21 February 2014

The erasure of high fantasy and space/planetary adventure

In one of the more recent rounds of the perenniel "women don't write..." discussion came this post by Foz Meadows discussing a Waterstones (British book chain) guide to fantasy and SF that listed 9 women in 113 authors.  This was related to a discussion of Juliet McKenna's about the invisibility of women in epic fantasy, and how very unlikely it was that any women would be included on display tables of "like George RR Martin".

Of course it's complete nonsense to say that women don't write epic fantasy, or fantasy like George RR Martin, and that was easily and immediately rebutted by various lists popping up.  This is pretty much business as usual in this discussion.

What interested me was the sub-genres listed on the pamphlet:

  • Space Opera
  • Hard Science Fiction
  • Time travel, steampunk and alternate history
  • Military science fiction
  • Near future and future noir
  • Classic science fiction
  • Heroic, epic and high fantasy fiction
  • Urban fantasy
  • Classic fantasy
  • Comedy science fiction & fantasy

Now although I've read and enjoyed books in every one of these sub-genres, the vast majority of books I read fall into two sub-genres: space/planetary adventure, and high fantasy.

So, high fantasy is actually listed in the "Heroic, epic and high fantasy fiction" group, but a quick scan of the books and authors reveals a great mass of epic fantasy and a couple of outliers.  The Lies of Locke Lamora is what I think of as 'caper fantasy', in the vein of Fritz Leiber, but also appears to cross into the epic fantasy genre.  Scar Night appears to be a secondary world angels novel, and is also called 'epic fantasy' on the back cover blurb of book two of the series.

So every single book listed appears to be fat, multi-volume epic fantasy.  Some of it is gritty epic fantasy and some of it is heroic epic fantasy, and technically all of it is high fantasy since 'high fantasy' just means 'secondary world fantasy'.  Yet high fantasy is clearly listed here as a third point along with "Heroic, epic" because 'high fantasy' also stands for 'secondary world fantasy that is not epic and not comedic'.

And by that definition there are no high fantasy books on this list.  Hell, there are no standalone books on this list.  There is no room made for Robin McKinley.  No space for Patricia McKillip.  Because 'secondary world fantasy that is not epic or comedic' is apparently not a genre needing any representatives, despite high fantasy most often being that rare place where the 'numinous' resides.

Space/planetary adventure doesn't even rate a mention.  Space/planetary adventure is not space opera.  Troy Horan's stiffbacked search for a job, and attempts to solve the problem of a trade in intelligent animals, does not even come close to space opera's usual themes.  Do Melissa Scott's SF books fall into the "space opera" category?  I don't think so.

The closest I could find to my favourite sub-genres came under "Classic fantasy" and "Classic science fiction", and obviously a new book is going to find it difficult to fit itself into "books that helped form and influence modern fantasy fiction".

I read a fair whack of epic fantasy back in the day.  I only very very rarely pick it up now.  Space opera is fun, but I love space/planetary adventure more.  And a lot of my favourite female authors may as well not exist if their sub-genres are not considered worth reading.  [Much as this booklet not only fails to list female urban fantasy authors, but doesn't even mention paranormal romance.]

Is it a coincidence that the sub-genres not listed have a strong showing of women?  Not to mention that books by women are often pushed out of the epic genre by narrowing the definition of epic to equal 'fat, gritty fantasy'?  Or is this erasure of the sub-genres something that comes along with the dominance of series books, which epic fantasy and space opera are far more inclined to indulge in?

The lack of space/planetary adventure cuts out almost all my favourite science fiction novels.    The erasure of high fantasy means no The Last Unicorn on this list.  No The Blue Sword.  No Forgotten Beasts of Eld.  Books I would take over every single fat fantasy series out there.

For me, these sub-genres are the heart of SFF, not something to be left off the list.


  1. Tbh, I think many people just use their own definitions for each subgenre, so I personally just ignore groupings, since they're bound to be different than mine. The urban fantasy list is very funny though, since I read lots of bestselling, very well-known uf and also paranormal romance, and they're not there! I feel they were excluded for strong romantic elements, or because they were written by women. Maybe both. And where is Lois McMaster Bujold?? Sherwood Smith? I don't even know how Robin McKinley could be excluded from this list. I feel like some of us exist in a different dimension, reading-wise.

    It's actually really strange that the lists are formulated for what seems to me more male tastes (or someone else's taste than the people I know, at least . . a different generation of readers than I know, maybe), when women are such huge readers and buyers of books. It doesn't even make economic sense lol! And I know I've seen people say they have problems finding Sf romance, because it doesn't tend to show up on lists. Just a huge and very strange oversight. I'm part of the Harry Potter generation, so this type of thing seems particularly strange to me, since I could easily find SFF by women throughout my childhood/adolescence. When people say a certain genre is distinguished by certain male authors, I actually don't even know who they're talking about much of the time, because I had a much wider variety of books with female protagonists (written by female authors) to choose from, so why would I read something that doesn't measure up to that? Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, Tamora Pierce, Ilona Andrews, Patricia Briggs, Megan Whalen Turner, Sherwood Smith . . these are core reads to many people's SFF experience. And I've read Game of Thrones, so there is a cross-over audience there.

    1. Yes, it's definitely a bizarre absence. But so many of the fantasy writers I love definitely are never called "epic fantasy" writers, and so if they're only going to list epic fantasy they're not going to appear at all.

  2. I think I must be just a little older than you... My fav female authors from when I was in middle and high school were Anne McCaffrey Marrian Z. Bradley, Ursula K. Le Guin, Tamora pierce,
    and Mercedes Lackey... I know if I put my mind to it I would come up with more.... I would say some of their works would count.


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