Science fiction vs. fantasy

Hello Internet,

Today I’m going to talk briefly about the key differences between science fiction and fantasy – two of the mainstays of speculative fiction. Although these two genres are often found together in bookstores, libraries, and online stores, there are several crucial rules that separate and define them. If you are thinking of writing in either genre, it is important to decide early on whether your story is sci-fi OR fantasy, and convey this to your readers right from the start.

But first, the thorny question: what is science fiction, and what is fantasy?

What is science fiction?

At the most basic level, science fiction stories contain – or centre around – a known or proposed scientific concept. There are several sub-flavours of science fiction, including ‘hard sci-fi’, in which the science takes centre stage and is rigorously researched to be as close to reality as possible (sometimes at the expense of a good story), and the kind of sci-fi you find in genre favourites like Star Trek and Doctor Who (where the hard science is often ‘smudged’ in favour of telling a cracking yarn).

Readers who pick up a book labelled as ‘science fiction’ will expect things like faster-than-light (FTL) space travel, alien species, strange new worlds and civilisations, and stories that hinge on a scientifically-driven concept like robotics (and A.I.), genetic engineering, and the colonisation of new planets, to name but a few examples. A good science fiction writer will have done their homework and made sure that the science aspects are properly researched, but will not be afraid to ask the eternal question: ‘what if…?’ So, your story might involve your main characters dealing with the hazards of interplanetary travel, but won’t shy away from asking questions like ‘what if… the ‘singularity’ in a black hole was actually a new inhabitable dimension?’

When you embark upon world-building in a science fiction genre, it is important to always check that everything can be accounted for, if not by proven scientific theory (and remember that ‘theory’ is not a guess, it is a repeatable experimentally-proven model to explain known observations), then at least a concept that is being discussed by scientists with a modicum of seriousness.

What is fantasy?

Fantasy stories, like their sci-fi cousins, come in many flavours. There is ‘high fantasy’, which follows the classic, Tolkien-inspired tropes of elves, dwarves, dragons, and magic, usually in a medieval-like setting. There is ‘urban fantasy’, which puts a modern twist on traditional fantasy tropes by putting those wizards, vampires, and dragons in a city or urbanised setting.

There is even what I sometimes think of as ‘mythic fantasy’. Mythic fantasy stories can adapt to practically any setting and trope without any trouble. Star Wars is an excellent example of ‘mythic fantasy’, because exactly the same story can be told if we swap lightsabers for swords, Jedi for wizards, and Death Stars for Fortresses of Doom. Don’t let the spaceships and blasters fool you – Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction.

It is very important to note that fantasy stories don’t give you a license to run amok. If you have magic in your fantasy world, then it becomes insufferably boring if that magic and the people who can use it is completely unlimited (i.e. they can do what they like, when they like). It’s practically impossible to create a story with conflict and characterisation if your characters are all omnipotent!

The best fantasy stories and worlds are those which create very strict rules to govern the fantastical elements. To take the above example, your magic-user(s) may well be able to call down lightning from the skies… but under what circumstances is this possible? What is the price they must pay in return for all that power? Who pays it? As soon as you begin putting limitations on your characters and fantastical elements, you’ll find that stories start blossoming all over the place instead of drying up as you might expect.

Fantasy 01

Why is it important to distinguish between the two?

To paraphrase Orson Scott Card, science fiction is what could be but isn’t, whereas fantasy is what could never be. In other words, it is entirely possible – according to our understanding of genetic engineering – that we might be able, in theory, to one day modify the human genome to breed water-breathing men and women in order to colonise an oceanic planet. However, it is not possible that these colonists would then be able to worship a giant octopus-like creature dwelling on that planet and gain the power of prophecy.

Of course, I might have to eat my words in four thousand years’ time, but the point is that writers of science fiction and fantasy must be able to make these distinctions based upon what is and isn’t possible right now. When Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, it seemed laughable that men would travel by rockets to our nearest celestial neighbour. But the crucial factor that made Verne’s stories science fiction and not fantasy were that they were extrapolated from known scientific ideas. It was a meticulously researched explosive cannon, not pixie dust, that powered Verne’s Moon-bound capsule.

Of course, this blog isn’t large enough to fully explore all of the wonderful sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy, or delve deeply into the quirky examples that seem to be a mixture of the two. However, for one colourful example, look no further than the works of China Miéville set in the world of Bas Lag (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council). Here we can find many plausible scientific concepts such as artificial intelligence, steam-powered machines, and beautifully-realised ‘alien’ races. Any one of these could translate into a ‘hard sci-fi’ story. But Bas Lag is pure fantasy, because none of these things could actually exist in the forms and scenarios that Miéville proposes for them. It’s his inventive exploitation of quasi-science fiction that gives his worlds a grimy, familiar sense of our own reality.

And this is the key point behind all good stories – whether they are the most hard-boiled science fiction or flyaway fantasies. Giving all of your imagined worlds a solid sense of reality is what will elevate them from simple dream worlds into immersive places that we feel we could actually visit. If you can completely take your readers out of their everyday worlds, even for a short while, then you have achieved one of the the greatest accomplishments of any writer.

Creative Commons Licence
Science fiction vs. fantasy by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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