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Some thoughts about genres

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Stories about people doing fantastic things are as old as mankind. Early myths of fantastic deeds come from ancient Egyptian, Babylonians, and Greeks. These stories weren't considered fiction as the time, but from the modern view, it is clear that they were.

More recently, speculative fiction, or what has come to be called speculative fiction, begins in earnest in the 19th century. Novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are prime examples. In many cases, in order for these stories to hold up to a 21st century reader, the science (if there is any) has to be right. This is why Jules Verne is still very readable today and why a series like Lensman isn't.

But the category of speculative fiction is artificial, invented by publishers and booksellers to organize and arrange the wares they sell. Take, for example, Lords of the Rings. Is that an epic fantasy? A sword and sorcery tales? General fantasy? All of the above?

Frankly I can't keep them all straight and I don't want to try. I'm not interested in classifications or pigeonholing a work of fiction. I'm interested in the story, its elements, what it says, and well it is written, and its characters.

Similarly I don't see why stories of fantasy should be lumped together with science fiction tales. Often the two types of stories are very different. Stories that look at the future or the application of technology and postulate the effect of that technology of people are more in the realm of science fiction. While stories that involve magic or mythological creatures are more in the realm of fantasy. Of course, there are stories that blur the lines (I even write such things from time to time) but in general, I think the two genres are different.

I realize that there is little difference between magic and technology. Magic can be viewed, after all, as a very advanced technology, one that we (the reader) don't understand. Certainly, computers and cell phones would be magic to ancient Greeks. And very advanced technology (which we have yet to invent) would be magic to us if it fell into our hands tomorrow.

But the use or presence of magic/technology isn't the fundamental element that determines the genre. No, it is the relationship of mankind to this knowledge that is by far more of a deciding factor.

For example, if the people in the story have a knowledge of computers or modern medicine or space ships, the story has a more science fiction feel to it. But if the people have none of these things and rely on magic or blessings from shamans, the story has a more fantasy feel.

None of these descriptions are, of course, absolute because they leave out lots of fine stories, but it gives us a simple clear way to talk about a story without all the classifications I find among publishers. Dark urban fantasy with sardonic twist sounds more like ordering coffee at Starbucks than a genre category.

So let's simplify the whole mess and move on.

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