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Several Kinds of Fantasy

Or, a way to find books we want to read

The genres of story we most often hear about are really marketing categories: romance, science fiction, classic literature. Like all categories, they are sometimes useful and often fail. (And not “fail” in some abstract or theoretical sense, but in the very concrete sense of not helping you find something to read, so that you find yourself reading Medium articles instead!)

A few years ago, I came across an interesting theory of how to divide up stories implied in a talk by Lois McMaster Bujold: that stories are most usefully divided not by their structural elements, or their set dressing, but by the type of emotional experience they try to create. Romances, in this model, are fantasies of love; mysteries may be fantasies of justice or of understanding, and the latter category is shared with spy thrillers and Lovecraftian horror. Literary fiction about painful divorces may have more in common with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than with Agatha Christie.

Writer’s Block,” by Thanakit Gu.

The genesis of this was in Lois McMaster Bujold’s untitled 2008 WorldCon keynote¹, in which she contrasted the experiences of writing romance and science fiction. She summarized the critical discovery:

I was more surprised to learn something new to me about fantasy and science fiction–which is how profoundly, intensely, relentlessly political most of the stories in these genres are. [The characters] had better be centrally engaged with them, for some extremely varied values of “engaged…” [By contrast] romance books carefully control the scope of any attending plot, so as not to overshadow its central concern, that of building a relationship between the key couple, one that will stand the test of time and be, in whatever sense, fruitful.
In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency.

Bujold’s description of three genres as “fantasies” cuts straight to the heart of an important part of why we read fiction to begin with: it is our chance to experience a life or situation different from our own, and to ask ourselves how we would respond to it. The situation may feel liberating, or terrifying, or familiar, or foreign, but the value we get from it is not simply that we escape into its world, but that we get to consider our own decision-making in it. The horror-movie experience of wanting to yell “don’t go into the basement, you idiot!” is just a more vivid version of what we all experience when reading. Sid Meier famously described games as “a series of interesting decisions;” we experience something similar in stories, not by making the decisions, but by reacting emotionally and wanting to make choices in those situations.

(This is, one should note, related both to Heinlein’s observation that “fiction is a faster way to get a feeling for alien patterns of human behavior than is nonfiction; it is one stage short of actual experience²” and to Steven Pinker’s conjecture that the rise in the prevalence of reading, and of fiction, first in the post-Gutenberg era and then after the dawn of mass literacy in the 19th century, played a key role in the change in public acceptance of mass violence.³ It has also shown up in the psychology literature,⁴ and was almost certainly observed almost as soon as humans evolved stories.)

If we unwrap Bujold’s description a bit, she is arguing that these three genres (at least in their most common incarnations) aim to let us experience a special kind of vindication: the experience of finding love, the experience of achieving justice, or the experience of being able to influence the wider world. To generalize her argument, we might look at stories in terms of which kinds of emotional experience they aim to provide.

It’s clear, to begin with, that Bujold’s three descriptions don’t line up perfectly well with the genres as defined in a publisher’s marketing department. While “cozy mysteries” in the Agatha Christie style and pulp detective novels of the 1920’s are guaranteed to end up with justice being done, it’s hard to say the same of police procedurals or of noir, where often justice is profoundly thwarted. In fact, while these are often on the same shelves as one another, perhaps they shouldn’t be: they provide deeply different experiences.

A hint towards what kinds of experiences they provide, and what other kinds of “fantasies” might be out there, comes from Charles Stross’s 2004 essay “Inside the Fear Factory.⁵” There he argued that spy thrillers and Lovecraftian horror are really part of the same genre, and the thing that links them together is secret knowledge. Both the spy and the researcher into ancient cults uncover information about how the world really works; for one, the knowledge is the gateway to an ability to act (they’re called “secret agents,” after all, not “secret patients”), while for the other, it leads only to madness at the inability to act.

This kind of duality, with a single passion being experienced and then either vindicated or thwarted, is a common split within any division of stories; Aristotle even considered it fundamental, as to him a comedy was one which ended in the vindication of the protagonists, and a tragedy in their destruction. (And in order to create a proper dramatic arc, the comedy should be a story of the lowly being raised high, and the tragedy of the mighty being brought low — which is also why “punching down” is not only offensive, but poor comedy. Seeing the low brought even lower is rarely a good dramatic arc.)

