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What's the difference between Fantasy and Sci-Fi?
Quinn
Posted: Monday, April 18, 2011 4:50 AM
Joined: 3/15/2011
Posts: 14


I know there's already a very extensive page about this at TV Tropes, but I was curious what you folks thought (it would be cool if I could cross-post this to the Sci-Fi section too, but I don't think I can do that). Obviously there's a very blurry, very subjective line between the two big poles of speculative fiction, but how do we define it exactly? 

The way I think of it, fantasy is largely concerned with the past, and sci-fi is largely concerned with the future - thematically, not necessarily literally. Fantasy characters often deal with conflicts involving lineage and tradition; history looms large over them, particularly when ancient prophecies are involved. Sci-fi characters seem more likely to be focused on progress, hope (or the lack thereof), and the uncertainty of human development. So even though there might be a lot of overlap, I think a fantasy writer is usually asking "how did we get here?" while a sci-fi writer is usually asking "where are we going next?" 

Big generalization, naturally, but I find this distinction to be a useful one. What are your thoughts?

RJBlain
Posted: Monday, April 18, 2011 2:15 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224


I think that your definition of past versus present isn't really accurate. For example, would you consider a story relating to how the Mayans could perform such great architecture -- and tossed in aliens and futuristic technology -- a historical fantasy or science fiction?

I would class that as a historical science fiction.

It has nothing to do to with time period so much as it does with the type of mechanisms driving the people of the time period.

Science fiction deals with advances compared to modern technology and things that relate to science.

Fantasy takes the mystical and uses these as the driving forces of the story. Usually fantasy deals with the middle ages in term of technology, but may have magic and other things supporting it. What separates fantasy from historical fiction is often the setting (or the addition of magic to a historical setting.)

Slipstream stories are those that contain elements of both.

Fantasy that contain the development of sciences on their natural course typically remain as a fantasy, as it doesn't go beyond the natural development of technology, whereas science fiction tries to go beyond the current bounds of modern society.

(Steampunk sort of takes both of the above concepts, shoves them together, and then dumps it into a Victoria era.)

I strong disagree with the concept of fantasy writing being 'how did we get there" -- that is historical. There is nothing fantastical about history.

When I write fantasy, I focus on taking out the modern of society -- in regards to technology -- and seeing how the world would change. Remove technology, but continue development. In my world, magic replaces many of the creature comforts expected. It is an evolved society with its own rules, customs and beliefs. These are not people who live in a filthy hut, but rather a society of people who strive for the same levels of comfort that we have (obviously less comfy as they get further from their cities).

Monarchies exist, but so do democracies. I don't ask how did we get here when I write. I focus on telling a story and showing a fantastical world.

If you want to simplify, here is how I would do it:

Fantasy is the art of magical escapism and experimenting with 'what if's*' in a world of the author's own creation -- with a setting that might be reminiscent of the middle ages. The scale is one world, and the consequences of that one world. Science Fiction is the exploration of the consequences of technology, the What if's* we progressed to this point..... (It can be escapism too, but it does often deal with the evolution of man.) It often deals with many worlds and a broader view of society.

*What if can be exchanged openly with 'Can..." or "Does..."

These are just quickie examples, forgive the very broad over-generalizations.

For Fantasy:
Harry Potter: What if wizards existed in the modern world?
Twilight: What if vampires and werewolves existed in the modern era? (I class the supernatural as at least partially fantastical.)
Robert Jordan: What if men had magic and the male survived? (Yes, it is a very very broad over generalization. Its kind of hard to condense several million words into a sentence.)


For Science Fiction:
The Giver: What if society were completely controlled? (I view this as light science fiction.)
A Thousand Words for Stranger: What if different species of human existed? Can these species survive together?

Just my ten or so cents, I think I left the two cents after the third or fourth paragraph. Sorry for being so long winded.
Quinn
Posted: Monday, April 18, 2011 3:15 PM
Joined: 3/15/2011
Posts: 14


I totally agree that your first example would be historical sci-fi; even though the story would be set in the past on a literal level, it would be concerned with advancement, which I would associate thematically with the future - regardless of when the story is actually set.

I probably should have underlined that point more - when I say "past" and "future" I mean "the way with think about the past/future." So since fantasy tends to deal with things that we know are impossible - magic, dragons, what have you - I think it reflects a certain longing for a past in which such things weren't known to be impossible, and might have even been widely believed. Sci-fi, on the other hand, deals with things we think might be possible, or at least plausible, and thus it reflects our speculation about the future - even if the story is set in the past.

