In theory, it should seem pretty obvious. Science Fiction is spaceships and aliens, and fantasy is all about magic and wizards and medieval kingdoms. This very limited view has a very recognizable visual.
But then you have something like Star Wars. With futuristic weaponry, space battles and all sorts of unusual species. At first glance, it would appear very science fiction. But is it? You also have the weird woo-woo that is the Force, and an order of powered people protecting the balance between good and evil. And a dark empire to boot. Add to that, there is nothing intrinsically scientific or speculative about any of the movies. They never explore how the Death Star functions. They don’t explore the concept of war in space, at least not on a very deep level. The stormtroopers, while their visual is iconic, fail on a practical level. It has the look of science fiction while borrowing tropes and concepts from fantasy.
And when you get right down to it, the genres have a lot in common. They frequently involve unusual, sometimes impossible elements, whether that be magic or technology. All stories have an implicit ‘what if’ to them, but it’s even more present in fantasy and science fiction, which usually have some hook to their ‘what if’, like what if dragons were real? What if we could download our consciousness onto the internet? This is where the term speculative fiction came from – a way of categorizing those stories that use elements that don’t exist in the real world as part of their set up. The author is speculating about what sort of a world might exist, whether it’s Earth or some fictional world.
What is Fantasy? What is Science Fiction?
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clarke
Science Fiction is fiction that explores the effects of science, whether they be good or bad. Harder science fiction is more plausible, and the ideas are given an explanation. Softer science fiction is less committed to the science aspect, frequently focusing on more how these advancements in science and technology impact people and society. For example, a book about artificial intelligence told through the lens of a programmer with a realistic approach to how it was created is hard sf, while the story of how that AI becomes a member of the family is soft.
Fantasy is a little harder to define and has been around a lot longer than science fiction. There is always something supernatural or fantastic about the story, but the extent to which that plays a part in the story can vary wildly. By that very nature, of course, the events in a fantasy novel are purely speculative because they are not based on real-world concepts, physics, or technology.
Then there are things like Science fantasy which confuse the genres even more. Science fantasy blends tropes of both science fiction and fantasy and has an internal logic consistent with something you would find in science fiction. Space opera can lean very science fantasy, but it can also be Hard SF. And something like space fantasy, for example, involves many of the tropes of fantasy, but the aesthetic of space opera – ships, space warfare, travelling through the galaxy, etc. Sound kind of like Star Wars to you too?
It’s all very confusing and hard to wrap your head around when you really think about it. After all, dragons aren’t real. But what if you have a story about a geneticist with an obsession, a lab, a lot of disposable income and questionable morals, who spends decades of their life perfecting a large reptilian creature with wings capable of breathing fire? Dragons are a supernatural creature, but that would be a science fiction story.
Take that same setting and jump forward 300 years. These ‘dragons’ have bred and plague the world. Due to the threat they pose, we’ve regressed and now society doesn’t know that the dragons were the result of science. They have rationalized it some other way, maybe something mystical or religious in nature. Is that a fantasy story or a science fiction story? The cause is obviously scientific, but if the story doesn’t address it – if the nature of that mystery remains obscured within the story…what genre is it?
The Purpose of Genre
Definitions are nice, but there is always wiggle room even in that. For some stories, the genre is clear, but for others not so much. And everyone is going to have their own line in the sand. Others may disagree with my categorizing Star Wars as a space fantasy, and that’s fine. That’s how I understand the genres in my head, and it’s a way that makes sense to me. Others might see the spaceships and immediately understand it to be science fiction.
These genres exist to help people dissect what sorts of things they enjoy in their stories, and that sort of thing is subjective. So how we define the genres themselves is going to shift around a little bit, depending on who is doing the defining. I happen to love both, but there are some people who enjoy one but avoid the other. And now we have dozens of subgenres to split the difference even further. No matter what your preferred flavour of sci-fi or fantasy, there is probably a subgenre out there for you.
How do you define these genres? Do you prefer one genre over another? Do you have any favourite subgenres? Let me know down below!