“Fake Fantasy”…and other thoughts on genre-blending

I just finished John Christopher’s A Dusk of Demons over the weekend–another random library pull. This  one didn’t work too well for me. There were lots of reasons why the book never got beyond “meh” for me–bland, underdeveloped characters for one, and an emphasis on plot rather than story for another. But no matter how I considered it, I couldn’t escape one thought: I would never have picked it up if I had realized it was a sci-fi.

It’s my own fault that I didn’t. The spine was clearly marked with a green rocketship “sci-fi” tag, and the details of the back cover blurb referred to it as a sci-fi as well. But I was looking at the title and the cover–which depicts a boy with a medallion pitted against howling Nazgul-ish things in a medieval-y farm setting–and I was in a rush. In fact, I didn’t even notice the sci-fi tag until I was a good third of the way through the book, and I almost never stop reading a book if I’ve gotten past the first chapter, no matter how much I dislike it (it’s part of what makes those sample books on Kindle so dangerous for me). So I kept reading, and hoping I would like it anyway.

It’s not like I’ve got anything against sci-fi, after all. I absolutely love fantasy, and fantasy and sci-fi have long been acknowledged to be sister genres, sometimes said to be separated only by their settings. I have a quite a fondness for their trendy little sister speculative fiction as well, and for dystopian stories which pretty much all fall into one of the three, depending on the details. I’ve even read and enjoyed a few sci-fi classics such as Dune and Ender’s Game, as well as a bigger pile of Star Wars Expanded Universe novels than I care to admit to.

So, I like sci-fi elements and I like those elements blended with elements of fantasy. Why then, was A Dusk of Demons such a huge miss? I think the simple answer is that I felt cheated.  As a reader, I expect different things from different genres. Even though there is a lot of common ground, fantasy and sci-fi definitely have different tropes, conventions, and tendencies. In A Dusk of Demons,  the title, cover, plot summary and most of the story led me to believe it was going to be a story about a boy learning to fight demons, probably with mystical powers he would inherit from his father. I was expecting battles and magic, not a stripping away of the fantastic elements to reveal a banal reality with a few too much explanations and more cynicism than I’d like. (That right there sums up a LOT of why I don’t like sci-fi more). Instead of the story I wanted to read when I picked up the book, I get something else–hence “fake fantasy.” I had much the same experience when I read Sylvia Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars, although that one is more obviously sci-fi and is a better book to begin with. Both of these books borrow some of the settings, archetypes, and overtones of fantasy to deal with them in a sci-fi manner. However, in both books the “borrowed” elements come across rather bland and flat, leaving only the sci-fi elements to add interest. Unfortunately, that’s just the parts I’m least interested in.

I think a lot of this boils down to reader expectations. I have little problem with genre-blending when it’s clear from the beginning–including the cover/title/marketing/etc. that’s what’s going on.  However, I distinctly remember one category romance that I despised because fantasy elements (not even magical realism, downright fantasy) were popped into what was otherwise a straight Regency romance (and was marketed as such). Like I said, I normally like fantasy, but when I’m reading a normal Regency, I don’t expect mysterious faery protectors to come out of nowhere and direct the plot.

What do you think?  Do you like genre-blending at all, or do you like your fiction to stay firmly in one category? Have you ever been tricked by a “fake fantasy” (or maybe a “fake historical fiction” or “fake western”, etc?)

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~ by Morgan Star on August 22, 2012.

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