Fantasy Is Not Science Fiction (and vice versa)

Recently Margaret Atwood wrote an essay in “The Guardian” on genre — and she defined what she meant by the terms “science fiction,” “speculative fiction,” and “fantasy.” (I’ve referred you to this article before, I highly recommend it, go read it now. Atwood’s literary essays are always worth reading.) It annoys me, and I think it also probably annoys Atwood, that Fantasy books are often shelved with Science Fiction books in bookshops. The two genres are stuck together with the SFF label. My friend the Biologist recently asked me what the difference is. I’m afraid I gave her an extended lecture. Here is a slightly condensed version that may be slightly better thought through.

Fantasy is best exemplified by J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings books. They are books set in a completely other world with no apparent link to earth as we know it, except that people live there. In these other worlds there are also other creatures, like dragons, and elves, and wizards. Not all fantasy books have dragons in them, nor are all fantasy books swords and sorcery books, but they all have a not-of-this-world aspect to them. These other worlds might have technology (example China Miéville’s worlds), but the worlds themselves have no connection to this world.

Obviously this definition means that the Potter series is not strictly fantasy. It is connected to this world. Harry leaves for school from a London RR station that you can visit — and loads of people do visit it. I still think Potter is fantasy because Harry so clearly enters a different realm when he goes to school. Similarly, in the Narnia series, people travel from our world into Narnia and other worlds. In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar series people also travel from this world into another. Fantasy worlds are parallel to our world at most — but the key idea is that characters travel between worlds and the main world of the story action is clearly not this one. J.K. Rowling comes closest to merging her fantasy world with our reality. There are an increasing number of books that introduce fantastic elements into our reality. We might need a new genre for those works.

Science Fiction is exemplified by works like War of the Worlds or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It deals with the interaction between this world and the worlds possible out there in space. Lots of science fiction has little (if anything) to do with life on earth in the future, it has lots and lots to do with life in distant galaxies and how to get there, or at least how to travel around said galaxies. Or it can be about earth colonies on other worlds — like Mars or the Moon or things like that. Generally science fiction depends a lot on the technology available to people, and the technology available is often crucial in some way to the story. In some ways, if there isn’t a crucial piece of technology then some space operas are just another form of fantasy.

I like Atwood’s discussion of the difference between speculative fiction and science fiction. I find the distinction helpful. Some speculative fiction has a crucial piece of science or technology at its core; others depend on some other possible future course for humanity and for earth as we currently know it. Atwood’s definition means that most of William Gibson’s oeuvre should be classified as speculative fiction. Interesting thoughts.

Once I thought that if I wrote fiction I’d want to write fantasy novels and create an entirely different world. The more I read well-crafted Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Speculative Fiction, the more I admire people who can build a consistent and different world and make it live for readers. Some writers are spectacularly good at this (Rowling, Gibson, Atwood, Bujold to name but a few) and others are not. I feel a bit intimidated to even try. But I might yet.

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2 responses to “Fantasy Is Not Science Fiction (and vice versa)

  1. It’s a fact that’s (ironically) split the community for years and years. Especially as more and more sub-genres of both arise, it seems ridiculous that the two are lumped together under that altogether general and expansive title. While there are the occasional overlaps that can make it more difficult to categorize to which of those categories a work may belong, generally speaking, something like “Lord of the Rings” should not be set side-by-side “Ender’s Game.” It boggles the mind. Good descriptions and discussions from both you and Atwood, though – lovely post, with plenty of food for thought.

  2. Ehhhh, I remember reading this post four years ago and thinking that I disagreed — and now I’ve re-read it (thanks to Station Eleven fb book club) and I still disagree. To me, what you’ve described would be High Fantasy and Hard Sci-Fi — but definitely not F or SF as complete categories.

    As I understand it, High Fantasy is that which leaves our world completely behind, while Low Fantasy is more tied to our world, as Fionavar, HP, etc. (And as with churchmanship, high/low should be taken as descriptors rather than statements of value!). I would argue that it still falls well within the “fantasy” camp, as one of its multiplicity of sub-genres. Similar thing with Hard/Soft sci-fi — read those as corresponding to the hard/soft sciences themselves, engineering vs. anthropology for example. Isaac Asimov’s robot stories are Hard Sci-Fi; The Sparrow is Soft. But they’re both still sci-fi, even if their immediate pairing on the shelf seems a little odd/off.

    That being said, it would be nice to see these sub-genres more explicitly laid out in libraries and bookstores — or at the very least, to see SF/F consistently split into SF and F!

    (PS. You should blog again)

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