Friday 24 April 2020

The Edges Of A Genre

When Arthur C. Clarke observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” he highlighted a fundamental malaise of science fiction as a genre. This is a discomfort with which the fandom community continues to grapple.

There is a continuum between utterly mimetic and purely fantastical fiction; the difference between
(Image via Wikipedia)
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings is only a matter of degrees. The angst of science fiction is that it lies in a liminal area between that which reflects the real world and that which eschews reality.

There is clearly no “hard line” between what is science fiction and what is fantasy, a fact that Norman Spinrad inartfully grappled with in a now-notorious column in Asimov’s magazine last November.

Genre-based awards are, by definition, bound by an accepted understanding of the genre itself. For the science fiction community, and the Hugo Awards in particular, the existential anxiety of defining these boundaries continues to be both a strength and a weakness.

These days, the Hugo Award is an award for any form of speculative fiction, be it fantasy, science fiction, alternate history or other sub-genre work. In many ways, this inclusive, adaptive approach is a strength. But it does mean that none of the top-five most prestigious literary awards focus squarely on science fiction as a genre.

Fantasy has the World Fantasy Award (WFA), and horror has the Bram Stoker Award — neither of which recognize works of science fiction (beyond the occasional genre-blurring piece). The Arthur C. Clarke Award is more strict about genre delineations, but it is UK-based, and doesn’t have as high a profile as the WFA or the Locus Award. Both Hugos and Nebulas are about as likely to go to a work
Norman Spinrad may
have expressed himself
inelegantly recently.
(Image via Wordbasket)
of science fiction as they are a work of fantasy.

Those who criticize the Hugo Awards for recognizing fantasy works may in part be reacting to the absence of a “pure” science fiction award. However, it is possible for those who yearn for a more narrowly-defined award for science fiction to do so positively.

It’s worth digging into why the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) at the World Science Fiction Convention gives an award formerly known as the “Science Fiction Achievement Awards,” but does not restrict the award to science fiction in the same way the World Fantasy Convention’s World Fantasy Award is restricted to works of fantasy (try saying that sentence ten times fast). Part of the explanation of this oddity may be found in the history of the Hugo Award.

In the 1953 Worldcon Progress Report #3, Will Jenkins writes:
  • “At the 11th World Science Fiction in Philadelphia on Labour Day weekend, a new tradition will be established, with the formal awarding of the First Annual Science Fiction Achievement Awards to those writers, editors, artists, and fans whom the members of the convention feel have distinguished themselves during the past year. This is the first time in the history of Science Fiction that such awards have been made to include all fields of Science Fiction endeavor.”
By the repetition of the phrase “science fiction” in describing the award and not once mentioning the word “fantasy,” it might be reasonable to assume that the original intent of the organizers was to focus on science fiction. Certainly in what we’ve read of the discussions of award voting that year, there’s no mention of now-classic works of fantasy that would have been eligible, such as C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This seems to be an assumption that WSFS rules historian Ben Yalow disagrees with, as he writes on the official Hugo Awards website “The Hugo Award ... has always included works of fantasy.” Our disagreement with Yalow's assertion is more of a nitpick than a substantive argument against it.

We find it amusing to think that there might be proponents of Hugo Award Rules
Antonin Scalia was wrong
about the U.S. constitution …
much like the WSFS constitution,
it's a living document.
(Image via Wikipedia)
originalism; a WSFS equivalent of Antonin Scalia if you would. An examination of the evidence will tell you that the Hugos have accepted works of fantasy for more than six decades.

By the time they awarded the second Science Fiction Achievement Awards, the rules written by Nicholas L. Falasca include a note “While the award carries the connotation that only science fictional material will be considered, we hasten to add that fantasy and weird material can be included.” There’s explicit acknowledgment of fantasy, but the list of winners continues to show a strong bias towards what would generally be classed as science fiction (although the fanzine award that year was given to Fantasy Times).

By 1959, when the term “Hugo” began to be used in official documents to describe the awards, and the phrase “science fiction or fantasy” was used throughout the rules, clarifying that these awards include both.

The first 40 years of the Hugo Award winners show a strong bias towards works that would be classed by most readers as falling on the science fiction side of the SF-F spectrum. By our estimate, the first work of pure fantasy to win — or even be shortlisted for — a Hugo Award for fiction was in 1959 with the short story “That Hell-Bound Train” by Robert Bloch.

However in recent years, works that would likely be described as fantasy have become more common. This is particularly evident in the short story category where in 2019, the only finalist that falls on the science fiction end of the spectrum was Sarah Gailey’s interactive “STET.”

The World Fantasy Award — which was founded in 1975 as part of the World Fantasy Convention — doesn’t seem to have ever had any controversy about whether or not science fiction should be considered for the award. Looking over the list of shortlisted works, it would be difficult to argue that the World Fantasy Award recognizes science fiction. Although we have been unable to find an online version of the WFA rules, the nominees and winners appear to fit squarely within what most would describe as fantasy. The closest that we could find was the WFA judging panel announcements which mention that: “All forms of fantasy are eligible, e.g. high, epic, dark, contemporary, literary.

