Fantasy vs Sci-fi vs …?

The other day, I started to replay Psychonauts. I’m going to spend some time trying to go for some of the achievements I haven’t gotten yet – all Figments, highest level, that one with Mr Pokeylope. At least, if I don’t put my fist through a wall trying to find all of the figments in certain levels first (looking directly at you, Milla Vodello, and your race track challenge).

Now, if you know me at all, you know that when I have files on my computer (this links, I swear), I am an eternal lover of subfolders. Subfolders, categories and tags make my life easier, and making my life easier makes me happy. Even if my system is arcane and basically indecipherable to anyone but me.

So you can kinda imagine what my Steam library looks like. I use the Steam category system like tags, so that it’s easier for me to pinpoint exactly what game I’d like to play. I still can’t search multiple tags, of course, and if there’s a way to do it please don’t tell me because I don’t have six hours to spend retagging my entire Steam library. But it helps me.

Here’s the link I promised: Today I started sort of questioning the tags I used for Psychonauts. Not because I had gotten my gaming genres wrong (though I’ll be the first to admit, the line between my ‘puzzle games’ folder and my ‘puzzle platformers’ folder is blurry at best), but because I was having trouble deciding if Psychonauts was “really” fantasy or sci-fi.

Now watch me try to define what I’m thinking without using the word “Fantasy” or “fantastical”.

Fantasy and science fiction are pretty broad categories already. Sci-fi is already pretty famous for having its Mohs Scale – ‘science fantasy’ or space opera on one hand (Star Wars, Doctor Who, etc.) and hard science fiction on the other (Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Aasimov are usually cited; also writers like Joan Slonczewski). Fantasy doesn’t have anything nearly as codified, but it still spans from urban fantasy to full, high secondary world fantasy.  There’s also the idea that fantasy and sci-fi are both on one overarching spectrum – from high fantasy to hard sci-fi, with space opera and urban fantasy and similar genres falling somewhere in the middle. I don’t necessarily think this is the right way to go about it, but I’d have to do a lot more reading across the spectrum of both fantasy and sci-fi in order to actually start plotting up a better model.

There is also horror, but I actually think that pure horror is very difficult to find these days – while there has been sort of a resurgence in recent years, especially in video games, most of the time, ‘horror’ tends to not be horror so much as a ‘dark [other genre]’. I’m also not sure if, for the purposes of this discussion, there’s much of a difference between the worldbuilding aspects of a horror work versus a sci-fi or fantasy work – they tend to have the same elements, but the elements are used to produce a different tone, which distinguishes the genres. After all, what is the practical difference between a fantasy story where a character must accomplish a goal by communing or negotiating with the spirits of the dead, and a horror story about a ghost haunting, except that the latter is specifically designed to be scary or disempowering?

But that’s the trio that ‘genre fiction’ usually gets lumped into. Fantasy, sci-fi, horror. There are subdivisions within that, but they tend to get lumped in as one of those with a modifier. Urban fantasy. Paranormal horror. Space opera, or military sci-fi. In the end, we’re still defining those as belonging to one of those overarching categories.

Then, Psychonauts.

Generally, when I’m categorising things in my Steam library, I choose whether they’re sci-fi or fantasy based mainly around the intuitive sense of things. Humans are good at this. Give us a few examples of something that’s in a category, and then give us enough reference material to have a general idea of boundaries and edge cases (the typical example is that I know a dining chair and a sofa are both chairs, and I grew up being told that a three-legged stool is also a kind of chair, and so even though I don’t actually check objects against a list of ‘things that make up a chair’ I can generally look at an object in context and determine whether it’s used for seating or not). Generally, things that use exclusively and explicitly magic settings (Dragon Age) go in ‘fantasy’, things that use exclusively and explicitly tech settings (Primordia) go in sci-fi. From there, it’s a percentage game. Bioshock, for example, goes in sci-fi because while the plasmids and vigors are clearly just magical, the setting attempts to explain them as “a thing that was made by science” (genetic engineering, mostly), so therefore it’s not fantasy. However, Dust: An Elysian Tale is in fantasy despite having a kind of gears-and-machines anime fantasy aesthetic because, well, most of that’s window dressing for a world with cool monsters and talking animals, so it doesn’t really fit my definition of sci-fi. It’s a pretty squidgy definition, and you could definitely argue the point on a lot of these.

