This page is part of my What is Science Fiction? site.

Science Fiction versus Fantasy

Perhaps the only issue even more vexed (among a certain class of readers) than the definition of ScF is the drawing of the boundary between ScF and Fantasy. There's often an undercurrent of "science envy" in such discussions, to which I'm not immune myself.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Society of the Middle East Technical University offers a brief definition.

Miriam Allen deFord is quoted (by Aldiss and Wingrove, op. cit.) as saying, roughly, "Science fiction consists of improbable possibilities, fantasy of plausible impossibilities." In its way, deFord's is as good a definition as any. Gene Wolfe talks about plausibility a little in this interview.

The Literature of What?

For myself, I claim that if ScF is the literature of change, then fantasy is the literature of longing: instead of writing about the world as it might some day become, it writes about the world as we wish it could be or have been. In support of this, I point to the many fantasy works in which undistinguished protagonists turn out to have special and valuable powers, and to the many more in which the boundary between good and evil is so sharp you can cut yourself on it (and, still more surprisingly, there are no disputes about where it lies).

Maureen McHugh says:

Michael Swanwick, after writing the IRON DRAGON'S DAUGHTER said that the difference he found between sf and fantasy was that fantasy was a normative kind of fiction and sf 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. Sf 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 seems to me to tie in with the "literature of change" theme, and in particular to suggest that ScF usually is optimistic about change, while fantasy rarely is.

The Unknown and Inexplicable

Nancy Lebovitz offers thumbnail definitions of various genres:
Science fiction:
the unknown is to be understood and thereby changed
Fantasy:
the unknown is to be loved for its strangeness
Horror:
the unknown is to be feared
Disaster:
the unknown is to be endured
Naturalistic/memetic/realistic fiction:
the unknown isn't worth bothering with
(OBTW, here's a plug for Nancy's calligraphic button catalogue. The file is quite large.)

I agree in spirit: to my mind, the essential difference between ScF and fantasy is whether the fictional world is ruled by laws that are understandable by human reason, and eventually controllable by human effort, or whether capricious supernatural entities run the show. Orson Scott Card is quoted (whether accurately I know not) as saying, "An SF story works based on a set of rules that are explicit throughout the book, while a fantasy story works by rules that are rather vague and shadowy." John W. Campbell seems to have had even stronger views about rules (and less liking for fantasy ... if you discount the reports that when you re-labelled something as "psionics" instead of "magic", JWC suddenly was much more interested in it).


Science versus Magic

This fantasy page has grown rather large, so I've split off a sub-page dedicated to the different (or similar) ways in which magic and science/technology work in speculative fiction.

People and Talents

Some folk point out that fantasy often involves people who have special talents that enable them to do special things. By contrast ScF is more likely to involve general laws, applied by people who are in the right place at the right time, or have the right insight or the right tool handy. Alternatively, fantasy characters may gain power by studying arcane lore which is carefully guarded and handed down by secretive practitioners, or by knowing the true names of things or people, whereas ScF characters make their power by understanding natural laws which are published in textbooks (or, in some stories, [re-]discovered by the characters themselves). There are ScF stories set in cultures where science is regarded as evil and scientists are persecuted, but even here, the scientists usually wish they could propagate their knowledge.

Barbara E. Walton reports on a conversation with a friend in which they speculated that fantasy has a moral dimension that ScF lacks:

At any rate, it boils down to the idea that technological artifacts are neutral in science fiction -- even in anti-tech sf, the good guys can make use of the same laser gun a bad guy can. But in fantasy, made objects tend to be extensions of their creators, like Sauron's Ring, and the nature of the object can corrupt a user. IE, if LOTR were the same magical/technological contruct, but a science fiction bias, it would have been a race to see which side could get the Ring, and become a war of Ring against Ring -- Sauron, having the ability, would just make another, and the one in the hands of the good guys would be bent to their will instead of Sauron's.
I seem to notice the converse idea in some fantasy books: the nature of the user (good/evil, or other personal qualities) affects what use they can make of a magical artifact, or whether they can use it at all.

Rigidly Defined Areas of Doubt and Uncertainty

I'll close with a salutary reminder that we had better not try too hard to distinguish ScF from fantasy with absolute accuracy.
I'd suggest that the search for sharp distinctions in literary categories is quixotic, except for one thing: 'quixotic' connotes something heroic as well as (probably) delusional. I doubt there's anything heroic in the category fetish. We need them, as consumers (and by extension, publishers - and agents and authors - need them as suppliers) and I've never agreed with those who suggest that a straight alphabetical shelving system for -all- fiction in bookstores in the way to go. Having said that, it seems only common sense to note that -many- books will blur borders, many authors will shift categories, sometimes with reckless abandon (to the chagrin of marketing departments everywhere), and many readers will endlessly debate definitions of categories.

- Guy Gavriel Kay

The FAQ for rec.arts.sf.written contains a list of borderline works, and the Lysator archive has another list here. My own favourite examples are Anne McCaffrey's Pern books and some of C.S. Friedman's work.
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