Thursday, November 1, 2012

What's the Difference?

I just finished a low fantasy/paranormal romance.  Unsure of how to shelve it on Goodreads, I checked to see what everyone else had it shelved as.  When in Rome, do as the Romans.

How I understand it so far:

"Contemporary," "Historical," "Low Fantasy," and "High Fantasy" are all genre labels that will at least tell you the period and whether or not it's in our world.  Think about it, almost every fiction book you've ever read could be categorized in one of these ways, except perhaps sci-fi, if it's futuristic.  But not all sci-fi is.  Same for horror.

"Mystery," "Romance," or "Literary" refer to select types of plotlines you can expect, or in the last genre, no plot at all.

"Sci-Fi" and "Horror," the other Spec cousins, refer to world-building and plot elements, respectively.

Like any self-respecting college student who's ever done a research paper, I went to Wikipedia to see what it said about different genres.

(all the following information is copy-pasted straight from Wikipedia, give or take a paragraph or two left out)

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature as well as related static, motion, and virtual arts.

My remark:  I think we knew and understood that one.  Still, I like putting it here anyway.

Paranormal romance is a sub-genre of the romance novel. A type of speculative fiction, paranormal romance focuses on romance and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from the genres of traditional fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Paranormal romance may range from traditional category romances, such as those published by Harlequin Mills & Boon, with a paranormal setting to stories where the main emphasis is on a science fiction or fantasy based plot with a romantic subplot included. Common hallmarks are romantic relationships between humans and vampires, shapeshifters, ghosts, and other entities of a fantastic or otherworldly nature.

Beyond the more prevalent themes involving vampires, shapeshifters, ghosts, or time travel, paranormal romances can also include books featuring characters with psychic abilities, like telekinesis or telepathy.

Paranormal romance has its roots in Gothic fiction. Its most recent revival has been spurred by turn of the 21st century technology, e.g. the internet and electronic publishing. Paranormal romances are one of the fastest growing trends in the romance genre.

The love child of speculative and romance.


Urban fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times and contain supernatural elements. However, the stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.

My remark:  If this is the case, I've been shelving a few of my high fantasies wrong.  We typically think of urban fantasy as contemporary/low fantasy, but apparently it can apply to high fantasies too.


Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic is common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genre of science fiction by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific themes, though there is a great deal of overlap between the two, both of which are subgenres of speculative fiction.

Beginning perhaps with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the earliest written documents known to humankind, mythic and other elements that would eventually come to define fantasy and its various subgenres have been a part of some of the grandest and most celebrated works of literature. From The Odyssey to Beowulf, from the Mahabharata to The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, from the Ramayana to the Journey to the West, and from the Arthurian legend and medieval romance to the epic poetry of the Divine Comedy, fantastical adventures featuring brave heroes and heroines, deadly monsters, and secret arcane realms have inspired many audiences. In this sense, the history of fantasy and the history of literature are inextricably intertwined.

And yet, despite the fact that it is so intertwined with the history of literature, readers are still picked on.  How unfair!

Low fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy fiction involving "nonrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur." Low fantasy stories are set in the real world. Low fantasy is contrasted with high fantasy, which takes place in a completely fictional fantasy world setting (partly or entirely, as high fantasy may start from or connect to the real world in places).

Apparently, this term is not interchangeable with urban fantasy, however, I think most readers would do it anyway.  I almost never see/hear the term "low fantasy."  Contemporary fantasy?  Yes.  Historical fantasy?  Yes, yes.

That always stumped me.  When the Pevensies go from the Real World to Narnia, would you consider it high or low fantasy?


High fantasy or epic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that is set in invented or parallel worlds. High fantasy was brought to fruition through the work of authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.  High fantasy has become one of the two genres most commonly associated with the general term fantasy, the other being sword and sorcery, which is typified by the works of Robert E. Howard.

High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional ("secondary") world, rather than the real, or "primary" world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent but its rules differ in some way(s) from those of the primary world. By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or "real" world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.

Narnia question:  answered!  My Encylcopedia of Fantasy says "heroic fantasy" is a euphemism for "sword and sorcery," like they call "horror" "dark fantasy" sometimes.


Horror fiction also Horror fantasy is a genre of literature, which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten its readers, scare or startle viewers/readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. It creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror can be either supernatural or non-supernatural. The genre has ancient origins which were reformulated in the eighteenth century as Gothic horror, with publication of the Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole.

Supernatural horror has its roots in folklore and religious traditions, focusing on death, the afterlife, evil, the demonic and the principle of evil embodied in the Devil. These were manifested in stories of witches, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and demonic pacts such as that of Faust.

In that, horror is similar to fantasy in its roots, that the roots are in folklore and religious traditions.  Supernatural horror and fantasy almost seem closer related than sci-fi and fantasy are.

Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible (or at least non-supernatural) content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, parallel universes, aliens, and paranormal abilities. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction, making it a "literature of ideas".

Science fiction is largely based on writing rationally about alternative possible worlds or futures. It is similar to, but differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).

As a means of understanding the world through speculation and storytelling, science fiction has antecedents back to mythology, though precursors to science fiction as literature can be seen in Lucian's True History in the 2nd century, some of the Arabian Nights tales, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter in the 10th century and Ibn al-Nafis' Theologus Autodidactus in the 13th century.

A product of the budding Age of Reason and the development of modern science itself, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels was one of the first true science fantasy works, together with Voltaire's Microm√©gas (1752) and Johannes Kepler's Somnium (1620–1630).[21] Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan consider the latter work the first science fiction story. It depicts a journey to the Moon and how the Earth's motion is seen from there. Another example is Ludvig Holberg's novel Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum, 1741. (Translated to Danish by Hans Hagerup in 1742 as Niels Klims underjordiske Rejse.) (Eng. Niels Klim's Underground Travels.) Brian Aldiss has argued that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) was the first work of science fiction.

The roots are in mythology.  What's the difference between folklore and mythology?  Generally, we think of fantasy as having its roots in folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Actually, I didn't think sci-fi was that old.  I always thought H. G. Wells and Jules Verne wrote their books and they were later tagged as sci-fi.  And I also always thought Frankenstein was horror.

Fantasy, Sci-fi, and Horror are more like cousins, however, than actual sisters.  I've read it in places, and I kind of agree.

I know this isn't exactly important.  Who cares what it's called, so long as we know what we're talking about?  But I like labels.  I like understanding the differences, especially when I'm not well enough read in most of these genres to sound intelligent when I talk about them.

I also like making snarky remarks about them.

And now, I know how to shelve my books on Goodreads.

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