Showdown! Science Fiction Vs. Fantasy
My feet plodded on the ground as I pouted next to my mother. We were at the mall... again. It wasn't a very eventful day, overcast, rainy, and I didn't have school. So, naturally, I was bored and sulking and driving my mother crazy. After what felt like hours wandering around aimlessly we finally came close to the whole point of my silent endurance test.
The book store.
My mom smiled at me, “Go ahead. I'll wait here.” I grinned and bolted into the familiar-smelling, dizzying array of color and paper that I had grown to love in my short life. It wasn't just the brilliant splashes of cover art that made entering a bookstore magical. It was the smell. I love that smell. Even to this day, I joke to my friends as we walk by Barnes & Nobel that it's like looking in a candy shop. It really is. The smell of freshly printed ink of untouched paper should be a perfume scent, I swear, it's the most addicting smell I know apart from fresh baked bread. Just imagine: a baker book store. Heaven on earth!
Growing up, I flocked to the science fiction and fantasy section of bookstores. In my youth, I didn't think much of it. Star Wars was a common sight next to my fantasy series and while I glanced at them curiously I never bothered to pick them up and read them. I had seen the movies and I loved the characters but the books never really caught and held my imagination the way dragons and elves did. I had picked up Lord of the Rings at a very young age and I never looked back. My love of fantasy was engraved on my soul: a constant, comforting light in a world that tells me reading is boring. So I could be found haunting the aisles of the bookstore, hidden away in back corners where few people dare tread. Knowing exactly where all of my books lurked, grown men stepped over my small frame as I dug through the shelves hoping to find the next, last, or first book in my latest obsession.
Surprisingly, no one ever questioned why I was there. Not many people read fantasy. It's a lonely section of the book store. Most people, I think, avoid fantasy, if not science fiction too, because of the connotation it carries of being childish or immature. It isn't "literary" enough for many people because it features species and beings beyond our imaginations and drawn from our childhood fairy tales.
Anyway. My love of fantasy started young. I had grown up on science fiction as well, the usual Star Wars and the less usual Stargate (I was never a Trekkie although I have attempted a several forays into that wonderful universe). Even in my youthful, unclouded mind, the two worlds were vastly different. I never bothered to understand why they were or why everyone seemed to pack them together, I simply accepted it as something adults did to avoid confusion or save space and moved on.
It makes sense. The people who read science fiction are usually the people who read fantasy (or vice versa) . They are closely related cousins, friends, and allies in terms of nerd culture. The vast majority of fans of both subcultures don't really mind when their interests are lumped together as the same genre. It makes it easier to find the material they love. There are a few hardcore science fiction nerds who will rant and rave over the authenticity of “proper science” in their fictional worlds and how “magic isn't real” and “they are not the same thing at all.” But no one really listens to them anyway. They're in the same category as those that say to be good science fiction needs to be accurate and accuracy must translate to dense, difficult material. Which, happily, we all know, is complete hogwash.
I'll never be able to make a completely comprehensive list of what makes science fiction, science fiction or what makes fantasy, fantasy. It's impossible! There are too many overlaps, irregularities, unique authors, and fusions to ever be able to officially declare without doubt whether a work of art is science fiction or fantasy. Such a thing also should never be done. Defining the parts too often leads to obscuring the whole, and once you lose sight of the actual piece, what's the point of trying to identify it's parts?
The fantastical mess
Given fantasy's origin in myth and folklore, I will begin there. Fantasy has distinctive flavoring that usually deals with creatures of myth and legend. This means that the creatures have never existed and would require extensive genetic engineering to breed. However in the fantasy realm, these creatures have existed alongside humanity for quite some time and are part of the human ecosystem whether or not the normal humans are aware. Apart from this, fantasy deals with concepts like magic. Generally magic is an inner mystical force, limited by the wielders knowledge or strength.
Traditional fantasy consists in a self created world, like Tolkien's famous Lord of the Rings. There are subgenres though like Urban Fantasy which takes place on earth but in an often underground culture that exists away and apart from common human life. There is also a common theme of the past, or historical settings, being used as inspiration. My own fantasy novel is loosely based off Imperial Russian politics. Because of this intimacy with the past, most fantasy novels do not mention guns or other technology developed post-Renaissance. Again, there are subgenres that twist this theme and have modern settings, future settings, guns, and all kinds of technology, this is just a general theme that gives fantasy its distinctive flair and familiar setting. You could argue that all modern fantasy (written post WWII) derives its roots from Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They set the tone for epic fantasy by having similar worlds and medieval themed settings and ideals. All fantasy though has its roots in myth and folklore - even these great authors took their ideas from legends and fables.
Why would I do it that way? That way is easier. I prefer my way.
A quick note on using theme or setting to explain the difference: you cannot say fantasy deals solely with Good versus Evil or science fiction only deals with Man versus Machine. Theme is not exclusive to genre. Setting cannot truly define the difference because settings can easily be switched and replaced. Even key objects in a story, whether a super-computer or a mystical sceptre, are nothing but blurry boundaries because of the amazing ability of boundless human imagination and ability to invent. Science easily looks like magic to those ill-informed about how it works.
