Science Fiction and Fantasy are two genres often differentiated by their settings: in a fantasy novel, the impossible occurs by magic, while sci-fi achieves the same through speculative technology. This may once have been the best way to identify and distinguish the genres, but it masks their fundamental difference. It’s my position that the genres are not differentiated by the worlds they inhabit, but by their distinct styles for characterisation and storytelling.
Sci-fi is introspection into our humanity, while fantasy serves as a sort of cultural memory of the future.
At the heart of the genre is a simple set of questions:
What does it mean to be human, and how should we understand our humanity in the face of increasingly sophisticated developments that blur its boundaries?
My favourite example to characterise this approach to defining sci-fi is Greg Egan’s short story collection Luminous. However, science fiction has been addressing these questions from its earliest days. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — arguably one of the earliest science fiction novels — approaches this very same problem.
Fictional science is a highly appropriate literary technique to appropriately frame these questions. If I could rewire my brain, what sort of person would I be? If I could build a machine that looked and acted in every way like a human, would that machine be deserving of the status of an individual? These are the sort of questions that can be posed with this manner of speculative fiction. Indeed, these are the sort of questions that we need to keep asking ourselves. As long as science fiction can keep asking questions just beyond the reach of real science, it can continue to prepare our society for the technological questions that we face in the present. We’ve been living in the future for a while now: it’s high time that we worked out how to make a home here.
Science fiction takes real humans, gritty people with all the foibles and desires that we can recognise in ourselves, and places them in outlandish situations that force us to re-examine what we understand about ourselves. However, these characters are not archetypical; they are not simply representations of certain aspects of our collected imaginations. They are real, fully fleshed-out individuals. They have names, and pasts, not merely titles and backstories. The stories too are not generic. They are complex and nuanced events, with subtle undercurrents of meaning. Our understanding of their events would be altered if we changed any aspects of the fact-pattern.
Materially different, both in scope and execution, fantasy is modern myth, legend, and worldview. It’s like an oral history: our superstition about society. It makes broad and sweeping statements about standard characters. Their individual names and histories aren’t crucial, since they are archetypes: the parent, the warrior, the youth. Making them distinct, unique and personal isn’t required. It doesn’t matter whether the mentor is named Merlin, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Dumbledore: they serve the same role in the tale.
The tale, too doesn’t need to be different or unique. Fantasy stories are the tales that we’ve been telling forever, and those that we will continue telling for a long time. We may change different elements — like the cause of the apocalypse — but the underlying themes remain unchanged.
This is not to say that fantasy is an inferior genre: it addresses different questions. Instead of asking questions about us individually, it tells tales about our questions, hopes and fears as a society and a civilisation. An increase in apocalypse and post-apocalyptic fiction on our shelves and screens tells us something about our collective psyche.
Although the forms of these genres are informed by their typical settings, they are not tied to them, except by convention. The real difference between the genres is the way that they reflect on issues, and the role that they play in our society.
Although speculative technology is a useful way to frame science fiction’s question, it is not the only way. It would be possible to ask the same sorts of questions about us in a world filled with wizards and dragons. It’s just that those who write novels set in fantastic worlds typically don’t address these questions, while those who wish to address sci-fi questions tend to write in futuristic worlds filled with technology. A fantasy author certainly could ask their readers to consider the ethics of a band of human adventurers violently invading orc lands; killing their men, women and children; defiling their temples; and stealing their most highly prized religious relics. I’ve just never seen one that did.
This can be confusing at times, especially with works like George Lucas’s Star Wars, or James Cameron’s Avatar. Both are undeniably a fantasy stories, but set in sophisticated worlds filled with advanced technology. Perhaps the labels are overly confusing. However I think that it’s important to approach literature from the right angle to get it’s full benefit. The ability to identify fantasy despite the starships, and sci-fi despite the dragons allows one to identify the issues that the work is trying to pose, and consider them in the appropriate critical light.
Think that I’ve got my genres in a muddle? Want to pose an alternate approach to these genres? Let me know in the comments.