FANTASY AND/OR SCIENCE FICTION AND/OR HORROR

I’ve written before on the difference between fantasy and science fiction, and even how we can combine genres like science fiction-horror or science-fantasy, but in reading Science Fiction Handbook, Revised (1975) by L. Sprague de Camp & Catherine de Camp, their take on the subject stuck out to me:

In general, we use the term “fantasy” for stories based upon supernatural ideas or assumptions, such as the existence of demons, ghosts, witches, and workable magic spells. “Science fiction,” on the other hand, is the term used for stories based upon scientific or pseudo-scientific ideas, such as revolutionary new inventions, life in the future, or life on other worlds. Some stories, like several of H.P. Lovecraft’s, fall on the border between the two classes.

Indeed, but Lovecraft’s work is almost always classified as horror, even if the supernatural beings come from space (hinting at science fiction) or from some unknown dimension like the Dreamlands (reading as fantasy). I think a case can be made that Lovecraft wrote primarily a three-part admixture of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. In his own writing about his own writing he classified his work as “weird fiction” and didn’t seem overly concerned with any more granular a distinction in genres. The infamously xenophobic Lovecraft even expressed some desire to leave behind the limitations of the real world, the present culture, the way things work. But maybe it was precisely his inherent xenophobia that caused him to see any interruption in a narrow sense of the way the world works as a certain cause, at least at first, of a feeling of existential horror. If even one part of the way we’re raised to see the world crumbles away, surely the rest of the foundation upon which we’ve built our selves is destined for ruin. In “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft explained it this way:

I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasize the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear.

It’s the fear of the unknown that drives an awful lot of what we’d probably all see as traditional fantasy or science fiction. Lovecraft isn’t the only author, or even the first author, to conjure up monsters or supernatural forces to challenge the sanity of some hapless human who might begin under the terribly mistaken impression that we have this whole universe and our places in it figured out. The more we find out about the world, much less the effectively infinite universe, the less sure we are that we know anything. What’s out there? A friendly E.T. who just wants your help getting home, or something that uses you for a womb to create a predator that’ll kill everyone else on your spaceship? The answer just has to be both, and with some wildly crazy shit we don’t even know how to imagine on top of that. This is really where you can start with science fiction—it comes from another planet, then add some dollops of fantasy—a planet where the laws of physics are completely different, and finally end up with horror—and for no reason you can at all detect it will eat you after its finished making you murder your entire family. The thing that adds the horror is entirely without limits, as described in “Weird Beings” in Worldbuilding Magazine:

There are plenty of tropes and common elements in unknowable monsters—causing insanity, a general disregard for human affairs, god-like powers—but in truth there are no rules. Rules are used to understand how something behaves, and these monsters cannot be understood. These beings are the closest thing to absolute creative freedom a worldbuilder can have since they diverge from our reality, which most fiction is based on. An unknowable monster can have any motivation, take any form, or do anything that the creator desires so long as some part of it doesn’t fully make sense or sit right with the audience.

To me, Alien is still the scariest movie ever made, and it succeeds by being equal parts science fiction and horror. There are horror elements cooked into fantasy even by the more conservative authors of “fairy stories,” like the fully scary scenes with Gollum in The Hobbit. My favorite short story of all time is Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” which begins and ends with scenes of some of the scariest horror ever written, wrapping an entirely science fiction premise. And maybe more than anyone, at least since Lovecraft, Ellison not only questioned but openly challenged genre convention. In “On Horror: An Interview With Harlan Ellison” by Richard Gilliam published in the book On Writing Horror, Ellison said:

The people who insist on calling themselves “horror writers” exclusively have stifled themselves; they’re like those tunnel-visioned, superannuated “fanboys” who write “science fiction” exclusively or write “westerns” exclusively. It’s an amateurish way for someone who thinks he or she is a writer to run a career. If you’re a writer, you should be able to write more than just one type of fiction… which is also smart from a commercial perspective, since it opens additional markets—it opens the world—for the writer!

In the same book Douglas E. Winter pointed out in his essay “Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction” that “Horror is not a genre. It is an emotion.” Any fantasy novel can, like The Hobbit, have horror scenes, and any science fiction story can, too, in the same way that science fiction stories can have a little fantasy and fantasy can have a little science fiction. Simon Van Booy wrote in “Becoming a Multigenre Writing Master”:

A professor once told me that life is just like the experience of eating fruit. Every time you bite into an apple, the taste, texture, or juiciness is slightly different. That’s because it’s natural. Every time we bite into a machine-made cookie, it’s the same experience over and over again, which is not like life at all. And so to write successfully in multiple genres, give up your attachment to one particular version of yourself. Explore all your sides: the serious, the funny, the laid-back, the confident, the shy, and the bold. That way you can work on a book about war in the morning and a book about mice in the afternoon.

Or work on a book about mice at war with zombie cats on a planet where magic is real.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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1 Response to FANTASY AND/OR SCIENCE FICTION AND/OR HORROR

  1. garyklinecc2014 says:

    Loved this. I think Douglas E. Winter may have been both right and wrong. I think genre is about reader expectation, and what the reader wants to feel when reading a story. Science fiction and fantasy can describe the setting, the story’s world. But I feel a science fiction story is about discovery and curiosity, mysteries unveiled. A fantasy story evokes a sense of wonder. A horror story evokes fear (the unknown, the other, being eaten, etc). Jurassic Park is a near-future science fiction with fantasy elements (oohs and ahhhs) and horror (the running and the screaming). Star Trek OS dealt with the unknown out there, stories of both discovery and horror. Star Wars is essentially a fantasy story in a science fiction setting.

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