I don’t believe I’m about to have this argument, but…

After enough years in fandom there are certain arguments you learn to steer clear of because they are futile and never end. Genre definitions are one of them and I really should know better by now, however…

The pugnacious @gavreads earlier tweeted the following definitions, distilled from this IO9 report on a talk between Margaret Atwood and Ursula K Le Guin

“could happen (speculative fiction), couldn’t happen yet (science fiction), could never happen at all (fantasy).”

No, much as I respect both Atwood and Le Guin, this is just nonsense.

Firstly, speculative fiction is absolutely and definitively a catch all umbrella term for all imaginative fiction. It is not any kind of distinct genre in itself, and it was ABSOLUTELY NOT IN ANY WAY begun by Jules Verne as Atwood claims. That’s the kind of thing an ignorant but intelligent observer, which is exactly what Atwood is, would say knowing that its credible enough to sucker people in.

Secondly, this falls in to the tired old rut of defining science fiction and fantasy as different things. Which in turn is just pandering to the beardy science fiction fans and their group delusion that they aren’t just indulging the same fantastical tendencies as everyone else because they happen to base their fantasies on New Scientist magazine instead of germanic mythology. Science fiction is one among many brands of fantasy, and that’s the end of the matter.


Taking that metaphor literally makes it absurd and meaningless, which is the generalised effect of forgetting that science fiction, while possessing a number of distinguishing characteristics, is nonetheless still a form of fantasy.

That is all.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

20 thoughts on “I don’t believe I’m about to have this argument, but…

  1. When I was a small boy [not a very long time ago] I thought that the genre boundaries were pretty well defined. Science fiction had spaceships and laser guns. Fantasy had brooms that flew and magic wands. Two very different sources of power, two different genres and that was that. End of discussion.

    With reading more and reading widely I see that there are magic systems built with a complex, scientific idea in mind and technology with capabilities and invisible mechanisms that function like magic. This is more easy to see in films, rather than spot while reading. The two play of each other so much that I begun to understand they are the same thing. Kinda like a literary trinity [with horror].

    As for Atwood’s comments. I think that the first forms of storytelling, written and oral have a lot more to do with mythology and the invention of the fantastic rather than anything else. There is no invention of a genre. Fiction was fiction, until people decided to separate pieces from it and call it something else. As with all things it was a process. I express this view as an unread in the field, so I’m open to all the ways I’m being wrong.


    1. The mythic roots of fantasy are the key for me Harry. They’re what tell us about the real meaning of fantasy metaphors, instead of the twisted literal meanings we have applied to them. A dragon is never just a dragon…


      1. And a sonic screwdriver is definitely not just a sonic screwdriver with all those female assistants about.


  2. Oh dude, you are so in for it. . . .

    I am going to be discussing Atwood’s ideas in next week’s column, and yes, her definition is problematic, for many reasons. I am also in the “it’s all fantasy” camp and further, believe that ALL fiction is speculative. It is all some form of “what if?” narrative, from “what if a Scottish laird and a New York girl tried to have a romance?” to “what if you could manipulate DNA to create a ‘perfect’ human?” SF is not our modern mythology, although it may employ mythic tropes, and the simple separation into Spec Fic/SF/Fantasy ignores that all stories have some measure of each element in them.


    1. I think Atwood is a super smart cookie (or muffin) but frankly I just don’t think she has read enough SF to go about providing definitions of it. She’s basically just making stuff up. Which is fine, I love made up stuff! But we should try not to get it confused with anything resembling a fact.


  3. The only true difference between SF and Fantasy is SF tends (but not always) to hold to an internal logic based on recognised principles, whereas F doesn’t (but sometimes does). Nice rant though!


    1. I don’t think I can agree there, TFG. I think in order to be something anybody would want to read, fantasy really has to make sense within it’s self-contained context. The recognized principles in this case might be arbitrarily established by the writer, but the events within the story have to make a kind of internal sense, and there has to be some consistency. Water witches cannot work with fire, they’re water witches – fire witches cannot work near bodies of water, it’s antithetic to how their powers work on the most fundamental level. You see by example.

      So the real difference is that with science fiction, the principles used as the underpinnings of the world are extrapolated from known physics, whereas with fantasy, the writer is pretty much completely on his or her own.

      Now the interesting contextual difference is in that the writer may or may not be an expert on the scientific subjects that support his notions or ideas, and may write based on what he or she imagines the science to be like. In such cases, what we end up with is the hybrid genre “science fantasy”. Is there a clear delineation? At first it seems so, but the more one digs, the fuzzier the distinction becomes…


  4. I’m with you all the way until the bit about never ‘uploading’ human minds into, well, something that isn’t our body.

    The brains just meat kicking around a few electrons into some pulpy mess called a mind. People just put it on some special woo-woo pedestal built of species-narcisism and plasterboard.

