What is Fantasy?

Before I begin, there is one thing I like about fantasy readers as opposed to science fiction readers: they aren’t rigid, even when they attach parts of their self-identity to liking the genre.

That’s important, because when trying to define “fantasy,” there is a tension between what constitutes a literary genre as a marketing paradigm (basically, what the readers expect when picking up a book labeled “fantasy”) and what, in a technical sense, makes a fantasy book.

“Fantasy” means simply imagination, as the word is used in music composition.

So the simple and robust definition of fantasy is an imaginative work of fiction, but that by itself is somewhat wanting since all fiction involves imagination on some level. Fantasy fiction, therefore needs a tighter definition: fiction that involves the imaginative as opposed to the real.

A story that works outside our understanding of the “real world” (to the extent that exists and we can understand it), is, technically, fantasy.

This technical definition would also include Science Fiction, much to the chagrin of its fans, who consider their tropes of imagination (imaginary or speculative technology) to be superior to the “magical” tropes of mainstream fantasy. I think this is appropriate, but it is a good razor for the confusion between genre as a marketing tool and genre as a technical definition.

When I look at modern fantasy, at least the mainstream stuff, I see a general decline in imagination, and I think this tension between the market and the meaning is to blame. For better or worse, science fiction and fantasy have settled into distinct market areas with distinct readerships based around commonly used setting elements and story-writing techniques. This was not the case in the past.

Jack Vance commonly used both magic performed by wizards and advanced technology. Ghosts haunt forgotten museums full of forgotten machines; characters use flying machines to escape wizards. The most popular franchise of all time, Star Wars, freely mixes magic (the Force) and technology (lightsabers, spaceships, etc.) to construct its setting and inform its interpersonal drama. Gene Wolfe has aliens, magic talismans, strange rites, and interstellar travel all mixed together in the Book of the New Sun.

Going back to the origins of the modern genres, Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs makes no meaningful distinction between setting elements derived from machines and magic. It’s science fiction in the classic sense, but modern readers might find it to be something closer to Isekai than Foundation.

This division was a long time coming and was intentionally created by editors of science fiction magazines in the mid-20th century. You can read more in JD Cowan’s The Last Fanatics, where he makes a good case that the division according to market expectations wasn’t present before World War II.

Circling back around to Star Wars, one of the more interesting discussions I have seen in my comments sections is the debate over what genre Star Wars is. Being derivative of Buck Rogers and Star Trek, it seems to be pretty obviously science fiction to me, but lots of viewers settled on the term Science Fantasy, a term with no obvious etymological meaning. What they meant is that it contains tropes from two distinct marketing areas: fantasy (with wizards who do magic) and science fiction (with machines that do magic). It’s a conflict born of looking back in time almost 50 years to a story inspired by stories made 50 years before that, where such distinctions didn’t exist – distinctions that have calcified since the release of Star Wars in 1977.

Even now some consumers are curious as to how Final Fantasy is fantasy when many of its games have robots, spaceships, submarines, cars, guns, etc. It’s fantasy because it’s imaginative; there is no rule that you can’t have a fantasy story about four slightly goth bros taking a road trip through southern California and fighting demons on the way.

Really, all these things are just fantasy, but even in obvious “fantasy” with wizards and knights, genre tropes (which change sometimes) have an effect. I run into lots of younger readers who default to thinking a good fantasy story must have a “magic system,” an influence of writers like Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, who “scientized” their wizards (and that in turn might have been an influence from role playing games with their strict rulesets within fantasy settings). Again, there is friction between what the audience expects to see or wants to see and what makes a thing fit into a literary category.

As an author these expectations can be a bit restrictive, especially as sub-genres have proliferated like ants. The conventional approach to indie fiction is an extension of corporate fiction into the micro-genre. An author discovers the expectations of a market segment and writes a book to directly and completely meet these expectations. Fantasy’s best trait—the ability to be original and produce the unexpected—is greatly diminished when attempting to thoroughly meet marketing genre tropes.

What sub-genre does Book of the New Sun fit into? The fact that you can’t easily answer that question, or answer it at all, is precisely why the series is so good. It’s special. It’s weird. It’s what fantasy is supposed to be.

That’s part of what I aim to do as an author in the genre. When I wrote AlshafalthaI suspected it would not be popular because it was first of all a tragedy but second doesn’t follow the standard tropes of modern fantasy or imitate the style of figures like Robert Jordan. I was right, but at the same time I’ve had a few readers say they loved the book, and that is enough for me.

I am an independent artist and musician. You can get my books by joining my Patreon or Ko-Fi, and you can listen to my current music on YouTube or buy my albums at BandCamp.

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