Science fiction vs. fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy are more often than not grouped together in book stores and libraries. They share many similar characters and they usually have a cross-over audience, so it’s easy to understand why. Adding to the confusion is the fact that many science-fiction writers delve into fantasy and many fantasy writers dip into science-fiction.

David Brin, who is a self-confessed sci-fi and fantasy author, says that fantasy is the “mother genre” and sci-fi is the “brash offshoot”.

But that is still not very clear, so he adds that a key difference is the idea of human improvability – the desire to learn, advance and evolve.

A Wikipedia article on science fantasy (another brash offshoot, perhaps) states that “science fiction does not permit the existence of fantasy or supernatural elements”.

But this isn’t entirely true.

Jasper Fforde is classified as a fantasy author (comic fantasy), but his Thursday Next series features themes of time travel. Mary Shelley is classified as an author of both genres, but she draws heavily on science and medicine to provide the backdrop for her tales.

If we go back several decades it becomes easier to separate the two genres. Tolkien is the perfect example of fantasy – epic battles, sword-wielding heroes, brave yet feminine heroines, dark forces needing to be vanquished and the triumph of good and hope over evil.

Arthur C Clarke and Carl Sagan are the perfect examples of science-fiction. It’d be difficult to find even one tiny element that is not based on some scientific theory – even if that theory is wrong.

But these days, a lot the science-fiction of yesteryear is now fact. Basic scientific theories are given, they are taught at schools, further information is available in just about any library in any town in the world and of course the internet provides a wealth of information. This gives fantasy authors the knowledge they need to incorporate scientific ideas into their stories and helps blur the lines.

Think of Terry Pratchett, whose fantasy (comic fantasy) allows for development and evolution. Think of China Mieville, who calls himself a writer of “weird fiction” and who blends the two genres perfectly.

One could debate the vague boundaries almost endlessly, but sometimes it’s the simplest distinctions that are best.

  • If elements of a story are bound by the laws of physics, or reasonably rationalised approximations of the laws of physics then the story is science-fiction.
  • If the laws of physics have been discarded and entirely new laws conceived then the story is fantasy.


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