Why you like science fiction and fantasy even though you think you don't

People constantly tell me they don't like fantasy and science fiction when they clearly do. It's bewildering. At the start of the Story Elements course, I ask students to bring their three all-time favourite novels. Invariably, with at least one fantasy or sci-fi novel in their pile, they explain that they don't like or read fantasy or sci-fi. One of my closest friends swears blind that she cannot stand fantasy or sci-fi. Recently, she did one of those Facebook name-your-ten-favourite-books lists:

1. Divine Comedy - Dante
2. Crime and Punishment - Dostoevsky
3. 1984 - Orwell
4. The Magic Faraway Tree - Blyton
5. The Sea, The Sea - Murdoch
6. The Picture of Dorian Grey - Wilde
7. A Prayer for Owen Meany - Irving
8. The Red Tent - Diamant
9. The Metamorphosis - Kafka
10. The Fall - Camus

It's an impressive list. It's also impressively weighted towards sci-fi and fantasy. Only four of the ten books are clear-cut realist; the rest are some variety of SFF (sci-fi and fantasy together). In the realist camp, she has Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea, Diamant's Red Tent, and Camus's Fall. And the rest? Divine Comedy is a theological fantasy, set in an imagined world (or an imagining of the afterlife, depending on your theology). 1984 is a futurist dystopia, a variety of sci-fi. The Faraway Tree is straightforward fantasy. The Picture of Dorian Grey centres around a picture with supernatural powers: that's a paranormal novel, a kind of fantasy. A Prayer of Owen Meany is realistish but with vast exaggerations and hints of stronger powers at work, in the tradition of Tall Tales, another variety of fantasy. And finally, Metamorphosis - I think the hint that we're not dealing with realism comes at the beginning here, when the man turns into a giant bug - is horror / fantasy.

Favourite books of my friend who "hates sci-fi and fantasy":

She's not wrong about her own taste in literature, she's just using the wrong words. Like most people, she doesn't know how broad the terms "sci-fi" and "fantasy" actually are. When most people say "sci-fi and fantasy", they imagine this:

And yes, all that is sci-fi and fantasy. Meanwhile, this is what they almost definitely would say isn't sci-fi or fantasy:

All of it actually is. All those books are SFF.

And then there are a whole lot more books, which people might recognise as SFF with a bit of thought, but which aren't what they think of when they think "sci-fi and fantasy":

So why the confusion? For "fantasy", most people are thinking only of epic fantasy, also sometimes called "sword and sorcery":

The castles, the battles, the kings and queens, the swords, the wizards, the dragons, the complex political machinations, the imaginary worlds, and some kind of magic, and all the books are huge and come in trilogies or series of seven. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (that's the title of the book series; A Game of Thrones is the first book's title). Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice (book one of The Farseer Trilogy), Patrick Rothfuss's Name of the Wind (book one of The Kingkiller Chronicle), Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings (book one of The Dandelion Dynasty). They really do come in vast serieses and to fans, that's a major plus. And they are just one subgenre of fantasy.

Likewise for "sci-fi", most people are thinking of space opera or hard sci-fi:

Aliens and spaceships and strange planets and lots of sciency stuff about robots and faster-than-light-travel, the book equivalent of Star Wars and Doctor Who. Isaac Asimov's robot short stories, Peter F Hamilton's great tomes, Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem. And again, these are just a subset of sci-fi. ("Hard sci-fi" is stuff that extrapolates a particular scientific principle; "space opera" doesn't give a toss about the science and is just all about aliens and new planets. In practice, quality "space opera" also uses lots of good scientific extrapolation.)

Both fantasy and sci-fi are much wider terms than that, though. They include plenty of classics - for instance, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and George Orwell's 1984.

Few bookshops shelve these under "SFF" - but that's what they are. Dracula, the story of a vampire, is fantasy / horror. If it were written now, we'd call it "contemporary paranormal": it's set in our world, but with paranormal creatures or events. Alice in Wonderland is also fantasy, set in a completely fantasy world. Frankenstein, often grouped together with Dracula, is actually science fiction: it extrapolates scientific knowledge, the role of electricity in life, to explore what one could do with that - attempt to create life - and the events that would unfold as a result. 1984 is equally sci-fi. It's not "hard sci-fi" (it doesn't take a scientific principle and extrapolate it) or "space opera" (no other planets, no spaceships, no aliens), but it was set in the future and extrapolates how a particular thing might pan out - in this case, politics. Its subgenre is "dystopia", but it includes other features of sci-fi, too, in its future technology that makes the system possible: the watching panels set in every home, the computer-generated pulp fiction for the proles, and so forth.

