What is the Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy?

A Matter of Perspective

image: IGN Latinoamérica

Science fiction is a literature of change, possibility, and technology. Fantasy is a literature of imagination, the whimsical, the impossible, and magic.

One features dragons, knights, and wizards. The other features aliens, robots, and space stations. They are easy to distinguish, no?

And yet, there are two currents of thought: they are alike or they are not.

We previously debated if science fiction and fantasy were alike. My answer in that post was a nonanswer. Therefore, let us start the debate again. Are they or are they not the same?

The Force? Fantasy. Image: The Mandalorian

First, we need to keep three things in mind (and yes, I am oversimplifying):
  1. Both genres crossover into each other fairly often. They can be mixed. Doctor Who and Star Wars, anyone?
  2. Both offer competing visions. Science fiction is about the future. Fantasy is about “a long time ago, in a mythical land”.
  3. They have competing philosophical mindsets. Science fiction is a product of the Industrial Revolution. Fantasy has its roots in a pre-Enlightenment, pre-Industrial Revolution mindset.

The last point may be its biggest difference.

Star Wars is considered science fantasy

Science fiction owes as much to Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Smith, Rousseau, Descartes, Newton, Diderot, Bacon, Hume, Paine, and Spinoza and it owes to Verne, Shelley, Poe, Doyle, Kipling, and Wells.

Enlightenment and Industrial philosophical thought, along with 19th-century positivism made science fiction what it is today.

Fantasy owes more to Homer, the Arabian  Nights, the Golden Legend, the Arthurian legends, and the Norse sagas with its stories of supernatural heroes, magical weapons, prophecies, and fantastical creatures.

Hence, where is the divisional line?

Everything is Fantasy

image: Diario Correo

Author Neil Gaiman famously said, “everything is fantasy“.

What he meant is, despite science fiction telling stories about possible worlds and technological advances, they were nothing but exercises about imaginary worlds, something which does not exist. Hence, fantasy.

Take, for example, time travel. Time travel stories can be either science fiction or fantasy. If time travel is achieved by technological means, it is considered science fiction. Conversely, if it is achieved by magical means, it is considered fantasy.

Nonetheless, time travel is not real or possible (as of this writing). In the end, it is all fantasy since we are writing about something impossible, even if using plausible technology.

David Bowie in Labyrinth, AlphaCoders

Another example, faster-than-light space travel. It violates known physics and Einstein‘s theory of relativity. Nothing can travel faster than light in a vacuum. And yet, science fiction writers love to find technological workarounds to make it happen. Again, fantasy.

Until we discover aliens, they are not much different than your typical monster or fantasy creature, like fairies. Can you prove they exist? No. Despite the many UFOs sighting, we cannot.

In fact, you could argue science fiction is nothing but a subgenre of fantasy.

Magic Versus Science

Tech Vs Magic video game on Steam

On the contrary, you could also make the counterargument they are alike. Magic and science are not the same things. If it is magical, it is fantasy; if it is technological, it is science. Right?

Then there is the moral argument, better explained by author David D. Levine on his March/April 2020’s guest editorial in Asimov’s magazine. He argues science fiction is amoral. The technology works the same for the good guys and the bad guys.

On the other hand, fantasy follows a strict morality. A magical weapon would only work for a chosen one or a deserving, worthy hero. And there are spells to protect the good guys from the bad guys.

image: Splatoon 2 Splatfest

Perhaps it may sound simplistic, but science fiction’s stories need to follow strict guidelines, and whenever they violate science’s laws the author have to offer the reader believable explanations.

Meanwhile, fantasy authors need to only bother with a magical system who does not contradict itself.

Sci-Fi has connections to facts; fantasy has myths and fanciful worlds. Again, are they the same or not?

Same Objective, Different Approaches

image: Pixabay

All facts, considered, here is my answer: they are the same in the sense they seek the same objectives, the same themes. They both look at the human question, the human condition, and society.

Even the aims are similar. They both seek to build a world different from ours, they both seek to create a new mythology, and they both seek answers to the question of humanity’s purpose in the universe.

Whether they achieve their answers through visions of the future or the past, through stories about unicorns and trolls, or robots and spaceships are inconsequential.

Yes, from the reader’s point of view, they are different enough. Readers come to those stories with different expectations. Nevertheless, they are competing visions but the same goals.

It is like an archaeologist and a historian studying ancient Mesopotamia. They both seek to understand the same subject. Yet, their approach and methodology will be different.

image: Central Mutante

Moreover, they are both ‘what-if’ type of stories. Stories about imagination and speculation rather than real life.

To conclude, science fiction and fantasy are although not the same, very much alike. There is a reason you find them both in the same section of the library.

The line between science fiction and fantasy is very thin. It lies in the separation between what is possible from the impossible. And the reader, as usual, has the last word.

Reader, where would you put the line separating science fiction and fantasy?

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March 2023