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How Do YOU Define Fantasy?

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My husband and I recently got in a discussion about the definition of fantasy. I was reading a book set in a made up world where the conflict centered mostly around a made up religion. The world and the religion and the politics were all very well-developed, and I told him that this might be the first time I'd read a fantasy without some kind of *magic* in it. He told me he didn't think that it could be fantasy without magic--he classified it as realistic. I told him that since the world and its accoutrements (mostly the religion) were not things that existed or had existed in our world, I considered it a fantasy. I can understand what he meant, but I can't seem to wrap my head around the idea that a world that is entirely made up could possibly be classified as "realistic."

What about you? Where do you draw your lines between fantasy and realistic?
#1 - June 27, 2016, 08:22 PM

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A fantasy doesn't have to have magic in it -- I've read others that don't. You could call it alt history, maybe, but that's a branch of SFF so that doesn't help your husband's argument.
#2 - June 27, 2016, 08:39 PM
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I never really thought about it, but yeah I think I agree with your hubby that to me fantasy has some element of magic, but that doesn't have to mean wizards, lol. I think I would call what you're reading alternate reality? Heck, if it's another world could it be scifi?
#3 - June 27, 2016, 08:41 PM
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Traditionally, fantasy genre has magic or supernatural elements. A different political or theological construct would not be considered fantasy--unless supernatural events occured.

Science fiction often deals with cultures/religions that have never existed, but it is not fantasy.

What is the title of the book? What genre(s) is it listed in on "Amazon bestseller" rankings?

:) EAB
#4 - June 27, 2016, 08:41 PM

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:xposted with Kell

#5 - June 27, 2016, 08:41 PM
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What is the title of the book? What genre(s) is it listed in on "Amazon bestseller" rankings?

The book is Richelle Mead's GLITTERING COURT. It looks like Amazon has it in YA Romance and Historical. Interesting. I didn't know I could look for those tags, but now I'll be checking them out more often.

I never really thought about it, but yeah I think I agree with your hubby that to me fantasy has some element of magic, but that doesn't have to mean wizards, lol. I think I would call what you're reading alternate reality? Heck, if it's another world could it be scifi?

The husband said that if the religion happened to have any evidence of magical happenings in it or prophecies being made and fulfilled, he would consider it fantasy. But it doesn't, so he didn't. ::-)

You could call it alt history, maybe, but that's a branch of SFF so that doesn't help your husband's argument.

I was thinking something like alt history, but even though it's historical type time period and culture, it's still a world that doesn't exist... I am understanding what everyone else is saying, but it seems disingenuous to call it "historical fiction" when it has no root in actual history.

I think my biggest problem with trying to define it is that I am a bookseller. If I someone came in asking me for good historical fiction, I would assume that they are looking to explore a real time period of our past. If someone was looking for historical FANTASY, then I would feel comfortable recommending a book set in a made up world.

(And just to be clear, I enjoyed the book. This isn't a complaint about it in any way--it just raised some interesting questions for me.)
#6 - June 27, 2016, 08:57 PM
« Last Edit: June 27, 2016, 09:04 PM by HDWestlund »

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This is really interesting, Holly--thanks for starting the discussion.

To me, fantasy has fantastical elements--magical creatures, or something that operates in a different way than in this world. A different religion wouldn't do that for me. I mean, dystopians usually have a different political system, but I don't think of them as fantasies.

 :eh2
#7 - June 27, 2016, 09:19 PM
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 :cupcake Fantasy doesn't have to have magic. Isn't Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a fantasy without magic?
It's defined as a fantasy on Scholastic's website:
http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/book/charlie-and-chocolate-factory#cart/cleanup :donut2
#8 - June 28, 2016, 04:44 AM

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To me, the fact that it is in a made up world is enough to classify it as fantasy. There doesn't seem to be any future-world technology elements in this particular book, so I wouldn't count it as science fiction.

I am understanding what everyone else is saying, but it seems disingenuous to call it "historical fiction" when it has no root in actual history.

 :exactly

#9 - June 28, 2016, 05:51 AM
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Charlie may not have castable magic, but it has a magical quality. I haven't read it since I was a kid, but it's somewhere between fantasy and science fiction for me. It has elements of both.

If I were to read a book labeled fantasy, and there were no magical or supernatural elements, I would wonder why it was classified as fantasy. To me fantasies should be beyond the realm of possible in our world.
#10 - June 28, 2016, 07:59 AM
« Last Edit: June 28, 2016, 08:03 AM by Artemesia »
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Interesting distinctions. I'm with Auntie here, with fantasy needing to have a magical quality. I've read books that are made up worlds with different ideologies, etc. and I wouldn't call them fantasy because there is nothing fantastical about them. Some of them are SF.

