There are some excellent pieces available this week on the distinction between fantasy and science fiction…or rather on how vainglorious attempting to make that distinction is particularly when aimed at proving that science fiction is intrinsically better.
James Davis Nicoll has this delightfully sarcastic essay at Tor.com https://www.tor.com/2019/11/06/science-fiction-vs-fantasy-the-choice-is-clear/
“Science fiction provides its readers with iron-hard, fact-based possibility. For example, Frank Herbert’s Dune played with the possibility that the right combination of eugenics and hallucinogenic drugs (taken from enormous alien worms) might allow messianic figures to draw on the memories of their ancestors. Well, how else would it work?”
And it just gets better from there!
Meanwhile, one of my favourite writers/commentators on a whole range of things, Alexandra Erin has an equally good essay at Uncanny. https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-science-fiction-and-fantasy-of-genre/
“It’s been said that whoever writes in the field of science fiction stands on the shoulders of giants, the towering titans of yesteryear. Their hard work built the playground; we just play in it. At the risk of thoroughly mixing those two metaphors, it occurs to me that even if we allow for the existence of giants, a playground in which we have to stand on top of each other can’t be very large, can it? And even the best playground could use some new equipment from time to time.”
Apparently she wrote the essay awhile ago but by the time it was published it was once again extra-topical because of the recent essay by Norman Spinrad (the most recent news of which is here http://file770.com/spinrad-learns-date-of-asimovs-column-and-responds/ )
Personally I love attempting to make distinction between the two genres precisely because it is so futile. So here is another distinction of great superficiality. Two (badly flawed) lists from Forbes. The first “The Best Fantasy Novels of All time” and the second “The Best Science Fiction Novels of All Time“
Now if I was an AI* and I was trying training to spot the distinction between books in the two genres I think I’d go off one almost key feature based on that list:
Is the title in a serif font or a sans-serif font?
How well does it work based on those lists?
- Lord of the Rings: Great epic serifs.
- The Lies of Lock Lamora: Excellent serifs on all of those L’s.
- The Last Unicorn: Some of the serifs are sprouting flowers.
- Mistborn: More moderate serifs and Brandon Sanderson’s author name doesn’t get them.
- Tigana: neatly serifed.
- The Name of the Wind: Understated serifs but still very much there.
- A Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones: Serifs adapted for prestige TV.
- Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell: That ampersand is sprouting a giant serif.
- The Darkness that Comes Before: Modest serifs but still there.
- The First Law Trilogy: Damn you Joe Abercrombie! You’ve ruined my theory! OK exactly one of the example covers was sans-serif for fantasy
- Ender’s Game: Sans.
- Neuromancer: Sans.
- Hyperion: Sans
- Snow Crash: a fancy display font but…still sans.
- Dune: Art deco sans.
- The Fifth Season: lots of geologically unstable serifs! Ok but N.K.Jemisin says the book is fantasy, so…edge case.
- The Expanse: sans.
Now before you all say it there are actually many, many counter-examples to sans=SF and serif=fantasy. All of the books cited have many covers and while I don’t think I can find a Lord of the Rings editions with a sans-serif cover, I can find past covers of Ender’s Game with serif font choices for the title. Also, book covers are as prone to fashion as shoes** and what we are seeing are some specific font choices by publishers currently.
Even so, the choices are illuminating. A search on Baen book covers (because they are publisher with bold covers ) shows I think more-or-less-with-exceptions-and-edge-cases the rule of thumb sort of works in as superficial a way as possible.
No but really there is a serious point! Honest! I am actually still talking about bicycles in fantasy.
Sans-serif fonts date at least as far back as the 18th century but they are visually and semioticaly associated with the idea of modern and modernity. Serif fonts can be modern looking or evoke the past but in general a sans-serif font suggests something connected with more modern times and, also, the future. Historical science fiction (i.e. either recent books set in the past or older books) are more likely to also have serifed fonts. This list of best SF from Penguin has many more exceptions to the rule (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/the-read-down/best-sci-fi-books ) but one obvious example is Connie Willis’s Doomsday book***.
The rule then is more that a sans-serif font implies a modern aspect to the book. That makes the choice for the Joe Abercrombie cover a bit more interesting – The Blade Itself has a classic fantasy setting but characters that are a lot more modern in style and motivation and moral ambiguity. Of course, the specific example is also somewhat atypical compared with other editions.
So here is yet a different way of attempting to draw a line in a futile exercise to divide the genre of the fantastical:
- Books about the nature of the modern.
- Books about the nature of the pre-modern.
The distinction is a terrible one as it packs even more concepts into the words “modern” and “pre-modern” and it also implies just as many edge cases as already exist just with our intuitive distinction between fantasy and science-fiction.
It does answer my question about bicycles though. Bicycles are symbolically modern and despite the many ways we could imagine them fitting into a fantasy setting they feel out of place as a consequence. Only in the edge-cases where fantasy worlds work in with industrial (and hence modern in one sense) do bicycles not feel out of place.
*[Which I might be.]
**[even my shoes because Doc Martins go in and out of fashion]
***[two interesting counterexamples are SF novels by Tad Williams and Stephen Donaldson – both more famous for their fantasy works]