What Does “Fantasy” Evoke for You?

As Spring springs forth, lots of interesting things are going on. Let me tell you about them. Then I have a rather odd question for you…

First: For the month of April, Tor Books is offering the e-book of Through Wolf’s Eyes for a discounted price of only $2.99. Even better, the e-book contains a teaser for Artemis Awakening. You can order this special e-book for a special price at: Through Wolf’s Eyes at Amazon or Through Wolf’s Eyes at B&N.

Can't "Beet" It!

Can’t “Beet” It!

Second: Remember the Cover Art contest I’m helping out with? (See WW 1-29-14 if you’d like to know more.) The gallery is up and expanding. Particularly fascinating for me are the wide variety of approaches the artists have taken. I’m going to write a short story based on one of the winning pieces, and I’m really glad I’m not one of the judges. It would be really hard to pick. Take a look at http://www.scienceandfantasyfiction.com and click on the Art Contest banner both for access to the gallery and for rules to enter the contest.

Third: Not nearly so artistic, but still very exciting news – at least for a gardener like me. This past weekend, we planted our first seeds of the season. We already had a soaker hose set to nurture the lilies that are shooting up at an amazing speed. Rather than waste water along the length that we’re not currently using, we put in a row of Easter Egg radishes and another of multi-colored heirloom beets.

We’ve grown Easter Egg radishes before, mostly because who could resist radishes that come in pink, lavender, purple, red, and white? It’s a bonus that they have great flavor, too. As for the beets… We first sampled this heirloom variety when one of Jim’s colleagues had surplus last year. In addition to the classic dark “beet red,” these include a brilliant golden orange and a white with pink rings. We’ve never grown beets before – mostly because Jim thought he didn’t like beets. He discovered that he does like beets. What he doesn’t like are canned or pickled beets. So, stayed tuned as the season unfolds as we discover if we can add beets to our crops.

Now, here’s a question. What does the word “Fantasy” mean to you?

The reason I’m asking is that, this past week, I wandered into a couple of situations where I realized the word “Fantasy” means vastly different things to different people. At a mixed genre writers’ meeting I was attending, Writer A mentioned that she wrote “speculative fiction.” Writer B, who writes mostly historical and mystery fiction asked: “What’s speculative fiction?” Writer A said something, but Writer B still looked confused, so I said (rather dryly, I fear) “It’s what academics call Science Fiction and Fantasy because it’s more dignified than admitting they’re doing work on genre fiction.”

Writer A said indignantly, “It’s not that at all. If you say you write ‘fantasy,’ people assume you’re talking about wizards and dragons. Speculative fiction is where agreed upon rules of physics need not apply.”

Writer B looked confused.

Now, I’ve read Writer A’s works. They’re excellent. They also have nothing to do with either dragons or wizards. If she really believes that when “people” hear the term “Fantasy” they automatically think that this is only fiction with wizards and dragons, I can understand her desire for another term. A good number of years ago, there was an attempt to popularize the term “mythic fiction” to cover the sort of Fantasy that features neither wizards nor dragons but still has magic and often a “mythic” feel, even if no myths are used.

Still… When I left the meeting, I found myself wondering if Writer A perhaps worried too much.

While I was still mulling over this interchange, Scot Noel, who is running the art contest I mentioned earlier, e-mailed to let me know the contest gallery had been updated. When I put in the link, my browser (a version of Firefox) tried to warn me that I might be entering a scam zone. After consideration, especially since I had not entered a link that specifically mentioned the contest, I decided that the word “Fantasy” had been the trigger and that in this case “Fantasy” did not have anything to do with either wizards or dragons, but rather “naughty” behaviors.

Leaving aside the question of whether genre categories matter at all… What comes to mind for you when you hear someone writes “Fantasy”? I’m curious about immediate images…. Do you think that the same images would come to mind for other people in your life? Your partner or your parents or your boss? Does the phrase “speculative fiction” say more?

