A Menagerie of Outspoken Opinions on Science, World Politics, and Geek Culture

Monday, January 03, 2005

Know Your Genres

During the coming year I will often review books, films, and television belonging to the genre we call Sci-Fi / Fantasy (“Sci-Fi” means “Science Fiction” for those of you who are truly uninitiated into the mysteries of geekdom). Star Wars, Blade Runner, Willow, The Fellowship of the Ring, and Back to the Future all fit into this category, despite the huge variety of theme and plot among those movies. Sci-Fi / Fantasy has always been Hollywood’s bastard child, too; snickered about in hip company and snubbed at Oscar time. But it’s an over-achieving and hideously lucrative bastard child, so we fans of the genre are pretty much guaranteed an endless supply of books, movies, and television to simultaneously hypercriticize and moon over.

There are really three separate types of work in Sci-Fi / Fantasy … five if you want to get technical. Because I’ll be using the names of these “sub-genres” quite a bit, I thought it’d be wise to list them here once and then link the post on the sidebar.

Fantasy: When we say "Fantasy" we mean the real swords & sorcery stuff. J.R.R Tolkien more or less invented modern Fantasy with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, first published in the early 1950s. There were certainly stories about wizards and dragons and brave knights before Tolkien, but no one thought of them as a genre of literature (except for perhaps a few Folklorists who called it "Mythology"). Anyway, there are very few rules in Fantasy fiction … you can have characters and events and objects that just flat-out don’t exist: Cave trolls and Elven cities, crystal balls that see the future, and white-haired albinos with swords that drink souls. There are literally no limits to what one can do with Fantasy, except those limits which the creator and her audience place upon themselves.

Closely related to Fantasy are Historical Fiction and Horror. Historical Fiction often lacks magical elements (Gladiator) but will other times include so many it borders on outright Fantasy (Excalibur). Either way, Historical Fiction takes real-world history and rewrites it to one degree or another for the purposes of telling a story. Horror is Fantasy that is meant to frighten the audience; The Ring and The Sixth Sense are great examples from the past few years.

Science Fantasy: Most of what we generally think of as Sci-Fi is actually Science Fantasy. Science Fantasy takes a few generally realistic events or objects – a meteor impact, say, or battle between two spacecraft – and builds a story around them that has little regard for scientific fact. Star Wars is probably the best-known Science Fantasy of all time, but some others that are truly excellent are Fox’s Firefly TV series-cum-feature film and Stephen King’s recently-finished magnum opus, The Gunslinger. Science Fantasy takes a few things that are possible and does the impossible with them: Spaceships fly faster than light, force fields protect ships that dive into suns, and alien races travel trillions of miles to gulp down a couple homo sapiens for supper. It’s wonderful entertainment, but I'm sorry: No one is ever going to build a spacecraft that looks like the Millennium Falcon.

Speculative Fiction: Also called “Hard Science Fiction” when referring to literature, Speculative Fiction sticks close to the rules of reality. All fiction deviates from the real world somewhat, but good Speculative Fiction adheres to the laws of nature (as we understand them) with a fair amount of rigidity. A couple good examples are Carl Sagan’s Contact – both the book and the movie, but the book is better – and Jean Aeul’s Earth’s Children series. When the hero in a Speculative Fiction book gets shot through both lungs, no one is coming to save him with Dr. McCoy’s medical kit – he dies. When spaceships fire particle beams at each other in a Speculative Fiction film, there’s no sound – all is quiet on the final frontier. Somewhat ironically, Speculative Fiction can be the hardest to get an audience to accept; everyone wants to hear the roar of the TIE fighters and the explosion of the Death Star. But it can also be the most rewarding, as anyone who has ever imagined themselves standing under the arch of Larry Niven’s Ringworld can well understand.

So, there you have the basics of the Sci-Fi / Fantasy genre structure (such as it is). There are those who would argue with some of what I’ve outlined here – especially those Trekkies who get so offended at their show(s) being called Science Fantasy – but the Fantasy / Science Fantasy / Speculative Fiction breakdown is finding more and more popularity today. The audience for such work is growing overall, as the D & D geeks and Star Wars uberfans of yesteryear become the successful upper-middle class of today (ready to spend lots of disposable income on the next PC game, series of books, or toy collection). Personally, I just find it helpful to be able to differentiate between the type of work represented by Blade Runner and that represented by Friday the 13th Part X. I guess I’m picky that way.

Wednesday I’ll have a review of what I consider to be the finest Fantasy film of all time (and to be honest, I do believe I’ve seen all the ones that really matter) and perhaps some brief thoughts on the demo of Painkiller I played over the weekend.

Happy Monday kids … just 4 ½ days left until we embrace glorious, glorious freedom once again.