Science Fiction or Fantasy: What’s the difference?

Recently in a comment thread the question of whether a particular concept was science fiction or fantasy came up, and I realized that I just don’t believe that to be a meaningful question any more.

I will try to explain why.

When I and the world were much younger, I used to play a tabletop role playing game called Champions, which was developed by Steve Jackson Games and contained many of the concepts that grew into GURPS (the Generic Universal Role Playing System.)

Because Champions was a superhero genre role playing game, and comic book superheroes have such a broad range of abilities, the designers didn’t try to codify every possible ability.  Instead, they created a system for constructing powers that was based solely on game mechanics, and left it to the player to define them.

So if a character had, for example, a power that did energy damage at a distance (ranged energy blast) it didn’t make any difference in terms of game mechanics whether that was a blaster or a magic wand.

That’s a concept that I have gleefully adopted in my fiction.  In terms of the mechanics of my story, it doesn’t matter if the  Outsiders are alien minds or demonic presences.  What is important is what they can and can’t do to my characters. By keeping them deliberately ambiguous, I hope to keep my readers from taking them for granted.

I am also indebted to C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy (Out Of The Silent Planet, Paralandra, This Hideous Strength) in which discusses the difference between science fiction and fantasy at some length.

Other writers who I feel share this sensibility are Whitley Streiber, who has written science fiction versions of werewolves (The Wolfen) and vampires (The Hunger), Scott Westerfeld who tackled vampires via parasitology (Peeps and The Last Days), Tim Powers, who… well, I don’t know if anyone knows exactly what Tim Powers does, but, damn, he’s good at it.

The (in my humble opinion) sadly underrated film Reign Of Fire is a post-apocalyptic science fiction film about a plague of dragons.  (I suspect that the genre confusion may have contributed to its poor sales.)

The point is, I don’t believe that there is really an significant difference between science fiction and fantasy.  There are specific locales and character types that together tend to define a particular type of world in the reader’s mind, but to my mind the primary difference between Spok and Legolas is costuming.

I am sure that there are people who have a strong opinion that there is a difference, and what that difference is, and I’d like to see your thoughts.  I may have missed something significant here.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
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19 Responses to Science Fiction or Fantasy: What’s the difference?

  1. Hard science fiction is certainly distinct from fantasy, but other types of sf…not so much. I think that in many cases, the difference between the two is superficial at most.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      And how would you define “hard science fiction”?

      • Essentially, science fiction which aims to be as accurate to the laws of science as possible.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        Fair enough. I’m rereading Larry Niven’s “A World Out Of Time”, which I think would fit your description. However, I think that one could package the events that happen in that book–the main character dying and being reborn, the nation of immortal children, the old woman seeking eternal youth, even the monsters the characters face across the Antarctican plains–as fantasy with a fairly superficial rewrite.

  2. Traditionally, I think the difference was a focus on magic & monsters (fantasy) and a focus on technology & aliens (sci-fi). Though, you’re right that they lines have blurred. Many fantasy books have technology now and sci-fi can have mystic powers. I blame Star Wars.

    Reign of Fire was a fun movie, but I didn’t like the final battle. Too many stupid things were done by the characters, who had been smart up until then. Mostly, the ‘I leap at dragon with axe and scream’ maneuver. He should have simply said ‘I don’t want to live any more’ and that would have made more sense. I will admit that it’s been years since I saw the movie.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      What about writers like Lovecraft, who posit monsters from another universe? Look at Cassandra Claire’s series, for example–she has angels and demons, but they are creatures from alternate universes who are able to enter this one.

      • The alternate universe part is the tough one. It’s used in both fantasy and science-fiction. Though, one could always say that there is nothing that is specific to one genre. For example, I’ve heard arguments that Cthulu is fantasy because the monsters are mystical in nature and that they’re sci-fi because they’re aliens.

        Even your basic genres crossover at times. You can find romance in a horror or fantasy book. The only real reason genres probably exist is to make them easier to sort and find in a library.

