Thursday, May 6, 2010

Is Your Story Science Fiction or Urban Fantasy?

The Science Fiction and Fantasy subgenres are very often blurred, and, if you don’t set out with the intention of deliberately writing one or the other genre, it can be difficult to categorise a story that has elements of both genres.

Science Fiction

Science Fiction – which is shortened to SF, not “Sci Fi” – is used to describe hard- to medium-core science-based fiction. The science forming the background of the book can be hard science, such as nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, chemistry, biology, geology, genetics, robotics, etc – or it could be a soft science like psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.

Whatever the science discipline referenced, it forms a large part of the plot process. The current laws of the discipline must be followed, or, if broken, there must be an explanation for the fictional possibility of breaking or bending the laws.


Sci-Fi is the fun version of Science Fiction. Sci-Fi can play with concepts that would never be possible based on our laws of physics and other sciences. Hollywood also played a big role in developing Sci-Fi by requiring anomalies such as special sound effects in the vacuum of space. Some hard core Science Fiction writers refuse to be associated with “Sci-Fi”; hence SF as the abbreviation for pure Science Fiction.


Futuristic fiction is often used to describe fiction that has little scientific reference, but is set in the future. Many soft-science-based novels are categorised as Futuristic possibly to avoid intimidating a target audience with the Science Fiction label. Urban Fantasy sometimes falls into this category if the setting is a modern city.

Speculative Fiction and Magical Realism

Speculative Fiction is philosophical rather than scientific, taking a “What if?” contemplation and exploring the scenario that develops. This category tends to have a literary reputation, so, depending on the target market, a speculative book might be bumped into a genre category instead. Speculative literary fiction that uses a fantastical twist as a plot device is often called Magical Realism.

Urban Fantasy

Simplistically, Urban Fantasy is fantasy where the city setting plays a role in the plot. The setting can be contemporary, futuristic, or a period setting, but remains fantasy due to breaking of the laws of science (eg, X-Men, Buffy, Charmed). Urban fantasy could be referred to as Sci Fi (or even “Science Fiction/Fantasy”), but generally makes no mention even of pseudo-science or “techno babble”.

Contemporary Fantasy

Urban fantasy is sometimes called “Contemporary Fantasy”, usually when the modern setting doesn’t feature in the plot or doesn’t include a cityscape. The Harry Potter books are contemporary fantasy.

Science Fiction/Fantasy Blend

Labelling a book as Science Fiction/Fantasy, or SciFi/Fantasy, is simply an easier way for bookstores and libraries to categorise a lot of books in one section. Often bookstores cannot read enough of each book to tell whether it is true Science Fiction or possibly Urban Fantasy. A broader category makes books more accessable to readers looking for either genre rather than missing the target by being too specific.

What about you? Do you read or write Urban Fantasy or Science Fiction? Or do you avoid these genres?

Elsa Neal
Elle Carter Neal is the author of the picture book I Own All the Blue and teen science-fantasy novel Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin. She is based in Melbourne, Australia. Find her at or


  1. I love Sarah Addison Allen's books for their magical realism. The Sugar Queen and most recently, The Girl Who Chased the Moon. More about the genre at this great wiki:

    Thanks for the defs, Elle. Genres are morphing so fast, it's hard to keep up!


  2. As I said, this great wikipedia article:


  3. I like the definitions and differences you help point out between the many cross over genres growing between Sci Fi and Fantasy.

    I always thought until know Urban Fantasy was basically supernatural or fantasical charatcers set against a modern time back drop. Hence why I believe my own developing novel 'Soul Chaser' was an Urban Fantasy as it is set against and in York. But having considered your descriptions that could still apply as it set mainly in the city of York (when it's not in the outer realms of Asgard etc). But I also considered my piece to be classes as Magic Realism as the spiritual influence of the afterlife and death irrecably interact with everyday present modern life and we're just not aware of it.

    Although you haven't included Dark Fantasy in there? Is it because it's got hardly any elements of Sci Fi in it? I tend to think of Dark Fantasy involving characters usually associated with horror such as the never ending involvement of vampires, werewolves, witches, warlocks, demons etc.

    Althought there is now a little gleam of something I might dare call Light Fantasy involving Angels (sadly in another teenage anxt love struggle type stories).

  4. Great definitions! And seems the fantasy is taking over the science fiction these days.
    I like the softer science fiction - Anne McCaffrey is my favorite author.

  5. I'd like to know how paranormal relates to these definitions. Is there any crossover? I'm working on a book now that plays with the concept of head hopping (jumping into someone else's consciousness), and I can't decide whether it's sci fi or paranormal.

  6. Many of these labels are for the convenience of marketing categorization for bookstores and publishers...the old "where to shelve?" question. Urban fantasy just happens to be the trendy title for what used to be called paranormal romance, until that trend eased.

