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.”
(This next one sure is vague! But it’s basically saying what I was saying.)
The unknown is to be understood and thereby changed
The unknown is to be loved for its strangeness
"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…