Is it Science Fiction? Or Fantasy?

If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then how in the world can we readers distinguish between science fiction and fantasy?

Everyone has their own definition of science fiction.  For some, classification as science fiction depends on the prominence of science or technology in the story (over, say character or plot).  Other folks focus on the need to “keep it real”–if events are not consistent with current understanding of science, then it’s a no-no (goodbye FTL and time travel).  Of course a favorite definition is that science fiction begins with a “what if” question.  What if we discovered a black  hole in the center of the sun that was growing faster than seemed scientifically possible and that will destroy the sun in a mere 100 years?  What would we do?  How would we react?

I’ve always disliked the reference to “hard” science fiction (ouch, I think I just stepped on a nail).  It makes science sound so, well, hard.  Science doesn’t need to be hard.  What’s more, when I read many hard science fiction stories I often find that they’re not about science at all, but rather technology.  Technological “what if” questions are easier to come by it seems.

For me, science fiction is not technology fiction.  Nor is it drama with lots of technobabble (even if the technobabble is real jargon used in science).  To the scientist (and at least this science professor), science is not about things that we know, or technologies we develop.  Science is the process, and the set of logical tools, we use to figure out how the world around us works.  Facts are like the rule book in a game of basketball, good to know, but good play requires practice, not just knowing the rulebook.  Scientists are the ball players, and science is the art of the play.  So, to be science fiction, a story must be about doing science, not knowing facts or using technology.

This bring us to my definition for science fiction and where it parts ways with fantasy.  The characters in a science fiction story will ask questions about how things work and why they are as they are.  They will seek to answer those questions, find explanations and reasons.  If there are no explanations, or if the explanations are simply not of significance or interest in the story, then that is magic, not science.

So says Dr. C.  Feel free to post your own definitions!  How many can we accumulate in the next three or four months?—Dr. C.

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About Writer’s Corner

Writer’s Corner is a place to consider Earth and Space Science topics of particular interest to writers, like what real Earth Science looks like in a story, what’s in the news, how movies and books get it wrong (that’s always fun),or what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy (always a favorite debate).  Feel free to participate in the discussion!

Your friendly Chief Blogger is Russ Colson (Dr. C).  Russ has taught college geology, planetary science and meteorology for over 20 years.  He has been a science fiction fan since his introduction to Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, and Edgar Rice Burroughs as a teenager, and even dables in writing some of his own stories.  He’s author of over nineteen published science fiction stories and articles including an article in Clarkesworld Magazine that addresses the tragic misuse of Earth Science in science fiction.

Guest Blogger is Mary Colson.  Mary has taught 8th grade Earth Science for over twenty years in Tennessee, Texas, and Minnesota.  Mary reads a lot of non-fiction science for middle schoolers and also plenty of science fiction, mystery, and thrillers.  She was a member of the writing team for the current Next Generation Science Standards.

The artwork at the top of the blog is by artist Steven Stalboerger–a portion of his work “Expedition on Enceladus.”

This blog is hosted on http//, a resource for writers and teachers interested in discussing Earth Science issues.



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