Vijaya
#11 - June 28, 2016, 09:12 AM
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Did you ever read Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy? He says readers tend to lump books into genres based on how the setting feels. If a book is set in a natural landscape and has elements that aren't fully realistic, then people tend to think of it as a fantasy, even if the events can all be explained scientifically. Ever since I read that, I've noticed that unless I develop a speculative setting really intricately, my beta readers tend to place their own genre preconceptions on top of what I've written. If they feel like they're reading sci-fi, they're mentally inserting futuristic technology unless I steer their imaginations elsewhere with vivid descriptions of something else.

Anyway, Holly, I think Orson Scott Card would say the book you're describing is fantasy by default. I'm iffy about that, and I'd probably call it one of those rare books that falls under the umbrella term of speculative fiction without actually being sci-fi or fantasy. But that's never going to be a section in the bookstore. :)
#12 - June 28, 2016, 11:44 AM
Twitter: @MelissaKoosmann

I'd probably call it one of those rare books that falls under the umbrella term of speculative fiction without actually being sci-fi or fantasy.

Ah... there we go. Speculative fiction. It's a term I've heard plenty of times, but never really sat down to think of what it would be OUTSIDE of fantasy and sci-fi. As I said earlier, calling it historical fiction feels wrong when it doesn't tie to actual history. Calling it sci-fi wasn't working for me, because sci-fi, to me, involves some kind of tech or other scientific item that is outside of our current realm of possibility (like fantasy, for most of you, involves some kind of magic), and I was starting to wonder if one could term it political-science fiction, since it involved made-up governments responding to the made-up religion. ::-) But speculative fiction works for me.

And as for reading fantasy by default... it's completely true. The whole reason my husband and I got into this discussion in the first place was because I was more than halfway through the book and the "magic" I'd been expecting had failed to materialize. It left me feeling a little unmoored, but that wasn't the author's fault. She hadn't promised magic in any of her early plot setups; her invented world simply had me expecting it.
#13 - June 28, 2016, 11:58 AM

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I was starting to wonder if one could term it political-science fiction

I like this. If political-science fiction were a genre, I'd read it constantly. I probably already write it. (I ordered The Glittering Court from the library, by the way. You made me curious.)
#14 - June 28, 2016, 12:39 PM
Twitter: @MelissaKoosmann

A simple answer for me is fantasy is not Magic Realism or Surrealism. Fantasy doesn't even try to maintain the realistic setting and quality of magic realism, which an an entirely different concept.

In other words, it's not just talking squirrels on typewriters.

It has to do with the high contrast between rural and urban realities, author reticence, and heightened awareness of mystery. Non secondary world is extremely important. There is African magic realism, Latin American, and I think there is a potential for Irish American.

So for example Lord Of The Rings is not magic realism.

Based on this, fantasy is anything where the impossible elements are intended to be taken as impossible to us, and generally intrudes into the narrative as a form of world building in non subtle ways like the 1,000 year man.

I didn't think the would bug me, but people calling squirrels using typewriters magic realism has started grating on me.

It is also not surrealism, where the author depicts pure thought in the written word or other artistic medium.

Now it does get confusing when some books straddle the line between Magic Realism, Surrealism, and Urban Fantasy. But Magic Realism can be assumed to have a more realistic fiction quality to it.

As someone searching for the science fiction equivalent to magic realism, which far now seems to be transrealism/slipstream. Because I'm not looking for Nowpunk/Cyberpunk per say.
#15 - June 30, 2016, 05:18 PM
« Last Edit: June 30, 2016, 05:30 PM by SarahW »

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Traditionally, fantasy genre has magic or supernatural elements. A different political or theological construct would not be considered fantasy--unless supernatural events occured. Science fiction often deals with cultures/religions that have never existed, but it is not fantasy.
Pullman's His Dark Materials might be considered a fantasy/alt-universe crossover with "soft" SF elements. The interconnected universes depicted therein present a smorgasbord of juicy "what ifs": what if there were an Earth where people's souls manifested externally as talking animals? What if God were a feckless, nearly-dead relic carried around in an imperishable crystal coffin? What if everybody ended up in Hell? What if there really were flying witches, and talking polar bears, and clouds of intelligent subatomic particles permeating everything like The Force?

As to magic, in Pullman's work it seems merely to arise from multiverses with different rules of physics, making what's fantasy and what ain't a matter of perspective. What's important is that magic follow a consistent set of rules that the reader can comprehend and appreciate. Along with the usuals e.g. appealing protag, a compelling antag, and lots of extraordinary dialog with the boring bits left out.
#16 - June 30, 2016, 05:37 PM
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I've never really thought much about this, either, but I think a completely made-up world without the technological aspects feels like fantasy to me. I get that traditionally magic is involved in fantasy, but I've read other books which had made-up worlds and no magic, and they were fantasy (in my categorization). Interesting...(especially since I have written books with made-up worlds, no magic, and no technology...and I considered them fantasy).
#17 - July 01, 2016, 09:07 AM
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Quote
I've read other books which had made-up worlds and no magic, and they were fantasy (in my categorization).

