28 March, 2012

Don't Panic: Science Fiction or Fantasy - What's the Diff?

What's the difference, you say? Isn't it obvious? In fantasy, you cast a "slow time" spell to get to work before the boss notices you're late. In science fiction, you're never late because you can just beam yourself into the office.

Simple, right?

Only if you want your limbs torn from your body by raving fan-mobs of either genre. You see, there's not one hard rule that determines if a story is science fiction or fantasy. Plenty of SF books incorporate magical properties. There are some fantasy books that take place in "the future." And then there are the gazillion crossover genres that don't really know what they are.

The Short Answer

If you want to have a theological discourse on the subject, there are plenty of books for that. I, however, like short answers.

Here goes: that Rod Serling quote up there? He's right on.

Fantasy, with its magic, wizards, fairies, trolls, is impossible according to our world. But in a well-written story, these things become perfectly conceivable.

Science fiction - spaceships, galactic travel, aliens, ray guns - doesn't seem all that likely, especially given our floundering space programs. But a master storyteller makes it all possible in one well-created battle.

Basically, what I'm saying is that the only concepts that separate fantasy from science fiction are impossibility versus improbability.

So...What's the Difference?

Yeah, I know, that still wasn't simple.

Try this on for size: your mom says, "Don't jump off the roof." Why? Probably because you'll land in a bone-crushing pile of pain and agony.

The probability of coming out completely unscathed because you're some sort of never-seen-before super-human is pretty slim. But maybe you are a super-human and that's just what happens. You're a science fiction hero!

But let's take it further. You think you can jump off the roof and not go anywhere. Maybe float in mid-air or even go up instead of down. Science tells us this is impossible. Not going to happen...like, ever. You do it, anyway, because you know about the genie in your back pocket who granted your wish not to die five minutes ago. Lo and behold, you're floating in midair in a fantasy dream.

Call It Whatever You Want

In the end, you can call your story whatever you want. Science fiction, fantasy, scifan fiction - you may just create a new genre in the process. It's happened before and will probably keep happening.

But you have to sell it. You need a solid, compelling reason for it to be what you say it is. Otherwise, the rabid fans will still maul you for ruining their orderly worlds.

On top of that, if you plan to sell your story, a publisher is likely to slap their own label on it no matter what thrilling genre name you've come up with. It's a marketing thing, not to mention that publishers are kind of set in their ways. They love categories. It makes their world hum with happy thoughts.

My bottom line is that I think the definition is always changing. But I do think writers like Rod Serling have a unique insight into the two genres. Those insights -and his, in particular - won't change. Their core truth is always going to apply, in my opinion.

What do you think? What is the difference between SF & fantasy? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments below.


  1. I've always thought of fantasy as past or other world and science fiction as future and other planet.

    1. I thought so, too, until I started reading fantasy that took place in this world, at this time and science fiction that took place in the past on other worlds. Still, it just shows that it's a little something different to everyone.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. This is an excellent post. :)

    I agree with the Rod Serling quote. I think I tend to like writing sci-fi more because it is "probable" - there's an explanation for the fantastic things that are happening. You can't really explain magic and when people try to, they end up with things like "metachlorions." ;)

    At my library, though, they just shelve the fantasy and the sci-fi together under the sci-fi label, regardless of the author's intentions. :)

    1. Thanks, Lauren!

      You know, I've heard Star Wars described as more fantasy than science fiction for just that reason - even with all the spaceships and planets, the fact that things can't be scientifically explained makes it fantasy. Food for thought, at least.

      Or you have that. I spoke to a woman the other day who thought they were the same thing. Perspective is everything. ;)


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