The reason that I had so much trouble with Psychonauts is that I’m never really sure how to categorise psychic powers. They’re one of those really setting-dependent things where it basically depends on how they’re presented. Clairvoyant oracles who can read minds are probably fantasy; a machine that reads brainwaves and translates them for someone else is most likely sci-fi. But Psychonauts doesn’t ever really provide that context for us. We know that the spy HQ is full of computers, but then, so are most spy HQs in any modern setting. Urban fantasy with werewolves does this, too. We also know that psychic powers are enhanced by a metal called ‘psitanium’, but that’s also equally present in fantasy and sci-fi settings (fantasy is full of magical swords created from meteorite metal, and sci-fi is full of substances or ‘new elements’ that make things like FTL possible).

By feel, Psychonauts is pretty much six of one, half a dozen of the other, too. The worlds that you’re travelling through are very much fantastical, with strange monsters and weird settings, but the setting is modern, and all the minds you’re travelling through are less actual worlds and more just collections of symbolic elements that represent actual psychological concepts (such as the fictional bull, El Odio literally setting you back in the level if you run into it, representing Edgar’s anxiety spirals constantly returning him to the same place in his thoughts). There are some real-world things that could be fantastical, such as the giant lungfish, but that’s stated to be because of a technological implant in the lungfish’s mind, which places that element solidly in the world of sci-fi.

If I were to actually try to categorise Psychonauts, I’d probably end up going for a very soft science fantasy, or a modern fantasy (I don’t want to use urban fantasy because it’s certainly got nothing to do with cities, but I don’t know if we have another catch-all term for ‘fantasy but in a modern setting’) with very strong sci-fi influences.

Which all got me to thinking – is there a better way we could be organising these things? Fantasy, sci-fi and horror are great genres and I plan to do a lot more writing in all of them before they go away entirely, if they ever do, but I’m starting to wonder if three is enough. Just look at a YA bookshelf. Because YA for a long time didn’t (and, if I’m up to date on my bookshelf categories, still doesn’t) have a very strong demarcation between different genres within YA. Realistic slice-of-life fiction is put on the same shelf as high fantasy and dystopian fantasy, which is on the same shelf as spy thrillers and futuristic sci-fi. That leaves a lot of room for wiggle room between genres, and you end up with a lot of the cross-genre innovation that the YA genre is now known for. I think that adult fiction is starting to catch up with that one, finally, but that is still definitely one of the strengths of YA fiction.

Come to think of it I probably should have added the modern thriller as a different genre to the three above. They often get kinda conceptualised as sci-fi, but honestly I think they’re different enough that they probably deserve their own category at this point. My bad.

Back to the point: I wonder if we’re ready for the genres to split up a bit more. I personally think it’s a little bit limiting to just sort of divide things by “does it use magic or does it use tech”, and I feel like it sort of leads back to a time when people either read classics/lit fic, ‘chick lit’ and realistic fiction, or ‘genre fiction’, which was about fantastic worlds. But as genre fiction has become more accepted and mainstream, it’s diverged a lot, and I think that as we have experimented with how far we can push all these genre divides, we’ve started to make some of the larger distinctions pretty much useless.

I’m not sure that we’ll ever give them up entirely – they’re pretty entrenched by now. Or, rather, I’m not sure that we’ll give them up entirely within my lifetime – I’m sure the Greeks never thought there would come a day when comedy and tragedy weren’t in common genre parlance anymore – but I do think that we’re probably due some new distinctions, or at least for the world to stop considering fiction under some of its current umbrella terms. Maybe we’ll see a new genre pop up for what was once ‘the fantastic’ or ‘magical realism’ – where real life is interrupted by something strange, and the plot of the story is about deciding how that new experience fits into the world. The publishing world at the moment definitely seems ripe for a new style of ‘adjacent-to-reality’ fiction, either reality plus a few very small magical tweaks/paranormal elements, or twenty-minutes-into-the-future sci-fi where the world is ours but with half a step forward in tech advancement. Five or so years ago, the world seemed really into magitech settings as well – where magic was present but treated in the world as a form of technological advancement rather than a wondrous and unknowable system unto itself – and honestly I’m a bit behind on that one, so I don’t know if that’s still going on, has been integrated into something else, or whether it’s started to get played out.

I’m not sure what exactly is going to happen in this – I’m just not clicked into enough current trends in enough genres – but as always, I’m sort of interested to see a sea change. I like sea changes in genres – they’re cool and interesting. And if we’re looking at one of them now, then that’ll make me a happy little overthinker.

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