The struggle to define the exact boundary between science fiction and fantasy does not mean that
Last year, the only short story on the
Hugo ballot that could be called
science fiction was Sarah Gailey's
"STET." If you haven't read it yet,
you should do so right now. It's great.
(Image via Goodreads)
there is no difference. Instead, it points to the fact that the edges of a genre aren’t necessarily hard edges, but rather points on a continuum. A work might be more science fictional or less science fictional, more fantastical or less fantastical. Those who suggest that one needs to “take a side” are woefully misguided... but those who suggest that there is no difference between science fiction and fantasy aren’t entirely correct either.

In his column, Spinrad took umbrage with the “evaporating” boundary between science fiction and fantasy. Some of his many critics have claimed that there is no difference between science fiction and fantasy, that any attempt to distinguish between them is futile.

In a well-reasoned response to Spinrad’s column, Alexandra Erin blogged at Uncanny magazine about the impossibility of creating a hard distinction between fantasy and science fiction. She highlighted numerous ways in which works that are generally considered to be science fiction are in fact fantastical, and several instances in which works generally regarded as fantasy are science fictional.

Within our book club, there are widely varying opinions and preferences about fantasy versus science fiction. Some of our book club members believe that a broad, more inclusive set of rules for the Hugos means that the cream rises to the top without putting it through a filter first. Others feel that the increasing prevalence of fantasy on the Hugo ballot makes the award more likely to be redundant, as there are other awards to recognize works of fantasy.

It can be said without privileging one over the other that there is a difference between science fiction and fantasy. Likewise, it’s completely fair for an individual reader to prefer science fiction or fantasy without casting aspersions on the other.

The Hugos have changed with time and with different contingents of Worldcon attendees. In the late 1960s, the definition of science fiction was radically changed as the demographic juggernaut of Baby Boomers began nominating and voting for works that addressed their concerns and tastes. We’re currently undergoing a similar demographic shift with the Hugos, as Millenials come into their Hugo-voting years and redefine the genre again.

Because Hugo nominees are not determined by a judging panel in the style of the WFA and Stoker,
"Oh no, millennials killed
science fiction!" is clearly
a ridiculous claim.
(Image via
they are more affected by demographic shifts, and more prone to mutability of purpose. While this mutability is not necessarily a bad thing, it has left a gap in the ecosystem of genre awards, one that is keenly felt by fans who prefer a more technologically centred version of science fiction.

There is no easy way to address this gap. None of us want to impose more restrictive rules on the Hugo awards, since trying to parse the exact boundaries of the genre would be a fool’s errand. Creating a separate category within the Hugo architecture would likewise be unsatisfying, as there are frankly too many categories already, and more would dilute the importance of the awards.

For now, those who yearn for “pure” science fiction can make do with alternatives like the geographically restricted (not-universal) Arthur C. Clarke Award, sub-genre specific (but less prestigious) awards like the Prometheus Award, or recently created and troubled awards like the Dragon Awards. They can also lobby for the best examples of writing they love to win the Hugo. More people talking about great stories can only be a good thing.

These options may seem like cold comfort to some, but they are all better than — through churlish nostalgia — undermining an existing awards system that works well for a broader spectrum of genre fiction.


This is a blog post in part inspired by:

Amy Goldschalger and Avon Eos did a creditable job of trying to define the differences between SF and fantasy:


  1. And yet I think the distinction is quite clear on an individual basis. When I read and review stories for Rocket Stack Rank, I mark them as one of hard SF, soft SF, mixed-genre, low fantasy, or high fantasy (or not SF/F at all). I usually have no trouble labeling any given story, and mixed-genre stories amount to just 1% of 2% of the total. So, as an individual, I see a sharp distinction, with very little gray area.

    The catch is, that if a hundred people did the same exercise, there would probable be more stories that we disagreed on. However, I'll bet if we had a wiki or something where we discussed cases with big disagreements, over time we'd evolve shared definitions, and after a year or two, we'd be almost as consistent as I am as an individual.

    That implies there really is a clear distinction; the only problem is that we're not good at articulating it.

  2. There have been a couple of borderline SF winners of the World Fantasy Award over the years such as Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe in 1981 (usually classified as SF these days, because it's medieval world is post-apocalyptic), Perfume by Patrick Süskind in 1987 (I would classify it as a historical thriller rather than SFF, but if we want to coopt it for speculative fiction, it's historical SF, because the lead character uses chemistry and biology - and serial killing - to create the perfect scent) and Replay by Ken Grimwood, which is a time travel/time loop story. A surprising number of horror novels, including some with little to no supernatural content, have also been nominated for and won the World Fantasy Award over the years.