Plenty of literary and contemporary fiction also falls within sci-fi and fantasy, though it's never shelved there and rarely called that:

On the fantasy side, Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black is contemporary paranormal: set in this world, but with the supernatural addition of ghosts. Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry combines historical London with magical realism. Angela Carter's Bloody Chamber famously retells fairytales - which in most cases are another subgenre of fantasy. It's shelved under "General fiction", but if you want to find Melinda Lo's Ash, another fairytale retelling, you'll have to find your way to the SFF section, at the back of the shop or the far corner of the third floor.

On the sci-fi side of "respectable" fiction, Audrey Niffenegger's Time-Traveler's Wife, which won a British Book Award, is contemporary sci-fi: it's set in the here-and-now, but with the addition of Henry's "Chrono-Displacement Disorder". She could have treated his time-travel as fantasy (urban paranormal) or left it unexplained (magical realism), but instead went with a careful medical justification and exploration, shifting the book into sci-fi. Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, the 1986 Booker-Prize winner, is a futurist dystopia, extrapolating from regressive and puritanical religious approaches to women and fertility. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, shortlisted for the Booker in 2005, is a similarly chilling dystopia - but if you've never read it, I don't want to be the one to spoil it for you, so that's all I'll say. You'll find these novels under "General fiction" or even "Literary fiction" - but if you want to find another dystopia that commentates on social issues, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, it's back to the SFF section with you.

Or possibly the Young Adult section. Most of the YA section falls within the realms of sci-fi and fantasy, or mash-ups between the two. But somehow, by creating a marketing term purely around age, the books have been liberated from many other genre constraints, as well as from the "ghetto" of SFF, where people who think they don't like fantasy and sci-fi would never find them.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman is set in an alternate version of our world but with a mixture of Victorian steam power and "anabaric" power - steampunk, basically, and a touch of magic, some theological fantasy, and also YA. Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book is set now and replete with ghosts - so that's contemporary paranormal, a subgenre of fantasy, with touches of horror, and also YA; so, for that matter, is Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, which is also a romance. The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud is set in an alternate London ruled by magicians through spells and demons: you could call that alternate-world, paranormal, YA, but it's definitely fantasy. Although "Young Adult" is a recent invention, it includes some classics written before it was coined: Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon. Both are sci-fi, but many people would only recognise Ender's Game as "genre". Flowers for Algernon is contemporary medical sci-fi.

The genre features here aren't looking so different to our classics and Serious Prize Winners. Theological fantasy: Divine Comedy and His Dark Materials. Ghosts: Beyond Black and The Graveyard Book. Vampires: Dracula and Twilight. Dystopias: 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, Never Let Me Go, The Hunger Games. Magic: The Bloody Chamber and The Amulet of Samarkand. Contemporary medical sci-fi: The Time Traveler's Wife and Flowers for Algernon. We can draw other distinctions between the two groupings, the YA versus the Serious Books, but not genre distinctions. On genre, they're a match.

As we start unthreading the true variety of sci-fi and fantasy, all sorts of other subgenres emerge, the books most people might recognise as "SFF" but don't think of when they say "sci-fi and fantasy". On the side of fantasy, as well as the familiar epic fantasy / sword-and-sorcery, we have theological fantasy, paranormal (which could be contemporary and / or urban), Tall Tales, magical realism, fairytales, and horror, which is also its own genre. On the side of sci-fi, as well as space opera and hard sci-fi, there's contemporary sci-fi (set now), and dystopia (which may be set now or may be futurist). But these aren't mutually exclusive categories and even the two major distinctions, fantasy and sci-fi, can start to blur.

Broadly speaking, fantasy uses completely invented worlds and / or ideas using magic, the supernatural, the unreal. Sci-fi, meanwhile, imagines future worlds and ideas using real-world sciency explanations. But in some novels, the genres start to cross over.

Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber is definitely sci-fi, set on a different planet in the future with tech at its basis, but much of it's set on another, technologically backward world which feels far more like a fantasy novel. The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, on the other hand, really does blend the genres: while largely sci-fi and dystopian, it also uses magic.

Some of the sub-genres don't quite fit the sci-fi / fantasy distinction either, such as alternate histories:

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick explores a world where Germany and Japan won World War Two. It's fantasy in that it's imaginary, not futurist, but plays out more with the extrapolating logic of sci-fi and there's nothing "paranormal" about it. Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, set in the 19th century, takes the premise that magic used to exist and has returned, which puts it more on the fantasy spectrum. It's also distinctly literary: it was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize as well as winning a Hugo (an SFF award) in 2005. Orson Scott Card's Tales of Alvin Maker, which begins with Seventh Son, is set in an alternate American frontier in the early 19th century, with magic in the form of "knacks", and feels more like fantasy. But other alternate histories lean more towards the sciency side - most notably, steampunk.