Andracill, can you think of a couple of titles? This discussion got me thinking, and now I want to read some non-magic fantasy (or speculative fiction, which I kind of prefer as a label).
#18 - July 01, 2016, 12:52 PM
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- High Fantasy is the Illuminated History of Somewhere Else:  Taking place in some isolated time or place that never existed, like Prydain or Middle Earth, and has its own history, rules, and spiritual compass of magic/religion to draw on.  It's not meant to share anything in common with our world, except for the hero and the characters' journey having the same emotions as our own, just on a different playing field.
- Light Fantasy is magic intruding into our world, and everything else we know about it.  Harry Potter's Platform 9-3/4, for example, being a part of real London stations, taking its students off to some magical school in the country the rest of us don't know about, unless you want to be spotted driving the family's flying car.
- Magical Realism is the trickiest one, since as the name suggests, it's so real, it COULD happen, if it weren't that elusively quirky twists of fate and/or possibly magic are driving the circumstances along.  Without going into insufferably precious Nobel-winning Mexican literature, the movie Field of Dreams is the most textbook example of Magical Realism:  Who's talking to Kevin Costner?  What's making baseball ghosts appear?  And what twist of fate is helping the characters all find each other so conveniently serendipically?...But, y'know, sure looks like it could happen, if, um, there really were such a thing as baseball ghosts.
- Science Fiction involves some actual concept of science, like space travel, robots or time travel, that's at least plausible in our lifetimes knowing what we now know, if not yet possible.  If it's just there to speculate on the daily-life effects of something that hasn't happened yet, like genetic manipulation, or didn't happen, like how history would be different if some country had lost the war they won, then it's Speculative Fiction for doing all that speculating.
- Surrealism is just being strange to prove a point:  Kafka didn't want to create some alternate universe about a legal-bureaucratic world when he wrote The Trial, or ponder the what-ifs about turning into a cockroach, he just wanted to lecture us with a series of allegorically depicted scenes to express his thematic observations, and string them together into a plot.

Fantasy is one thing where each genre's rules are such a central philosophical standpoint of the story, if you try to break one of the rules just to crossover or experiment, you end up breaking the genre.
Or as I like to put it, "The absolute worst thing you can do in a fantasy is Just Make It Up."
#19 - July 01, 2016, 01:01 PM
« Last Edit: July 01, 2016, 02:16 PM by dewsanddamps »
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I wasn't kidding when I said this discussion got me thinking. I ended up Googling "fantasy without magic" and found these:

https://curiosityquills.com/limyaael/fantasy-without-magic/

http://stackedbooks.org/2014/02/fantasy-without-magic.html

#20 - July 01, 2016, 01:19 PM
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Melissa, I would consider some of Tamora Pierce's Tortall books like this. Although her original series (the Alanna books) definitely held magic, the quartet about Keladry (Protector of the Small) did not use magic (other than some magic that already existed in the world -- but the series, itself, did not focus on magic, and the main character was not magical).

I also found Rae Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns to be mostly un-magical (those who have read the trilogy know that there is a hint of magic, but it's not Harry Potter type magic -- there aren't mages, for instance, or witches and wizards...maybe it's more like magical realism?). Her newest series is very similar -- a magical hint but nothing overt.

And I know I've read others, but of course I can't think of them right now...I'll do some digging.
#21 - July 01, 2016, 01:30 PM
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So where it gets tricky for me is I've come to appreciate extremely slight magic that could be science if more information were available. Such as with, "Mysterious Gifts".

That is, the gift immortality, vision, or hearing may have a rational basis if more information were available.

 Then there is the issue of what I call "Realistic Science Fiction." That's realistic in the literary sense of the term realistic fiction, and not foundation in science. The term being interchangeable with Realistic Fantasy Fiction. The technology may be very slightly more advanced, but the plot generally doesn't have a quest structure. It's simply more ... sitcom ... like.

The story revolving around peoples actual lives. You know the style, where the plot is about acing the drivers test, going to prom, whatever. But might have a very slight science fiction/fantasy angle. The uncanny thing that makes it not our world.

Almost a transrealistic/magic realism feel.

Rudy Rucker goes into transrealism in more detail.
#22 - July 02, 2016, 09:22 PM
« Last Edit: July 02, 2016, 09:24 PM by SarahW »

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I always thought speculative fiction was the overarching term under which science fiction, fantasy and even some horror fall. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/speculative-fiction

Here's a link to definitions of each subgenre. https://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm I thought it might help.

For me, I also didn't assume magic as part of fantasy. Talking animals are an example of fantasy to me. They fit no other category. Perhaps, it's that whatever magic is behind it doesn't need to be explained as part of the story. (I should be clear, I'm not referring to picture books where the talking animal is a stand in for a human, just drawn that way.)
#23 - July 03, 2016, 08:53 PM

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