What’s the difference between fantasy and science fiction? There are a few key differences between the genres that are worth thinking about in any ‘science fiction vs fantasy’ debate.
Why do the differences between sci-fi and fantasy matter?
One of the most important reasons to think about these genres differences is book marketing.
Agents and publishers will want you to succinctly describe your book, in terms that make its genre clear.
When it is clear that your book falls into a specific genre (though many ‘science fantasy’ novels blend both), this makes it easier for readers to find it.
In addition, if you want to write a book, your plot will differ according to whether you are using classic fantasy or science fiction themes and tropes.
Science fiction vs fantasy: Key elements
Let’s explore key differences between science fiction and fantasy:
Science fiction tends to focus on technological advancement
Alien civilizations with advanced spacecraft. Humans creating robots that spell their doom. Science fiction most often grapples with the question of technology and its capacity for good and harm.
Sci-fi makes the implausible possible
[Thank you to Sam in the comments for this good phrase – ed’s note]
Science fiction deals with scenarios and technology that are possible or may be thanks to scientific discovery.
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Some science fiction such as far-future space opera or time travel stories may seem implausible, but they are still not beyond the realm of scientific theory.
Fantasy makes the physically impossible real
On the other hand, fantasy generally deals with supernatural and magical occurrences that have no basis in science or (often) even physics.
Fantasy predates science fiction
Fantasy is an older genre of literature than science fiction; in fact, fantasy is arguably the oldest genre.
If we look back at the earliest surviving stories from human civilisation such as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh or the ancient Greek myths, we find stories of gods, monsters and magic.
Science fiction is a relatively recent genre of the last century or so with origins going back only a few hundred years before that.
How are science fiction and fantasy alike?
Both science fiction and fantasy entail imagining other possible worlds. They explore hypothetical futures (or pasts).
Both genres require rules. Just because fantasy is not based on scientific facts or speculation doesn’t mean that anything goes in fantasy. Certain laws must govern a fantasy world as well; the difference is that in fantasy, the author makes up the rules.
In sci-fi, the author may make up some of the world’s rules, but these are often drawn from taking scientific realities (such as AI or the search for new technological abilities) to new conclusions.
Surprisingly, science fiction and fantasy cannot always be distinguished by settings or other elements. Many would argue that Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series is science fiction despite the existence of dragons while others say the Star Wars films are clearly fantasy despite the space setting.
Have a fantasy or science fiction book in progress? Work with a writing coach who understands your genre.