The following was a response of mine to another member’s question on SFFWorld about genres, especially fantasy, and how things are classified. The response is composed of facts that I know and my opinions on such facts:
Back in the first part of the 20th century, a category market for SFFH developed containing a mix of comics, magazines with short fiction, and novels (often novellas) and short story collections. This category market was eventually called science fiction, largely thanks to Hugo Gernsback (of Hugo Award fame,) founding Amazing Stories in the late 1920’s. It did not contain only science fiction stories — it contained fantasy stories, horror stories, weird tales (Weird Tales magazine — a style of Gothic horror stories,) etc. The category market did not contain all or even most of the SFFH being published, especially in book form. But what it did contain were magazines and publishing imprints dedicated to specializing in SFFH. This became more and more common in the first part of the 20th century — specialized publishing, such as children’s and suspense.
Most of the books in the SFFH category market were in mass market paperback that cost about as much as the comics and magazines. The publishers who did comics and magazines and paperbacks were largely different from the publishers who did hardcovers and large paperbacks. However, after/during World War II, the paperback publishers and the hardback publishers began to merge and book publishing became somewhat more separate from magazines and comics which built itself a more specialized industry. The specialized imprints for adults, the category markets — mystery, science fiction, westerns, romance — still kept mostly to cheaper mass market paperbacks but limited hardcover runs or hardcovers for big sellers became more common. These category markets came to be called genre fiction, with them being considered genres — types of stories by general common content.
However, there was a certain social class conflict in that merging of paperback that was seen as for the masses and hardcover seen as the domain of the more literate well-off. “Genre fiction” — the specialized imprints — were seen as pulp (whether they actually used pulp styles or not,) cheap paperbacks not worth much as fiction. SFFH published in general fiction, in hardcover, was often declared not pulp and therefore not science fiction, not genre, even though it was also being sold to category market readers who loved it as genre. To this day, a lot of people are invested in that notion that came out of early bookselling and the equalitarianism of increased literacy and education of the society. “Genre fiction” was considered all the same, whatever notion of sameness a particular person had.
All of this was reinforced by the use of the term “sci-fi” which came from writer Forrest J. Ackerman in the 1950’s, and which referred partly to the greater use of SFFH in movies and television, particularly what was seen as the “B” pulp horror movies. Over time, the term was used mainly to refer to movies and television and was often used as an insult to indicate stuff that was not well made and for the teeming masses. Written SFFH preferred to distance itself from movie/tv sci-fi by insisting on being called science fiction or SF. During this time, science fiction and sci-fi both acted as umbrella terms meaning fantasy and horror as well as science fiction.
That began to change in the 1960’s, when the publishers of the SF category market decided to branch out. They launched a separate but allied fantasy fiction category market, labeling fantasy stories directly as fantasy. There had been magazines dedicated to just fantasy or horror, and there were more of them. The fantasy category market was greatly helped out by publishing then-cult favorite later-Godzilla title The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien in a set of paperbacks, both in the U.K. and twice in the U.S., once illegally and once legally. It was additionally helped out in the 1970’s by the popularity of the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons, the development of the gaming industry and the idea of tie-in novels to help market games. Category market fantasy was sold with science fiction in the category market section of U.S. bookstores — there was less separatization in other countries as they often didn’t have special sections. Horror did not have enough dependable fans to form a steady category market of its own for a long time, although horror titles often sold better than SF and fantasy (see Stephen King, Clive Barker and Dean Koontz.) Horror was sold either with SFF in the category market if it came from a specialized imprint or a lot of it in paperback general fiction.
The fantasy category market hit high speed in the 1980’s and being a young market, was one of the few that kept growing during the Great Paperback Depression in the 1990’s, when the wholesale non-bookstore markets in most western countries shrank with great speed, greatly damaging the mass market paperback market, the paperback fiction market and the largely paperback SFF category markets. (Also, it was a firm blow to the declining SFFH magazine market and other magazines.) Fantasy’s growth for the first half of the 1990’s during the depression relied on well selling “epic” fantasy series — secondary world fantasy stories usually in a pre-industrial setting — novels by Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, Weiss & Hickman, etc.
