The Sci-Fi/Fantasy Classification Sucks

So I’m on a little sci-fi bender, and let me tell you–the bookstore doesn’t help. Your sci-fi books are classified in one enormous section: Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Both genres are a certain kind of fanciful fiction where unrealistic things can happen. But there’s an incredible difference in that lack of realism. It stretches from Lord of the Rings on one end–a made up world with made up magic and creatures–to something like Serenity on the other end–a fictional world that includes realistically possible scientific advancements, but no fanciful elements like magic (and Serenity is probably a bad example with its Western bent and River’s psychic powers, but it’s a better example than say, Star Wars with its Jedis and the Force).

So as you wander through the aisle you get medieval warriors with swords and armor next to realistic portrayals of settlements on the moons of Jupiter. And there’s plenty of room in between: realistic, modern day stories with fantastic elements (Buffy, X-Men, etc.), futuristic stories with fantasy elements (Star Wars), fantasy stories with elements of sci-fi (I don’t have a good example of that), even realistic sci-fi stories with elements of horror (Sunshine). It gets even weirder when you consider sub-genres like revisionist history. Right now I’m reading Empire by Orson Scott Card that the library considered sci-fi, but it’s more a political thriller or maybe a dystopian future (though it’s hard for it to be future when Fox News is involved and the president is obviously supposed to be George W. Bush).

My point being that it’s a little frustrating when you walk through the bookstore liking a specific genre but not being able to find it within the larger categorization. Sci-Fi/Fantasy is huge. It encompasses a lot.

And if you’re looking for realistic portrayals of space exploration without far out elements like aliens (Star Trek), magic (Star Wars), demons (Doom, Event Horizon) or horror/insanity (Sunshine–not sure what to call that, but except for the whole psychotic train wreck I really enjoyed that movie), the bookstore (or library) shelf is of little help. Try finding your post-apocalyptic pandemic stories. Or your alien shoot ’em up. Or whatever.

I guess I just find it odd, considering that publishers want books that fall neatly into genres so they can more easily sell them. Apparently that only goes so far. A main genre is helpful, a more specific genre perhaps not so much. At least not enough that the bookstore cares.

I guess that’s what the Internets are for. (Rabbit trail: And I’m still scratching my head as to why brick & mortar bookstores don’t give you a computer to search for what you’re looking for. Certainly you can ask somebody, but I tend to have more luck with a skeleton plot and Google than a random bookseller.)

4 thoughts on “The Sci-Fi/Fantasy Classification Sucks”

  1. You need to go to Uncle Hugo’s in Minneapolis. They sell used (and new) sci-fi books and the people who work there know their stuff! They also have some book reviews in their newsletter, which is available online.

    It is an experience. They have more books than their shelves can hold. And they are about to have a sale!

  2. I hear what you’re saying, Kevin. I like both genres, but I would say that they are different enough to be separate (to be fair, both are set in a “fantastic” setting that we can relate to and see our world commented on… even if one has lasers and stuff and another has fireballs, etc.). But all the same, think about how huge an area “fiction” covers. That’s big, bigger in some ways than sci-fi and fantasy. Think about the difference between Catch-22 and Pride and Prejudice (and the differences aren’t just in years).

    And I wouldn’t mind a computer to search on at Barnes or somewhere else, but asking really does help. Heck, a lot of times the bookseller can make recommendations for you.

  3. I realize general fiction is hard to further categorize, which is why it surprises me that there’s such an easy category break in sci-fi/fantasy, yet they don’t do it.

  4. Is it so easy? There is a LOT of potential overlap between the two. Serenity has it, the book series I recommended by Robert Jordan and Philip Pullman have it, etc. You have alternate universe theories (which is very sci-fi as well: it’s been made use of in actual science and shows like Star Trek and Stargate) combined with witches, magic, etc.

    The fact that the two genres can be combined under the “fantastic setting that allows us to see ourselves and world in a different way” works pretty well, I would say. And pretty soon you get down to finding the best set up you can do and what people are used to, and that’s it!

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