    I mean, I’m not saying it’ll be a piece of piss or anything. Going by our track record, what evolution took 2+ million years to blindly stumble upon we should be able to knock up in our shed within the next few millenia, extinction permitting. The thing is not to get all evangelical about it

    That said, I’d probably forget to back myself up anyway.


    1. Hmmm…sorry, disagree. You may as well speculate on the possibilities of human consciousness being uploaded to a Connect 4. We don’t even know what consciousness in is any meaningful sense, so saying its electrons rattling around in the meat brain is just an assumption. IF its a material process at all then it’s happening somewhere down in the quantum foam where we can’t see it, and then of course there’s the very real possibility it’s not a material process at all. Either way, it’s not going to be uploaded to an Apple Mac ever. As I think Siri proves.


      1. Quantum foam, eh? I assume this is also occuring within the deeper workings of the thigh bone and bile duct then?

        I accept that ‘mind in the meat’ (in much the same way a violin is only made of cat gut and wood but can produce the most powerful and haunting melodies) is ultimately an assumption, but the idea of, well… anything… not being a material process is a helluva assumption!

        Apologies if I’m being Jonny McDe-rail; I know that this is actually a genre discussion.

        ”Quick- back to the Dawkinscave!!!”


  5. I think there are some observable differences in the dramatic conventions and culture of Science Fiction and Fantasy that merit the existence two separate labels being applied to shifting amorphous lumps of culture. (If not more labels. Let’s have more! Where’s my Medonza Space-Noir?) These labels are, however, created by arbitrary definitions of taste and history. This is wonderful. As a side effect two different genre definitions are likely to contain intersecting elements. But what I think what’s interesting is the finding of difference rather than trying to unify everything into one grand theory of all art and culture by finding the often banial commonalties. The rich textures of human experience are found only from the existence of many alternative expressions of how life is lived. To say two different sets of culture are actually the same eradicates, deletes, obscures and scrubs away some of this texture. The categorisation of things (fiction, music, film, video game, art, dance, whatever) into different genres should be seen as one way of exploring these differences. Not understanding, only described. Hopefully celebrated.

    Genres, I want more of them.


    1. Will, I basically agree. I’d keep science fiction around as a genre name, but I mostly think of it in terms of hard science fiction, space opera, cyberpunk, military sf, etc. rather than just science fiction. Same goes with fantasy.


      1. Same here. Some conventions are so frequently reproduced that they seem quite durable and revered, but in the end it is about discursive practice and culturally-informed interpretation, which changes over time, as do reading protocols and the effects of literature. It makes sense that genre designations would rise and fall and even mutate. Rigidity limits our understanding and is usually employed to demarcate certain fictions to generate symbolic capital or cohere some form of prestige or additional value to a text or texts.


      1. Singularity … yes, well, that’s certainly a phenomenon I’d expect to encounter in science fiction, but when it comes to fantasy … argh, curse you, Damien G Walter.


  6. “could happen (speculative fiction), couldn’t happen yet (science fiction), could never happen at all (fantasy).”

    John Clute recently likened Atwood’s explanations of SF to her mainly litfic audience to Peter Cook (minus jokes) explaining something to Dudley in one of their Dagenham dialogues. The above quote is perfect material for ’em!

    Dud: ‘I see. (thinks) Ere; so what’s alternative history then?’
    Pete: ‘That’s what might have happened if anyone had paid due concern.’


  7. From my reading of Atwood’s ‘In Other Worlds’ I think I see her conception of speculative fiction as being from Jonathan Swift and ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ – an interesting extension perhaps of the typical Jules Verniverse view of SF/fantasy etc. I have to confess here – that I hugely admire Atwood and I too like genre definitions. I don’t find them restrictive but something that can be fluid and re-defined across different periods – not a rigid New Criticism (Leavisite) way of branding things but terms to be contested and interrogated. For example, for some years now the origins of detective fiction have been debated – what was the first true detective story and who came up with the first sleuth? etc. And very interesting it has been too! I think I like your contention that science and fantasy in fiction are essentially the same thing – which opens up a whole other cultural can of worms! Bravo.
    And I think in addition that Atwood is coining her terms in a commercial and literary critical context. What does a best-selling ‘serious’ novelist have to contend with surrounding the prejudices of the critical reception of her work if it is placed in the (God forbid!) Sci-Fi shelves of a bookstore??



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