The secondary world fantasies of this type had their obvious roots in mythic ballads and what Tolkien and others had done with them, but they also had their roots in planetary and what was called romance science fiction, such as John Carter on Mars, etc., which also lead eventually to some of what we today call space opera science fiction. There were fantasy series like Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle and Andre Norton’s Witch World that were also the descendents of the planetary fiction and were initially sold as science fiction. There were the very fantasy-like science fiction series of Gene Wolfe’s Ur-Sun and New Sun, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, which were often the inspiration for secondary world fantasy writers like Guy Gavriel Kay. Telepathy, time travel, vampires, multiple dimensions, alternate histories and the like all could be given a scientific or supernatural basis and so were used for both science fiction or fantasy (or SF or fantasy horror.) So there is crossover in the foothills with the slightest of words and it isn’t usually a problem. A large majority of the writers wrote both SF and fantasy stories, and often horror and suspense stories as well. (And this still goes on today.)
Since the two category markets worked together and had the same publishers and had a lot of cross marketing and were sold in the same sections of bookstores, there were groups of people desperately trying to separate them (especially SF fans who regarded the popularity of fantasy as a threat rather than a help and fantasy fans who regard SF fans as snobs,) while others insisted that they should all still be considered science fiction or floated new terms like slipstream (weird surrealism literary movement,) or speculative, none of which particularly caught on as an umbrella term. SFFH books published in general fiction were cross-marketed with books in the category market imprints — for publishers, there’s no difference between a hardcover SFFH novel published by one of their fiction imprints and a paperback SFFH novel published by their category imprint. But they will give them different packaging and some marketing efforts to capture audiences who might be looking specifically for a hardcover fantasy novel that seems general fiction or a paperback with a bright cover sold in the special section of the bookstore, while selling the hardcover to the category audience too or the paperback to the general fiction audience too. (It’s really a giant shell game.)
In the late 1990’s, as had been predicted, booksellers started splitting the SF and fantasy category markets into two separate sections. This allowed the booksellers to do what booksellers like to do with category markets, why category markets exist in the first place — expand the shelves with offerings but also make them easy for interested folks to find. Having a fantasy section and a science fiction section meant twice as many shelves, although it did make it a bit complicated with the writers who did both. In the late oughts, things were going so well in these category markets that the specialized publishers decided to expand into another dedicated category market — horror. The renewed popularity of horror movies and the crossover interest from contemporary fantasy, horror SF and dark fantasy meant there was a solid core audience willing to explore with new authors, which is the starting place for a category market.
Around the same time, in the late 1990’s, romance category publishers expanded their imprints that did supernatural (or as it got eventually named paranormal) and SF romance. So popular was this area that in the mid-oughts it got its own category market and often its own section in the bookstores. The SF romance was slower off the block than the fantasy, but is now catching up. The paranormal romance expansion coincided with the horror expansion and the contemporary and urban fantasy expansion. And all of this also came on top of the expansion of YA fiction. YA was the sleepy, small part of children’s fiction, but with Harry Potter moving from middle school to YA in focus and other YA books (SFF and not-SFF) getting attention in its wake and the Potter movie adaptations, YA became the juggernaut of children’s fiction. Fantasy YA was a driving force there, but YA SF was also immensely popular. So large has the audience become, that we are beginning to see some bookstores split fantasy and science fiction from the rest of YA and have separate fantasy and science fiction YA sections. The crossover reading between adults and teens/kids in the YA market sent readers back and forth between children’s and adult sectors and lots of crossmarketing, bolstered by the increasing interest of film/t.v. in SFFH both adult and YA. (And then there was Marvel Films and what happened between movies and comics.)
