One of the arguments I offered against the stagnancy of fantasy fiction was the proliferation of sub-genres. We’re all familiar with epic fantasies like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or the sword-and-sorcery of Conan. Urban fantasy has risen in popularity thanks to Anita Blake and her contemporaries, while Temeraire has lead the resurgence in historical fantasy. The other sub-genre I listed was superheros.
The inclusion of superhero fiction as a fantasy sub-genre probably seems erroneous at first glance. Most superheroes we’re familiar with are aliens, use technology, or got their powers from a science experiment. Wouldn’t that make superheroes science fiction?
Not at all. I’ll address the pseudo-science of superhero stories in a moment, but I think the best answer to the question of whether superheroes are science fiction or fantasy is found in the literary roots of this sub-genre.
Our favorite caped crusaders evolved from classic mythologies, most notably those of the Greek/Roman and Norse cultures. Powerful gods clashed against each other over the fate of mankind. They often sired superhuman champions through mortal woman; these heroes went on to battle fantastical villains, and sometimes even the gods themselves.
The influence of classic mythology on superhero fiction is further evidenced by the inclusion of many of the characters from those tales in the “universes” of comic book publishers. Thor and Hercules fight alongside Iron Man and the Hulk. Wonder Woman’s Amazonian sisters are servants of the gods of Olympus.
Magic, a staple of the fantasy genre, is very prevalent in superhero fiction. There are superheroes who cast spells, or whose powers originate from a mystical artifact.
For every magic superhero, there’s another who uses science and technology. A case could be made that superhero fiction is really an amalgam of the science fiction and fantasy genres. However, if we put that science and technology under a microscope, we’d see that it is rather fantastical.
Science fiction has two defining points that separate it from other types of speculative fiction (e.g., fantasy or horror). First, the fictional elements are possible within scientifically established or postulated laws. Second, the consequences of the technologies, principles and discoveries are explored. While many superhero stories involve advanced technologies, alien worlds or time travel, the threshold for scientific plausibility is much lower, and the impact of the technology they introduce on society is never considered.
When you remove the colorful spandex from your favorite superheroes, the gods and champions of classic mythology stand revealed. The science and techno-gadgets are little more than magic in disguise. These are the reasons why superhero fiction belongs within the fantasy genre and nowhere else.
Do you agree? I’d be interested to know.