        As for the angels and demons, it probably depends on their origins. One could say that with an alien origin they’re sci-fi, but a magical origin would make them fantasy. In the end, you’re going to end up taking parts of both genres to get what you want, which might be why you’re getting sub-genres all over the place.

  3. lackofharmony says:

    Over the years, the hard line between fantasy and sci-fi has blurred a bit. I am thankful for that if only, because I enjoy both genres so very much. There are still a few things I might consider completely fantasy and completely sci-fi, but if you pick something apart enough then you can find a few things that lean in the other direction.

  4. Katie says:

    I agree 100% with Charles regarding the line I view between SF and Fantasy. Traditionally, tech vs. magic.

    But as far as Reign of Fire goes…it’s a favorite of mine. I fell in love with Christian Bale in that movie before he ever became Batman. (silly point of pride)


    • MishaBurnett says:

      But that’s just moving the question back a step. What’s the difference between technology and magic? If I write about a character who has developed a way of reading minds, is what makes it “technology” or “magic” as simple as my choice between making the character use an electrode studded cap or a parchment written in blood?

      What if I decide to make it technique unlike either? Suppose the character is a runner, and when she’s on a “runner’s high” and daydreaming, she realizes that her daydreams are actually other people’s thoughts?

      You could call that a psychic power triggered by an endorphin overload, or you could say that it was a mystical trance during which her pneuma touched other souls , and both explanations would fit the phenomenon. What if two athletes who train together discovered the same thing, and one calls is psyonics while the other calls it magic–is this science fiction or fantasy?

      • Katie says:

        Considering your question of the electrode cap vs. a parchment written in blood…the difference, in my humble & frankly uninformed opinion, is that one power is derived from a science-based, can-be-illustrated-by-a-proof phenomenon, and the other is mystical. Not sure if “mystical” is a great word, but it’s the best I’ve got.

        In a really bad example, it’s like asking what the difference is between evolution and creationism. One has scientific backing, and the other is based on faith/belief. (Let’s not begin a spin-off argument over that, though.)

        IMO, they are different because here in our world, science-y stuff has a more realistic feel to most people, because humans have invented some seriously awesome things that even fifty years ago, no one thought possible. So who’s to say a Star Trek or Star Wars world couldn’t be possible in 3000 years? Or less?

        And magic – spells and creating fireballs out of the air and calling lightning from the sky, etc – is much less “realistic” because as far as most of the Western population is concerned (I specify Western because as I said, I am quite uninformed and don’t want to presume on areas of the world I don’t know much about), is not possible in any way, shape, or form and never has been, unless performed by their deity of choice. And then, of course, it is a divine working and not “magic.”

        Your other examples speak for themselves. Depending on how the author presents the material/phenomena, it impacts the reader differently.

        Wow. That was a long response! Yay!

      • Katie says:

        So, the short answer is yes. It is as simple as your choice.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        And what if one chooses not to decide, or not to share that decision with the reader? Is it the reader who decides what is fantasy and what is science? What about when the writer and the reader disagree about what is scientifically possible? H. G. Wells’s “The Island Of Dr. Moreau” may have seemed scientifically possible when it was written, but to a modern understanding of biology the idea of giving animals cognitive reasoning and speech centers by surgery is pure fantasy.

        What about something like the X-Men films? They give lip service scientific credibility, but… seriously. How many of them make any sense at all from a scientific perspective?

        I just think this is an interesting question, and I think it’s a lot more complex than it appears on the surface.

  5. Pingback: Willing suspension of disbelief and science fiction tropes | mishaburnett

  6. L. Marie says:

    Great post. I’m enjoying the comments as well. Lately, the lines have blurred between sci-fi and fantasy. I think of a book like KEEPING IT REAL by Justina Robson, which has elves, quantum bombs, cyborgs, etc.

  7. feralplum says:

    I think the difference is entirely esthetic: If you like skirts and horses it is fantasy If you like machines and want to update your armor or use zippers or more modern fasteners, it is Science -fiction.

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