A lot of people who came into reading fantasy in the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s read just the big secondary world pre-industrial war epics and tended to think that was all there was in the fantasy category market. However, fantasy has always had numerous types of setting and its “sub-genres” or sub-categories are all setting based. The big general seven are secondary world fantasy — both pre- and post-industrial; historical or alt history fantasy; contemporary fantasy/urban fantasy; dark fantasy — a dark, moody, sometimes violent setting sold as either part of the horror market or the fantasy market; comic/satiric fantasy with a comic setting; portal/multi-dimensional fantasy in which people travel between different realms/worlds; and lastly futuristic fantasy which takes place in a setting in Earth’s future or a dimension involving space travel. (Futuristic fantasy tends to be largely post-apocalyptic and this often confuses people who see any kind of post-apocalypse as science fiction, especially in a future Earth.) Right now, the biggest sector of fantasy is the contemporary fantasy, not secondary world. However, secondary world fantasy (still largely but not exclusively pre-industrial,) is still the flagship of that category market. Historical fantasy is also quite large, especially its industrial/steampunk/western division.
Science fiction, in slight contrast, is loosely divided by types/use of science. Hard SF focuses on the physical sciences of physics, biology and chemistry. Sociological SF focuses on cultural, political and psychological issues related to physical science. Cyberpunk (which is also a literary movement,) focuses on the cultural, political and sometimes biological effects of technology and computers, specifically in regards to young people, dystopias and revolutions. Military SF — what it says on the tin. Comic/satiric SF and horror SF, and SF romance. And space opera refers to a wide swath of SF stories that are more focused on adventure than a branch of science, which would include the planetary SF stories that sometimes seem fantasy-like to some people. There is also post-apocalyptic SF, one of its most popular sectors. Alternative history SF postulates a quantum theory of multiple-dimensions which allows for a changed Earth that is not supernatural in any way.
So why am I taking you the long way round on this topic? Because it may be helpful in understanding why people have the differing views of terms that they do and what exactly is going on in the market now and how we got there.
So basically, science fiction is those stories in which the unreal phenomena are given a scientific explanation for existing that is clear and definite as scientific, natural, even if the science is not detailed or strongly physical science or particularly good science. And fantasy uses elements where the explanation basis is supernatural, not having a natural explanation and basis — magic, supernatural and divine phenomena. You can have a fantasy story with a lot of SF elements, because the SF is natural, just like real existing things such as a car or a dog. But you cannot have a SF story with fantasy elements because the definition of SF is unreal elements with a natural basis and fantasy elements are unreal with a supernatural basis, outside SF’s purview. When you get into really squishy stories, it really doesn’t matter to readers much — and this is often an issue with slipstream — but that’s how the orientation works. Horror can be anything — science fiction, fantasy or neither and just using suspense such as serial killers. Most horror is fantasy horror, but it’s not exclusive.
So the first suggestion I’d have for you is to drop the term sci-fi. It’s really focused on tv/movies and it means fantasy, science fiction and horror together. Since you’re dealing with the written market, where sci-fi is seldom used as a term, it’s not going to be particularly helpful to you. Let’s look first at some of the other ones you mentioned:
1) China Mieville — Mieville’s rather useful for talking about various movements and sub-genres. Mieville is heavily influenced by Weird Fiction, which is a literary movement, originally centered around but not limited to the magazine Weird Tales, and sub-genre of horror of the Gothic, creepy, monsters, deep depression, weird surrealism kind. It is an ancestor of slipstream (which gets loosely described as weird surreal stories,) SF horror and dark fantasy. It’s also had an influence in other areas such as some steampunk. Mieville also has a mentor in legendary author and editor Michael Moorcock. Moorcock in many ways launched a New Weird movement itself in reviving Weird Fiction (though it wasn’t called that,) and more, he was a driving force through his editing of the New Wave SF movement. This was a literary movement in the late 50’s to 1970’s around the thematic concepts first of artistic writing in reaction to the blunter SF stories of the earlier part of the century, and second of the social ideas of the Beats and the counterculture — exploring cultural norms and conformity, liberalized sex, revolution, drugs, etc. The New Wave authors were writing mostly sociological SF, occasionally with a hard edge and occasionally space opera.
