The difference between fantasy and science fiction

The difference between fantasy and science fiction

The difference between the fantasy and science fiction genres hasn’t always been an issue, as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America points out. However, there are a few key differences in the genres that can help us to separate one type of book from the other in the ‘science fiction vs fantasy’ debate.

science fiction and fantasyWhy is it important to know whether your book is science fiction or fantasy? One of the most important reasons is for marketing purposes. Agents and publishers will want you to succinctly describe the genre your book fits into. In addition, if you want to write a book, you will likely find that the overall direction of your plot will vary based on whether you are using classic fantasy or science fiction themes and tropes.

Science fiction vs fantasy: Identifying characteristics

  • Science fiction deals with scenarios and technology that are possible or may be possible based on science. 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. On the other hand, fantasy general deals with supernatural and magical occurrences that have no basis in science.
  • 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.
  • Both science fiction and fantasy require rules. Just because fantasy is not based on scientific facts or speculation doesn’t mean that anything can go in fantasy. Certain laws must govern a fantasy world as well; the difference is that in fantasy, the author makes up the rules.

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 story idea? Start writing a book and get feedback from the Now Novel writing community as you go.

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20 Replies to “The difference between fantasy and science fiction”

  1. You’ve identified the major criteria that has been used as the dividing line between the two genres; it’s the one we’ve pretty much all been using from the beginning of whenever it became necessary to make such distinctions.
    Two follow-ons. First – I think there does have to be some weight given to the author’s intention: what were they trying to right? A “science fiction” novel written by someone not well-versed in science may very well cross the plausibility line. And of course we always have to make room for the science fiction story that pays more attention to the trappings and tropes than it does actual science (many comic book stories, for example); there’s no way one can say that Flash Gordon isn’t science fiction, but…
    Second, there is of course the problem presented by Clarke’s dictum of ‘any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic’ always hovering in the background. One could excuse almost anything by citing “sufficiently advanced technologies” and again the plausibility argument fails us here – which kind of brings us back to intention.

  2. When it comes to specifying the genre of your book, does that mean you cannot have a combination, like say science fiction and fantasy or whatever? Sorry, just curious about that.

    1. Hi Nana – you definitely can. Authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin often have. Break all the rules, besides, if it helps you a better and more engaging story.

    2. Perhaps you can. But then geeks will have *really* strong arguments whether this book is “true” science-fiction or fantasy or not. In other words: a Pandora’s box 🙂

  3. The year I was born, the ‘Flip Phone’ only existed on a new TV show call “Star Trek”. Now, when I need to get a new phone, I buy a cover with a texture that I think will hold the painted words, “DON’T PANIC!”, in big, friendly letters. I’ll leave it to you to decide where to draw any lines you may feel the need to draw.

  4. ” Science fiction is a relatively recent genre of the last century or so with origins going back only a few hundred years before that.”

    The origins of science fiction are actually almost a couple of thousand years old- this is ‘A True Story’, a Greek science fiction story about an interplanetary war written in the second century CE.

    https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/true/index.htm

    1. Great argument, Dave, thank you for sharing this counter-view. It’s much the same as many arguing Don Quixote was the first novel. I suppose when we refer to modern science fiction’s boom, it really took off after industrialization and the various possibilities steam power unlocked in writers’ imaginations. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  5. This describes fairly accurately the commonly held view on the topic. However, it does have built into it an understanding which is not commonly shared… That is, to write good science fiction requires a good understanding of science in the first place.

    In my humble opinion, most science fiction fails on this simple point, and it does so because the majority of new SF is a slight variation of previous themes. It almost gives a tacit vindication of breaking the laws of physics if a previous SF book has done so.

    For example a common theme involves space travel at super luminal velocities. Yet without some explanation as to how this violation can occur, this detail alone renders the book a fantasy rather than pure SF.

    So dear reader, I caution – know thy science to write good SF, or be honest and call it science fantasy. Let us return science fiction to a land of true exploration based on the known laws of physics. However, I suspect this will strip many existing books of this categorisation but will make the genre exciting once more.

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