Sometimes I like to try to classify my writing. Perhaps this isn't seemly. But I find that it helps me figure out what I'm trying to do, what I like and what I don't like, what I want to cleave to and what I want to break away from.
So. I've often expressed dissatisfaction with the fantasy/sci-fi dichotomy. It's useful and necessary, I know, but these are basically commercial categories. They do reflect a real division in the literature, but the boundaries don't everywhere coincide. The same holds true to a lesser degree for all the various subgenres. My main problem, I think, is that the classification concerns material elements only. If you have an elf, it's a high fantasy, or maybe an epic fantasy. Unless he hangs out in coffee shops and tattoo parlors, in which case it's an urban fantasy. But I don't read books because of the matter. I read them because of the form. Reading Tolkien was a life-changing experience. Terry Brooks never appealed to me. What was the difference? Certainly not the matter!
Take Perelandra. The pedants usually classify it as a fantasy because it has angels and concerns original sin. But they're wrong; from their point of view, it's science fiction. C. S. Lewis happened to believe in angels and sin, and wrote compelling speculative fiction about them. If we accept the characterization that sci-fi makes the improbable possible while fantasy makes the impossible probable, then Perelandra falls into the first category. How many science fiction writers, I wonder, believe in the immateriality of the human soul? Do we classify all their works as fantasy because of they contain elements of the supernatural? But this underscores the problem. The classification of a story shouldn't change when we uncover some new datum in the author's biography. So, if the pedants were consistent, they would call Perelandra science fiction, but I would still call it a fantasy, not because of its supernatural elements, but because of its structure and aims.
Everyone's heard the canard about how advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to primitive peoples. What this ignores is that magic is technology. There's no difference. Let me repeat. There is no difference between magic and technology, except in the eyes of conceited modern observers. Just because I've rejected some hypothesis in my systematic attempts to control my environment doesn't somehow render the hypothesis a member of a different category from the ones I accept. A savage practicing homeopathic magic or whatever it is they do nowadays is merely exhibiting a certain belief regarding cause-and-effect. A medical professional does the same. The latter presumably has better results. But this is a difference of degree, not of kind. A belief in a supernatural world subject to testable and consistent rules and limitations is no less "scientific" than phlogiston theory or M-theory, whatever we may think of the truth of the thesis.
So, when people go on about how a fantasy needs to have a well-defined magic system that's adhered to consistently, they're not talking about fantasy at all. They're talking about science fiction, or, at any rate, technology fiction. Galadriel the queen of Lothlórien gently mocks Samwise for wanting to see "elf magic," confessing that she isn't entirely certain what is meant by the word. Thus does she smile at dragon dice, Magic cards, and other systems. Did Merlinus Ambrosius adhere to a magic system? No. He simply went places, and things happened. Do you get the feeling that the plot is contrived or arbitrary because of that? No. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory, et al., knew what it was to write a romance. It's these systems that allow for contrived, unreal plots. In the end it's no different from Scotty saving the day by rerouting the secondary reactor drive through the main power converters. You know. Just difficult enough to add the right amount of tension.
Anyway, my writing is in the same boat as Perelandra. The pedants would call it fantasy because of various material elements. But really, from their point of view, they should call it science fiction. It is fantasy, just not for the reasons they cite. Its "macrobial" agents are rigorously conceived. It has not an iota of magic, though it might seem otherwise to primitive readers. But it's supposed to hit the fantasy spot. And what is that? I admit that I'm not certain. It's something I've struggled with. Speaking broadly, we might say that fantasy has an ecological, holistic outlook. It integrates. Science fiction is about doing; fantasy is about being.
So let's call my writing fantasy, despite the fact that it features space elevators, prehistoric biota, topological puzzles, etc. What subgenre shall we place it in? There's a jumble of tags to choose from, but they can't be regarded as concrete, mutually exclusive genuses, so we'll just have to pick what seems most appropriate. Let's see, let's see. Much of my fiction features warriors who wear sandals, carry swords, and battle dread Elder Gods and beasts from the Outside, but it isn't sword and sorcery, which is lusty, amoral, action-oriented, and narrow in scope, lacking the ecological sensibility I spoke of before. It displays a global consciousness and is centered around a battle for the soul of the world between forces of order and chaos (as I conceive of them), but isn't high fantasy or epic fantasy, as these connote a nostalgic restriction of technology and a certain elevation of manners alien to my mind. A lot of the action takes place in cities (or, rather, a City) powered by steam engines and decorated with Art Nouveau motifs, but it most certainly is not steampunk, which I leave to those who like such things. It isn't dark fantasy because it's not, well, dark (not that most things marketed as such really are), and it isn't urban fantasy because it isn't contemporary and sparkly.
Sword-and-planet novels are a threatened breed these days. Edgar Rice Burroughs was the great forerunner, but his descendants have been sadly lacking. The sixties and seventies saw a glut of nostalgiac homages and pastiches, like those awful Green Star books of Lin Carter that you're always seeing in used bookstores, and the Gor books of John Norman, which I haven't read for obvious reasons. I'm always looking for Leigh Brackett's Mars books but they must be good since no one wants to sell their used copies.
Yes, I find the writing of sword-and-planet novels a high and lonely art. I don't mean to imply that my work can be pigeonholed, though. My hope is that it embodies a certain literary flair. The models I adulate (and fall far short of) include Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Flannery O'Connor, and Willa Cather. But I'm also inspired by the great exemplars of pre-Tolkien fantasy, from "high" British works like The Well at the World's End, The Night-Land, the short stories of Lord Dunsany, and The Worm Ouroboros, to the "low" works of American pulp writers like Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and C. L. Moore.
There, that helps. Now back to work on the sequel of that novel I'm still trying to sell…