Steampunk is a particular kind of alternate history, most easily described as "imagine Victorians invented sci-fi, using only steam-age technology". Cue hot-air balloons, zeppelins, goggles, cogs, rivets, and a great deal of Victorian-style dress. It's an aesthetic, a décor, a fashion, and a subgenre of SFF. Jules Vernes's Around The World in Eighty Days would be steampunk, except he really was Victorian and wrote it at the time, whereas steampunk generally describes us looking backwards. (You can argue about this in the pub with a steampunk enthusiast, if you like. Look for anyone wearing leather goggles.) So it's sciency. Definitely sciency. Albeit not future-sciency.

Nisi Shawl's Everfair imagines how the Belgian colonisation of the Congo might have gone if the Congolese had already developed steam technology: a classic steampunk alternate history. But then Dru Pagliassotti's Clockwork Heart is set in a completely imaginary world, which is more along the lines of fantasy, but based on steampunk tech, not magic. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman is set in a parallel Oxford, using steampunk technology but also "anabaric" power and some definite suggestions of magic, including Lyra's Golden Compass, witches, talking bears, and so forth. And then there's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter, which can only be described as - and I believe this is the technical term - "mad". It's like a disturbing erotic fever dream after a visit to a Victorian mechanical-toy museum. Definitely steampunk, though, as well as picaresque, surreal, magical-realist, postmodern, and, as I said, mad.

Then we get the fantasy subgenres which are definitely fantasy, but not set in a fantasy world: urban paranormal and magical realism.

Storm Front: Bk. 1 - Dresden Files Bk. 1

Urban paranormal follows at least one of the features of fantasy: although it's set in our world, now, it uses consistent magic. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (first book: Storm Front) follows Harry Dresden, Chicago's first (and only) Wizard P.I. He's a wizard, he does actual spells with magic and potions that have limitations and rules, and it's all in contemporary Chicago (at least in the early books). Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch is set in contemporary London and features a police officer who's also in training as a wizard. And if urban paranormal detective fiction is your thing, Kevin Hearne, Benedict Jacka, and Mike Carey also all write serieses featuring a cocky, likeable paranormal detective-type man in a contemporary city fending off paranormal crime while navigating paranormal power-structures like a true renegade, most of them with an animal sidekick and / or a female assistant / mentee. It's a remarkably precise sub-sub-genre! Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere could also be described as urban paranormal, but by the time you get down to London Below, where most of the book is set, it starts to feel a lot more like magical realism.

In most fantasy, you see, even though things aren't given a sciency explanation, the world has internal consistency. The magic has rules and constraints. Events happen for logical reasons, even if they're magical and involve talking bears. The world's rules are different to ours, but they're fixed. In magical realism, though, anything goes. It's a kind of fantasy - but it doesn't behave like any of the other fantasy.

Magical realism emerged in Latin America, where it was often used as coded political criticism during times of heavy censorship, with the flavour of cultures easily blending reality, exaggeration, superstition, and myth. In The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende, Clara has the power of prophecy. In 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, among the many impossible events of its multigenerational tale, a child can survive eating only dry soil, a ship appears on dry land, and the family's many sufferings are all foretold by a secret message. In Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, a tear in a wedding cake can make all the guests vomit with grief and a dish cooked with rose petals given by a lover can make everyone rage with lust - to the point that the middle sister, having an urgent cold shower, sets the shower shed on fire.

Authors outside Latin America have also played with the genre. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children features the strange power of the children born on the midnight of India's independence. Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry does whatever it likes, including with flying princesses. And Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus has at its heart the extravagant circus performer Fevvers, whose aerialist skills are helped by her giant wings.

Anything can happen in magical realism, without explanation and without becoming a part of the book's logic - which is why this is the one sub-genre of SFF that the Imaginary Worlds course doesn't cover. It's not world-building in the usual sense: it's an entirely different game of wild invention. (I do run a workshop on Magical Realism most summers.)

So, given all that wide variety within the genres, what's happened? Why do so many people have such a limited view of what sci-fi and fantasy are? Why are some books which are clearly sci-fi or fantasy shelved under General or Literary fiction, while others, with the exact same genre features, are shelved in SFF? And why does SFF have such a bad rep?

One could argue that plenty of science fiction and fantasy is rubbish, but then, as Sturgeon's Law says, "ninety percent of everything is crap". No-one's holding up The Da Vinci Code or Dean Koontz books as great literary fiction, but they still get shelved alongside it, not in their own special "Thrillers" section. The Morse books and Agatha Christie were never going to be listed for the Booker, but Umberto Eco never felt the need to insist that The Name of the Rose isn't a murder mystery, the way Margaret Atwood denies having anything to do with sci-fi. So what happened with SFF?