No worries about the long response, though, I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who thinks too much about this stuff!
Danielle S
Posted: Monday, April 18, 2011 6:26 PM
Joined: 3/15/2011
Posts: 6


I tend to believe something along the lines of this: if a book is driven by the material conditions presented, then it’s science fiction. To put it another way, the same story couldn’t take place in a world that had a different physical or social environment.

Far-future DUNE, which is chock full of mystical elements, is SF because the plot is propelled by the environmental degradation of Arakis and the universe’s insatiable appetite for the Spice. Remove either of those conditions, and the story falls apart. But the quasi-medieval DRAGONRIDERS series by Anne McCaffrey is also SF because the material goods, social structures, and development of technology, whether high (interstellar travel) or low (extruding copper wires & creating vaccines) are what move the plot along; the "quest" is to discover a way to efficiently defeat an environmental horror.

I’m sure there are holes in this theory a mile wide, but in most cases it seems to work.
RJBlain
Posted: Monday, April 18, 2011 7:36 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224


This is interesting, Danielle -- but let me ask you a question. Why does the conditions, both physical or social, have to be limited to science fiction?

I have a planet or world that exists in this story that is integral. Without the social and material properties of that world, the story could not happen. Social aspects of the world are the driving cause of *why* the story happens.

Consider Martin's a Game of Thrones. It is considered a fantasy, but I truly do not believe the story would work if you removed it from its world or took away its social environment. It is as integral to the plot as everything else. (I haven't even READ the series, and the way my friends rant on it... I have no doubts that this is case.) This isn't a story you can just transplant to a different world and have work!

If anything, Fantasy focuses even more on the physical world and material conditions than Science Fiction does... Science deals with the science of this.. .while fantasy is the evil twin sibling that ALSO deals with all of the elements... except the science.

Remove the science out of the fiction, and you have fantasy. Or you have a really bizarre tale where the author may have been accused of being on acid as writing it...

DUNE has mystical aspects, but the science is still heavily involved.

So I guess I'm not sure where your distinction is in the case of science fiction and fantasy... because my fantasy world sure includes a heck of a lot of elements of social and physical details and characteristics that are mandatory for the story to 'work'.
Danielle S
Posted: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 7:21 PM
Joined: 3/15/2011
Posts: 6


Oh, absolutely R.J. There are lots of fantasies that explore complex environments and social structures. (Perhaps I should have left social structures out of my comment altogether.) I'd definitely say that my "rule" is much better at helping to think about what science fiction IS than figuring out what fantasy isn't. And, as you and others have pointed out, there are many conditions that help readers decide if a book is SF or fantasy, including scientific rhetoric and setting.

I'm also not saying that grounding fantasy in a world that seems real isn't important. Those are the details that draw the reader in. However, I think that fantasy can have plots that work independently from the material world and still be superb, whereas SF doesn't have quite that same luxury.

I'm not sure I agree with you about "Game of Thrones." I think one of the reasons it has such broad appeal is that it's a story of families driven by human foibles like ambition and fear and lust. With the exception of the weather cycles, the characters in the book aren't impacted much more by their physical environment than they would be if they lived in 15th century Europe or North Africa. Their struggles are almost exclusively against other characters.

Of course I expect that the onset of Winter will bring problems that dwarf the concerns of a bunch of squabbling aristocrats...
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 6:16 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416


Agreed with Danielle, fantasy is magic, Sci Fi is science. For example, one of my WIP's has people with elemental powers. control over fire, water, air, and earth. It seems very magical. Its going to come out that the powers are the result of genetic experiements on humans, activating parts of the brain, and are basically specialized telekinesis of a sorts. I classify it as a SF, myself.

that said, there is PLENTY of crossover.
TM Thomas
Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 8:41 PM
Joined: 4/25/2011
Posts: 6


I'm willing to defer to the definitions of any editor willing to pay for my work on this one.

(I'm in a non-answer mood today, I guess.)
RJBlain
Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 9:23 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224


@ Marilyn Peake - Very interesting thoughts! I have to admit I'm a bit curious about your feel that magic doesn't need an explanation. When I read fantasy, I always feel like it still has to follow rules or at least need a little 'foundation' reasoning.

