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Science Fiction v. Fantasy

The most popular flavors on offer at the recent ConFusion we attended (Fem Fantasy Fatal Lite, Green Goth Mint, Vampire Vanilla, Zombie Zabaione) made us wonder exactly how the famous split between fantasy and science fiction actually fared in the publishing environment. Locus Online to the rescue.

Locus Online is the website that tracks the field for The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy. It provides some rich materials for understanding this segment of the fiction market in its two incarnations. The Locus website is here—recommended for those aspiring to understand the field. Locus Online also maintains The Locus Index to Science Fiction. We give this link to its 1999 page—at the bottom of which the visitor can also summon other years for a closer look. One of the features of this Index is statistics on books and magazines published by sub-segments of the F&SF category.

The data that follow show the number of books issued for the period 1984 through 2007. Only a single total is available for the 1984-1998 years. We show an average per year for that period. In all other years, actual data obtained by Locus Online are cited in the graphic. The site does not explain the rather sharp rise between 2000 and 2001; that may be due to better sampling or may represent an upsurge in interest.

The graph shows that “in the olden days” (1984-1998) Science Fiction was still King—though hard pressed by the upstart Duke of Fantasy. Thereafter Fantasy becomes the ruler, and an increasing distance opens between science fiction and fantasy. At the risk of over-stating what a few years’ trend may mean, the data suggest that the audience, the tastes, or the culture may be changing—maybe all three. The core of science fiction is physicalist realism—but refreshed by the assumption that science will bring radical change. At the core of fantasy is a kind of suspension of disbelief and–we submit–a kind of nostalgia for archaic images, emotions. Science fiction opens vast horizons for sociological, fantasy for supernatural speculation. In the first we are invited to contemplate the laws of nature, in the other the meaning of symbols. One’s tempted to wonder: is the dream of barbarism (Conan), of magic kingdoms (Tolkien), of dazzling fairies and of horrid monsters deepening? Is that what we’re seeing? Plastics and microwave ovens no longer inspiring perhaps? Nothing to dream about?

Food for thought. Let’s have another dip of that stuff to see if the taste’s improving.


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