Literary Terms: Magical Realism, Science Fiction, and Fantasy

July 1, 2015

In past literary terms posts, we have discussed: the difference between terror and horror; apocalyptic, dystopian, and post-apocalyptic fiction; and legend, myth, and fairy tale. We are happy to continue our studies with the latest addition to our literary terms series. One of our favorite things about fiction is its ability to build new worlds, ones which we (literally) can’t access in our everyday lives. Magical realism, science fiction, and fantasy all construct their own unique realities in different ways. It may seem like it would be easy to distinguish these genres, but the lines are not as clear as you might think. We love the way that these genres are working their way into popular “literary” fiction. We think that’s all the more reason to take a close look at how magical realism, science fiction, and fantasy differ from one another.

Imagination Concept

Magical Realism – Magical realist fiction takes place in a world that resembles our own, except for the introduction of a magical element, which cannot be explained by the conventions of our reality. For example, Aimee Bender’s novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, is about a girl whose life is realistic in every way, except that she can taste the feelings of the chef in the foods that she eats. Ramona Ausubel’s story “Chest of Drawers” is another great example. In it, a husband whose wife is pregnant is envious of her ability to create life. The only unreal element of this story is that a set of drawers materializes in the husband’s chest. The joy is in seeing this magical element play out against a very real backdrop, such as the moment when the wife asks her husband to carry her lipstick in one of his chest-drawers at a party. Magical realism is often associated with Latin American literature and of course Gabriel García Márquez’s name looms large over the genre. Magical realism is infused into the world of his circular, spellbinding novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. In one powerful instance, yellow flowers fall from the sky, in mourning, it seems, for a powerful character’s death. Magical realism is becoming increasingly popular in contemporary American fiction, as well, and we could not be more thrilled about this.

Science Fiction – Science fiction also describes altered worlds, but in this case the elements that differ from our current reality are explained by developments in science. Karen Russell’s novella Sleep Donation, for example, takes place in a world in which insomnia has become an epidemic with no cure. Insomnia is treated as a scientific phenomenon: people can donate their sleep in hours, a process that is described clinically; nurses at the sleep banks can literally smell the sleep streaming out of the donors. This novella has sometimes been classified as magical realism, perhaps because other works of Karen Russell’s fall into that genre. But, because all of the unreal elements of Sleep Donation’s world are explained by the (hypothetical) workings of science, it falls into the camp of science fiction. Another hugely popular author whose work contains elements of sci-fi is George Saunders. In his story “Escape from Spiderhead,” for example, inmates are administered drips that contain concoctions capable of making them fall in and out of love. And, of course, TV shows and movies like Star Trek and Interstellar, that imagine futures in which new levels of space travel are possible, fall into the sci-fi category as well. While genre definitions are helpful, genre lines are not absolutes. For example, a story could have elements of both magical realism and science fiction.

Fantasy – The main factor that divides fantasy from magical realism and sci-fi is that fantasy takes place in a world entirely different from our own. Rather than a world that resembles ours, but contains magical elements or new scientific developments, the landscape of a fantasy story is completely made up. Or, to put it differently: Merriam-Webster defines fantasy as “a book, movie, etc., that tells a story about things that happen in an imaginary world.” Think of the opening credits of Game of Thrones, which scan over a world created entirely by George R. R. Martin. We need this map in order to be oriented in this reality of the author’s making. The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Redwall series also fall squarely in the realm of fantasy. Of course, fantasy books often have magical elements. However, the big difference between fantasy and magical realism is that, in works of fantasy, the surrounding world does not reflect our own.

Of course, here at TMR, we love works that bend genre lines and authors who dabble in various forms. But we hope these terms will come in handy when identifying elements of the books and stories you love.

What are some of your favorite works of magical realism, science fiction, and fantasy? Share in the comments.


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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