Fantasy Writers

Fantasy Writers – Where do you belong?

Most critics and publishers treat science fiction and fantasy as two separate genres, but the two are inextricably linked. In the 1960s, J. R. R. Tolkien’s monumental Lord of the Rings trilogy was published in paperback in the US, launching a whole new category of popular literature now known as heroic or epic fantasy. This type of story often features magic and swordplay against a medieval backdrop. For some reason that no one seems to understand, epic fantasy-with its magic rings, dragons, and elves-ended up on the bookshelves right alongside science fiction’s spaceships, aliens, and time machines. The two genres are intimately related, but no one can really say how. Suffice it to say that many readers who like science fiction also like fantasy-or you can say that both genres of literature deal with the fantastic-and they both deal wholesale in wonder.

If we break SF/fantasy down to its various components and sub-genres, the field is structured along the following lines:

Science Fiction deals with projected fantastic advances in science or technology, sometimes set in the future, near or far. Many SF stories are set in interplanetary or interstellar space. The most recognizable example in the popular mind is Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek in its various and numerous incarnations in film and television. Michael Crichton ( The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park) is probably the most well-known modern science fiction author, but the field has many other masters, past and present: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon, Frederick Pohl, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle … and the list goes on.

Non-epic or literary fantasy deals with the supernatural or paranormal, but presents it as a believable part of the everyday world. Masters of this form are Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Robert Bloch (author of the novel Psycho).

Epic or heroic fantasy deals with a sweeping saga set against a quasi-historical ancient world that is often medieval in nature, featuring the exploits of heroes-knights, warriors, kings and princes. These realms are often populated by fantastic creatures such as elves, dwarves, dragons, and other mythical beings. See the works of Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson, and Robert Jordan. For unique blends of SF and fantasy, try the works of Gene Wolfe or Ursula K. LeGuin.

Light or comic fantasy: All of the above applies, but with tongue in cheek. This particular subgenre does not take itself seriously much of the time, and the result is sometimes hilarious. Very high on the list is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. See also authors Christopher Stasheff, Robert Asprin, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Craig Shaw Gardner, and John DeChancie.

Contemporary urban fantasy sets stories in a contemporary world altered to the extent that supernatural or paranormal phenomena-ghosts, angels, elves, vampires-are pervasive and real. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels fall into this category, but John Crowley and Charles de Lint are able practitioners as well.

“Hard” science fiction heightens the scientific element of the story to increase credibility. Masters of this subgenre are Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke (who pioneered the concept of the communications satellite), and Isaac Asimov, whose fiction about robots anticipated today’s cybernetic revolution.

Horror or dark fantasy is a semi-independent subgenre that also deals with the supernatural or paranormal, but looks at the dark side of the universe. In horror, the supernatural is almost always fearful and dangerous. Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are the cornerstones of all horror that followed. Stephen King almost single handedly reinvented this type of story as a popular fiction genre in 1970s and 80s, and continues to sustain it, but many other writers have contributed to this field. See V. C. Andrews, Dean Koontz, Robert R. McCammon, and Thomas F. Monteleone.

Cyberpunk is any science fiction story that deals with near-future developments in computer technology which find their way to the “street,” hence the “punk” element. “Cyberspace” is a word that first appeared in the progenitor of all cyberpunk fiction, William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Bruce Sterling is another well-known writer in this field.

Alternate history deals with history that might have been, with historical what ifs? What if-Germany had won the Second World War?-the South had won the Civil War?-Columbus had never sailed the Atlantic?-the Roman Empire had lasted into the 20th century? Practitioners of this sub-genre are Philip K. Dick ( The Man in the High Castle), Harry Turtledove (The Guns of the South), and Brad Linaweaver (Moon of Ice and Anarquia).

Space opera involves tales of adventure and conflict set in a far interstellar future or on alien planets. Past practitioners: E. E. “Doc” Smith (The Lensmen series) and John W. Campbell, Jr. (also one of the field’s most influential magazine editors). To cite a more recent example, George Lucas’s Star Wars saga draws heavily from the history of this sub-genre. For contemporary space epic novels, seek out David Weber and his Honor Harrington series.

Many stories can fit comfortably in more than one of these sub-categories. In other words, a story that belongs to the general category of science fiction can be space opera as well. Add a monster or two, and it can also be horror. The Alien movies are examples of this genre-crossing.

Of course, some stories are virtually unclassifiable or in a class by themselves. What all these genres and sub-genres have in common is the fantastic nature of their subject matter. All deal wholesale in the sense of wonder. This is a feeling, instilled in the reader, of awe, astonishment, surprise, and an inkling that a new reality has been glimpsed. The core of a successful SF/fantasy story is its ability to make the reader marvel at the breadth of the writer’s imagination, his or her daring to think “outside the box,” his or her ability to create entire new worlds.

“What sub-genre should I write in?” Many beginning writers ask this question. “What should I write?” The answer that most professional writers would give is this: write the kind of stories that you like to read. What engenders a sense of wonder in you? Who are your favorite authors, and in what sub-genre do they make their home?

Tell a story that interests you. If you’re not interested in the story you tell, how can you hope to interest a reader?

The above partial lecture is from the Writing the Science Fiction and Fantasy Novel Workshop. Learn more about the online class here.

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