What Is Fantasy?

Hello and welcome to the first in a regular series of columns covering the world of fantasy literature. Of course, it would probably be useful if right off the bat we could talk about what exactly fantasy literature is. To many, it’s men in armor with swords, wizards and magic, the standard template set down by J. R. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling and a number of other writers with initials in their names. The reality is that fantasy is so much more than that.

But what?

There are many definitions floating around out in the ether. One being that while Science Fiction is the literature of the possible, Fantasy is the literature of the impossible. This is a fine definition, but tends to be problematic in its application. Using that definition, so much of Science Fiction would fall under Fantasy. For example, according to physics as we know it, faster than light travel, whether by hyperdrive or warp speed or jump gates, is impossible. So any fiction with FTL travel -- including such genre mainstays as Star Trek and Ender’s Game -- would technically qualify as Fantasy. While there’s something to be said for that definition, it won’t work for our purposes. This column isn’t likely to be covering fiction with spaceships and laser guns.

I’m all for entertainment and the occasional escapist journey, but good Fantasy, despite its setting or its use of tropes, should give us something to think about, shouldn’t it?

A better explanation for fantasy is that it deals with the impossible, but that this “impossible” is explained with supernatural or magical means and steers clear of technological explanations or those based in science.

This can also be problematic. There are fantasy worlds out there whose magic systems might as well be scientific. Whose every detail is worked out with painstaking care. There are worlds who follow their equivalent of evolution. And what about time travel? It’s a classic SF trope, but what if it occurs from wishing? Or a magic spell or otherworldly portal? These still fall under the banner of fantasy, but start to blur the boundaries.

Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In response, Larry Niven said, “Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology.” And now the boundaries are truly and thoroughly blurred. What might seem like magic in a fantasy world could really be the result of highly advanced technology. Rigorous magic can approach the world of science. Terry Brooks’s Shannara series was one of my earliest fantasy reads, but his world is built on the ruins of a technological society. Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor is awash with SF elements, but there are also references to magic.

Confused yet?

Let’s go with magic...

So, magic and the supernatural. Simple, right? Only this can also be confusing. Clearly we’d include The Lord of the Rings as part of Fantasy. Wizards, Elves, Hobbits and Orcs are pretty dead giveaways as to its genre. But there’s also the other extreme. Stories that seem to take place in our reality, but where something extraordinary happens. The fiction of writers such as Neil Gaiman, Jeffrey Ford, Jonathan Carroll and Michael Chabon falls into this end of the camp.

And what of dreamlike stories? Stories where the fantastical is expressed as if in a dream and the reality of such things is questionable - it could be real, but it could be a delusion. Dorothy’s dream in The Wizard of Oz film. What of these?

Pushing aside all of these problematic areas, there are always questionable works lurking at the edges of these genre distinctions. Take Richard Adams’s Watership Down, a novel that drops us into the lives of rabbits. Adams draws on the actual observed behavior of rabbits in the real world, but we can agree that the level of communication and societal constructs that he ascribes to the rabbits is far beyond their capabilities. So one would technically have to call it a fantasy. And yet, to me, the book doesn’t quite fee like a fantasy (actually, I think that it’s a great example of a post-apocalyptic novel, but that’s for an entirely different column). Or what about George Orwell’s Animal Farm? Again, talking animals who can plan and plot. It’s clearly satire, but technically it falls under the Fantasy umbrella.

Then there’s the whole Dark Fantasy area. This is a label usually applied to the overlap between Horror and Fantasy, where the source of the horror is a supernatural one. And when it comes to vampires and werewolves, they tend to make up a large part of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance. Do these belong grouped in with Fantasy? Or do the vampires of supernatural horror deserve to stand alongside psychological horror’s serial killers and technological horror’s biological vampires?

The umbrella can be vast. Each person’s umbrella will be different from the next, with different books being left out in the rain. My umbrella covers Magical Realism, for example. Your Midnight’s Children and One Hundred Years of Solitude might be wet and soggy.

Ultimately, these genre distinctions are subjective things. Each of us (even if some of those “us” are publishing companies) defines where individual books fall and, ultimately, that’s okay because...

What does it matter?

The short answer is “not much”.

It can be fun to discuss these things and debate the particular classification of a Book of the New Sun or a House of Leaves (Post-mortem here), but really it amounts to the same kind of exercise as debating who would win in a cage match between Wednesday of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and The Escapist of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (see who won). Does it matter if a book is science fiction, fantasy or horror if it’s good?

Still, genre distinctions have some uses. Writers need to know what genre they’re in to approach agents and editors with their work. This is important to get your work into the right hands, to someone who can do something with it. If you’re a writer, you should know where you fall, or, at the very least, be able to make a case why you’re not squarely in one or the other. Keep in mind, though, that these definitions are always subjective and an editor or agent’s view might not align with yours.

