SF or Fantasy? Who cares?

Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. Our guest today is Gerrard Cowan, a writer and editor from Derry, in the North West of Ireland. His debut fantasy novel, The Machinery, will be published by HarperVoyager UK in September 2015. It is the first in a trilogy. His first known work was a collection of poems on monsters, written for Halloween when he was eight; it is sadly lost to civilisation.

One commenter gets a copy of The Machinery.

Gerrard Cowan

Gerrard Cowan

The fantasy and science fiction genres are closely related, so much so that they are often grouped together under one acronym: SFF. Many books and movies may appear to be sci-fi, but are often claimed for the fantasy genre. Star Wars is the classic example, but you could probably make a case for a host of others: Dune, The Hunger Games, The Matrix, and others besides.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I gear up for the launch of my own book, The MachineryI’ve always seen it as a fantasy, but there are elements of it that give it a strong sci-fi flavour. The story is set in a country whose leaders are chosen by a machine, which now appears to be breaking. This conjures up images of a giant computer, churning through vast reams of data and spitting out names. Even the title of the book shouts ‘sci-fi’ louder than ‘fantasy’.

Still, I always intended it to be a fantasy. This was the case from the very beginning, when all I had was the idea of the Machinery itself. Looking back, I don’t think there was ever a time that I considered writing the book as sci-fi. Why was that?

There are two main reasons. The Machinery itself is not depicted as a standalone object; in fact, the people of the world don’t even see it in this novel (the book is the first in a trilogy). It exists in a kind of parallel dimension called the Underland, and its selections are brought to the people by a shadowy, immortal being called the Operator. I wanted to consider ideas of religious change: this is a society that has believed and depended upon something for ten millennia, and now that faith is being shaken. I thought a version of Early Modern Europe would make a fitting setting, as another society grappling with religious, technological and cultural change.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSecondly, there is a strong magical element to the novel, and a kind of gloomy, surreal weirdness. Fantasy felt like a better fit for that.

Neither reason, of course, would prevent the novel from working in the sci-fi genre. Plenty of science fiction has religious elements, and a lot of it is infused with weird magic. Perhaps I wrote it as a fantasy because that’s the genre I was drawn to as a kid. Or perhaps I just liked the old-world setting.

But let’s say I had placed the novel in a futuristic environment – would it then count as sci-fi? How would it need to change to merit that distinction? OK, I could have put it in an age of space travel, with interplanetary colonisation and so on. However, I still would have wanted to keep the religious element, and the sense of magic. Would it be a sci-fi because these elements co-existed with advanced technology? I actually think it would still class as a fantasy. In fact, these aspects are among the reasons that Star Wars is often claimed for fantasy.

So what makes a sci-fi a sci-fi and a fantasy a fantasy? Trying to build firm lines between the two is a treacherous business. I suppose you could say that sci-fi has a strong technical element: it tries to explain how the technology it depicts could actually work, using real science. But is that enough? Star Trek is the classic sci-fi, in many ways, but when the Borg are invading the Alpha Quadrant, are we worrying about their technology? Isn’t the principle much the same as an Orc horde descending on a human settlement?

One of my favourite authors, if not my favourite, is Mervyn Peake. The GORMENGHAST series goes from a sprawling castle to a futuristic city (Titus Alone)I see in Wikipedia that Gormenghast is considered the first Fantasy of Manners. Well, I didn’t know that when I first read it, or watched the BBC’s excellent adaptation. All I knew was that it sucked me in completely.

Good sci-fi and good fantasy share similar roots in classic mythology and ancient storytelling. George Lucas tapped into this to great success with Star Wars, the story of a farmboy who takes on and destroys an evil empire. You could argue that all genres utilise similar tropes. However, the glorious thing about SFF is its sheer potential to excite our imaginations: Doctor Who could take us to literally any point in history or the future, on any one of a million worlds. Who cares if that’s sci-fi or fantasy? It’s fantastic either way.

Thanks, Gerrard! Readers, tell us about your definitions of SF/F. Discuss in the comments. One commenter will receive a copy of Cowan’s The Machinery.


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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