I suspect a lot of this snobbery has a particular historic basis. Sword-n-sorcery and space-opera both became heavily associated with the rise of pulp fiction from the turn of the century to the 1950s, especially in the United States. Pulp fiction used cheap printing, cheap paper - and cheap authors, so anyone hoping to make a decent dime had to churn their stories out fast. They also preferred sensationalist and lurid stories. The modern equivalent might be self-pubbed ebooks of dinosaur erotica. In which case, serious palaeontologists had better look out, before they're all shelved in their own little "Paleo" ghetto. Which is no more absurd than our current situation.

The upshot, though, is that most people came to think fantasy = sword-n-sorcery = pulp fiction, and sci-fi = space opera = pulp fiction. Each of those "=" signs is a logical error of the "all sailors are men therefore all men are sailors" variety. Not all fantasy is sword and sorcery; not all sword and sorcery is pulp fiction. Not all sci-fi is space opera; not all space opera is pulp fiction. But by the time people are convinced that sci-fi = pulp, then if they read something that's good, they refuse to believe it's sci-fi, regardless of the book's actual content.

Take The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. It's a futurist dystopia. That is sci-fi. But it's marketed as literary fiction, people insist that "it's not sci-fi because it's good", and even the author, who continues to write sci-fi in her Onyx and Crake trilogy, insists she doesn't write sci-fi. Worse still, she's aggressively dismissive of sci-fi and insists it's all "talking squids in outer space". One might as well say "The Red Tent isn't historical fiction because it's good" or "Books with love stories in them are all rubbish because of Mills and Boon, so I won't read Jane Eyre."

As a marketing ploy, though, Atwood may be onto something. Novels categorised as SFF are rarely to never long-listed for the major literary prizes, regardless of their quality. Kazuo Ishiguro got into similar hot water with his recent book, The Buried Giant, when he said in an interview with The New York Times, "Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I'm trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?" Ursula le Guin, one of the great fantasy writers, acidly pointed out that they might very well say that, because it is, and Ishiguro embarrassedly backtracked, trying to explain that he does like fantasy, he's "on the side of the pixies and the dragons", but was concerned about his readers. And with some justification, as this whole post has been exploring: people think they don't like fantasy and sci-fi, even when they do.

The flip side of this dynamic also holds true. On the recto, people will insist something isn't SFF because it's good; on the verso, if they can see it's SFF, they'll insist it must be rubbish. You might feel comfortable picking up Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell from the General Fiction shelves, with its General-Fiction-reader-friendly cover, and take its genre features as the author's unusual creativity. Compare that with the more common cover of Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son, which I deliberately withheld earlier:

In Seventh Son, would you expect an alternate history of equal quality, with a captivating narrative voice and strong points to make about native rights and environmentalism? Would you expect something that, in terms of the how-SFF-is-this scale, sits in exactly the same place as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? Or would you anticipate lurid pulp trash and never lift it off the shelf, never mind open it?

Even in naming and advertising the Imaginary Worlds course, I faced the same dilemma as Ishiguro. If I called it "World-building for fantasy and science fiction", that would put off all the people who like these genres but don't like epic fantasy and space opera. I took my cue from the French, who group all these genres as "l'imaginnaire" - a much more open term which I wish we could adopt in English - and I called it "Imaginary Worlds". At a student's suggestion, I also listed a wide range of genres on the posters and the website:

Imaginary Worlds genres: fantasy, science fiction, Young Adult fiction, urban paranormal, steampunk, dystopia

I know - and so do you, now - that all those other genres are sci-fi and fantasy, SFF, but even in my own marketing I had to find a way around that conundrum of perception.

There are two meanings of "SFF", you see. One is a marketing term and decides what kind of cover a book will get, where it will be shelved, and what prizes it will be eligible for. The other is about the actual genre features a book contains. And the two meanings have almost nothing to do with each other. So just as people have no idea how much fantasy and sci-fi they're reading and enjoying, because it's not packaged and shelved as SFF, so they equally have no idea how much quality fiction they're missing out on, because it is. Though if you do now feel you've been missing out horribly, and you're still certain you don't like epic fantasy and space opera, I hope all the books listed in this post can guide you to the other stuff you'll love, hidden at the back of the shop or in the far corner of the third floor.

The Imaginary Worlds course starts in Feburary 2017 - email me to book or read more about it below.

Develop your world-building to improve or invent your own imaginary worlds: the Imaginary Worlds course is an eight-week evening course on writing the genres of imaginary worlds, starting February 2017, and covering... • the many genres • how to constrain magic • making unlikely stuff convincing • your world's physical detail • why your world matters • ripple-through effects • names and language • your characters' political and economic realities • techniques for exposition. Read more about it and book here.

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