Then again, I often build my world in such a way where I justify the powers to myself and how it happens, which then manifests in my writing.
RJBlain
Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 9:58 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224


@ Marilyn - Very true! I can't argue with that argument. I just wish that some writers wouldn't use the world 'fantasy' to mean 'I can do whatever I want without justifying any of it'. Oh well, that is just something that bothers me a little personally!
RJBlain
Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 10:50 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224


No I haven't, but the title just got me extremely interested. Adding it to the list of books I need to read once I finish my rewrite <3
Robert C Roman
Posted: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 11:20 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383


Oh, lord, you did the same to me. Now I've got MORE books on my Summer Reading list.
Sonia
Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 1:11 AM
Joined: 5/4/2011
Posts: 10


Saying fantasy is about magic and science fiction is about science is good enough most of the time. But sometime it isn't and for me, that's when the distinction becomes problematic.

Despite being technically science fiction, some of the Pern series feel like fantasy. Aand if there was a kindle version of it, that's where a few of this series would reside - in the fantasy folder. But there are others in the same series I consider science fiction.

The City and the City, which a lot of people consider science fiction and which has won the British science fiction only award, I read it as fantasy and I still think of it is fantasy.
RJBlain
Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 1:45 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224


Sonia: Pern is slipstream -- meaning that it is both fantasy and science fiction blended together.
Sonia
Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 1:54 AM
Joined: 5/4/2011
Posts: 10


That's the first time I've heard Pern stories called slipstream. LOL I guess I thought of slipstream as stylisticly odd stories and maybe a little literary into the bargain. I didn't think they necessarily need either science fiction or fantasy elements, though sometimes it has both. You don't believe that?
RJBlain
Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 2:00 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224


Well, in the genre sense, pern IS the perfect example of slipstream or hybrid sci-fi/fantasy... It has fantasy elements -- the culture, the general world... the dragons. It has the sci-fi, the spaceships, the computers, the technology. If there is a better example of a genre-specific slipstream story, I don't know of one.
Sonia
Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 2:25 AM
Joined: 5/4/2011
Posts: 10


Lots of people call Pern science fantasy (incidentally, that is how I have them tagged in my Goodreads account.) But slipstream . . .

Jeff Prucher dictionary of science fiction terms defines slipstream so: slipstream n. [after MAINSTREAM] literature which makes use of the tropes or techniques of genre science fiction or fantasy, but which is not considered to be genre science fiction or fantasy; the genre of such literature. Hence slipstreamer, n., slipstreamish, adj., slipstreamy, adj.

Aside from this definition, I guess I have always thought slipstream were the stories that were told oddly, with a little fantasy/science fiction stuff that you could take to be either real or metaphorical. A little like Kafka's stuff?

Or (and this is entirely possible!) my impression of what slipstream is entirely wrong. I haven't read that much of it.
RJBlain
Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 2:52 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224


Pern doesn't really come across to me as either true fantasy OR science fiction though... it... feels like something else to me altogether. I have a hard time classifying it. Thats why I view it as slipstreamy.
Sonia
Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 2:46 PM
Joined: 5/4/2011
Posts: 10


The first Pern book I read was Dragon Song. She usually explains about the planet and thread before the story starts, but I probably skipped it in my hurry to get to the story. I didn't know it was an actual planet, and if things fell out of the sky, well, there were also fire breathing dragons. I read the first few books as fantasy.
Philip Tucker
Posted: Friday, May 6, 2011 4:34 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 77


This question reminds me of the Steerswoman Trilogy (SPOILER ALERT!). It starts out ostensibly fantasy, but morphs into what is clearly SF. I loved it. I've never read better.
Amy Sterling
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 2:23 AM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 26


This is probably not as illuminating as I might hope, but maybe it will give some input to some writers. A famous editor from "back in the day" (I'll disclose - he was a horror writer and editor, so there's that perspective, which has been useful to me as a writer) came up with these simple criteria for the various related genres of the fantastic.

SF is about extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Fantasy is about extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.
Horror is about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The reason my SF is "off" as some diehard SF fans might say, but "regular" readers seem to respond to as in "that doesn't read like science fiction" is that it follows the horror model, not the #1 listed "SF model." Most, if not all, of the characters I conceive are ordinary people, not extraordinary at all. The problems the characters confront may be very extraordinary. But they approach them as "ordinary" people would. They are concerned about their personal, human, understandable feelings. That's because that's the way I am. All of this comes out of who we are as people.

