninth (which I haven’t read) points to a important part of the definition of sf: space. If a magical ship sails over an ocean it is all fantasy, but if a magical ship sails across space, it is partially sf. Now, an ocean is as scientific as space, so there clearly is something very sfish about space. A story with the same amount of magic becomes partially sf if there is space in it instead of , say, forests and oceans, even if the level of magic is the same.

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  8. And Star Wars (at least the original trilogy) would be totally fantasy, except for robots and space. If the level of robots and space is high enough, fantasy becomes sf.

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