Quite often science fiction and fantasy are lumped together as one category, whether it be at the bookstore or while browsing online streaming services for movies and television shows. We have two different words for these genres, but they seem to always be discussed together. Here, we will explore whether the distinction is warranted, and if so, why the distinction gets ignored.
Elements Unique to Science Fiction
The main distinguishing attribute of science fiction is in the name itself, and that is the word science. The setting for a science fiction story is typically contrived from what is scientifically possibly, or at the very least, what is scientifically theoretical. For example, many science fiction stories contain sentient robots or androids (think Star Wars or Ridley Scott’s Alien.) In reality, we do not currently have the technology to build robots or androids to act and/or appear perfectly as humans, but we can build robots. Further, humans are working on making life-like robots, and there have been some incredible strides in this area. Since we have the scientific capacity to conceive of a robot, and even build one, it therefore is scientifically possible to build a more perfect robot. If we see such a robot in a story, it is science fiction because it is theoretically scientifically possible.
Another common element of science fiction is space travel. Currently, we have the ability to send humans and robots into space. There is an International Space Station, we have robots on Mars, and we have sent space craft to all of the planets in our solar system. Currently, we do not have the technology to travel to other star systems, but the idea of doing so is scientifically plausible. For example, in Star Trek, the characters travel through space using a warp drive, which allows star ships to travel faster than light by warping the fabric of spacetime itself. Warp drives are not a reality now, but some scientists do consider and work on the possibility. Another commonly used method for space travel in science fiction is the wormhole, as utilized in Stargate and Interstellar. A wormhole is a theoretical passage or tunnel through spacetime that connects two distant points. It may sound absurd, but wormholes are actually a product of the theories of Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen. Einstein’s theories also predicted the existence of black holes, which at the time people believed could not be real, yet now we know black holes are quite real.
A third element of science fiction is advanced weaponry, such as laser swords and laser guns. Often the weaponry in science fiction stories appear to be similar to the weapons humans use in the present but with some advanced scientific element to them. In Star Wars, the characters use blaster rifles and lightsabers, which shoot beams of plasma and harness blades of plasma, respectively. Plasma and lasers are scientific realities, but we have not yet harnessed the technology to use them for reliable weaponry. We are getting closer though to creating real lightsabers.
Elements Unique to Fantasy
Similar to science fiction, the fantasy genre utilizes things are not scientifically possible in our current time. However, unlike science fiction, the fantasy genre is not limited to what is scientifically possible or even scientifically theoretical. Instead, fantasy often relies on magic to bridge the gap between what is possible and impossible. For example, in the Sword of Truth series, the Sword of Truth uses magic to amplify the users righteous anger to help defeat his foes. Similar to a lightsaber, it is a powerful sword, but there is no scientific principle behind the idea of a sword that harnesses an emotion to become stronger. Another example of utilizing magic instead of science is teleportation. In Star Trek, the characters use a transporter that dematerializes a person into energy and then rematerializes those elements at another location to transport a person across a great distance. Einstein proved that matter and energy are two sides of the same coin (E=mc2) so there is a scientific theory behind the transporter. In contrast, in The Wheel of Time series, those with the ability to use the One Power can weave gateways to teleport people across far distances. Instead of a scientific principle at work, the magic of the One Power allows the teleportation.
Another common element of fantasy is mythical creatures. Dragons, centaurs, and unicorns are just some of the mythical creatures often found in fantasy stories. These creatures often have a connection to whatever magic system exists in the story or fantasy world. Check out my blog post 3 Reasons Why We Love Mythical Creatures for more information. In contrast, science fiction often utilizes creatures that do not exist in the real world, but they are usually an alien species from another world or some creation of science through genetic manipulation.
Fantasy worlds are another element often utilized in the fantasy genre. Fantasy stories often take place in a world similar to Earth but different and clearly not Earth as we know it. In The Lord of The Rings, the story takes place in Middle-earth, which is inhabited by humans, elves, dwarves, and other races of peoples. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the characters inhabit the continents of Westeros, Essos, and Sothoryos. In the Warcraft universe, the setting is the world of Azeroth. Each of these worlds have their own creation stories, histories, religions, myths, and legends. One of the most intriguing elements of fantasy is the world building and exploring cultures, races, and myths within each world. Science fiction may sometimes utilize a similar element, but usually it would be an alien world or exoplanet that humans are exploring or have colonized.
Overlap Between Science Fiction and Fantasy
Despite the features that are unique to both science fiction and fantasy, there is also some overlap, which is why the two genres are usually linked together. One of the best examples of this is the Star Wars universe. In Star Wars, there are many science fiction elements, lightsabers, blasters, space ships, etc. However, there is also the Force, a mystical energy field that penetrates every living thing in the galaxy, and upon which those beings who are Force sensitive can harness like magic. Force sensitive beings, like Jedi and Sith, can use the Force for telekinesis, enhance their strength, and see into the future. There is no scientific explanation for the Force, and instead it is in many ways magic (even considering the introduction of midi-chlorians does not explain how the Force works, instead only adding another layer to the mystery).
Another example of the overlap between science fiction and fantasy is the movie Avatar. In Avatar, science is used to explain how humans are able to travel across space to another world and how humans are able to upload their minds into avatar alien bodies. However, there is still an element of fantasy to the story. The alien species, the Na’vi, have a connection to all living creatures on the world of Pandora. They are able to link their minds with other animals and to their goddess, Eywa. Science is not used to explain the spirituality and abilities of the Na’vi. One could chalk it up to their alien nature and alien physiology, but there is also a magical/shamanistic element to their abilities.
As described, there are many differences between science fiction and fantasy. However, even when exploring those differences, one can see that they use similar unreal elements that merely have different explanations for their existence. In many ways, the two genres take use to similar destinations but use different means of getting there. The core difference between the two genres is science versus magic. Science fiction tends to use what is scientifically plausible to explain things that cannot be real in today’s world while fantasy uses magic to explain such things. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law for writing science fiction states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Thus, the difference between science fiction and fantasy is merely one of degree, a continuum between plausible science and magic we do not yet understand.