Is Fantasy Less Creative Than Science Fiction?

To those who don't read genre fiction, the difference between fantasy and science fiction (SF) probably seems pretty small, like the difference between techno music and house. But to fans of these generes, the differences are usually really clear. One common critique is that fantasy fiction tends to have less variety than SF. 

The common complaint is that while SF is endlessly creative, showing us wild worlds we've never imagined, fantasy tends to rip of The Lord of the Rings most of the time. Particularly, people pretty sick of elves.

Certainly, if one read the "sword and sorcery" subgenre of fantasy, it might look this way. (Not all fantasy is sword and sorcery-- you can check out "urban fantasy" too.) But here's the thing: people love elves and dwarfs and dragons.  The other way to look at it is that SF has failed to come up with any species prototypes that people love enough to want to read about again and again-- fantasy and horror has. Elves are like vampires and werewolves and zombies-- people can't get enough of them. Why don't we have lots of novels about the Buggers from Ender's GameOr at least cheap rip-offs of them? If buggers are not human enough, how about Star Trek's Klingons?

Interestingly, not every Tolkien race took off either: not every fantasy world has ents or hobbits. On that topic, many of the races that we describe as Tolkienesque he borrowed from much older mythology: dwarfs, elves, dragons, goblins. Orcs have been moderately successful, but they're not ubiquitous like elves are. It suggests that the successful fantasy races are successful because they are inherited from a time-worn tradition of compelling archetypes: the faerie, the dragon, the hairy beast in the wilderness, the elf, the demon. A tradition much older than Tolkien.

Pictured: yet another elf. Like we need one. From Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks to my man Daniel Saunders for inspiring this blog. 
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David said…
Hi Jim,

I'd have to say I don't believe Fantasy is inherently less creative, but it definitely feels that way. Tolkien may have borrowed from earlier myths but he popularized the crap out of every stereotypical fantasy trope there is. I stopped reading fantasy in college when I realized I could write the jacket cover for every story. An unlikely band of heroes goes on an epic quest to stop the unstoppable – and always previously mythical – forces of darkness, or "blackness" or "evil" intent on taking over the world. And when the heroes are in the woods they eat cheese, cold sausages and hard bread...lamenting the lack of fire for fear of being detected. Despite loving both genres, I feel the same way about SF as I do about F: in worlds where literally anything can happen, the same things always happen. I have been pleasantly surprised by Roger Zelazny (Chronicles of Amber is my fav F), Patrick Ruthfuss, and Brandon Sanderson. But everytime a elf counterpart pops up I want to punch Tolkien right in the Bag End.

If you're interested, my friend Auston Habershaw keeps a great blog about this kind of thing.

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