I thought this had been discussed before, but I can't seem to find a meta question about it.

There was a question today, to which the answer was Lloyd's Alexander's Westmark series, Identifying young-adult fantasy trilogy —while the only previous mention of Westmark I could find on the site was this question I asked myself, about the similarity of the Westmark novels to one of the author's earlier fantasy novels, Did Lloyd Alexander ever discuss the relationship between his novels, The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian and Westmark

I had a spirited debate with a librarian at my middle school about whether Westmark was a fantasy novel, and we did not come to an agreement. On the one hand, there are no magical or speculative elements in the trilogy. It is a series of stories about the society, politics, and military ventures characteristic of eighteenth-century or early-nineteenth-century Europe—except that all the countries and personages involved are fictitious. Is the fictitious setting enough to make this series on topic?

There are other settings that have little to no overt magic or science fiction elements that seem (to me) more obviously on topic. For example, the Gormenghast books have (aside from some definite science fiction elmenents in Titus Alone) things that are quite explicitly unlike anything in the real world—to the point of being physically impossible, such as the titular city-sized castle, which is both somehow scores of stories tall, and yet still can be almost completely flooded in a rainstorm).

However, the Westmark books are not in this category. There is nothing about the story that I would call "fantastical." There is only the fact that the countries involved happen not to have ever existed.

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    Thank you for raising this
    – AncientSwordRage Mod
    Dec 17, 2020 at 22:52
  • It's long been commented that science fiction (or, perhaps rather, speculative fiction) is ultimately a superset of all fiction. :)
    – DavidW
    Dec 17, 2020 at 23:17
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    I'm hesitant to draw any strict line on this sort of thing and really think it should be treated on a case by case basis. That said my gut feeling is something in a completely made up new land should be on topic. However, something in a re-named place London is Nodnol, something based completely off of an existing place or a place inserted into an existing country is leaning more towards off topic.
    – TheLethalCarrot Mod
    Dec 18, 2020 at 9:12
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    Well just like there is "hard sci-fi" there surely must be "hard fantasy".
    – Skooba
    Dec 18, 2020 at 21:28
  • @Skooba I never thought of things that way, but it may be the right analogy.
    – Buzz
    Dec 18, 2020 at 21:30
  • @Skooba Brandon Sanderson is a walking definition of "hard fantasy". Super-well-defined magic systems.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Dec 19, 2020 at 19:01
  • Such books aren't fantasy, but still speculative fiction, so at least questions about the speculative aspects should be OK.
    – Mithoron
    Dec 21, 2020 at 1:20

2 Answers 2


This is actually an incredibly hard question to answer; I'm not even sure if we'd be able to come up with a good general answer. After all, what counts as science fiction has been debated many times in the past, with Moorcock including stories in New Worlds that might not otherwise have been considered SF. (Indeed we've had that exact discussion.) Ultimately, I think that we largely can't have a useful discussion of the general case, and we'll need to consider contentious works individually.

Wikipedia defines fantasy as:

Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe, often inspired by real world myth and folklore.

and, for comparison, defines science fiction as:

Science fiction (sometimes shortened to sci-fi or SF) is a genre of speculative fiction that typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life.

Both of which essentially hang a definition off of "speculative fiction," so let's look at that:

Speculative fiction is a broad category of fiction encompassing genres with certain elements that do not exist in terms of the recorded history and observed phenomena of the current universe, covering various themes in the context of the supernatural, futuristic, and many other imaginative topics. Under this umbrella category, the genres include, but are not limited to, science fiction, fantasy, horror, superhero fiction, alternate history, utopian and dystopian fiction, and supernatural fiction, as well as combinations thereof (e.g. science fantasy).

This list is actually fairly close to what we consider on topic, including superheroes, dystopias and alternate histories. Note, though, that we explicitly exclude certain sub-genres (such as spy-fi) which doesn't help matters.

I found an interesting blog post about how various genres relate to "speculative fiction," even discussing how some science fiction is not speculative fiction, and how what is science fiction today may not be science fiction tomorrow. (Which, I must note, is another discussion that we periodically have here!) Actually, the same might be said of fantasy, if we reach back far enough to a time where a story might include intervention from an angel or a saint - things which were part of the accepted worldview at the time, but which are now purely fantastic elements to us.

This post asserts that some stories that don't contain any speculative elements (well, other than the basic "what if?" used to construct the scenario) can still be science fiction. I'm not sure we can argue with that; for example, what if the crew of the ISS needed to escape a disaster and lost their re-entry vehicle? Is someone going to argue that Gravity isn't science fiction?

(Editorializing slightly, part of the problem is that we're trying to define the boundaries of a genre that exists, in large part, to challenge bounds.)

