We Need to Stop Calling Bad SF “Fantasy”

“This is well-written,” the rejection letter read, “but time travel isn’t science fiction. I suggest you send it to a fantasy magazine like Beneath Ceaseless Skies.”

A newbie writer, I had never gotten such a direct referral to another magazine before. Surely it meant this editor knew more than I did about the genre. I packed up my modern-day-setting time machine story and sent it to Beneath Ceaseless Skies, whose guidelines mention not using modern settings or technology eight times, and they sent me a prompt form rejection admonishing me to check their guidelines.

Regardless of your personal opinion on Time Travel as Science Fiction, the fact is, it isn’t Fantasy.  I had a MACHINE with wires and cables and batteries. I had a professor with deadlines and a smart phone.  The BCS editors had no trouble identifying this as NOT fantasy.

Things I have been told are fantasy:

  1. Telepathy
  2. Time travel
  3. Faster than light travel
  4. Human-shaped aliens
  5. Artificial gravity

Things that are actually fantasy:

  1. Stories that originate from a presumption of magic, contain magical beings or a magical setting.

Bam. That’s it. End of list.

When someone says a science fiction trope is “fantasy” they are denigrating another genre by using it as shorthand for “not acceptable.”  Fantasy has its OWN tropes, thank you very much, and it is its own genre, distinct and not lesser than ours.

“But Marie,” you retort, “I’m not using ‘fantasy’ as the name of a genre. I mean it’s a fantasy to believe in that type of magic science!”

Forgive me, straw man whom I invented for the sake of this argument, but I’m going to suggest you aren’t as innocent in your word choice as you pretend.  There are a lot of words that mean “implausible”, “impossible”, “nonfactual” – picking “fantasy” – the name of a genre – and pairing it opposite “science fiction” – another genre – sets up a feeling of comparing similar objects. Genres, for example.

Let’s face it – I am not a fantasy writer. I keep trying, and I fail because I always come at fantasy like a science fiction person.  Being told that my science fiction story was ‘fantasy’ just wasted my time and the time of fantasy editors, who have got to be getting sick of me by now.

“But Marie,” you cry, “If it isn’t SF and it isn’t Fantasy, how do I sell this story I wrote that sorta straddles the line?”

You sell it to the magazine(s) that specifically accept straddling the line. Or you find the editor whose definition of “SF enough” or “Fantasy enough” is the same as yours.

That’s just the facts and we gotta live with it. No one promised us a rose garden full of story contracts.

So please, for the love of J.R.R. Tolkein, stop using “fantasy” as a synonym for “bad science.”  You can say, “This story isn’t what I would accept as Science Fiction,” but don’t go throwing another genre under the bus.

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