Readers can use these categories to point themselves in the right direction. If you really dug A Game of Thrones on HBO, for example, and worked your way through all of the books by George R. R. Martin, it might help you find other fantasy that you’d like. To a point, of course. Fantasy is such a broad category that you’d need to drill down a bit. At the very least it’s a starting point.

What does matter?

For me the only question is what constitutes good Fantasy. My aim, in future columns, is to cover the best Fantasy and talk about what makes it great. Maybe I might tackle a book that you feel fits in another category, but I’m more interested in talking about factors other than classification.

There are some basic elements to be considered. Like most fiction, regardless of the genre, shouldn’t good Fantasy comment on the human condition? Even when the subject matter is a denizen of Faerie or a thousand year old sorcerer? Shouldn’t good Fantasy tell us about ourselves? I’m all for entertainment and the occasional escapist journey, but good Fantasy, despite its setting or its use of tropes, should give us something to think about, shouldn’t it?

To me Fantasy is the literature of the unbridled imagination. While Science Fiction is often called the literature of ideas, it’s limited by at least the extrapolations of science. Fantasy knows no limits. It should know no limits. We should be able to roam as widely as we can, whether it be to the land of Oz with all its wonders, or the hidden world right in front of us. And, I think, we should learn something along the way.

I hope you’ll set off on this journey with me, through lands both wondrous and weird, and let’s make sure we chat along the way. I’d love to hear your thoughts on where you draw Fantasy’s borders and why. Let’s compare umbrellas.

Rajan Khanna

Column by Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, is due to be released in October 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at Tor.com and LitReactor.com and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is www.rajankhanna.com and he tweets, @rajanyk.

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derekberry's picture
derekberry from South Carolina is reading Eating Animals March 9, 2012 - 2:42pm

George R.R. Martin is by far my favorite fantasy writer. He's intensely good.

I think the discussion of, "What is fantasy?" is pretty void, since anything "not real" is technically fantasy. 

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words March 9, 2012 - 3:05pm

My vote's for Steven Erikson (not Steve Erickson) - the Malazan Book of the Fallen is ten volumes of overwhelming anthropology - with a good dose of the morbid.

Having recently read Norbert Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, I think a lot of what we categorize as fantasy has elements of mythology and the European Romantic tradition.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books March 9, 2012 - 3:19pm

In an older interview with Steve Erickson, I asked if people ever confused him with Steven Erikson and he was not amused.

Also, I dig the Sci fi vs Fantasy discussion btw Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin (touched upon HERE).

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs March 9, 2012 - 3:39pm

Fantasy often focuses on magic while science fiction focuses on technology (although it may be inexplicable).

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words March 9, 2012 - 4:15pm

@Josh - and Steven Erikson's real name is Steve Rune Lundin - which is appropriate for fantasy, but I guess he didn't want his anthropology work and fiction to be under the same name.

bohemianonrye's picture
bohemianonrye from Pittsburgh, PA is reading Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell March 9, 2012 - 8:47pm

I love Fantasy. It's one of my frequented realms for reading as well as writing, thanks to many afternoons as a kid desperately checking the back wall of my closet for Narnia.

To me, the biggest difference between fantasy and science fiction is that science fiction seeks to explain whereas fantasy simply "is." We have Star Wars or Star Trek where people pick at the technological capabilities of phasers, blasters, Death Stars, hyperdrives...and then we have Lord of the Rings where there are elves, dwarves, hobbits and wizards and the reader just goes, "Okay. Yup. There they are, doing what they do."

On a superficial note, I really, really like the picture for this column. A lot.


Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes March 10, 2012 - 9:31am

     Great piece!  Now, if you don't mind, may I borrow that umbrella of yours?

     I'll need it to ward off the pellets of toxin that pass for rain in William Gibson's Tokyo, but as I pass through a bejewelled and ivy-entwined archway into Tolkien's middle earth, I collapse and store it.  The earth and moon are young here, the sea is unrestrained and the ubiquitous sap is rising.  At the limits of the known constellations Shadowfax drops me off and now all I've got to get around with is the umbrella which Gandalf has been kind enough to transform into a space sail. With the help of a conveniently located black hole I'm plunging into a deep river and nymphs are escorting me to Poseidon's hideaway. Homer was a fantasist but not even he could have imagined the saucer shaped object lodged in the muck.  My umbrella needs to become an aqualung here. Where's Q's ingenuity now, eh? Ah, but that's another border.
     I really look forward to this discussion! I'm intrigued by what you're calling "magical realism". 

SGJ's picture
SGJ from Midland, Texas (but in Boulder, Colorado, now) is reading weird fiction and horror fiction and science fiction and literary fiction and innovative fiction, or maybe a romance or a western or a magazine on bowhunting or show trucks or anthropology March 11, 2012 - 5:48pm

teaching a weird fiction course right now, and we're encountering a similar trick: we can recognize and somewhat categorize good weird fiction, but coming up with an apply-anywhere definition is much more difficult. though I'd guess somewhere, in regards to fantasy, Lev Grossman's said a helpful thing or two.