Science Fiction Vs. Fantasy

Much like the age old questions, “chicken or the egg?”, and “pirates or ninjas?”, Science Fiction vs. Fantasy is one of those unanswerable questions of life. But, while I can see the appeal of the first two questions, I have to wonder why we bother to ask this third question in the first place. I believe Fantasy and Science Fiction are two sides of the same coin, different only in the trappings, not in the actual spirit of pure imagination which I believe goes into both. Furthermore, the line between these two genre’s is blurry at best. Let me explain.

First, a couple of definitions, as gleaned from our friend of the Information Age, Wikipedia.

“Fantasy is a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting” from the Fantasy Page.

Science Fiction – “It differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically-established or scientifically-postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation)” from the Science Fiction Page.

I like to think of Science Fiction and Fantasy as two ends of a spectrum. At either end you have the extremes, Asimov at the SF end, and Tolkien at the Fantasy end. In the middle, the exact distinction becomes less clear, with authors such as Anne McCaffrey and Raymond Feist. McCaffrey’s Pern books are a brilliant example of this blurriness. At the beginning of that series (within the timeline), the books are almost pure SF, with space travel to other planets, genetic science and computer technology. Yet as Pern progresses, they become Fantasy novels, with quests, dragons, and in a strange sense magic, or at least communication with what are essentially large animals.

Another prime example of this fuzziness between the genres is actually Robert A. Heinlein. The book that I am thinking of specifically is called The Glory Road, and is one of my favorite works of Heinlein’s. However, I could not consider this book to fit neatly into either Category alone. While there is space travel, or rather travel between dimensions, and technology, there is also a sword-wielding hero, dragons, and in some sense magic. Now, I also think that Heinlein deliberately was blurring the line, as several times one of the characters explains her technology to the less technological Earth-man as “magic”. And indeed, it sounds like magic. But it is also equally clear that to her this ‘magic’ is as simple and straightforward as computer technology is to us.

I feel that I also must touch on the sub-genres of Urban Fantasy, and Steampunk/Cyberpunk and the many variations thereof. Steampunk and Cyberpunk are both technologically driven, though the aesthetic is rather different, yet Steampunk is considered a sub-genre of Fantasy, rather than Science Fiction. Urban Fantasy is another odd example, combining as it does themes such as elves, magic, dragons, vampires, werewolves, and modern day technology. One might almost dub these three sub-genres “Science Fantasy”, for they clearly combine the magic or semi-magical elements of Fantasy, with rational scientific explanations for many parts of the story.

Though I can by  no means claim to be the first to have these thoughts (or else why would the Bookstores shelve the two genres together?), I do think they are important considerations for an aspiring author. I think the question should not so much be “Science Fiction or Fantasy” as it should be a question of weaving your story clearly within the framework of the world or worlds you create.

Thought for the Day: “One man’s magic is another man’s engineering. Supernatural is a null word.” Robert A. Heinlein

Currently Reading: Village Life in Ancient Egypt: Laundry Lists and Love Songs ~ A.G. McDowell



  1. M G Kizzia said,

    November 23, 2009 at 4:34 am

    I am willing to divide stories into two types:

    “What is” (or was in the case of a large chuck of historical novels and historical romances) where they author may have a cock-eyed veiw of reality but where the intention is clearly to portray “real life” (whatever that is)…and

    “What if” which includes science fiction, fantasy, and a fair portion of mysteries, romances, literary & historical novels, etc.

    After that, I don’t care for all the subdivisions.

    So I just finished writing a short story where a dwarf and fairy are abducted by aliens…I don’t know, you categorize it.

  2. Bookewyrme said,

    November 23, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    I’d categorize it as “Sounds like fun!”

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