Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Metaphysics – How Do You Define Genre?

As a fun exercise, look at the picture I’ve posted for this article. The photograph allows you to use your imagination. It could be a blast of blue magic released from Harry Potter’s wand. It could be a picture of a spaceship just after taking a leap into interstellar travel. Or it could be a creative expression of the energy flowing through the human mind. Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Metaphysical – could you determine the genre of this photo?

It’s difficult to really categorize any truly great piece of literature or art. There’s an extremely faint line dividing the genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and the Metaphysical. For example, one might argue that the Fantasy genre is anything that includes magic, dragons, castles, and people who only fight with bladed weapons; however, this is only a sub genre of Fantasy. A few semesters ago I studied Fantasy literature in a class. While we obviously read the classics, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. LeGuin, whose stories are filled with sword and sorcery, we also studied Octavia Butler’s Kindred, a novel that, except for the bit of magical time travel, seems far more suited to be in historical fiction. In short, Kindred is about an African American woman who gets shuttled back to the Antebellum south, when slavery was rampant. It deals with her life on a plantation of slaves. No swords. No grand, epic battles against dragons. Yet it’s considered a fantasy book due to its fantastical nature.

Hmm, clearly not all genre characteristics are what they seem.

So, what is Science Fiction? For simplicity’s sake let’s bring up some generalized points about the Science Fiction genre and how it differs from fantasy.

– Futuristic, rather than medieval
– Robots, space ships, and laser guns (as opposed to dragons, castles, and swords)
– Uses technology instead of magic
– Often deals with alien races with strange, long names. No elves, dwarves, or halflings. (Sorry, Tolkien).

I’m reading Jurassic Park this semester in my Science Fiction literature course. It’s considered a work of Sci-fi. Let’s count how many of these elements that story has: It’s not futuristic. There are no space ships or laser guns. There are no aliens. The only generalized point from my list that applies to Jurassic Park is that is uses technology and science, rather than magic. So does any book merely need one of these elements to be considered Science Fiction?

Then we come to a book like One, by Richard Bach (who also wrote Illusions, one of my favorites!). Brief plot overview: A married couple is flying a personal airplane over the ocean when suddenly they are pulled into a vortex and brought back in time to the precise moment when they both met. Hijinx ensue. Sounds like a Science Fiction book, right? Or maybe a Fantasy? Nope! It’s considered regular old Fiction because, get this: It relies on neither magic or technology, but metaphysics-the power of the human mind over reality.

Or what about the familiar Science Fiction classic: Star Wars. Star Wars doesn’t take place in the future, though the setting is futuristic. There are spaceships and robots, but magic also exists. Some people fight with laser-guns and some fight with swords. What kind of crossbreed is this story?

Another novel, The Giver, takes place in a small village in the middle of the woods and relies heavily on magic as well as technology. It takes place in the future, but life is simple and primitive. Science Fiction author Orson Scott Card also excels at creating magical, fantastical stories in small societies that have not gained technological advancement; however, those small societies exist on rim planets in a gigantic, super advanced Science Fiction world. The society’s story fits into the Fantasy catagory, but the novel is still Science Fiction. How do you classify a story like that?

Anyways, my point is figuring out a story’s genre isn’t as simple as throwing together a couple of generalizations. Many stories share crossgenre characteristics, and some authors have such creative minds that they can create a fantastical story without resorting to the usual standards of “how things work in a Sci-Fi/Fantasy story.”

Those stories are my favorite kinds.

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