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As many of you can see, I've been a pretty terrible blogger lately! What can I say...Life.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Discussion Topic: The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

In honor of the current ongoing poll “What genres of fiction do you prefer to read?” I thought it would be good to write an article that relates and also warns you that there are only a few more days left to vote. (So go and vote on the poll that is located at the very very bottom of this page! After you finish reading this article, that is.)

The question “What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy?” has come up more often than you would think and I was surprised by how vexed people were when trying to draw the boundaries around the two or place certain books in one category or the other.

Personally, I have always believed that science fiction has an explanation where fantasy doesn’t require any clarification; it just is what it is.

Ergo: This is science fiction: The sun has turned blue because a comet, made purely of cobalt, smashed into it and melted, mixing its naturally potent and sapphire colored minerals in with the sun’s fiery surface.
And this is fantasy: In my world, we have three suns. One is orange, another is red, and the final is blue. Each day a different sun shines over this beautiful country, smothering it in kaleidoscope colors, painting the land unnaturally.

See the difference? This has always worked well for me, but others see it differently. Here’s what they have to say for themselves…
“For myself, I claim that if sci-fi is the literature of change, then fantasy is the literature of longing: instead of writing about the world as it might someday become, it writes about the world as we wish it could be or have been.”
“Michael Swanwick, after writing the Iron Dragon’s Daughter said that the difference he found between sci-fi and fantasy was that fantasy was a normative kind of fiction and sci-fi was a transformational kind of fiction. Which means that fantasy often ends with the re-establishment of order, with evil conquered and good on the throne. Sci-fi often ends with the establishment of a new order, a new way of doing things, with the evolution to a higher order. Like any definition of fantasy and science fiction, I can find a huge number of exceptions to this rule. My own fiction is more about establishing a separate peace (where is the place of the individual in a universe that doesn't care) but I find the definition really very interesting.”
~Maureen McHugh

(This next one sure is vague! But it’s basically saying what I was saying.)
Science fiction:
The unknown is to be understood and thereby changed
The unknown is to be loved for its strangeness
~Nancy Lebovitz

"Science fiction consists of improbable possibilities, fantasy of plausible impossibilities."
~Miriam Allen deFord

(I actually really like this next one.)
Fantasy is: fiction based on the conflict between archetypes and set in the archetypal landscape of our culture.
Science fiction is: fiction based around trying to imagine a world where some technological or social change has occurred that makes it different from our own world.

(This next person got wordy!)
Fantasy is about a small, simple, magical world. This is the world of the child, but also the world of the past. Looking back things become simple and romanticized. The concept of the Golden Age is as old as we are.
Fantasy worlds operate as cartoonish backdrops for personal dramas and interpersonal narratives. There is often little explanation of how things work or any real consciousness of the larger objective reality. There is a narrowness of perspective that often dictates a flatness and reliance on cliché that relegates fantasy narratives to the ghetto of genre fiction. Fantasy narratives like The Lord of the Rings occasionally break out and do something impressive, but only by taking on greater reality and connection to the real world. Much of LoTR is inspired directly by Anglo-Saxon and Germanic history and much of its resonance is due to its connection to this world, also referred to as “Middle Earth” in Norse myth.
Science-fiction is about the future from the perspective of the present. It is not really about the future itself. This is why science-fiction often ages badly. Science-fiction seeks to enlarge the compass of the known. It is speculative. And, in speculating it is often laughably wrong. But, it also points the way and suggests possibilities for how the present could develop along its current course. Science-fiction is prophetic where fantasy is sentimental. Science-fiction, since it encourages a more broad perspective, is more creative and interesting. Fantasy is referential and narrow and as soon as it becomes unmoored from cliché it ceases to be fantasy and becomes science-fiction or speculative fiction.

(This final one makes sense!)
The very general rule of thumb is that science fiction is based in a rational world where anyone, should they be so inclined, can seek to understand the Mysteries and be successful. Fantasy, on the other hand, does not seek to explain the world. It is about reconciling the order of things. There is good and there is evil, and magic exists as a power outside the realm of explanation. One doesn’t need to know why magic works to control it, but science fiction seeks to explain, predict, and control empirical phenomena in a rational manner. In fantasy, only King Arthur can draw the sword from the stone. In science fiction, anyone can learn the secrets to pulling that sword free.

