Fantasy Literature & Science Fiction

Background Introduction: I entered into the world of Fantasy Literature & Science Fiction at an early age. It was a mix of television/old B&W monster movies and comic-books that opened my mind to “the world of other”. This lead, almost inevitably, to mythology, folklore, Victorian ghost stories, Shakespeare (illustrated comics), detective & mystery novels, pulp fiction, English Literature, history, world religions, philosophy, and mass media & communication studies.

Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy
Hitchcock & Raven

So a English/Special Ed./Media Literacy teacher, I was destined to become. When I started teaching at E.L.S.S. (Ontario, Canada), the grade 10 class concentrated study was Science Fiction and the grade 12 class concentrated study was the archetype and Fantasy Literature. What I soon saw as a problem was that, like all art and literature studies, the terms had to be defined clearly. At the same time they had to be flexible enough to include both the broad range of historical development and emerging new forms.

A central problem was that mass media entertainment, at that time ( boy do I feel old), movies and television, created a distorted definition of fantasy and science fiction. Notice the word literature is left out. Fantasy can not be literature, just as science fiction is not literature. They belong to genre, pulp, children’s stories, comic books, and mere escapist entertainment.

Jump forward to the present – those who follow or visit this photo-blog will notice that among my tags are a number that relate to the topic of this page. I assume that there will be some who have not had any rigorous introduction to the terminology or history. They may be curious to find out more or get a bit of a background on what I am doing with some of my posts, especially What If Wednesdays and Surreal Thursdays. So here is my attempt to create some form of organization and understanding of Fantasy Literature and Science Fiction.

Fantasy Literature – A Definition: Narratives( stories) whose settings, characters, events, and plots depend in some way on a reality that is radically different from the “real world” of the audience/reader. The rules of this reality depend on magic, mysticism, the supernatural, supra-natural (divine or semi-divine), dreams & psychological states, or speculation (metaphysical or scientific).


Edgar Allan Poe



Narratives can come in many forms of media: oral, print, live theatre, audio, film & television, sequential graphic, computer games.


This definition is not carved in stone. It is to assist describing a vast variety of narratives in a wide range of mass media.

Basic problem with the definition – “what is real? ” For example, do we categorize folklore and mythology as fantasy ? Some folklore narratives are considered faerie tales or fairy tales. What happens to tales that are the basis of a person’s belief systems ? One person’s reality may be another person’s fantasy. Prometheus & Pandora – myth/allegory – Serpent & Eve.

You can see why the study of literature and teaching can be like walking on egg-shells.

I will not go into a detailed list of specific types of Fantasy literature. For one thing the list is constantly changing with new sub-genres and subtle shifts in terms. I will point out a couple of arbitrary distinctions that I use and a couple of pet peeves.

I arbitrarily use faerie tale to refer to traditional folk tales and newer narratives that imitate the tone and style of those folk tales. A fairy tale, while drawing from the same source, is intended for a young/children audience. It is gentler in tone and style.


Elevated/High Fantasy are complex narratives that have rich mythic and archetypal resonances. The most well-known example of this is “Lord of the Rings”. These narratives come closest to the old epics and sagas of oral literature. The core element is a sustained detailed “other world” that with such a rich depth that it seems to take on a life of its own. Many assume that they must partake of a world that is quasi-medieval in structure and nature. This assumption leads to pale imitations and cliché. What is required is strong characters on a personal quest. These characters capture both real personality and they represent powerful elements of the human psyche. Consider popular narratives and characters found in the Harry Potter series, Oz series, Star Wars trilogy, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, by writer Greg Keyes, and Mythago Wood Cycle by Robert Holdstock   – these  all contain the required elements, yet only Keyes’s novels has a late medieval/Renaissance setting.

Conan the Barbarian Warrior was created by Robert E. Howard. Howard tapped into the epic /saga adventure and shaped it into a narrative suitable for the Pulp Magazine audience of the 1930’s. This sub-genre of Fantasy Literature is called Sword & Sorcery.


Pet Peeve # 1 Urban Fantasy

The term Urban Fantasy has been high-jacked by publishers trying to reach a specific target audience. To truly understand the term, check out the works of the Canadian author, Charles de Lint. He blended the Fantasy genre of Magic Realism with some of the elements of Faerie Tale and set it a contemporary universal North American city ( partly based on Ottawa).


Publishers are using the term to refer to any Fantasy narrative set in a contemporary urban setting. They include Harry Dresden , the Hard boiled magician from Chicago, Anita Blake, the Hard boiled Vampire Hunter, and the True Blood vampire series. They have done this to include what they call Paranormal Romance, without using the word romance. The Dresden series for example is Hard boiled Magic-mystery. All three series are excellent in their own way. They share a common contemporary urban settings, but all emphasize the detective-mystery elements that are totally missing in de Lint’s work. They are Hard Boiled Fantasy. This term does not appeal to most women. The Paranormal Romance term does not appeal to most men. So Urban Fantasy was appropriated for business purposes, as opposed to accurate literary characteristics.

Hard-Boiled Fantasy or Paranormal Romance ?

Pet Peeve # 2 “I don’t read Fantasy or Science Fiction because it is not true/real.”

All Mass Media, including traditional print Literature are constructed realities. It is all fiction. It is all story-telling. At the heart of all story-telling is truth.

The follow-up remark . ” I read all of Stephen King’s books.” or “I really like the Twilight series.” Now I am confused, how do you not read what you are reading ? It is not Fantasy or Science Fiction when it is by a certain author or packaged/marketed in a particular way (i.e. don’t use those terms).

Speculative Fiction – A Definition: A form of Fantasy Literature whose reality is based on speculations upon scientific facts and hypotheses. These can be broken into three sub-categories based on the sciences.

– Hard Science Fiction: The basis of the narrative involves speculation on a hard science, such as chemistry, physics, or biology.

Hard Science as the basis of a mystery.

– Soft Science Fiction: The basis of the narrative involves speculation on a soft science, such as sociology, linguistics, or psychology.

An alternative history, in which a second civil war occurs after the south wins the first one.

– Metaphysical Science Fiction: The basis of the narrative involves speculation on issues of the nature of reality – it can be connected to theoretical physics, areas of computer science, psychology and philosophy.

Problem with the Definition: It is very difficult to find a narrative that is purely one category. What you can distinguish is a bias to a particular area of science. The narrative may put a great deal of emphasis on the hard science/technological elements to create a conflict/problem and a solution. The hard science may be downplayed in favour of exploring the ethical/social impact of the science. The problem may only be resolved based the nature of reality – this impacts both the individual and society.

Harry Turtledove’s alternative history novels carefully imagines a sequence of events that alter a pivotal point in history. From that point he explores the world through historical and imagined characters. In effect, he composes a historical novel based on what if history. Philip K. Dick’s novels are based on speculations about the nature of reality and consciousness. He uses this speculations to comment on society as well as ask the big metaphysical questions. Jack McDevitt‘s series about Alex Bennedict are a blend of Sherlock Holmes & Indiana Jones mystery & artifact quest set in the distant future. Resolving the mystery and finding the artifact involves hard science (how do you lose a planet) and understanding ancient/alien societies.

Hope this provides some insight, food for thought, and perhaps some books to consider reading.

One thought on “Fantasy Literature & Science Fiction

  1. Pingback: The Long Slow Flight into Implied Space | Implied Spaces

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