    Thanks, Elle. There are no definitive answers or categories, so it's still a matter of labeling and hoping the audience finds it.


  7. Thanks for defining all these terms. I have heard them before, but had no clue what some of them meant. I have never been a fan of SF or fantasy - even though my husband and children have tried to recruit me - so that is why I was so clueless. Now at last I will know what they are talking about. LOL

  8. As an author of a young adult novel (currently on submission through my agent to editors) with fantasy elements that are explained through hard science, I agree there’s a lot of genre-confusion out there. Any blend is going to be hard to peg, but we’re required to stick a label on it so potential buyers can filter out genres they’re not interested in. This blog post is an excellent example of the kinds of interpretations that can be made. My assumption is that the editors that are looking at my queries each have their own interpretations of what a genre consists of, and there’s no way I can know what those might be! As my agent has reminded me: in the end, it doesn’t matter how you present something. The story has to do the selling.

  9. An agent friend advised me to call my mg novel, Fur-Face, an urban fantasy. Mind you, it takes place in a contemporary English country village, so I'm not sure you'd agree :(

  10. Dani,
    Wikipedia is an awesome resource for genre definitions. Someone has done a lot of homework over there.

    Yes, I'll be including Dark Fantasy in the post(s) that deals with the confusion between Fantasy and Horror (and then SF and Horror).

    L. Diane,
    Fantasy has enjoyed a popularity boost over the past few years. But these things happen in waves, so watch out for the trough to come. Then you will possibly see SF or Horror rise for a while.

    But have you noticed that television has stuck with Sci Fi?

    Thanks, Writtenwyrdd,
    As Scott points out, these are "Where to Shelve"/How to Pitch definitions, and as such they expand and "morph" (to use Dani's term).

    I would tend to think yours is Paranormal, unless you have a solid scientific reasoning for one character being able to enter the mind of another.

    Thanks for your comments.

    There is something for everyone and not everyone likes everything. It's what makes us all so interesting. Thanks for reading :-)

    Definitely. It is worth being flexible with your categorising so that your agent/publisher can suggest a sideways squeeze into a different genre if necessary. They are the ones keeping up to date with how the market is shifting.

    It sounds like Contemporary Fantasy. But it is your publisher's marketing department who really make that call.

    Elsa Neal
    Blood-Red Pencil

  11. I would probably classify mine as Contemporary Fantasy rather than Urban. As you've alluded to, Urban implies the setting is our real world with fantasy elements, whereas Contemporary to me would me characters from "today" acting in a fantasy setting.

  12. Alan,
    Yes, that's a good way of looking at it.

    Blood-Red Pencil

  13. I write scifi with a twist of romance and all action. Can't help myself. I'm a techie.

  14. As for sci-fi, it was Harlan Ellison years ago who pointed out the difference and inferiority of the concept by changing its pronunciation from "sy-fy" to "skiffy." I thought that was kinda' funny in that it sounds similar to "spiffy" and the early Beatles music they called "skiffle."

    In an attempt at being obnoxious and opinionated just like my hero Harlan, I choose to take back the concept of "skiffy" and proudly flaunt it on my website. Can't help myself. I write spacepunk (a subgenre of your simple futuristic stuff, I guess), that is, space opera w/a cyberpunk attitude... and it's fun to call it skiffy. But I wouldn't much care what anyone called it in a store. Like whatever, man...

    PS: So... do we give Kafka the credit for inventing magical realism w/Metamorphosis -- or should the prize go to Voltaire for that thing about the guy from Jupiter? ;-)

  15. Thanks for the breakdown. I didn't know there was such a breakdown. I know now that I don't read SF, but I do read everything else. Urban Fantasy is new term I've been hearing lately. I've always loved the realms of Fantasy and the softer Sci-Fi, and Anne McCaffrey was always one of my faves! Now to decide what to write! So many to choose from.

  16. Thanks for the breakdown. I've wondereed if I write speculative or future fiction. Can I print this off just to keep in my files for future refrence? :)

  17. A great description of these genres. I write fantasy as I am never even going to try to accurately explain something scientific, though occasionally some of my stories might be sci-fi rather than straight fantasy.
    It is interesting reading how people define these genres, particularly when there are still people who lump them all together not realising that those who like SF don't tend to like contemporary fantasy.

  18. L.M.,
    The stories we can't help but write are usually our best.

    I love anything tongue-in-cheek too.

    Just my opinion, but I think Plato was a pretty good magical realist.

    There is a lot of potential for telling the same story very differently using different genres. It can be a lot of fun working it out.

    Thanks for reading. You can definitely keep a copy for your own reference.

    I've been guilty of rolling my eyes at some categorisation choices, particularly with movies. It really irks me when horror is classified as science fiction, because I love SF but cannot watch horror.

    Blood-Red Pencil


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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