Pop culture science
Now, science fiction. Science fiction has its roots in the Industrial Revolution and the birth of modern technology. It differs from fantasy in the fact that it is, well, newer. Oddly enough, modern science fiction is older than modern fantasy. For science fiction though, the main plot still deals with heroes and villains and because of this, themes are very similar as they have grown out of the same mythical story telling. Science fiction deviates from fantasy's love of the mystic and occult to shed light and explain. Science is the main driving force rather than magic or some other mystical power.
In the realm of science fiction, unnatural creatures are not native to earth and humanity must learn to deal with changes rather than having been raised among them. Science fiction does not seek to re-write the past as most fantasy does but rather to explore the future and the possibilities there. Fantasy honors the past but science fiction dreams of the future. Thus most settings for science fiction are futuristic. And given its peak years during the space race, it makes sense that much of science fiction would be centered around space exploration. Actually, exploration is the most common theme of science fiction. Fantasy will deal with quests while science fiction will seek new horizons. Space is just the most popular medium for conveying that sense of adventure. Given its deep connection with the sciences, this branch of fiction deals with more ambiguous characters and nature. Science attempts to remain objective in all things and science fiction reflects that.
There are so many areas where these two subgenres overlap that it's impossible to really categorize them. One of my co-workers labeled science fiction as “anything that has to do with science” but I grimaced and asked “well what about Star Wars?” It does seem to be the obvious choice to simply say one deals with science and one does not, but then again, things we know to be science fiction such as Star Wars do not really ever talk about “science.” Sure there is technology that looks like our modern technology, just streamlined and chrome, but could you not replace much of those objects – spaceship, lasers, and telepathy, with fantastical staples such as flying carpets, magic spells, and mystic connections?
One of my favorite moments is when you hear the cries of dismay when Obi-Wan is labeled as a "wizard" because of his ability to use the Force. This is sort of a joke among Star Wars fans, as his abilities are compared to magic throughout the later episodes of the series. We all know he isn't actually a wizard but a Jedi trained in using the Force. But then, what is the Force? It is rather mystical and otherworldly. It is redolent of the occult with its secretive nature and limited number of people who know how to use it. Apparently, it takes years of skill, practice, and dedication to master. Few can actually access it, let alone apply it to their advantage. All of which are usual trappings of magic. Just more instances of how the two are nearly impossible to separate.
Literature wearing a jet pack
People try and describe either genre as “speculative” which is very accurate for them both. They are both entirely new worlds that will never come to pass in which, we, as the readers and writers, explore the human psyche. Therefore, it could be argued that the way the subgenres approach the psyche is what makes them different. And also, at the same time, what makes them similar. What makes them literature.
Science fiction could be interpreted as taking events, objects, and scenarios to a plausible conclusion. A playing out of “what might happen if...” story. It pushes people to the limits of their abilities to see what they are made of. This is why most dystopian literature is gathered under the science fiction banner. It takes aspects of society and plays them out to their natural conclusion. Fantasy explores the psyche using elaborate symbols and metaphors. That dragon is not just an animal, it is a representation of human greed. While in science fiction actions and plot are used to elaborate on the nature of Man. This isn't to say there aren't metaphors in science fiction or trials in fantasy. In fact, those two things make up the backbone of both subgenres. They both rely upon those same two building blocks.
After having babbled on forever about what the differences are without ever actually stating what the differences are it's time to talk about why differences are important. This might have more to do with how they are different than any actual component of the story. Fans are loyal to what the love and as I explained, my love lies with dragons and elves. It's what I know, grew up with, and understand. I prefer it to laser blasters and intergalactic space travel as much as I love those things too. But the distinction to me is still there and it still grates when people lump us all together without bothering to pay attention to the subtleties that make us unique.
Why my pet dragon is better than your spaceship and other blatant personal biases!
I don't want to sound biased here, but I will, it's inevitable. To me fantasy, represents the human psyche with an elaborate display of world crafting (creating fantasy worlds) and having characters interact within that realm. Fantasy is like surrealism. It can completely leave behind everything that is and become what the writer or reader wills it to be. There are no rules to follow, no logic to uphold. Sure, we bemoan how cheesy certain novels are for their plot deus ex machina that swoops down and saves everyone without the least bit of worry. But in a fantasy novel that is part of the fun! Fantasy shows different aspects of human emotions and reactions through different races and species. It's interesting how much can be learned about social theory by exploring different ways of representing humans as elves or dwarves. Throw in more species for an even more complex representation of human negotiations, behavior, and prejudices. It's a fascinating blank canvas. Not to mention the most common theme: Good versus Evil.
Literary fiction does not get to expand and explore the representation of Good and Evil the way fantasy does. Humans are always just that - humans. But in fantasy humans are also elves and dragons and dwarves. There are usually clear distinctions between what is Good and what is Evil. When it is more obvious what is Evil and what is evil, and what is Good and what is good, writing complexity can be much more interesting. Look at the complexity within the Dungeons and Dragons universe - with options of being Chaotic Good along with Lawful Evil. There are a wide variety of options to play with, stick to, or completely ignore. So within fantasy, using those metaphors for human nature, the author can create a much more detailed and subtle representation of evil without having to list crime upon crime to make them terrifying. A dragon will steal treasure. What makes them terrifying though is what lengths they will go through to gain that treasure. Just like a human... only dragons can breathe fire.