Steampunk was a name made up by author K.W. Jeter for some of the sort of stories he and other authors like Tim Powers and James Blaylock were sometimes doing. It was a deliberate play on cyberpunk, and while the two movements have some similarities, steampunk was not a non-computer version of cyberpunk. Unlike cyberpunk, steampunk could be either fantasy or science fiction in mainly the alternate history version. In steampunk, the main thing is the aesthetic of steam technology and anachronisms/inventions in relation to steam technology, which has spread beyond storytelling at this point. Mieville has a lot of interest in colonialism and its destruction, the rot of cities, etc., and so steampunk has been an influence for some of the things he was doing.
Perdido Street Station, the novel which vaulted him up into prominence, is a fantasy novel, which blends weird tales horror, New Wave SF attributes and a steampunk story. It is specifically a post-industrial secondary world fantasy novel, Victoriana flavor. And the whole line is that it’s a post-industrial secondary world dark dystopia steampunk thriller fantasy, and a good one at that. It’s not a new form, but it has really interesting themes. Mieville does a bit of cuteness by having the magic elements in his story studied academically and coming up with equations for them. However, these equations do not offer a natural basis for the existence of the unnatural phenomena that defies the natural laws of Mieville’s world. It’s simply magic that can be analyzed and manipulated, by will without a natural world explanation or basis. He also has sentient robots, but they are that way again through a combo of electricity and magic. (Magic robots are not new to fantasy fiction.) But because of that sort of thing, which is reminiscent of The Compleat Enchanter by de Camp and Pratt, some SF fans regarded Perdido as SF, and some fantasy fans declared it not fantasy because no elves and the world was post-industrial. That steampunk crosses into SF or fantasy also added to this impression. Some of Mieville’s other work may be SF, but his city trilogy is fantasy.
When Perdido Street Station got such attention, Mieville regarded it as the chance to jumpstart a conversation about experimentation and advocated a new literary movement in SFF that he called New Weird, essentially a new, somewhat different version of Weird Fiction, somewhat in line with New Wave SF, and encompassing SF horror, surrealism (slipstream,) dark fantasy, dystopia SF, etc. (not necessarily steampunk or alternate history SF.) A lot of people were interested in this — Jeff Vandermeer did things with it, there were some anthologies, publishers started slapping the term on things. But because Mieville’s definition of the movement was deliberately nebulous, and because he was not editing a magazine as Moorcock had done to shape the fiction of a group of authors into something more thematically consistent, it never really coalesced. It certainly was an influence, as Mieville’s work has been, and the term is sometimes still used, but Mieville basically tossed in the towel and said he was done with it as it hadn’t really developed.
2) Dune is the venerated elder of space opera and a descendent of planetary SF. While the science in Dune is certainly shaky, it is actually based on natural science theory — quantum theory and environmental biology, which Herbert researched. Everything in Dune — the mental powers, the spice, the worms, etc., is given a natural basis explanation. There is nothing magical in the story, though some characters are superstitious. Some fantasy readers quite naturally like Dune, with its desert adventure and grand houses, but like Wolf’s Ur-Sun, it’s SF of a particular type.
3) C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy is also SF, again in the loose category of space opera. The natural explanation for the phenomena in her doomed colony planet is based on quantum theory, physics and neurology, with the idea of energy in a natural planetary energy field which can be absorbed and channeled through conscious minds into solid matter. It’s pretty shaky science again, but she did base it on actual theories. Many fantasy readers, however, treated it as another Lord Valentine’s Castle and declared it fantasy. Friedman basically threw up her hands and accepted that people could view it as they liked. She has written military SF — In Conquest Born — and fantasy novels as well.
