This is a question that nags at me a lot. Why do I almost exclusively write fantasy and science fiction? I normally try to challenge myself, writing in a format or style or length I’ve never written in before—and yet, I continually steer clear of realistic fiction. It seems childish.
One theory is that I’ve hardly lived at all, so I have hardly anything real to write about, and to fill that cavity I have to shove in gods and phasers. That might be part of it.
It’s not as though I’m actively avoiding it. Whenever I come up with ideas for stories, it happens that the ones that excite me are the fantasy ones. I can’t help what excites me, can I?
And then I realized that speculative fiction is just like all fiction, except the world is made up too. Simple, obvious even—I know. It’s the implications of this that got me really thinking.
As far as content goes, there are three elements of a story. Plot, setting, and character. Of course that’s totally simplified BS, but for the purposes of what I’m getting at here, this is how it is. In realistic fiction (or “fiction” as bookstores group it) the plot and characters are invented, but the setting is the same. In science fiction and fantasy books, world, character, and plot are all invented. And this is why I write science fiction and fantasy. I like to make up the world as well as the characters and plot. Why then is this type of fiction labeled differently in bookstores, if it’s just one degree more of made-upness? Totally superficial reasons, which I don’t know enough about to discuss here.
But let’s look at the actual differences. Having a book set in the real world does make for a different book—it’s not completely superficial. It changes the frame of reference, the immediacy, the way a reader processes a book. But the problem is, this is the case for more than just setting.
Why doesn’t a series like Foundation by Isaac Asimov belong to it’s own genre? The characters and world are made up, but the story is roughly modeled on the fall of the Roman empire, which makes for a different reading experience than if it was totally made up.
And what about a book like Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving, in which his own life and total fiction are mixed together in every element of the story? The way that reality and fiction interact in that story, and in the real world, definitely effected my comprehension and enjoyment of the book.
And what about my own writing? Although it feels like I’m always writing fantasy, when I look at my work this way, I’m really all over the place. In three of my latest stories, one had an invented setting/partially autobiographical character/invented plot, another a partially real-world setting/invented characters/invented plot, and another an invented setting/invented characters/invented plot.
But as far as I can tell, the division in bookstores is this: invented setting/x character/x plot is one genre, real setting/x character/x plot is another genre, and real setting/real character/real plot is a totally different section of the building. There are other books that are divided out based on specific types of plots (like mysteries) or types of settings (like westerns), which is even more obviously superficial than the division between fiction and fantasy. And even with all this division, there may be more variation between two Fantasy books than between a Sci-Fi novel and a Mystery (which, to niche in this whole other can of worms, kind of reminds me of this.)
Like I said, I don’t know the history of these superficial divisions very well. I’m not trying to explain them, or understand them. I’m just rejecting their ideas that I’d unintentionally internalized, and presenting a more dynamic (though still very simple) way of looking at differences in stories. I’m just telling you why I don’t care that I keep writing science fiction.