Stross’s description may lead us to describe both Tom Clancy and H. P. Lovecraft as fantasies of understanding; stories where we get to experience acquiring a secret piece of knowledge that makes the world click into place, and then either a comic or tragic outcome. Fantasies of understanding are related to fantasies of agency: Bob Laughlin once noted that understanding gives us an illusion of control over a situation, whether we have it or not — and we often seek it out as a substitute for agency.⁶

Noir often takes this form as well, where the protagonist seeks out an understanding of what actually happened even after it has become clear that no justice will actually be done as a result. Sometimes this is done instrumentally (e.g., in order to provide some closure to a family), but often it happens for no other reason than that the protagonist, having become so determined to resolve the questions, feels that one part of the world can be set right by at least acquiring a legible explanation.

So let us try to classify stories by the emotions they allow us to experience.

Romances, as Bujold noted, are quite literally fantasies of romance: of the experience of finding love and emotional connection.

Fantasies of justice let us experience the world being set aright after it is broken. These may show up in mysteries, in superhero stories, or in moralistic tales. These seem slightly different from other fantasies in that the thing being experienced is the sensation of an external event, and “setting the world aright oneself” may be emotionally very different from “seeing the world set aright by outside agency.” The latter, in fact, may be emotionally unsatisfying, because it does not automatically create the opportunity for the reader to ask themselves what they would do.

Fantasies of understanding might be divided into two subcategories: ones where the story is about the process of striving to get that understanding, where the ultimate climax happens when the pieces fall into place — as in noir — and ones where the story is about the process of handling the consequences of that understanding, as in the spy novel or Lovecraftian horror. The “puzzle-box” or classical mystery falls into this category as well, but is somewhere between a story and a game: there, there are formalized rules to the story’s construction, so that the reader is challenged to solve whodunit before the answer is revealed.

Fantasies of extremis might include stories where the protagonist is placed in a situation where they have to give up everything they understand about their life and start over, and this is the emotional focus of the story. This is a popular motif in “literary” fiction,⁷ where the prompt may be the discovery of adultery or the death of a child, or even the social trap of daily life (as in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening) as well as in “common-man” spy thrillers like the movie Frantic, and in horror, where the prompt may be the zombie apocalypse.

Taken to one extreme, this leads to the fantasy of helplessness, stories where the central emotional experience is a situation so extreme that you can do nothing but try to reconcile yourself to it; this is popular in certain kinds of horror, where the villain is inevitably closing in. (Note that in such a story, the destruction of the protagonist vindicates the plot; the “tragic” twist on it would be if the protagonist were unexpectedly saved!)

Taken to the other extreme, the story instead focuses on the excitement of the new, the opportunities created by leaving the past behind. This is most obviously tied with the adventure story, and is almost mandatory for stories which closely follow Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” structure.

There are surely far more such categories, and many stories will span across more than one. The value of such a categorization is not in its being complete or perfect. What I like about it is that it divides stories not by structural plot elements, or by their set dressing (give the cowboys ray guns, and poof! It’s science fiction!; give the clone factory British understatement, and poof! It’s high literature!⁸), but about the central emotional experience which the story drops you into. Since this is so relevant to the experience of reading the story itself, it may be a better guide to answering the most crucial question in all of literature: What do I want to read right now?


¹ Bujold, L. M., Sidelines: Talks and Essays (Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013).

² Heinlein, R. A., Time Enough for Love (New York: Berkeley Books, 1973) p. 176.

³ Pinker, S., The Better Angels of our Nature (New York: Viking, 2011), pp. 172–83.

⁴ e.g. Raymond A. Mar and Keith Oatley, “The Function of Fiction is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 173–92.

⁵ Published as the afterword to The Atrocity Archives (New York: Berkeley Books, 2004)

⁶ Private conversation, 2003. He described this as an occupational disease of scientists in particular, which I can’t disagree with.

⁷ NB that this is a genre, not a statement of quality. It’s sometimes also called “mimetic” fiction, as it’s meant to be a mimesis (an impersonation) of real life.

⁸ See Mike Resnick’s Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1986) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), respectively.