So, you’ve heard several sides from the age-old argument. Now, what do you think? Is there really a difference? What are those differences? Which one to you prefer to read or write? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…


  1. This is such a great post, Aubrie! I am now following you thanks to Mistletoe Memories and it would be so nice if you could share the love back on my blog:)
    Oh and don't forget to check our Show Yo' Flow Campaign today to see the interview we have on Jocelyn and the surprises she has for everybody:) See you there! Happy Tuesday!

  2. I always see you link up food and i can never find it...weird!

  3. I took a class on this very subject last semester. I think the differences are quite easy to distinguish, although the instructor offered up certain classical pieces as sci-fi, such as Dracula, and that kinda threw me for a loop.

  4. Design it Chic...Thanks for stopping by. I hope to see more of you here and I will certainly come by to check everything out on your blog.

    Vic...I just post my favorite foods here and there around my blog. Usually in my bio or in comments. I don't usually post the recipes becuase I'm a horrid cook and would not be able to make the stuff myself.

    Matt...Yeah, I am taking a class on Science Fiction and Fantasy next semester. I'm really excited!!! WHAT!? Dracula is not sci-fi! It's not even close. It's clearly fantasy as it revolves around the romantic notions and archetypes of Midieval Europe. I'd have argued with that professor until he was crying in the corner.

    Also a note to everyone...Don't forget to vote!!! There are only 5 days left and I want my pie chart to dazzel you all and look hardy when I reveal the results! lol.

  5. I wish we could edit our comments. I spelled dazzle wrong!

  6. You misspelled a few other words, too, but no big deal. That professor gave some examples, but I don't remember them. Frankenstein is also considered sci-fi, which seems more logical. The point of the course was to show elements of both genres within stories. We even watched Groundhog Day.

  7. Yes, Frankenstein does seem more reasonable and agree that there are elements of both in many different stories.

    I can see why you watch Groundhop Day, what with the folklore/myths involved, but I don't think it would be as fun.

  8. Haha, "Groundhop." :P

    It's a movie that I can appreciate. The Road Warrior was another movie, which we had to watch on our own.

  9. AHH! I love the Mad Max movies! Now, that's what I call Science Fiction!

  10. Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to see it.

  11. You should see it and the second one. They're older, but so much fun!

  12. And the third one. lol. I don't know why that posted before I was finished. I personally liked the second and third one the best.

  13. What a great discussion you have going here! I love the topic, such a broad one to take on.

    Just found your blog and I am excited to follow!

  14. Matt...Cool. Let me know how you like them.

    Cassie...Welcome! I'm very happy to have you here and I'm glad you like the topic. I thought it would be an interesting one. :) See ya around!

  15. I just wanna hear "welcome to the Thunderdome, b****!"

  16. You will if you make it to the third movie.

  17. Hmmm, Science Fiction = Hubs; Fantasy = Me!

    I've never been able to read science fiction, it bores me to tears, Hubs and Youngling sit and watch Star Wars over and over and over and over again and I see it once and I'm done!

  18. lol. That's too funny. I think one of the people above actually agrued that star wars could be fantasy, but I agree with you that it is scifi or at least mostly scifi.

  19. I can see how Star Wars could be fantasy because of the Force. But I'm not a fan, so I can't really defend that.

  20. Yeah, the Force could be taken as magic, but it may also be taken as evolution so who knows.

  21. "Science fiction consists of improbable possibilities, fantasy of plausible impossibilities."
    ~Miriam Allen de Ford

    This one was simple and to the point, the best for me. The article itself was an intriguing read Aubrie. I always instinctively knew the difference though I think - it's why I choose fantasy over science-fiction; I don't care for the 'evidence' only the brilliance. Story of my life - ;)

  22. Sounds great. I am happy to hear that you have thought about it before.

  23. These are two genres completely foreign to me-great information for a newbie. I have to say, I was completely disappointed to recently be in the junior fiction section of a bookstore and 90% of it was what I would consider fantasy. There's a lot of other great genres-hoping that is just a passing fad.

  24. Michelle...Yes, there is a lot of scifi and fantasy in that section, but I feel it has kind of always been that way, there is just more. I feel junior readers have these great imaginative minds and can really get through those genres and enjoy it. It's a great escape as well. I guess we'll see in the next few years what happens. It will be interesting.

  25. I had my husband visit your site last night to read the weekend wonder post:) and he found this post and we had the best discussion together:) He is a huge scifi fan whereas I tend to be more fantasy. Any way we had a great time discussing this:)

  26. The adventurer...that is so awesome! What a great comment to wake up to today. I absolutely love hearing that a post has struck up woke kind of a discussion.


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