Fantasy Subsumes!

Fantasy is, as a matter of fact, the best literary genre.

“A matter of fact!” you exclaim. “How can he say that?!”

Simple: Because fantasy, since it allows magic, has unlimited possibilities. Therefore it subsumes all other genres as special cases.

Therefore it is superior to all other genres. No matter what you think is the “proper purpose” of fiction – assuming you’re one of those strange people who think it should have a single purpose – you can achieve it at least as well with an unconstrained toolkit as with a constrained toolkit. This is why fantasy is the best genre. Really, I’m agog that no one noticed this before.

Anything you can do in another genre you can do in fantasy. That’s true for the quotidian material of “literary” fiction: bored housewives, status games at the office, or whatever. It’s true for science fiction: devastating hand-weapons (plasma rifles; cf. magical “force bolts”), “living” machines a la C-3PO, etc. It’s true for murder mysteries, chick lit, war stories, action/adventure novels, spy thrillers, etc. You could depict the boredom of a bored housewife in fantasy. I’m not sure why you’d want to, but you could.

However, there are things you can have in fantasy that you can’t have in other genres, even science fiction. E.g., gods, people flying – with no mechanical apparatus, just flyinginfinite libraries. You can have…

• entropy stop or reverse itself
• knowledge of the position and mass of a particle to within arbitrary precision simultaneously
• time, space, matter, and energy interact in ways that differ from relativity
• continua (as opposed to quanta) of mass and energy
• deterministic physics at the sub-atomic level
• time travel (yeah, I know it’s a staple of what’s called science fiction, but beeyotch, puh-leaze!)

You can’t use these things in SF, not if you respect the requirement that any postulated advances in future science must be consistent with what scientists now believe about the universe. To the extent that you violate current knowledge of physics you depart from SF and enter the realm of fantasy.

Imaginary interlocutor: “You’re saying there are no rules in fantasy. That’s wrong; a story must have rules.” To be sure, any given fictional universe must have rules, or no story can occur. However, in fantasy as a genre there are no rules.

So the genre ranking put forth by the self-appointed haute literary establishment gets it upside-down. They have fiction treating the everyday stuff that takes place in contemporary society at the top. Sorry; it’s actually at the bottom. (I don’t need to be told “what life is like.” I’m living it.) In second place they’ve placed science fiction; this is correct. They’ve put fantasy last; in fact it is first.

One possible objection to this is as follows, from a hypothetical SF writer: “Suppose the goal of my fiction is to explore the possible futures of the human race in the universe as it is. Ex hypothesi, my vision of fiction necessarily entails excluding magic.” No, it doesn’t. Consider what happens as you drive the amount of magic in a story toward zero. Suppose, e.g., that in an otherwise normal SF novel, one leaf on one tree magically turns a different color for one second and then changes back. This makes the novel fantasy and it doesn’t affect anything important, so it doesn’t disrupt your exploration of possible real-world futures. “Okay,” you say, “I could do that, but why would I?” You wouldn’t, in practice. But suppose aliens told us we had to pick one genre or they’d blow up Earth. Then we’d have to pick fantasy, because it’s the genre that nests the others.

Now to an extent this entire topic is idle, since the human race doesn’t have to pick a single genre. But if we did have to pick one, we’d pick fantasy, would have to pick fantasy, because it alone allows the attainment of all possible goals for fiction. In a way, then – i.e., in the limit as the amount of magic in a story approaches zero – it subsumes all other genres as degenerate special cases.


(1) A person familiar with some of the more outlandish things that are technically allowed by quantum mechanics – cf. Greg Egan’s Quarantine – might appeal to QM to argue that apparent magic is consistent with science fiction. However, taking this idea seriously destroys the distinction between fantasy and SF anyway. My point – that fiction unconstrained is superior to fiction constrained – is not affected.

(2) In light of Singulatarian memes, one might dispute the point about gods: SF can have superintelligent AIs that are, for all practical purposes, gods. Actually it can’t. The superintelligent “gods” still have to respect the laws of physics as we now understand them, or you’ve got fantasy. An example: I can have a superintelligent literal god in fantasy that can calculate the trajectory of each subatomic particle in the universe with arbitrary precision and arbitrarily far into the future. You can’t do this in SF because (a) it would violate Heisenberg’s Principle, (b) it’s inconsistent with the stochastic nature of events at the quantum level, (c) there’s no way the AI could acquire the information about the initial conditions needed to start the calculations, (d) how does the AI in your SF story dump the waste heat from all these calculations? The entropy thus produced would change those trajectories.* In fantasy, in contrast, you can have a god who can calculate the future positions of every subatomic particle in the universe. And you don’t have to explain the effects of the waste heat.

*The computer itself is part of the universe, and it doesn’t know what its end state will be when it has finished the calculations. (If it did, it would already know the answer to the question it’s asking.) It might try to take its current state into account at any moment during the calculation, but that requires another set of calculations, which will put it into an unknown state… ad infinitum. With magic you don’t need to worry about any of this.

PS: When I said above that it’s strange to think of fiction having a single main purpose, I lied: The main purpose of fiction is to entertain. You’re welcome!