Science Fiction vs. Fantasy: A Blast from the Past

No, not a death match between the two genres, nor even a discussion of which is “better” in some way.  I like both in different ways.  Each suits a mood for me.  No, this is rather about when something is one or the other.  This will be something of a ramble.

Some folk have given long, involved definitions about when something is Science Fiction and when it’s Fantasy.  Me?  I like one similar to Orson Scott Card’s from one of his writing books.  Science Fiction has rivets and engineers.  Fantasy has trees and elves.

The late Arthur C. Clarke in his “three laws of prognostication” gave as his third law that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Some folk, have inverted that: “Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”  Those twin statements are actually quite telling in looking at the fuzzy border between fantasy and science fiction.

A lot of it has to do with mindset, both the mindset of the writing and the mindset I fall into while reading it.  Sometimes a book can be both or either depending on how you look at it.

Take, for instance, the late Anne McCaffery’s Pern books.  They are science fiction.  A colony ship reaches Pern, an almost idyllic planet.  However, once the colonists have settled in and are essentially committed, an unexpected problem arises.  Another planet in the system, one with a highly elliptical orbit nears the sun and, for reasons that are mostly glossed over, extremely aggressive fungal spores cross the gap between this other planet and Pern.  The spores, called “thread” cause serious destruction, basically “eating” anything organic they hit, but are fortunately short lived so that they don’t completely lay waste to the planet.  Still, this is a disaster of epic proportions for the colonists.  A biologist on the planet engages in an emergency program of genetic manipulation, taking an indigenous species of flying lizard that has already demonstrated the ability to imprint on people at birth (forming an empathic bond) and not only augmenting that imprinting ability to a true telepathic as well as empathic bond and increasing their size, forming human carrying, self-replicating flamethrowers–dragons.

This is far backstory, however, for the first published Pern stories.  When we’re introduced to them, the world and its characters, due to a number of crises over the years, are essentially in a dark age and have forgotten much of their history and science.  So it’s a pre-industrial age with dragons and dragonriders.

Truth to tell, even knowing the back story, even having read the key prequel that told the story of landing and the first dragons, it still reads like fantasy to me.  My “mindset” while reading it is the one that I use when reading other fantasy.  The “fantasy elements”–the telepathic bonds, the ability of the dragons to go “between” (teleporting) are decoupled from the in-story “science” and they become the functional equivalent of magic.

On the flip side you have Rick Cook’s “Wizardry” books.  Here, Rick Cook has a clearly magical world but the main character, brought in from an analog of the “real world” takes a scientific approach to that magic, treating it like computer programming where small spells are created that function as functions, routines, and lines of code.  By bringing a scientific approach to the magic, it in many ways reads more as science fiction.

Similarly there is the late Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions.  The main character is once again taken to a fantasy world and approaches the magic of the world in an analytical way that unveils the deep thought Anderson clearly gave the magic of that world.  As one example, when the protagonist tricks a Troll into staying out past sunup and it is turned to stone, he realizes why Troll Gold is considered cursed.  The transmutation of carbon into silicon (the conversion from living flesh to stone) leaves the gold highly radioactive.  Anybody carrying it would soon sicken and die.

And so, this, too reads more like Science Fiction in many ways.

Now, consider Star Trek and Star Wars.  From the standpoint of modern physics, they are both ridiculous.  No, “reverse the tachyon flow” is no more scientific than “use the Force, Luke”.  (Someone basically just threw out the idea of “tachyons” from looking at the relativity equations.  If some particle had an imaginary rest mass and were traveling faster than light, in relativity that would give it a real momentum and a real energy.  There’s no evidence that tachyons exist.  And there’s nothing in physical theory that says they must, or even should, exist.  They’re just an idea someone tossed out in pure speculation.)

The two series’ have a lot in common.  Space travel.  Alien worlds.  Faster than light travel.  War, sometimes.  Exploration, sometimes.

However, there’s a big difference between the two series.  In Star Trek the presumption is that the fantastic elements are the result of science and engineering.  Research will (in the story world) lead us to those discoveries.  Scientists will find them.  Engineers will build them.  In Star Wars there is a lot of stuff that is built by science and engineering, but the story doesn’t center around that.  It centers instead around mysticism and, frankly, magic.  “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power.” “Your sad devotion to that ancient religion…” “‘You mean it controls your actions?’ ‘Partially, but it also obeys your commands.’”  And as the franchise developed, these mystics, these “space wizards” central even from the beginning of the series (from “Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” to “You’ve switched off your targeting computer, what’s wrong?”–this mystical Force, this space magic and it’s users, were the key MacGuffin) grow to dominate.  It’s not the engineering and the science behind it that is central to the Star Wars universe as it is in Star Trek.  It’s the space magic.  Even the light sabers, a cool piece of technology in the beginning of the franchise, are quickly revealed (in the Expanded Universe) that one needs to use the Force to properly align the crystals at the heart of their operation.  They’re not cool tech any more.  They’re magic swords, forged by wizards.

