Why do people belittle Fantasy and Science Fiction?


Two weeks ago, somebody tweeted about how fantasy as a genre is just for young adults. There is so much wrongness wrapped in that tweet… let’s have a look.

What? How? Where?

Right, so the tweet in question is below, authorless — I’ll not throw people under the bus, enough people already did:

Tweet: He carefully distinguised between science-fiction (impersonal) & fantasy (personal, "magical"). interesting & convincing argument suggesting why fantasy as a genre is fundamentally YA.

Another clarifying tweet followed:

Tweet: any plot involving a special birth, a "magical" birth, any savior-trope is fantasy, not science-fiction; for in science-fiction, the universe is impersonal, materialist & does not center around human personalities.

Er… okay. Well. Let’s unpack this for a moment.

The author of this Tweet claims several things. First, that science fiction is impersonal and never “magical” — okay… And Fantasy is driven by characters, and thus “magical” (what’s with those quotes?)

Secondly, this character-driven “magical” stuff apparently makes Fantasy only for young adults.

Both of these arguments are complete horse shit on several levels. Let’s break that down.

“Magical” young adults

The distinction between personal and impersonal is a very strange one. It mostly shows a lack of knowledge about both genres. There are some impersonal works in science fiction. Maybe… Few stories come to mind, except some short stories I’ve read written from the point of view of AIs, or stylized to resemble a scientific paper.

And just to pick an example of character-driven science fiction, I’m currently reading The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson, and that’s a highly personal story about a young woman getting lost in the lives of her dopplegangers from other worlds. So… ‘impersonal’ is a non-starter.

Let’s leave this for now. I’ll come back to the difference between science fiction and fantasy below.

The second part of the argument claims that this means Fantasy is just for young adults. Now, I’m not a big fan of the idea of YA (young adult) as a genre. Mostly because genre is a categorization based on style. YA it’s not a genre, it’s an age category, and age is not a style. Every genre can exist as YA. It only means it has less swearing and graphic violence/sex — I think. Basically, it’s like naming flavors of ice cream: vanilla, strawberry, and young adult (meaning a smaller ice cream). It makes no sense.

But excepting that, why would a personal character-driven story be for young adults only? The implication seems to be that when we grow up we should only read impersonal ‘literary’ novels without “magic” — Still don’t know what the quotes are for, but I’ll roll with it. I don’t understand that notion. Like saying strawberry ice is only for children and adults can only eat vanilla. I like strawberry ice cream! I like YA scifi just as much as adult scifi.

On genres

The underlying issue could be using a definition similar to this very weird one from Wikipedia that genre fiction is plot-driven. You could theoretically use this definition, but since plot drives character arcs, this basically says only fiction where characters don’t change is literary fiction. So, this neatly rules out pesky ‘genre’ fiction like The Great Gatsby and A Christmas Carol, and probably just about anything under the sun, with maybe exceptions like the Pale King.

This would be academic, except a lot of teachers and authors — especially those that write or love ‘literary’ fiction — seem to feel the need to play definition games that somehow make all fantasy, science fiction, and other genre fiction inferior. But that’s not a sound argument. You can try to order fiction by quality, and you can try to order it by flavor (genre), but you can’t order it by flavor then claim that that says something about quality. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called experts do exactly this, and so does the tweet above.

You can argue anything with “magical” elements is fantasy, but you can’t claim that suddenly makes it for children only. This type of reasoning quickly ties itself into knots. For example, “A Christmas Carol” has a lot of “magical” elements. But of course, that’s “literary” fiction, so er….

You could argue that “literary” fiction is all fiction that is a work of art; a literary landmark that had great impact on the world (like A Christmas Carol). But, if you do that, you can no longer claim that the “magical” elements make it fantasy. I get it, if you write non-genre stuff, it’d be nice if you could automatically claim to be superior to genre stuff, so claiming your style of book rocks society to its core is nice. But you probably didn’t change the world, did you? And, unfortunately, some Fantasy and Science Fiction has (A Christmas Carol, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars…).

Science fiction versus Fantasy

Back to an earlier point. If we throw out the whole quality-it’s-only-for-children bullshit, we’re still left with a weird definition of science fiction versus fantasy. Because this impersonal/personal stuff and “magic” elements rambling is pretty useless. So, what will work?

Twitter has also been overflowing with a lot of jokes about this. And this definition war about what fantasy and science fiction really are has raged for decades. For example, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card from 1990 had a section weighing in on this very issue without a comprehensive conclusion — quick side note, Card is a raging homophobe and money you spend on his books goes to fighting things like gay marriage.

Conclusion: there is no simple answer.

As a software architect, I can say: the ordering you need depends highly on what you want to use the ordering for. In the end, it really depends on why you want to order the stories. The distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy came about to help readers find books they like. So you can go to the bookcase labeled ‘Fantasy’ in the library and find stuff you like. Which is not relevant if you want to order by, I don’t know, color to look nice in your bookcase.

Genre is a tool for marketing and publishing as well. A publisher specializing in romance novels won’t really know the police procedural genre, but they will know if a certain romance story is derivative, or good. But that’s about style, and certain tropes. Of course, over time, authors have broken those boundaries down, as they are prone to do. And something classified as science fiction might suddenly feature police procedural tropes.

As a reader, it really only matters to find out what you like. And if it is in the wrong stack, you’ll probably still run into it sooner or later, because your friends will tell you about it. Or not, but there is still more than enough to read and see to fill a lifetime, I think. So, yeah, you can have a heated debate about Star Wars being Fantasy, but who gives a flying f*ck? Unless you’re trying to use that argument to claim that Star Wars is stupid, in which case, see above: you are being disingenuous.


Genres will always be there. They’re a way to group things, which we humans have a need for. And we will argue until the end of time about what is what.

However, that doesn’t say anything about quality or ‘better’ and ‘worse’ genres. Or genres which are ‘only for children’. Just like strawberry ice cream isn’t inherently better than chocolate ice cream, and there is no ‘only for children’ flavor.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands