I find the rise of both the fantasy and science fiction genres totally fascinating—and awesome. The genres, which fall under the umbrella of speculative fiction, have surged in popularity over the past decade or so, going from a niche market to something more mainstream.
“Lord of the Rings,” the Harry Potter series, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Babylon Babies” and “Dune” are some books-made-film that come to mind.
While I mourn the loss of the exclusivity of the community, I am excited that it’s not considered “weird.”
I’m going to assume most of you are literary fiction or non-fiction types, for the sake of argument, and start at the beginning. The speculative fiction umbrella covers many genres and all of them have numerous sub-genres, but I don’t want to get too down and dirty, so we’ll just cover the basics of fantasy and science fiction.
Fantasy books typically use magic or supernatural phenomena as primary elements of plot, theme or setting.
Science fiction books typically revolve around imagined innovations in science and technology (often taking place in the future), but the science or technology stem from something theoretically possible, according to the laws of nature.
Summary and generalization: fantasy means magic. Science fiction means space travel. Are you still with me? Oh, good. Even literary fiction is getting in on the speculative fiction action, spawning a hybrid genre known as “fantastic fiction,” which cover books that take one fantastic element and plunk it down in the real world, like “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and “The Lovely Bones.”
Writer’s Digest has a nice little article on that phenomenon here.
In the past, the proponents of literary fiction have derided the science fiction and fantasy genres as sub-par. Not “real” literature. Fluff. However, the general opinion of speculative fiction is changing. People are discovering, either through reading the masterpieces of the genre or through adaptations that this “fluff” has excellent literary merit.
Now, as with any genre, there are those novels that are specifically for entertainment and contain little to no lasting value. And that’s totally fine—everyone needs something that is easy to read and entertaining to boot. But there are an equal number of books that are valuable as societal foils.
Science fiction explores the consequences or benefits of scientific theory or innovations. Fantasy tends to focus the battle between good and evil, and fantasy literature often becomes a morality tale. Both reflect society as we see it currently and as we would like to see it—even what we would like to change historically.
Speculative fiction as a whole allows us to reflect upon past mistakes, consider our collective future, and examine our cultural norms. It allows us to question what we know in a way that literary fiction can’t by using impossibilities.
What would happen during a global alien invasion?
A zombie outbreak?
How would society react, change—evolve? In the event that these impossible things bring ultimate good, speculative fiction asks us: why can’t we make these improvements now?
It allows us to examine ourselves from the outside in, as the Other, observing something entirely new. All the while being entertaining.
To dismiss this type of literature—because it is literature—as fluff, is a big mistake. HUGE. Mostly, because you’re missing out on some truly fantastic ideas. If it’s not your thing, okay cool. But don’t tell an avid fan that what they’re reading is stupid or has no value. It sort of makes us Hulk out.
And for those of you still scoffing, I submit that you’re all just jealous of my jetpack.