April 18, 2011

science fiction and/or fantasy

I realized something this weekend: the line between science fiction and fantasy is blurry and subjective.

While riding around town, my mom asked me what I was working on, and I told her I was writing a steampunk novel. She asked what steampunk was, and I told her “Victorian Age science fiction”. This led to one of my brothers asking “What’s science fiction?”

My brothers had I, Robot playing in the car on our way to get pizza for dinner. They also had it playing in Spanish, but that is inconsequential. Obviously, I pointed to the flip-down screen.

Dear brother of mine disagreed. He said I, Robot wasn’t fiction because it could happen. I then proceeded to explain that was the whole point of science fiction.

He fought with me about it. Silly boy.

And then I started thinking of other science fiction they might be familiar with: Halo, Star Wars, Iron Man, Men in Black, Independence Day, Star Trek, The Matrix… etc. These are unquestionably science fiction (and it’s amazing how many sci-fi films Will Smith has been in). Then I thought of obvious fantasy: The Lord of the Rings, Fable, the Harry Potter series, Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, Toy Story, How to Train Your Dragon… etc.

But then, what about science fiction that leans toward fantasy, or fantasy that leans toward science fiction? What about that blurry mesh of stories that can’t be placed in either science fiction or fantasy? You wouldn’t believe how many arguments I have had with the shelves of bookstores about this.

What about Doctor Who, X-Men, Spiderman, The Time Machine, The Butterfly Effect, Fantastic Four, The Fountain, Jumper, Avatar, The Prestige, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles… and so on? What about superheroes in general? 

What about steampunk as a genre? I call it “Victorian Age science fiction” because for me, it is. For others, steampunk is fantasy. For another select group, steampunk is an amalgamation of select elements, and depending on those elements, it could be either (like those horrid books that mash steampunk and paranormal creatures together). Say what you want, but zombies, werewolves, and vampires don’t belong in steampunk. I feel very strongly about this.

What I want to know: where do you draw the line between science fiction and fantasy?


  1. As far as steampunk goes, I'm with you all the way! I think it's a travesty what people have done to the genre. I have no problem with Victorian-era fantasy (heck, Dracula is one of my favorites!), but the reason it's called STEAMpunk is because it originally dealt with what the world would be like if computers and internal combustion engines had never been invented.

    As far as science fiction and fantasy in general go, I simplify it to sci-fi = technology, evolution-driven powers, and aliens while fantasy = magic and mythical creatures. There's obviously a lot more to it than that, but most people aren't looking for anything deeper.

    I also have a problem with bookstores lumping the two into the same category. You go to almost any bookstore and the signs say Sci-fi/Fantasy. In what universe are the two exactly the same? They don't shelve Romance and Drama together, or Mystery and Horror, so why in blazes are science-fiction and fantasy shelved together? I kind of want to punch whoever made that call.

  2. I've had the same questions about the border between fantasy and science fiction. I even tried to codify each genre at one point, with no success—mostly because of the overlap in the middle. I've pretty much given up trying to draw an actual line, and now just go by what's got emphasis. Does it have computers, aliens, spaceships, nanotechnology, robots? Then it's science fiction even if the plot's pure fantasy. Does it have dragons, fairies, spells, mythology? Then it's fantasy, even if there's a token attempt to explain those things through science. Therefore, Doctor Who is science fiction and the Pern novels are fantasy.

    Superheroes: Again, I tend to classify them based on emphasis, generally leaning towards science fiction because of the genetic mutation and cutting-edge gadgetry superheroes tend to employ. Then again, there are heroes like Thor and Doctor Strange, who have magical, mystical backgrounds. I'd slot them into fantasy.

    Steampunk: Same thing again. I think the only steampunk novel I've come across with a heavy science emphasis is Difference Engine. Everything else pays lip service to sci-fi but glosses over, or plain out ignores, science. Propulsion mechanisms, automatons, ray guns… how often are we told how they work? How often does the word "aether" show up? I class most steampunk as fantasy.

  3. Hmmmm.... I never thought of the differences. I just "knew" when one was SF and one was fantasy. After reading your post and the other comments, now I have to go back and think about this some more.

    Rats. I hate thinking...

  4. I guess there's a spectrum with sci/fi on one end and fantasy on the other. It seems to me that sci/fi is less comfortable with "it is because it just is" than fantasy. Sci/fi wants wants answers to what is. Fantasy is comfortable with things that happen for unexplained reasons.

  5. There's also a brand of Victorian era speculative fiction labelled 'gaslamp fantasy' - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaslight_fantasy.

    I agree with the first Reece, if it's science/technology-based it's science fiction, if it's magic-based it's fantasy. Most people would put Star Wars firmly in the sf genre, but it has lots of fantasy elements, too (not just the Force, but the archetypal characterisation and the struggle between good and evil). There's an overlap in much genre fiction, and there's nothing wrong with that.

    In any case, in a very literal way, ALL fiction is fantasy. James Bond, Sauron, Jane Eyre, Han Solo, Lisbeth Salander - all are equally unreal.

  6. I think I define science fiction as the possible, the what-if, the social fiction of the day, and an author making out of this world, maybe possible science breakthroughs believable.

    Fantasy is with characters/creatures/lands/worlds that are utterly different than ours but of course the author writes them in a way that we can relate to.

    I also agree with Reece.


  7. such interesting opinions everyone! thanks for sharing. :)

  8. I believe that sci-fi has evolved so much from the sci-fi of say just 20 years ago that it is becoming more and more difficult to define it in such a black and white manner. Genre fiction has been pushed into the back seat, sitting in the shadow of other more popular fiction (thrillers and crime for example), and with fantasy being more popular than sci-fi you have to wonder why that is. The modern fantasy classic series is Harry Potter, which has given a much needed boost for genre writing, but sci-fi is lagging behind I'm afraid. Maybe it's seen as being too "nerdy" for the modern reader. (I know that I can't handle "Space Opera" anymore).
    I believe that we'll begin to see a new branch of the sci-fi genre that might be labelled something like "science-fantasy". And with the Indie author on the up and up, writers will have a market in which they can express themselves without restraints of agents or publishers who might not be so willing to such a radical change. I think the lines between sci-fi and fantasy are about to get even blurier.

  9. Great post, gets me thinking.

    Though sci-fi and fantasy cover a huge range of sub-genres, when it comes to drawing a line between the two, I've always gone with the simplest explanation I could think of: magic vs technology.

    Do the book's characters perceive the fantastical elements of the book as something scientific, something artificial, something technological? I'd call it sci-fi (Hunger Games is one book I'd put in this category by this reasoning, though I know it's often labeled as fantasy).

    Are the fantasical elements more natural, pre-existing, inexplicable, magical? Fantasy!

    Works for me! :)