Of all the genres, science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) strikes me as weird, not because the stories are weird (in many ways, they’re supposed to be), but because it’s probably the only genre that has two genres. I mean we don’t lump mystery and horror into the same genre, they usually have their own sections (although there are mysteries with horror elements and horror stories with mystery elements). And the relationship between science fiction and fantasy has been weird and mutable to say the least.
On one hand, you have the people who say that SF&F are one and the same thing. The differences are superficial. And in many ways, that’s true. One of my favorite introductions was one written by Philip K. Dick where he sets out to define what science fiction is and in the process of doing so, states how it’s the reader who dictates what is fantasy and what is science fiction: if the reader believes something is in the realm of possibility, it’s the latter while if it’s not, the former. In today’s modern world, I think that’s even more important as the lines between fantasy and science fiction are becoming more and more blurred.
On the other hand, I also see the point where science fiction and fantasy are two entirely different animals. I think this is so not because of the medium, which can honestly express either view, but rather due to the writers and readers themselves. Science fiction readers have come to expect something different when it comes to science fiction and the same goes for fantasy. For example, ideas and concepts and political dystopias or utopias have usually been the realm of science fiction (which isn’t to say that’s not present in fantasy, they’re just not the norm). And then fantasy has all these action and adventure and magic and formulaic plots of prophesied hero saving the world or this magic artifact that will doom or save humanity and the like (which again isn’t to say that’s not present in science fiction, merely they’re not as common). Honestly speaking, those tropes would work in either genre. It’s just that writers tend to submit or plan to write those concept-driven stories or political commentaries as science fiction and readers come to expect sword and sorcery and the ultimate battle between good and evil when they’re picking up a fantasy book.
To put it more bluntly, science fiction has its own tropes and clichés while fantasy has its own set as well but surprise surprise, they’re not identical! So while I agree that SF&F can easily be lumped into one genre (genre is an illusion!), there’s also cause for them to be different. They do have a common theme though in the sense that they’re not “realist” fiction (but the problem with that is that realist fiction similarly has magic or at the very least surreal moments that borders on the impossible). And with that common theme, I’m more open to terms like Speculative Fiction as an umbrella title for SF&F works and anything in between (and honestly don’t you get tired of the SF&F acronym instead of using actual words?)..
That, however, doesn’t answer my question. Why did two genres get lumped up together? Who thought of “hey, let’s combine science fiction and fantasy into one shelf!” And while there are writers who are versatile and work well in both genres (the late Roger Zelazny comes to mind), the relationship between science fiction and fantasy hasn’t always been mutual appreciation. I mean there are times when both wage skirmishes, especially when writers of one refuse to be acknowledged as writers of the other (and uses the “I’m not fantasy!” card).
I think an interesting test to SF&F fans is to answer the question whether you’re more of a fantasy reader or a science fiction reader. People tend to lean more towards one than the other, even if they read both. Personally, I consider myself more of a fantasy fan, although I do read some science fiction. Of course sometimes I wonder how I turned up like that. And people are usually polarized in the issue: I have yet to meet a person who says that he has equal preference for both. I’d even settle for neither as a more common result (along the same lines as “I don’t read books”).
But at the end of the day, since I read both, I’m happy. When I go to the bookstore and head towards the shelf I prioritize, I only need to go to one area: the one with the SF&F label. And I think that’s what matters the most. Genres are an illusion, and both science fiction and fantasy have a great repertoire (but let’s always remember Sturgeon’s Law). Although one day, somebody’s probably going to write a story about the epic fight between science fiction and fantasy, two genres that occupy the same niche, as if they were forces of chaos and law, nature and technology, magic and science, each one striving for complete dominance. But the fact is if one of them wins, we as readers would be the losers. It’s one less tool that’s taken away from writers, and one less mode readers can appreciate.