Dark Fantasy and Sci-Fi Pop

Authors relish their genre, while debating its relationship to fantasy as a whole

February 2, 2015

Fonda Lee, Ken Liu, and Sabaa Tahir

Dark fantasy and science fiction and their intricacies, conventions, and differences were front and center during a panel discussion on the Exhibit Hall’s PopTop stage on Saturday during the 2015 ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Chicago.

Authors Auden D. Johnson, Fonda Lee, Ken Liu, and Sabaa Tahir kicked off the panel with outlines of their work and how it fit within genre conventions, and what drew them to dark fantasy and sci-fi.

Auden, who has an MLIS from the Pratt Institute in New York City, said it was a natural fit. “Darkness has always fascinated me,” she said. Lee, a black belt martial artist with a background in sports marketing, channeled those interests into her YA novel, Zeroboxer, a sports story set in outer space. The winner of a Nebula Award, two Hugo Awards, a World Fantasy Award, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, Liu infuses his cultural heritage into his work. Born in Lanzhou, China, he channels classical-era East Asia into his fantasy worlds, drawing comparisons to George R. R. Martin’s use of familiar medieval tropes in the Game of Thrones series. Tahir used her youth growing up in the Mojave Desert, and feeling unwelcome there because of the color of her skin, as the springboard for her debut book, An Ember in the Ashes.

The authors discussed the draw of dark fantasy and science fiction and how they create the complex worlds in their books, but their discussions of genre were the standout. They were asked if they think dark fantasy is different from science fiction and whether the two should be considered two separate genres, instead of fantasy subgenres. Their answers revealed very different takes on the genres and the importance of genres overall.

The authors agreed that a grey zone exists between dark fantasy and science fiction. The two genres share conventions, but the differences are numerous—the heavier technological leaning of the latter being the most obvious. Lee captured it succinctly: “If it’s related in some way to today’s scientific conventions, it’s sci-fi; if something crazy happens, it’s fantasy.” Tahir noted that science fiction often delves into deep philosophical questions, while dark fantasy does not.

The use of genre as a marketing tool was addressed, as well. Tahir said that she has selfish reasons for not wanting dark fantasy and science fiction to be removed from fantasy: it’s easier for readers to find those books in the fantasy section of bookstores and libraries. Genre helps books get into the right hands. Liu countered that view, saying that genre also helps tell readers what books not to read. He expressed a displeasure with genres as a labeling tool, saying that it was something for the publisher to worry about, not the writer or reader.


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