Thanks! I’m always curious about what words mean – especially when that meaning contains more than can be embraced by even a multi-layered a dictionary definition.

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12 Responses to “What Does “Fantasy” Evoke for You?”

  1. Peter Says:

    For the record, I think your definition of “speculative fiction” was spot on.

    As far as “fantasy” goes, I tend to a Knightian definition in practice. If pinned down, I’d go with something like “fiction set Beyond The Fields We Know and unconcerned with basing the plumbing on our current understanding of natural forces.” Tropes like dragons and wizards don’t really enter into it (Hell, Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books feature both wizards and dragons, and are pure, diamond-hard SF.)

    Dragons and elves (and blasters and spaceships) are furniture, not foundation – if I move my desk out of my apartment and into a bungalow it doesn’t change the building.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    The first thing I’d say is that Firefox, so far as I know, doesn’t trigger on words. It triggers on the programming on the page, much of which isn’t visible. They may have detected something on the page that was designed to try to get your personal information without your consent or to implant a nasty tracking cookie in your system. If Firefox gives a warning, I think it would be a bad idea to ignore it, especially if the site wants any personal or financial information. If you’re still going to fiddle with a site after a warning, you can always be Joan Hancock, born on the Fourth of July, living at 1600 Go Away Avenue, Nowhere, Texas 10101, telephone number 800-555-1212. Or whatever. I tend to run away from sites when there’s a warning.

    As for your writer A, I wonder if she’s afraid that the only things people want to read (or see, if she’s dreaming of her books in the movies) are works with dragons and wizards, such as Harry Potter, LOTR, or Game of Thrones. Such a fear might have more to do with material aspirations (aka writing a best seller), rather than what the field is limited to. I don’t know. I like your definition.

  3. Renee Carter Hall Says:

    For me, “fantasy” just implies some sort of magical or impossible things happening, mostly just to distinguish it from science fiction, (which to me is when there’s either a basis in science/technology or at least something presented as having a basis in science/technology, even if it’s not actually probable). In other words, no, I don’t just think dragons and wizards for “fantasy,” by any means, although certainly there’s the possibility of such things.

    “Speculative”… I’ve learned to see it as meaning “science fiction and fantasy and stuff that falls in between,” so as a writer I could see using it when you write a pretty good mix of the two, or things that aren’t easily classified as one or the other. But yeah, for the most part I think I do agree with your definition. 🙂 I don’t think there’s a whole lot of substantive difference between saying “speculative” and saying “fantasy and science fiction,” except for “speculative” having the convenience of being a single word and/or trying to skirt genre stigma.

    I have also heard “speculative” used to mean fiction speculating on the future, as a type of science fiction, but I don’t know how widespread that usage is. (Can’t remember now where that was.)

  4. Nicholas Wells Says:

    At least in my mind, “Speculative fiction” has always been a general gathering of both fantasy and sci-fi. Meaning either on it’s own fits the description. They are worlds of science that may not be real, or currently possible, or they may deal with purely fictional places, things, creatures, ect. So speculative fiction for me is less specific, but still steers you toward to the type of writing it is. Both John Ringo or David Weber’s Sci-si works, and your own “Breaking the Wall books”, would fall under the curtain of what I think of as speculative fiction. From there, you get more specific for each story.

    Now when I think “fantasy”, I admit I think magic and fantastic creatures. Not dragons specifically, but creatures that aren’t real and often have powers or abilities of their own. Usually I expect it to be set in med-evil times, or at least similar technology and culture.

    Though if you’ll forgive a wander of my own, past the immediate thought when I think “fantasy”, my criteria broadens a bit. “Thirteen Orphans” is a fantasy. The book world calls it “Urban Fantasy”, and I think that’s where you get the disconnect. Anything set in modern times often has a quantifier to it. If you think about it, the Percy Jackson books are very much fantasy, but they’re not quite perceived as such because of the connection to real mythology, and/or the fact that it’s still set, more or less, in our modern world.