So while both franchises have the trappings of science fiction, Star Wars, in many ways, has more of a fantasy feel.  But those trappings are enough for many people to still see it as science fiction.

And, so, in the end, it really comes down to the eye of the beholder.

7 thoughts on “Science Fiction vs. Fantasy: A Blast from the Past”

  1. One way to distinguish SF from fantasy is the criterion of personal power. That is: Are there individuals in the story who can do things others cannot do, specifically because of who they are? If Smith has an ability that Jones cannot acquire, specifically because he is not Smith (or someone in Smith’s category), we have a fantasy. On the other hand, if Jones could acquire that ability (perhaps with technological assistance), we’re potentially in the realm of SF.

    Interesting “gray zone” cases have popped up recently. Consider E. William Brown’s “Daniel Black” series. Daniel is a sorcerer: one who possesses instinctive command of certain forces, owing to having been “dragged through Chaos” by the goddess Hecate. That would seem to make those tales fantasies. However, it develops that the power behind Daniel’s sorcery is a group of fundamental particles that, in principle at least, anyone could manipulate given the appropriate training (and maybe a nice big collider). Does that make those stories SF? Hmmm…


    1. Very much a gray zone. Psychic powers on one hand and the genius who understands things that are impenetrable to other are both well establish SF tropes, as is the alien who can do things that humans cannot. Superman may carry that trope well into the fantasy range (or rather Superhero, which I submit is a different genre from either) but Vulcan strength or Mother Thing’s empathy remain well within the scope of Science Fiction.


      1. Psi powers are “well established” tropes, but they render it questionable whether there’s any “science” in the “science fiction.” The science is firmly on the other side of the border (i.e., the brain is a direct-current device and can’t muster the power required for transmissions). So we’re over the line into fantasy…unless a plausible scientific explanation can be fudged into the tale. (I can tell you from experience that that’s quite a struggle.)

        Genius is not irreproducible; it merely takes time, the application of good genes, and the willingness to tolerate “near misses.” Genius and ultra-high intelligence are known phenomena, after all.

        Superpowers are an interesting study. Apparently there is some scientific backing for temporary super-strength — very temporary, as in “just long enough to lift this car off my wife.” Some superpowers, however, such as flight or Superman’s X-ray vision, are without such backing.

        I’ll grant that the gray zone is large. Indeed, seemingly technological motifs can slide into it unless carefully grounded. However, one can say that elves and ogres aren’t in it, and neither is space travel. So while there is a large gray zone, there are also separate zones that are clearly SF or F and not some ambiguous hybrid thereof.


        1. Psi powers are “well established” tropes, but they render it questionable whether there’s any “science” in the “science fiction.”

          This is only the case if you assume that “science” must mean our current understanding of science forever and ever amen. That way lies hubris. Even when it comes to the brain there are large areas of uncertainty now. For instance, there is very serious thought that the brain, far more than being a complex electrochemical computer might actually be a quantum computer. Microtubules in neurons are about the right size structurally to act as “quantum lines”. This adds whole new dimensions to what we think we know about the brain, about the mind (as distinct from the brain), and about consciousness and self-awareness.

          One of the reasons why the border between “science fiction” and “fantasy” can get a little fuzzy is the probability that we don’t have a final answer on what is and is not actually possible in the Universe. We have answers on what current theory says is possible and not but theory can never be proven right, it can only be proven wrong. The best one can say on the “right” side is “it fits the data currently available” and there’s always the chance that future data will not fit, requiring new theories to accommodate that new data.

          It is entirely appropriate for science fiction to speculate on what some of that new data might be, what new theory might arise from that new data, and what the world might look like as a result. It’s even appropriate to just have “new data” and “new theory” as back story and simply consider the world as it might be with an altered sheaf of possibilities and how it affects the people and societies within it.

          This is not to say that some very good stories cannot be told using just what we know as current theory. The can. But they’re not the only stories to be told within the concept of science fiction. As Kipling wrote in “In the Neolithic Age” “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.”

          I go into this a bit more in a previous blog post:


  2. Star Trek had Q, if there was ever a fantasy thing, this is it. I know, I know, most of us would like to forget Q, but we can’t. He kept coming back up, so I’d have to argue that Start Trek might have tried for more science, it often failed. Star Wars is clearly fantasy, on this we can agree.


    1. Eh. Q was the embodiment of Clarke’s Third Law. The attitude in Trek was that it was science, something we could learn in time. Star Wars had magic space wizards with major powers you had to be born with.


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