Pure surrealism and magic realism are fantasy stories. Surrealism that then develops into a natural explanation for the surreal heads into SF. Slipstream may encompass both SF and fantasy based stories, but it has also been a rather nebulous literary movement. Sentience is an area of particular interest to SF, the idea that sentience could develop naturally, scientifically in entities we would not normally expect, such as computer networks. Therefore, when you write a story about a space colony in which a body of water is sentient — if it seemed that you were giving a natural explanation for how that body of water can have an intelligent consciousness in the story, then readers might regard the story as SF. Even if you don’t, it might, yes, be assumed it’s SF because it’s on a space colony and the supernatural elements are not clearly delineated. If you had a ghost for instance that was inhabiting the body of water, that would be more clearly delineated as supernatural, although even then some might claim it to be SF.
The setting of a space colony is a SF element but does not guarantee that the story isn’t fantasy based. A medieval (pre-industrial) setting could be in a historical fiction story that has no unreal elements or even an alternate history SF story; the medieval setting does not make something fantasy and there are thousands of fantasy novels that have no medieval setting. (Go to a search engine or Amazon, etc., and type in the phrase contemporary fantasy.) However, when people have data sets about these things, it can effect their perception. But perception is not the whole market.
Using the term a futuristic fantasy story may help others understand what you are going for. I would also suggest that you check out some of the titles I’ve mentioned earlier and some of these as well maybe, so you can start to get a feel for the range (you don’t have to read them all, but take a look at them and be aware perhaps:
Emma Bull — Bone Dance — futuristic post-apocalypse fantasy
Stephen R. Boyett — Ariel, sequel Elegy Beach — futuristic post-apocalypse fantasy
Terry Brooks — The Sword of Shannara — futuristic post-apocalypse fantasy
Patricia Kennealy-Morrison — The Keltiad series — futuristic fantasy in another star system
Liz Williams — Inspector Chen series — near future, alternate history thriller fantasy
Genevieve Valentine — Mechanique — post-apocalyptic fantasy in either an Earth-like secondary world or future Earth
(she keeps it vague on purpose)
Kameron Hurley — God’s War series — futuristic fantasy (another one lots of people feel is science fiction; this would be an interesting one for you)
Charles Yu — How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe — meta, surrealistic quantum science fiction
Hannu Rajaniemi — The Quantum Thief — quantum based cyberpunk (may have some bits in the general neighborhood of your story)
Tad Williams — Otherland series — VR science fiction (Williams is a big fantasy writer so a lot of fans insist that Otherland is fantasy because of medieval settings in the virtual reality system)
C.J. Cherryh — Rider at the Gate series — planetary sociological SF in the same neighborhood as Coldfire (fantasy-like)
Gayle Greeno — Ghatto series — space opera political thrillers with psi abilities (fantasy-like)
These may be of less use to you, but give you an idea of some of the things being done:
Cathrynne Valente — Palimpsest — multi-dimensional fantasy
Michael Swanwick — The Iron Dragon’s Daughter — multi-dimensional fantasy
Tim Powers — Declare — historical fantasy (World War II-Cold War)
Roger Zelazny — Princes of Amber series — multi-dimensional with futuristic elements fantasy
Michael Moorcock — Eternal Champion Multiverse series — multi-dimensional fantasy with futuristic elements
Stephen King — Dark Tower series — multi-dimensional fantasy includes futuristic elements
Matthew Stover — Caine series — multi-dimensional fantasy series
Carrie Vaughn — Discord’s Apple — alternate Earth near future fantasy novel
Charles Stross — Laundry Files series — multi-dimensional satiric spy fantasy
Kelly McCullough — WebMage series — an oughts version of computer based contemporary fantasy
Cory Doctorow — Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town — surrealism
Hal Duncan — Vellum and Ink — multi-dimensional fantasy with surrealism elements
SFFH — it’s a big wide world.
(Do check out some of the authors above even if your interest in the topic is limited — good stuff.)