Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Fantasy vs Science Fiction

The lines between Fantasy and Science Fiction have never been impermeable or as well defined as one might like. I've been to Cons where this was the topic of panel discussions.

I have a simple rule of thumb: is there more polished metal or more rough-sawed wood? The former betokens Science Fiction and the latter betokens Fantasy.

Consider Babylon 5, a TV show set on a space station in interstellar space. The various alien species could just as easily be replaced by Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, etc. Or take Conan the Barbarian, he could just as easily be a post-apocalyptic tough-guy dealing with occasional bits of technology so advanced they're indistinguishable from magic.

When you try to enforce hard boundaries between SF and Fantasy, you have to answer questions: Can you go faster than light-speed and still be SF?

What about mind-reading through ESP? There's no science to justify these story elements, but during the golden age of SF, these things were scientifically plausible. Moreover at that time science-fact notions like programmable matter and nanotechnology were implausibly magical.

Years back I wrote a story wherein characters used "mental telephony": They had chips in their heads that allowed them to wirelessly communicate without speaking. I think that was clearly SF.

Or consider time travel. I've heard some science fiction writer claim that all time travel stories are pure fantasy. If you go back in time, there is absolutely no way it won't change the present in some unpredictable way.

Chaos Theory tells us that a change as big as the mass of an electron at the opposite edge of the universe makes an observable, unpredictable difference.

Scale that up to the effects you'd get if you were to send Sid & Nell back to WW2 Greenland and you've got big trouble doing so without disrupting the time-line.

So, is Finding Time a collection of Fantasy or Science Fiction stories? Tell me what you think.


  1. Can't you have both fantasy and science fiction in one story?

  2. I like the question: "Is there more polished metal or more rough-sawed wood?" The fact is though that there's not a line between Science Fiction and Fantasy, there's a chasm. I've always been one to look in great irritation upon the bookstores with a "SciFi/Fantasy" section on their shelves.

    I remember the best quote I heard on this question came from David Eddings in The Riven Codex, where he said, "Science Fiction gets bogged down in telling you how the watch works, Fantasy just tells you the time and moves on with the story."

    Not necessarily always accurate, but it's always stuck with me.

    Yes, science fiction and fantasy might use some comparable plot elements; and might allow for comparable story telling to be told where magic and hugely advanced technology allow similar outcomes, but that's where the similarities end.

    Science Fiction and Fantasy are no more similar than Romance and Mystery.

  3. I think you can have overlap between Fantasy and Science Fiction. Though there is definitely a tendency Josh points out of SF to explain the howto of the plot-devices whereas Fantasy just shrugs and lets it be. This is an apt observation, but it may be a matter of tone that can be found in almost any genre, like mystery.

  4. For me, Finding Time is more Science Fiction than Fantasy.

    But, there definitely can be stories that are both SF and Fantasy. Moreover, I think that both notions are very subjective.

  5. I think if the story mentions or describes the details of the "science" part (e.g. physics of time travel) then it leans more towards "Science Fiction" an if it spends time describing the fantasy world/magic/culture/language then it is probably more "Fantasy". Science Fiction also tries to be as "true" to known science as possible (e.g. new Battlestar Galactica had a lot more "quiet" battles in space than Star Wars, and they "jump" long distances in space instantly instead of going at speeds over the speed of light), but has to have some "speculative" areas in order to be interesting. Dune would be a good example of a difficult story to classify - very science/space focused but also one of the most vivid culture/"magic"/descriptive books I've ever read. Which is a long way of saying that, my vote for Finding Time would be on the Science Fiction side ...

  6. Hi Steve. Your post reminded me of this other post I saw earlier.

    Also, When R.A. Salvatore, author of the Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones novel was asked how different writing Science Fiction was from writing fantasy, he replied, "I've never written any Science Fiction."

    I think that there is a real difference in goal and tone that is orthogonal to the wood vs metal trappings.

    1. That R. A. Salvatore quote is priceless.

  7. I think the term "science fiction" was originally meant to describe stories where science or plausible science was a key element in the plot, but were otherwise not "realism."

    So, in its way, science fiction was a subset of fantasy.

    But publication of the LOTR in the 60s changed all that, creating a new genre -- dubbed fantasy by publishers and bookstores -- to describe any quasi-medieval, quasi-European, pre-industrial setting with mythical beings and magic.

    In the past decade, though, we've seen "fantasy" broaden its scope to include fiction such as teen paranormal romances (on one extreme) and slipstream fiction from writers like Phillip Pullman and Neil Gaiman (on the other extreme).

    Science fiction, meanwhile, seems to still include anything involving the future, robots (already got 'em), interstellar space travel (plausible), human cloning (likely), telepathy (highly unlikely), and time travel (probably impossible in the traditional sense).

    1. Wiki just told me LOTR was published in 1954-55. Moreover, fellas like H. P. Lovecraft were publishing fantasy in the '30s. And don't forget Conan the Barbarian was published in Weird Tales in 1932.

      I was a kid in the '60s and I think Sputnik got drove a wedge between the stories with rockets and the stories with magic. And in the years following, I think the split has narrowed again as you describe resulting in a splintering of the genres into a zillion sub-categories.

  8. I've seen magic defined as science that we don't yet understand. To a person even in the 1800's or early 1900's your cell phone would be magic. Much less your PC or your car or even your refrigerator.
    Personally, I don't much care which it is as long as it's well written.
    However, I think that the Edding's quote about explaining how vs saying it happens has a lot of truth to it: even if you can explain some of the mechanics of "magic" there comes a point where you can't/don't anymore. I guess for me, that would be the difference.

  9. I think the famous remark by Arthur C Clark comes into play here, perhaps as a premise of Eddings' quote, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Certainly, the technologies we take for granted that would mystify 1800s or 1900s folk, and be indistinguishable from magic to them. Even today when we consider these things, the explaining of how easily exceeds the training of anyone except specialists. Nevertheless, my cell phone is not magical.


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