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Science Fiction & Fantasy:
A Genre With Many Faces

by Amy Goldschlager, Avon Eos

The world of science fiction and fantasy is rich and varied. Often lumped together under the catchall term "speculative fiction," these two distinct genres encompass a number of sub-genres. Many who don't read sf/f are unaware that the two though close kin are very different. Isaac Asimov, once asked to explain the difference between science fiction and fantasy, replied that science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.

The following are terms used frequently used to define elements and "sub-genres" within science fiction and fantasy literature.

A catchall term for science fiction and fantasy. It applies to work that answers the question "What if...?" Sometimes it is also applied to fiction considered more "literary" in nature that includes elements of SF or fantasy. Examples include Nicholas Christopher's Veronica and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Within science fiction, the term speculative fiction refers to novels that focus less on advances in technology and more on issues of social change, such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick.

A genre that extrapolates from current scientific trends. The technology of a science fiction story may be either the driving force of the story or merely the setting for a drama, but all science fiction tends to predict or define the future.

A term often used for science fiction primarily by people outside the field. Serious readers of science fiction prefer the abbreviation sf.

Cyberpunk explores the fusion between man and machine. A key element is the perfection of the Internet and virtual reality technology. In a cyberpunk novel, characters can experience and interact with computers in a 3D graphic environment so real that it feels like a physical landscape. The society in which cyberpunk is set tends to be heavily urban, and usually somewhat anarchic or feudal. The "father of cyberpunk" is William Gibson, author of the seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. Eos authors defining this ever-evolving virtual reality include Neal Stephenson and Rudy Rucker.

Basically, the armed forces in space. Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War are classic examples. Contemporary examples include David Feintuch's Seafort Saga novels, and the work of Lois McMaster Bujold. Military SF at Avon includes Susan R. Matthews's An Exchange Of Hostages and Prisoner Of Conscience, and the upcoming Heritage series by William Keith.

Usually written by writers with a strong science background, frequently research scientists, who provide meticulously detailed future science in their work, consistent with the most current research. Hard SF writers include Greg Bear and David Brin, as well as Eos authors Gregory Benford and John Cramer.

The idea behind parallel/alternate universe SF is that for every decision made or event that occurs, there is another place where the decision or the event went differently. For example, Robert Harris's Fatherland, in which Hitler was victorious, could be considered alternate universe sf. Steven Gould's Wildside presents a contemporary parallel in which high school seniors pass through a portal to a primeval Earth never inhabited by humans. Another type of alternate/parallel universe sf is that written by hard SF writers, usually physicists like John Cramer whose novels Twistor and Einstein's Bridge are good examples.

High adventure in space; usually somewhat campy, of the type that used to be serialized at the movies and in the pulp magazines that were popular in the first half of this century. Hallmarks of space opera include encounters with beautiful women and bug-eyed monsters. Flash Gordon is vintage space opera, Star Trek™ is more sophisticated, contemporary space opera. Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom series is space opera.

A genre not based in reality presupposing that magic and mythical/supernatural creatures exist.

Sweeping in scope, epic fantasy usually concerns a battle for rulership of a country, empire or entire world. Drawing heavily upon archetypal myths and the quintessential struggle between a few good people against overwhelming forces of evil, epic fantasy is best represented by author J. R. R. Tolkien's classic The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Eos authors of epic fantasy include New York Times bestselling Raymond E. Feist (The Serpentwar Saga) and Adam Lee (The Dominions Of Irth). Some other popular epic fantasy authors are Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Terry Brooks.

A subcategory of epic fantasy that's currently popular and is the fantasy equivalent of Dumas's The Three Musketeers. Good examples of this are Robin Hobbs's Assassin trilogy, George R. R. Martin's A Song Of Ice And Fire trilogy, Martha Wells's The Element Of Fire, and Avon author Dave Duncan's upcoming The King's Blades trilogy.

A major subcategory of epic fantasy in which the hero endures many hardships while retrieving an object of power that will defeat the enemy. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy is a classic quest fantasy. Eos's The Shadow Eater: Book II Of The Dominions Of Irth is a quest fantasy by Adam Lee.

A sub-genre in which historical events are given a fantasy treatment, or myths are given an historical treatment. Actual historical events are mixed with imaginary ones, bound together by magic. For example, Parke Godwin's The Last Rainbow is an historical fantasy based on the life of St. Patrick.  Stephen R. Lawhead's bestselling Pendragon Cycle are Arthurian novels which make an attempt at historical accuracy combined with strong fantastical elements.

A sub-genre of fantasy which posits that magic exists in our modern-day world, and often wrestles with contemporary issues. Examples of contemporary fantasy include Eric S. Nylund's Dry Water, and Tim Powers's novels Last Call and Expiration Date.

A subcategory of contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy is set in a contemporary city. Often co-existing with the familiar city life is a hidden, magical aspect of the city frequently including magical creatures. Charles de Lint is one of the primary authors of urban fantasy. To some extent, Mark Helprin's A Winter's Tale is an urban fantasy as well as Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.

A hybrid and subset of speculative fiction describing worlds in which either both magic and science work, science is so sophisticated it simulates magic, or characters possess psychic powers so strong they resemble magic. Eric S. Nylund's A Game Of Universe is a science fantasy of the first type (an assassin who can cast spells travels through space in search of the Holy Grail), as is Sheri S. Tepper's The Family Tree (which includes time travel, genetic engineering, and wizards). Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider series is a science fantasy of the second and third types (genetic engineering on an alien reptile species has created "dragons" that breathe fire and who communicate telepathically with their riders). Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series (concerning the history of a planet whose industry is not based on machines and physical labor, but on the potent psychic powers of the inhabitants) are science fantasies of the third type.

Copyright © 1997 by Amy Goldschlager, Avon Eos
Avon Eos has given reprint permission to use this piece.

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