The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Okay, piggybacking off of some of the comments from Can you judge a book by its cover?, I’d like to start a page about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. Or differences, there are plenty.

For now, let’s set aside the argument that all fiction is simply fantasy and that it’s a total waste of time for people whose own lives are not interesting enough and who can’t handle living in the real world.

When I say fantasy or science fiction, I’m talking about specific genres, and I don’t mean genre as a pejorative. Genre is essentially a set of conventions. What is called Literature also adheres to conventions. I think it’s a mistake to dismiss anything just because it falls under a certain category.

But that’s not the point of the post.

What are the conventions that define fantasy and science fiction? At the library, the fantasy books all have a very sassy unicorn sticker on the spine, while the science fiction books have a rocket blasting off.What gets filed under unicorn and what gets filed under exploratory rocket?

Past vs future

As we all know, the era of the unicorn ended long ago.

One of the most obvious difference seems to me to be that most science fiction takes place in the future, while most fantasy takes place in the past. There is also science fiction that takes place in the past, such as the sub-genre of alternate history, but generally speaking, I’m comfortable with this difference.

When I think science fiction, I think of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein and Cordwainer Smith and Neal Stephenson and martians and craters and machines with scientific names that make fancy-sounding tasks like transmadobilitation possible.

The future. Science fiction is often concerned with imagining the future, or trying to extrapolate where our current trajectory is going to land us.

Magic vs science

In fantasy, magic is where it’s at. Presto! In science fiction, science is magic.

I found that the most enjoyable pieces of the Harry Potter series were when the kids were learning magic. I feel the same way about superhero movies–I always love the parts where someone is learning about their new powers, and trying to control them.

I can’t remember who the quote comes from, but it went something like this:

All science would have seemed like magic at one time.

One thing I have seen that I find quite interesting:

In a lot of science fiction, the debasement of science leads backward to magic/superstition.

In a lot of fantasy, the debasement of magic is what leads back to science. As a really mainstream, crappy fantasy example, Terry Brooks’s Shannara books often hint that science is way back in the past. If you stumble on a ruined city, there is a good chance that it was brought low by man going too far with science.

There are better examples than that. I’ll think it over and come back.

And that is where I’ll leave it for now. I’m in the middle of a golden age of science fiction study block at Dunce One University, so I’ll come back and add to this post as more things come up.




One thought on “The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

  1. I am glad for this post. I have been contemplating science fiction vs. fantasy, just loosely, for some reason lately, and I liked your explanation, especially regarding the interplay between magic and science. I am reading a book right now that kind of challenges your theory (it’s futuristic, but has science and magic and even religion all kind of lumped together, with a modern, techno-medical-science spin). I am liking it, and surprised by how much I am liking it. I will send it to you when I am done.

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