I think an absolutely excellent example of "fictional setting, but essentially historical" is The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay, which is explicitly modeled on Moorish Spain and contains no overtly fantastical elements. Nevertheless, as it is by a known fantasy author most of whose modern work has very toned-down fantastical elements (basically just some ghosts in Under Heaven), it would be considered a work of fantasy. (One might argue that simply applying somewhat modern sensibilities to characters in the 13th century is ahistorical enough to count as fantastical.)

On the science fiction side, a comparable borderline example might be Spook Country, which is essentially a present-day thriller with no futuristic elements, invented places, etc., but is written by William Gibson in a way that nevertheless makes it feel like science fiction.

I don't believe it's possible to have a hard-and-fast rule about what is, and what is not, Fantasy. I think to some extent we have to rely on the author's intent to portray a world that is, or is not, ours - to whatever extent we can discern that. We can also use the author and/or the publisher as cues. In some cases it might simply be that we have to defer to a poster's belief that a work is fantasy, or we may need to discuss an individual work here.

(I've been told by people more widely read than I that there is a distinctive style or pattern to most SF that "feels" different to non-genre writings, but I don't think I'm aware enough of that to use it as a criterion.)

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    "a time where a story might include intervention from an angel or a saint - things which were part of the accepted worldview at the time, but which are now purely fantastic elements to us" - last time I checked, billions of people still have a worldview which accepts gods, angels, saints, etc.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Dec 19, 2020 at 18:56
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    Another thing to take into account is where a story is completely set in the real world but with deliberately "fictionalised" locations: e.g. Thomas Hardy's Wessex stories, which I'm pretty sure nobody would argue are fantasy, but which are set in towns such as "Casterbridge" (= Dorchester) and "Christminster" (= Oxford) which don't exist in the real world. We wouldn't want to accidentally include those in the site scope under a pedantic argument that "the setting doesn't exist".
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Dec 19, 2020 at 18:58
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    Ultimately (and I realise I'm getting more into answer than comment territory now, sorry for the multiple notifications), I think we can fall back on our general scope policies that "If it's marketed as SF, it's on-topic" and "If you're not sure it's SF but you think a good case can be made for it, it's on-topic" (i.e. go by what genre a story is "generally recognised" as, and err on the inclusive side).
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Dec 19, 2020 at 19:00
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    @Randal'Thor: Re the religion thing: Billions of people believe in some supernatural element in the abstract, yes, but if you told them that angels were speaking to you directly, they might nevertheless advise you to consult a professional. His Dark Materials is surely on-topic.
    – Kevin
    Dec 22, 2020 at 5:29
  • @Kevin yes, but then again many of them might not. Perhaps — considering His Dark Materials and Philip Pullman’s attitude to those things — it’s also a question of the author’s beliefs, then? Dec 24, 2020 at 12:24
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    @Fivesideddice: Eh, Narnia would still be on-topic even if you pulled out all the allegory, IMHO.
    – Kevin
    Dec 24, 2020 at 17:55
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    @Kevin oh, definitely, because it invents the whole new world of, well, Narnia, and the fantastical characters (Reepicheep, for one) in it. Dec 25, 2020 at 12:35
  • @Fivesideddice: I'm saying that if you replaced all of those fantastical allegories with the Christian elements that they were written to represent, it would still be on-topic.
    – Kevin
    Dec 25, 2020 at 20:34

In general, Yes.

You say, It is a series of stories about the society, politics, and military ventures characteristic of eighteenth-century or early-nineteenth-century Europe—except that all the countries and personages involved are fictitious.

Well one could argue that Star Wars is about the society, politics, and military ventures characteristic of mid to late 1900's Europe except that all the countries and personages involved are fictitious. The fictitious local just happens to be space.

Where do we draw the line about "how made up" something needs to be before it is considered science fiction or fantasy. I think we tend to have loose definition here that we call "speculative fiction". I came across this nice write up (with a fun Venn diagram) on what speculative fiction is.

Venn diagram showing regions of speculative fiction including fantasy, science fiction, horror, and historical

For me, when an author has created an entirely new world, no matter how mundane the stories told in that world, it is a form of fantasy.

Now of course we are always going to have outliers, which is why we have meta.

  • I do agree with erring on the inclusive side - indeed we have a general policy that "If you're not sure it's SF but you think a good case can be made for it, it's on-topic" - but if we take this too far, we risk including every bit of literature with obscured place names. I love Thomas Hardy's Wessex novels, but I'd never consider them on-topic here. (See my comments on DavidW's answer.)
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Dec 19, 2020 at 19:04
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    @Randal'Thor Perhaps the distinction here would be if it's a deliberate "secondary world" setting, or if it's more reality with the labels rubbed off. -- While there's nothing about Westmark which would prevent it from being possible on Earth, there's no attempt by the author to say that it actually is. Given Alexander's other works, it's reasonable to conclude it's a non-magical secondary world. In contrast, for the Wessex stories (and similar, like the Princess Diary's Genovia) the locations are deliberately placed on our Earth, despite being genericized/fictionalized.
    – R.M.
    Dec 26, 2020 at 22:04

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