Science-Fiction and Fantasy sure do have a lot in common, and there is a large overlap in their readership. However, not everyone who likes one of them likes both of them, so this means that despite their similarities, there are some key differences as well. As someone who likes both genres, I’ve often been surprised when I find people who like one but detest the other. Now, I have an idea now as to how this could be. It’s not as simple as relegating it to a high-tech vs. low-tech paradigm, although for some people who distinction alone is enough.
Furthermore, I now suspect (a hypothesis I am unable to test) that of the superset of people who enjoy speculative fiction (at least Science Fiction or Fantasy), you’ll find a higher concentration of skeptics and atheists in the “Science Fiction or bust” community and a higher concentration of religious folk or people of some sort of faith in the “Fantasy or bust” community. People who swing both ways could be either/or. We’ll call those folks bifictual. (Wait, does this mean that an atheist who likes Tolkien but not Star Trek might be heterofictional, and a theist swings the same way would be homofictual? And vice versa? Ok, ok, let’s not get silly here.)
Now, there are people in both the atheist and faithful communities who won’t waste their time in any sort of fantastical fiction (whether sci-fi, or fantasy), for whatever reason (could be plain lack of interest, or could be something as silly as demonstrated by the Catholic Church’s opposition to the Golden Compass or some Evangelicals’ opposition to Harry Potter–they perceive that the fictional mythology challenges their own approved mythologies, or fear that interest in fictional mythology would steal people’s attention away from their own approved mythologies). We’ll call these people afictual.
Some won’t enjoy fiction at all, of any kind. We’ll call these people soulless and unimaginative. Maybe they’re really androids, some sort of artificial life. But I digress.
Fantasy and Sci-Fi are not based on setting, time-period, or tech level. I’m also going to treat Sci-Fi and Fantasy as “super genres” for the purposes of this article, under which all other sub-genres fall (e.g., horror, war, quest, political intrigue, etc.) “Star Wars” is a Fantasy, not Science-Fiction, and … well, I can’t think of a clear example of Sci-Fi set in the past. Maybe A Princess of Mars… it’s Sci-Fi (for its time) rather than Fantasy.
SCIENCE FICTION = NO SUPERNATURAL
The fundamental characteristic of Science-Fiction is that whatever world it presents, the metaphysics of that world approximate reality. What separates it from normal fiction is that it either presents a fictional world, or otherwise plays a “what-if” game where the speculation stems from scientific understanding of the physical properties of the world. This could be extended to soft sciences too, such as psychology or social science (an example: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness). Superscience: There is some inherent flexibility in the genre. “Hard” Sci-Fi will try to stick to what is possible without violating what it known to be real. As such, “hard” Sci-Fi won’t have faster-than-light (FTL) travel or transporter beams. It also wouldn’t have a bunch of planets where their gravity all seems to be exactly equivalent to Earth’s gravity (1G). However, the presence of such ideas in a story does not exclude it from the umbrella of Science-Fiction. Such ideas are accepted, and used as plot or setting devices to add flavor to the story. That’s ok, and it remains science fiction as long as the story does not present a supernatural explanation for it (e.g., wormholes are not magical gateways).
Because Science-Fiction does not deal in recreated metaphysics, it tends to be ideas-based, with emotion playing a secondary role in world construction. This is not to say that Science-Fiction stories cannot be emotional, but such things like feelings and morality play out in the characters’ thoughts, words, and actions. Morals, feelings and ideals don’t manifest themselves as tangible forces or characters in pure Science-Fiction. Everything that happens in the story has to have some sort of rational bridge to the real world.
Good Science-Fiction will be as intellectual engaging in its ideas, well-informed by current science, as it is in character and plot. Science-Fiction which blatantly reveal an author’s antiquated or just plain ignorance of science (such as Prometheus’ use of Carbon 14 Dating) blows the suspension of disbelief apart.
FANTASY = SUPERNATURAL
Conversely, the Fantasy genre contains elements of the supernatural. More importantly, the author creates a world in which the fundamental metaphysics operate differently than the real world, although it is possible that the author believes his fictional world operates on real-world metaphysics, if he or she believes that the supernatural exists in reality. Nevertheless, Fantasy embraces a super-material world in which the supernatural exists in some form, whether it’s ghosts, angels, fantastical creatures, magic, psychic abilities, etc. The presence or absence of technology makes no difference. What matters is whether the author, when constructing the fictional world, extends his world design efforts to extend beyond re-engineering racial evolution, history, geography and culture to also include the laws of physics and metaphysics of the world. Thus, “Star Wars” is just as much a Fantasy as Harry Potter.
Because Fantasy can recreate metaphysics, magic and the supernatural are more than just special effects in the story. Often times, moral forces, ideals, and emotions become objective, tangible forces in the fictional world, having a direct impact on characters and plot. A simple example of this is the Force in “Star Wars”: when you use the Dark Side of the Force, it corrupts the you. There is no way around it, and it is not subjective. It is as “real” to the characters as electricity. The One Ring is the same: the physical character of Evil. Magic in stories often comes based on feelings: love, anger, jealousy, or even a more zen ability “to connect” with the world around you. In Fantasy, that connection is not metaphorical. It’s objective. Characters engaging in these forces reap the consequences, and oftentimes the morality and worldview of the author drives the consequences of the forces in the story. Because of this, I find Fantasy a medium attuned more to emotional ideas (like faith, love, corruption, etc.) than the intellectualism of Science-Fiction.
Good Fantasy will be self-consistent. Just because the author has the ability to rewrite metaphysics and include magical pink unicorns in his world doesn’t mean he can willy-nilly rewrite the laws of nature (or magic) after his audience is along for the ride. Once he establishes the rules, he has to live by them in order to keep the audience engaged in the willing suspension of disbelief. The only exception to this is if the world evolves as part of the plot, and the reader is taken through the transformation. If your story involves vampires and you establish early on that sunlight burns them to a crisp and reduces them to ash, you can’t have heroes finding dead vampire bodies in the middle of the day. If your story is about gods that exist solely on the basis of their worshippers faith, you can’t then have a god without worshipper. (Unless, of course, that’s the point and mystery of your story). And if your story has vampires that just glitter in the sun, showing no real weakness except for a heroine of only one facial expression whose only message to girls in the audience is that stalkers are ok if they glitter in the sun, then you’re just lame.
FANTASY & SCIENCE-FICTION = STORY
Good Sci-Fi and Fantasy are, in my opinion, about more than just the ideas presented, whether philosophical or whimsical, no matter how brilliant the constructed world. At the end of the day, if there is no plot or character, it ends up being an essay rather than a story. So, good Fantasy and Sci-Fi needs good character development and interesting plot. So, to make bold, declarative statements:
Fantasy without magic is just fiction.
Science-Fiction without speculation is just fiction.
Fantasy and Science-Fiction without story are just essays.
So to bring it full circle, I hypothesize that, ignoring those who enjoy both genres, if you look at the set of people who only enjoy Science-Fiction, you’ll find a heavier concentration of skeptics and atheists, and if you look at the set of people who only enjoy Fantasy, you’ll find a heavier concentration of people who have some sort of faith, religion, or belief in the supernatural. I suspect that the former group might be less infatuated with that which cannot be, and the latter group more readily able to suspend disbelief into a fictional supernatural model since they live their lives in a worldview that asserts the supernatural is real.
And of course, exceptions apply. I for one no longer believe in the supernatural, but I enjoy fantasy because I like the idea of the supernatural and the emotional fabric of its stories.
At the end of the day, all this is just pure speculation. What do you think?