Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

Hugh Todd

I love both.

I like other genres too. In fact I really like well told stories of just about any kind, but I find myself, more often than not, drawn to science Fiction and fantasy. There are enough great sci-fi and fantasy authors out there, that I don’t really need to dip my toes into other pools to get satisfyingly told stories, so I usually just stick to my favorite genres. Occasionally I will try other things, because I think its good for me, or because I’ve heard that a book is so incredibly good that I must try it.

But mostly I just read sci-fi and fantasy. So that begs the question, what qualifies as sci-fi or fantasy?

The industry tends to divide books by market: mysteries go on one shelf, science fiction & fantasy on another (unless it is a huge store or a specialty store that divides them up), horror goes over there. The industry and the stores are trying to tell the customers that if they love a particular book, here are a lot more right next to them that you might also want to buy. A term thrown around to describe both is Speculative Fiction (although one might ask if there is any fiction that isn’t speculative in some way?). An interesting thing that I’ve read about genre markets (I’m not sure exactly where I read this) is that while there are fewer runaway successes, sales are bit more dependable. That is, a book sold under popular, or general fiction has a chance to sell a million copies, but also might not sell any, while a book sold as genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror) has much less chance of selling a million copies, but also has much less chance of not selling any. The explanation given is that genre readers are more open to trying new authors within the genre than the general reader.

As the industry finds certain groups that it identifies as buying certain types of books, it often creates new sub genres to tap into that demand, thus the genre children’s books has turned into children’s: picture book, children’s: middle grade, children’s: young adult and new adult (generally defined as 18-25). Sci-fi and fantasy have their own sub-genres, such as urban fantasy, hard sci-fi, cyberpunk, steampunk, etc.¬†This is useful to someone working in marketing in the industry as well as to an author trying to market themselves. For example, an author might say that they write urban fantasy with the idea that if you love urban fantasy, you might be interested in their work. Other authors would prefer to not have their work classified. I’ve read of authors that feel trapped by the genre their work as previously been published under.

As most bookstores tend to lump science fiction and fantasy together, is there a difference? Of course that’s like asking is there a difference between ska and reggae. To some people, they like both and don’t really care, to others you are mixing up two totally different styles of music. And of course some people like one and not the other. The same is true in literature.

So what is the difference? Isaac Asimov supposedly said that the difference between science fiction and fantasy was that science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not. This is pretty easy to pick apart as much sci-fi (even hard sci-fi, or especially rigorously scientific sci-fi) include faster-than-light travel, which current science says is most likely impossible. Some science fiction turns out to not be possible, such as War of the Worlds; it turns out that there is not life on Mars. Not to mention, there’s always the “any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic” argument.

Another argument says that science fiction attempts to explain the supernatural events, while fantasy decides not to explain it. For example, if there is a unicorn in a book, a sci-fi writer might explain that it was genetically engineered or that it was a mutation brought upon by a runaway virus. A fantasy writer might say that the unicorn was one of the first magical beasts or that it was an expression of pure good or innocence, but generally the author doesn’t try to explain why they differ physiologically from a normal horse.

My favorite argument (mostly because I find it so thought provoking) is from David Brin. He argues ( I am paraphrasing) that science fiction looks to the future and embraces change, while fantasy looks to the past and seems to hold that the general situation will always stay the same.

For example, Star Trek shows us a future where scarcity, racism, sexism and other current ills have been conquered. And where they haven’t been, the protagonists struggle to move the federation and the other species that humans meet, towards that same goal. It would seem to be science fiction, by this definition.

Lord of the Rings is set in a world where the elves have fallen from their great power and are on the verge of mass retirement. Not much is left of the great Men of the West and even Sauron is defeated by a mere hobbit. Nothing like the early days when all of the races created wonders of craftsmanship and architecture that couldn’t even be imagined by the third age. Good triumphs over evil, but the peasants in the countryside are living pretty much the same way they did in the first and second ages: fodder for the genetic elite. This must be fantasy!

One might think that Star Wars was sci-fi. It has space ships and blasters for goodness sake. However, it is set in a galaxy where there used to be some golden age. Jedi used to be much more powerful and plentiful, the republic used to be run by altruists and the Sith had been all but defeated. In the movies, we are instead faced by fallen heroes and grumpy aging gurus that can’t get over how bad things have gotten. Again, good triumphs over evil, but aren’t there still whole armies running around suppressing people? And isn’t there still rampant slavery on Tatooine? By this definition, it looks to be fantasy.

That all being said, this definition, while thought provoking, tends to speak rather poorly of fantasy. And while I can appreciate the criticism inherent in this argument, I still love the Star Wars movies, Tolkien and any number of other fantasy novels that fit the above definition.

What do you think?