Back when I took English classes, I was always slightly annoyed that genre fiction was regarded with a certain degree of derision, like it wasn’t worth as much to “society” and “culture” as other, more “serious” literature. This despite the fact that most English professors veritably worship Shakespeare, who wrote plays about ghosts and fairies. Genre fiction, especially what authors like to call speculative fiction, has at least as much insight as any supposedly more serious work of literature.
Speculative fiction, broadly, includes the stories that are typically classified as science fiction and fantasy, but if you’ve written in the genre realm for long, you may have noticed that the terminology employed by libraries and other sources to classify genre fiction is somewhat limited. Maybe we genre writers aren’t as “serious” as the “real” authors, but that hasn’t stopped us from developing our own terminology to help describe our works. Since I think that many of these terms would be useful for both readers and writers to know, I’ve sought to describe some of them below.
Alternative world fantasy: fantasy in the vein of authors like Tolkien, Rothfuss, Sanderson, and Weeks, these stories are set in totally different worlds, or worlds that may bear only a passing resemblance to our own. These worlds have their own histories, geographies, politics, and even laws of physics. When I write fantasy, it’s usually alternative world.
Medieval/Arthurian fantasy: this is the fantasy that it set (usually) in a place that looks a lot like Medieval Europe, or sometimes other historical regions of Earth. It tends to draw heavily from the classic concepts of the Arthurian legends, with its knights, obscure wizards, kingdoms, princes, magic swords, and birthmarks. The Blood Magic project that I’ve been working on is technically alternative world, but draws heavily from this subgenre.
Adventure fantasy: a fantasy story in which the main focus is the physical adventure of the main characters. The characters have to choose the adventure, and they usually travel a lot. Think Indian Jones and the Realm of the Dragons (no, that’s not a real movie). It’s about pushing the characters’ abilities to solve problems into which they’ve put themselves, usually in a way that the reader would like to be able to experience.
Epic fantasy: it’s sort of in the name, but one of the hallmarks of epic fantasy is its length. Wheel of Time, Stormlight Archives, Game of Thrones are all examples of epic fantasy. Epic fantasy works typically involve sprawling worlds, with multiple plot lines, a large cast of “main” characters, and a lot of sub-plots. They typically come in series, with each book consisting of a cohesive arc, while a larger arc covers the whole, sprawling series.
Soft science fiction: a story set in a future/technologically advanced environment, but that is not driven by that technology, or that is not firmly grounded in scientific principles. These stories are usually about how the characters deal with the circumstances of the future. Ray Bradbury tended to write more in the soft science fiction genre. 1984 would be another example. Controversially, I would actually qualify Star Wars as soft science fiction, if I classified it as science fiction at all (I think it’s more of an alternative world fantasy).
Hard science fiction: these stories are often driven by some piece of technology, or are firmly grounded in scientific principles. Many of the fathers and grandfathers of science fiction wrote in this genre, and their works often influenced how the later technological developments went. Jules Verne, HG Wells, and Isaac Asimov are all prime examples of hard science fiction. Star Trek straddles the line, I would say, between hard and soft science fiction.
It is worth noting that none of these genres are exclusive. Most stories could fall into multiple, and there are more that I haven’t defined here. I could write a whole post on hard versus soft science fiction, or on what separates science fiction from fantasy (it’s a much harder line to draw than you might think). Blood Magic, for instance, is slated as alternative world, Arthurian, epic fantasy, with a strong soft science fiction influence. However, these should help give you another lens through which to examine genre fiction.
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