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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5 thoughts on “Is it Science Fiction? Or Fantasy?

  1. Hi Russ,

    Nice looking website. Congrats on the launch.

    I find it relatively easy to know the different between fantasy and science fiction when I’m writing one or the other, although I do like to throw both in at times. To me, science fiction is about ‘what if’, but the most interesting answers are about the impacts on people. So, I do agree with you that much of science fiction is about technology, because technology is the variable in how science impacts people. It isn’t the science behind microchips (quantum behaviour of electrons etc.) that effects people, its the prevalence of smart phones and how it has changed our communication patterns.

    I love a good urban fantasy, but I think that’s because the use of magic appeals to my animal senses, primordial desires to have power and conquer and things like that.

  2. I think most answers regarding the differences between Fantasy and Science Fiction, or any form of Speculative Fiction to another, get caught up in stylistic answers. The famous “What if” question can lead to a Fantasy story just a readily if the question is something like, “What if I could fly?”
    For me, the essential difference between the genres are the perceived relationship between the characters and the universe they are in, and the degree of power they have to affect change. Fantasy characters live in universes that are aware and personal and gain power by strengthening that relationship. Sci-Fi characters are cogs in the machine, and need to understand the machine to survive. I’ve posted my own speculation on the topic in my blog, which you can reach through the link above.

    Here is Erick’s URL which he intended to post but was kept private: –Dr. C.

  3. Hi, Dr. C–

    I like the notion of science fiction being about doing science, but as a genre definition I feel it is too limiting to be accurate. Space opera, for instance, a much beloved sub-genre of science fiction, is predominantly a drama or adventure set in space. While defining genres helps us create categories that we can use to differentiate texts in such a way that eases our communication about those texts, rigorous enforcement of somewhat arbitrary genre requirements turns more into a game of exclusion or extreme categorization than communicative identification. I experienced a prolonged debate on this topic in a university-level literature class regarding the hardline definition of fantasy; the discussion degenerated into zero results because not a single definition could be constructed that included even a short list of agreed upon fantasy works. While I adore what the Aarne-Thompson classification system has offered folk tales, I believe a very concrete, specific definition for science fiction is more limiting than helpful.


    • Hi Shannon,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I have to agree with you, a strength of science fiction is its ability to be so many different things. Even so, I will continue to call for more exploration, discovery, and asking “why is it that way” in my own favorite science fiction stories–because these are the root of real science! However, like you, I would be quite concerned if my definition caught on as a hardline litmus test of science fiction.

      Dr. C.

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