You may have heard of the phrases “high fantasy” and “low fantasy.” Or perhaps you haven’t; while they’re used very commonly in an academic sense, they aren’t as common outside those circles. As is so often the case, this leads to some confusion in the definitions. And so I decided to give you a quick overview of the topic. That’s what this blog is for, after all!

In this context, “high” and “low” have nothing to do with quality. That is, it has nothing to do with “highbrow” and “lowbrow”; high fantasy isn’t for the self-described sophisticates, just as low isn’t for people who just want explosions and gore. Rather, it describes how much fantasy is in a story. High fantasy diverges from “reality” (the world as we know it) more than low fantasy does.

This means that the common impression of these terms is that low fantasy is historical or contemporary fantasy, while high fantasy is . . . well, everything else. That winds up causing problems, though. Where does Harry Potter fall on this spectrum? That’s contemporary fantasy, after all — but its magic system definitely diverges the setting from our familiar world. And what about A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones for the non-readers)? Martin’s world is definitely not our own, but the magic is so rare that most events are completely “mundane” in character.

The moment you start applying ever-narrowing definitions to stories, you start winding up with outliers and exceptions and anomalies that give anyone with at least a mild case of OCD a severe headache. This is no different. This is why the usual distinguishing characteristic is the magic/mundane spectrum, not whether there’s a connection to our own world (or at least something like it). So a contemporary fantasy like The Dresden Files becomes high fantasy, while the TV show Supernatural does not. Classic fantasies like Conan and The Lord of the Rings also get classed as high fantasy because of the world they describe (both set in the mythic, prehistorical past of our own world), even though most characters don’t have access to tools beyond what was available in our own equivalent historical periods.

Taken like this, it can be applied to science fiction as well. The further the setting gets from our own, familiar world, the “higher” it gets. This can cause some interesting comparisons after a while; for example, Star Trek is arguably a higher science fiction than Babylon 5, because the latter still contains elements we’re familiar with (union strikes, politics, etc.), even though they’re both definitely high science fiction. Within the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek: The Next Generation would be the highest, while Enterprise would be the lowest.

The Stargate franchise starts out as a low science fiction story, becoming increasingly “higher” as time goes on; at first, the science fiction elements are either obstacles or, in the case of the stargates themselves, simply a vehicle for the story without actually changing the world. (This does change, and fairly quickly; but compare the original movie and most of the first season to the later stories and you’ll get an excellent comparison of “low science fiction” versus “high science fiction.”)

To round out the comparison, the shows Eureka and Warehouse 13 (set in the same universe) both score as “low” science fictions despite what’s available to each character, because the setting is still the “normal” world.* (Compare to The Dresden Files which, though set in Chicago, spends hardly any time dealing with mundane issues.)

Again, every attempt to categorize literature will wind up with (sometimes messy) exceptions, but as long as you don’t get too fancy this is an excellent shorthand to use when talking about science fiction, fantasy, or supernatural horror.

* If you’re a gamer, this may confuse you slightly. In games, the “high” and “low” dynamic takes a backseat to the gameplay itself. So while Eureka the TV show would be classified as low science fiction, a game based on Eureka would be considered “high” because of the options available to each character. The focus changes, so the story’s dynamic changes with it. Some people — including me — will refer to games as being “normal” or “mythic” to avoid any confusion with the setting itself.