All of these fiction categories represent genres with considerable overlap, with magical realism generally regarded as a sub-genre of fantasy, although it, too, may frequently have elements of classic science fiction. As will be seen, the latter is also sometimes regarded as literary fiction. John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café has elements of all three, although it properly belongs in the category of magical realism/literary fiction when all factors are considered. Let's examine these genres to see how and why there is so much overlap among all three, keeping in mind that there is some disagreement among publishers and scholars as to the definitions of each. Publishers also play fast and loose with genre classifications when attempting to tap into a crossover market. All points made below, therefore, have many exceptions.
Science fiction has several distinguishing features. It most often deals with other civilizations, usually advanced cultures set in outer space or earth's distant future (or occasionally its past). The main characters are either humanoids or members of a different species. They may have unusual powers, such as telepathy or telekinesis, but rarely can they perform magic, per se, using incantations or spells. Plots are generally plausible within their contexts of time and setting, and the narratives consist of action that the reader can imagine without too much difficulty when it comes to the all-important "willing suspension of disbelief." There is a heavy focus on advanced technology (or its complete absence), and a work of science fiction often carries thematic warnings relative to warfare, the abuse of technology, genetics, or an over-mechanized civilization. Social orders and political institutions are naturally modified from the familiar, but again, they are generally both recognizable and plausible.
Fantasy is a genre heavily invested in magic and the supernatural, which are integral to plot, theme, or setting. It usually keeps clear of technology (unless set in a time when a technological civilization has completely crumbled), favoring rural settings and characters living in villages, clans, or kingdoms. As in science fiction, characters may represent different species, but they are more mythical in nature, such as dwarves, elves, wizards, dragons, and monsters. Fantasy often takes place in unspecified locations or times, as in Tolkien's Middle Earth, and customs are heavily accented to reinforce tribal or cultural identity, such as those of hobbits. An entire mythological backstory is usually provided to create believability while providing context for epic struggles between good and evil. Charms, spells, and talismans are staples of fantasy fiction.
One can already see that there are many similarities between sci-fi and fantasy. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien are clearly fantasies in their use of mythical creatures and magic. Lewis's Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) is a different matter, however. It is marketed as straightforward science fiction, and yet technology is secondary to Lewis's emphasis on Christianity. Lewis himself said of the trilogy that, "The books are not especially concerned with scientific accuracy or technological speculation, and in many ways they read like fantasy adventures." He also said that the interplanetary ideas in the series clearly represented mythology. Kurt Vonnegut is another example where classification becomes tricky. He began his career as a science fiction writer, authoring The Sirens of Titan. Although his plots in later years continued to use outlandish scenarios, time travel, and unusual inventions, the action in his novels took place on earth and evolved into dark satire of the human species not unlike Mark Twain's. Today, his novels are regarded as literary fiction and are studied in lit classes around the country. Finally, some sagas, such as Star Wars, are clearly sci-fi fantasies, with all lines between the two genres blurred.
And then there is magical realism, a genre in which elements of the supernatural are introduced into recognizable geographical and temporal settings. Sometimes actual historical events are included in the plot, although this is not a prerequisite for the genre. Author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, stated that, "My most important problem was destroying the lines of demarcation that separate what seems to be real from what seems fantastic." More recognizable to some readers perhaps are the Harry Potter adventures, for which one could make a strong argument of magical realism as the classification. Harry comes from the very ordinary world of the twentieth century before attending the magical school of Hogwarts. By the same token, wizards (and other characters) from Hogwarts journey from their mythical realm into modern-day England, and in Book One, the reader finds Harry in certain British shops that seem to have some very magical properties as he purchases "wizard supplies."
Another modern example of magical realism is Shoeless Joe, the novel by W. P. Kinsella upon which the film Field of Dreams is based. In this novel, Shoeless Joe Jackson, a deceased member of the disgraced 1919 Chicago White Sox (nicknamed the "Black Sox" after the team threw the World Series), finds himself in the main character's cornfield in Iowa. (see photo to the right) How Joe and other dead ballplayers find their way into the modern world is never explained, which is a hallmark of magical realism. The events in works of magical realism are often quite inexplicable. With normal reality as the backbone of a plot, however, the reader is more inclined to suspend disbelief regarding the supernatural aspects of the story. Kinsella's novel also makes use of time travel (actually more of a slight "reality shift") and synchronistic signs to advance the plot. The main character (Ray Kinsella) also hears voices and has dreams that lead him to perform certain actions. With such strong historical roots, Shoeless Joe might well be considered literary fiction since, as with the novels of Vonnegut, the author's intent is to make a larger statement. In this case, Kinsella speaks of how progress and modernization have swept away much of the country's heritage, with baseball marking time as to what is both lasting and good within the culture.
Many authors and readers now refer to books with elements of fantasy or science as metaphysical fiction. Strictly speaking, all books are metaphysical in nature since the goal of metaphysics is to understand and interpret space, time, the properties of reality, personality, and cause and effect. While some fiction might be termed New Age rather than metaphysical because it focuses sharply on themes of healing, parallel universes, or the supernatural, such books are usually subsumed under the genres described above that already deal, to a greater or lesser degree, with various aspects of quantum physics, the unexplained, or the supernatural.
John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café is therefore best classified as a work of magical realism or literary fiction, although it has definite elements of sci-fi and fantasy. John Lennon finds himself standing in Grand Central Station, unaware that he was assassinated. Having stepped from a train, he makes his way to the Mercy Street Café in Greenwich Village, where he begins to interact with people in New York City in 2006. Through supernatural means, however, he also meets another deceased musical legend and experiences some of the major historical events of the twentieth century as he attempts to exorcise the demons that plagued him during his years of fame. As he does so, music emerges as a marker that, like baseball in Shoeless Joe, represents a constant in people's lives, a truth that transcends all times and cultures and that has its own qualities of magic.
US Government/NASA photo, public domain
Fairies of the Meadow Nels Blommër (1850), public domain
Take the Fair Face of Woman by Sophie Gengembre Anderson, public domain
Shoeless Joe Jackson, public domain