There are many more people interested in writing the literature of the fantastic these days. With many more creative voices, I think this is going to produce a much broader range of types of stories and concepts.

I tortured myself for a long time until I realized the reason that I palled around with horror writers, even though I've barely published enough horror to qualify as a professional member of the Horror Writers Assn. was that I approached stories similarly to a horror writer, not a more traditional SF writer.

To my mind, none of these things are hard and fast. I think it's about many different intersecting threads and types of characters and stories. I think all of the elements can be, have been, and will be combined in different ways that speak to the writer and then to readers. Just because I don't automatically think of extraordinary characters to stick in these ridiculous settings that continually come to mind (i.e. Mad King George lost the Colonies because he took bad advice from Altoid-addicted aliens who crash landed in the Hampton Court maze) does not mean that by the end of whatever ludicrous tale I'm telling, which I take completely seriously as I am extremely literal, the character may not become extraordinary, or do something extraordinary, usually something they think they could never, ever accomplish.
Amy Sterling
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 2:45 AM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 26


Also, it's about degree of extraordinary. Most people aren't very interested in reading any type of story about completely, literally "ordinary" characters as in "average in every way, never does anything out of the ordinary." All compelling characters seem to me to be special in the context of their stories, and this to me, runs across all genres. The subgenre referred to as "literary fiction" seems to me to be, many times, about a certain sort of man and his certain concerns in certain environments that appeal to the readership, either of various publications or of the book audience for those books. Ray Carver is about as close as one will get to someone who writes stories about "regular guys." But in each story, no matter how "regular the guy," something extraordinary happens. Ray Carver is not like Jonathan Franzen. (which author do I more prefer? Well . . . I don't talk to the type of guys Jonathan Franzen writes about at parties, and the few times I dated them, I broke up with the wusses. I married a Ray Carver guy. I would definitely go on a fun date with Fabio or Topaz Man too - so there's which gutter my mind is in, thank you very much.)

I have an extensive literary background if LITERATURE is the context - half my MFA is literature, and I was just corresponding with one of my former graduate professors, a scholar of Russian literature, this morning. I've written critical introductions to over 50 classic works of literature - both in the "fantastic" genres and non-fantastic. There's an interesting book that points at some of these ways of thinking historically, called Billion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss. I'm sure people have noticed that British SF is different from American SF - I think it's because British people are different from Americans - socially different. They have different concerns. British "literary" fiction has its own practitioners and UK wussies aren't the same as US wussies.

Does the fact that certain stories appeal to me more than to my counterpart across the globe, or my counterpart of a different age or gender mean that I am perforce - stupid - and this other person's taste or concepts far superior? Well, thanks to the best efforts of yesterday's sci fi writers in TV and book form, let's hope some of that type of attitude has been dispelled.

What is so incredibly great today, so exciting to me, and so cool, is that we don't have to worry about this stuff any more. Not the way it used to be. We can focus on the stories we really believe in, and we can approach them with enthusiasm and enjoyment.

A long way of saying, the next time somebody points at someone's story and says "that's not science fiction!" I'll say - so what? It's a great story.
Alex Hollingshead
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 3:11 AM
Joined: 5/2/2011
Posts: 61


@earlier conversation; I've always heard slipstream defined as a blend of SFF and literary fiction (House of Leaves, perhaps, borders on this), but not necessarily a blend of science fiction and fantasy. Things that meld science fiction and fantasy... New Weird, "Speculative Fiction", science fantasy. Although those first two tend to include horror, as well. Science fantasy is a good term, though, and I've seen it used on Pern.

@topic; I haven't found a definition that suits my tastes, personally. I see "magic vs. non-magic" and I think Gormenghast, which is fantasy but has no magic. I see "our world vs. another world" and I think of urban fantasy and other Earthbound fairy tales. I see "ordinary vs. extraordinary" and I think of Alice in Wonderland and surrealism, in general. There never has been and likely never will be a clear cut definition, particularly given that so many authors blur the perceived lines. The only way I can really define a book one way or the other is to read it and judge it on its own merits, there's really no checklist that will say this is SF or this is fantasy.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 6:53 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416


On a similar vein, I saw "Thor" this weekend, and there is a line , where he says, here, you have science, and call what we do magic. where I come from, they are one and the same.


 

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