    Not sure why. Fantasy is… well, just that. Fantasy. A world in which the writer gets to have fun with his or her imagination. Magic, amazing creatures, that’s all I care about. The rest is details.

  5. Louis Robinson Says:

    In a word, unreality.

    That was my immediate response, and I had to think about what I meant by that – if you figure it out, be sure to let me know 😉

    Put as simply as I can, I see fantasy as untroubled by the real world, where science fiction seeks to be consistent with it. Speculative fiction, OTOH, is what people like Peggy Atwood write when they don’t want to admit they’re playing in our sandbox.

  6. Paul Says:

    Our library has had a monthly fantasy book club for almost three years, and only once did we have work connected with elves & dragons (Terry Brooks’ Shannara series). We have yet to do swords ‘n’ sorcery. Paranormal romance, time travel (with no machine), vampires, werewolves, ghosts, wild talents, demons, possession, and on and on – so, no, I don’t automatically think elves & dragons when I think of fantasy.
    Heinlein is the one who tried changing the genre to “speculative fiction” and, with him, it was a substitute term for “science fiction,” not “fantasy.”

  7. Chad Merkley Says:

    For me, the “Fantasy” label means to prepare for a certain level of suspension of disbelief. That’s all it really comes down to. I’m pretty sure that’s a trained or conditioned response. History, biology, geography, physics, religion–any or all of those may have to be set aside for a particular novel or story. Being told something is fantasy means that I’m prepared to accept things I normally might be very critical of. I know there have times I’ve been annoyed with a particular author or book for introducing fantasy elements when I wasn’t expecting it. In some cases, I’ve later come to really enjoy that particular book, like David Weber’s In Fury Born. Other times, I feel like I’ve been cheated by this. There was one book whose title I can’t recall that was recommended to me as a medieval mystery that ended up with a very fantastic ending that spoiled the story for me (the first line of the book was something like “The monks were boiling their Abbot”–who was already deceased; they wanted his skeleton for a holy relic. Anyone out there recognize this?)

    A common theme in fantasy seems to involve the main character suddenly learning that some fantastic element is actually real. Harry Potter, Narnia, Jane’s Thirteen Orphans, even The Matrix. This does frequently set up a Campbellian “Hero’s Journey”, and allows for for a lot of reader-friendly exposition. It’s not always done well, though.

    I like the term speculative fiction. It ties in with my thoughts about suspension of disbelief. Basically, the author says “What if…” there were dragons/ FTL travel/ Magic /Aliens /Caesar with Tanks /sparkly emo vampires or whatever. The term says absolutely nothing about the quality of the resulting story or novel, but lets you know that what follows is in some way outside our normal experience. The best speculative fiction has good, strong characters that the reader can relate to, even if the setting or events are weird. Some examples that I particularly like are Curse of Chalion by Bujold, Imager by Modessitt, lots of Terry Pratchett, 1632 by Flint, and the Temeraire series by Novik.

  8. janelindskold Says:

    Well…. We’re a specialized audience, here, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that “Fantasy” doesn’t mean “Sex” to anyone.

    However, I have encountered situations where someone asks what I write and say “Fantasy” and I see a funny look on that person’s face… Then I clarify that I don’t write porn.

    It’s an odd world…

  9. cryptictown Says:

    “Fantasy” does usually evoke thoughts of high fantasy to me and to many others–especially non-writers–which is why we have subgenres. But regardless of where the term originated, speculative fiction also includes horror now. I’ve seen horror listed beneath that description on many contest and journal submission pages.

  10. Paul Says:

    Isn’t *all* fiction speculative fiction?

  11. Other Jane Says:

    To me, fantasy has some element of magic – ceatures, spells, objects…

    When I think of speculative fiction, I think of works that don’t really fit into sf or fantasy. One example would be The Time Traveler’s Wife. It’s not traditional fantasy or even urban fantasy. I’d call it speculative fiction.

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