What is fantasy? Well, we all know, don’t we? At least, we know when we’ve read a fantasy novel, but that’s not quite the same. This article was inspired by a discussion on the excellent fantasy-writers.org, and I thought I’d try to go into some detail about my thoughts.
In one way, it’s irrelevant. There’s good fiction and bad fiction, and quite a large proportion of good fiction (though by no means all) resists being pushed into convenient pigeon-holes and left there. When I start with a blank sheet of paper (or more likely a blank Word file) I’m not thinking “how do I make sure this is fantasy?” I’m thinking “how do I make this as good as I can?” The fact that it usually comes out as fantasy is my personal taste.
Defining fantasy, or any other type of fiction, is descriptive, not prescriptive. Its primary purpose is for marketing, as a shorthand for saying that this book contains X, Y and Z which, if it’s well written, I usually enjoy, rather than U, V and W, which I can take or leave. Once we move into “you must include X, Y and Z, because you’re writing fantasy,” we’re descending very quickly into formula fiction.
I’d say that the primary division in fiction is between speculative fiction (including fantasy) and realistic fiction, although even here there are overlaps, such as some kinds of magic realism. In medieval Iceland, one of the world’s great fiction-producing cultures, the primary division for narrative was between “true-seeming sagas” (including both realistic fiction and historical and biographical narratives) and “lying sagas” (fantasy – “lying” didn’t have a particularly negative connotation and only signified something unbelievable).
Speculative fiction incorporates the broad sub-categories referred to as science fiction, fantasy and supernatural horror (as opposed to stories of torture and serial killers, which are really extreme thrillers) and incorporating genres that don’t quite fit into any of those three, such as cyberpunk, steampunk, alternative history and slipstream. It should be noted that none of the three sub-categories should really be referred to as genres – fantasy, for instance, incorporates a number of distinct genres, such as sword & sorcery, epic fantasy and paranormal romance.
It might be said that realism seeks to mirror the real world as it is, while speculative fiction seeks to extend experience beyond the real world. At first sight this seems reasonable, but it raises a fundamental problem: what is the real world? In the Icelandic example above, for instance, “lying sagas” told of gods and dragons and dwarves and enchanted hoards, but any “true-seeming saga” could include elements like ghosts and curses. To those who wrote and read the stories, after all, these were simply part of the real world as it was.
These problems aren’t restricted to ancient cultures, though. A fair proportion of people in western, developed countries believe in ghosts, for instance. (For the record, my response to that question would be “it depends what you mean by ghosts.”) If I write a ghost story, does it count as speculative to the sceptics and realistic to the believers?
It goes beyond that, though. I’d contend that all fiction, and probably most non-fiction narrative, too, is set in an imaginary world. Most of these fictional realities, as I call them, are very like the world we see around us, but each is filtered through a specific person’s perceptions and assumptions, as well as the needs of the story s/he’s writing.
To take an example, two authors might write stories about a maverick cop who ignores the rules in pursuit of suspects. In one story, this will enable him to protect society against dangerous criminals, despite the bleeding-heart liberals who protect the bad guys. In the other, he’ll destroy innocent lives by riding roughshod over rules that are there to protect basic rights.
The difference between these two stories isn’t a random issue about what happens in it. They take place in different realities, where the way the author sees the situation (or chooses to see it) actually is the way the world works. All authors of fiction, and many journalists, historians and others, consciously or unconsciously create a world in which the story they wish to tell will work. Fantasy writers are just honest about it.
So, at what point does the invention become speculative – or fantasy? Perhaps we could say that a story becomes speculative if it includes a component or event that couldn’t happen in the real world, either present or historic – but then we’re back to the problem that there isn’t a consensus about that. There are also many kinds of realism and lack of it. Poor examples (though certainly not all examples) of genres such as romance or thriller, and certainly TV soap operas, are rife with characters behaving in ways no human ever has behaved or ever will. Does that make them fantasy?
It’s also possible to write a story in which the plot as a whole relies so much on coincidence that it’s difficult to believe that such a sequence of events could actually happen. Some of Dickens’ novels fall into this category, for instance – without needing to bring up the plain fantasy of A Christmas Carol. Nevertheless, if we examine each individual event, we’d be hard put to find a single non-realist link in the chain.
Perhaps the best way of defining it is that realism includes only types of event which the current state of science could confidently acknowledge as possible. If a narrative includes events that rely on collective belief or suspension of disbelief, it should be counted as speculative fiction. Individual knowledge or belief doesn’t apply here. On a personal level, I only believe that Australia exists, since I haven’t directly experienced it. On the other hand, someone might know that ghosts exist through direct experience. Nevertheless, as far as the human collective is concerned, Australia is a proven fact, while ghosts are a working hypothesis, which may or may not be proved one day.
So what does speculative fiction include that realism doesn’t? If it’s science fiction, it may include the assumption of scientific laws that may be true but haven’t been shown to be so, or else the effect of scientific laws being different from those we know. Horror may involve supernatural beings, magic or curses working, or different planes of existence. Both alternative history and steampunk involve the world having developed in a different way from the one we know.
Fantasy can incorporate most of these – especially magic – as well as other elements such as worlds like our own that aren’t speculated as being reachable. Perhaps the difference between fantasy and the other types of speculative fiction is that it has no need to explain. Science fiction postulates laws of nature to underpin the events. Horror explains less, but it requires the reader to believe, even if only by suspension of disbelief, that the magic or supernatural beings fit into the world as we know it. Alternative history relies on defining the point of divergence.
Fantasy sometimes explains itself, of course. As I pointed out at the start, defining types of fiction is a matter of convenience, not of necessity, and it pleases some fantasy writers to explain how the fantasy works; but that’s an extra. Fantasy asks not “how could this happen?” but “what would it be like if this could happen?” At root, fantasy isn’t about the magic, or the dragons, or the exotic worlds: it’s the question “what if?”
Then again, perhaps we could just say that fantasy is Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian, Songs of Ice and Fire, Perdito Street Station and things like that. That’s a much easier answer.