Tuesday 3 July 2012

Guest Post: Intersection of Science Fiction and Fantasy

The Intersection of Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Emily Mah

I don’t mean to be obnoxious as I begin this post, but to be honest, the first time I ever participated in a discussion of science fiction versus fantasy and how the genres relate to one another was at the Jack Williamson Lectureship in Portales, New Mexico. What’s obnoxious about that? Well, the panel discussion was between Jack Williamson, Fred Pohl, and Robert Silverberg and was moderated by Connie Willis. All four were or have since become SFWA Grand Masters, so I think they were well qualified to share their opinions on the subject. THe specific question put before them was how science fiction differs from fantasy, which is slightly different than what I’ve been asked, but it’s a good place to start.

Some would argue that the only difference between science fiction and fantasy is feel. Science fiction has rivets and fantasy has unicorns. Both genres require the writer to make up an internally consistent rule system for what is an alternate universe. A science fiction writer has to decide what technology allows and disallows the characters to do. A fantasy author must make an internally consistent magic system. While it may seem flippant to say that this is the only difference, there is more to this contention than people realize.

But science fiction is about science, is the usual rebuttal. It works with established laws of the universe. There are several holes in this argument, the simplest being that much of science fiction takes place so far in time and or space from our existence, that we simply don’t know the science laws that will apply. What scientists working here on Earth in the twenty first century are able to deduce about the laws of physics and the workings of the universe is necessarily limited. As any science fiction buff will tell you, for every science prediction that science fiction writers in the past got right, there are a million they got wrong. Writers predicted holograms, but not cell phones. Older works are based on Newtonian rather than Einsteinian mechanics, then later ones used Einsteinian rather than quantum mechanics. A writer has to make up the best fiction they can to fill the gaps in what we just don’t know. Furthermore, science fiction does not cease to be science fiction even once the science has disproven the central concepts. Steampunk, for example, is generally regarded as a form of science fiction, though it uses concepts do outdated that it appears downright fantastical.

For this reason, one of the panelists at the Williamson Lectureship, and here my memory fails me because I don’t rightly recall which (I think it was Pohl) said that science fiction is really just a subset of fantasy. Fantasy covers every kind of story in which the author must make up some of the rules in the universe. Another panelist (I think it was Silverberg) argued that there was no way you could fold science fiction into fantasy. They are just fundamentally different.

There are certainly some different common practices in science fiction versus fantasy. Fantasy stories often center around a character who is special in some way from birth. Harry Potter and his relationship to Voldemort, King Arthur and his ability to receive Excalibur, Bella Swan and her irresistible scent that attracts Edward Cullen, are all examples. Science fiction stories are often about normal or average people who excel through book learning or technological prowess. The crews of the various Star Trek franchises have included women at times when women were not perceived as technologically proficient, racial and ethnic minorities, a blind man, and other archetypes consistent with the genre. These people do what they do because of their dedication to their field and their cultivation of their talents, not because of some innate or inborn ability.

There are, however, enough notable exceptions to these rules to make them only guidelines at best. Frodo Baggins wasn’t born to destroy the One Ring. He cultivated his humility and determination and thus, through hard work, was able to bring it to Mordor. Luke Skywalker was born to a Jedi lineage and had a strong connection to the Force that allowed him to destroy the Death Star and eventually the Empire.

Another common practice in science fiction is to present the alternative world in a way that invites the reader to believe that the technologies will eventually come to exist. Even when the science is wrong, the story was written at a time when they were believed to be right and people dreamed that someday they would have that future. Fantasy on the other hand, is, as its name would suggest, fantastical. It’s about magic and other realms, places and powers that we don’t expect to exist.

Here again, though, the field is rife with exceptions. Harry Potter lived in modern day Britain, but went away to a magical school. Bella Swan lived in modern day Washington, but met a vampire. In Twilight in particular, the story was told as something that could happen today. Vampires could be hiding among us. On the flip side, China Mieville’s steampunk world in Perdido Street Station does not even pretend to have any connection to our world other than the borrowing of different regional mythologies, which again seem more fantasy than science fiction.

So back to the central question, where do science fiction and fantasy intersect? I think they are so tangled it’s difficult to point to one simple location. At times, it is a challenge to show how they differ, and I can only conclude with the first premise I set out, that what differentiates them is style and tone more than any other hard and fast rule of construction. Thus a lot of subgenres straddle the divide. Steampunk is an alternative, fantastical history with divergent technology. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books followed the rules of science and space travel (as much as was known at the time), genetic engineering and astrobiology, and yet are books about dragonriders and wandering minstrels, thus many regard them as fantasy.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that science fiction is a subset of fantasy or vice versa, I think it is fair to say that the two genres have a strong shared history. The community of speculative fiction writers has a very strong overlap of the two, to the extent that a pure science fiction or a pure fantasy writer is a rarity. Most have done a bit of both. Both genres fall into the larger category of speculative fiction, a super-genre with a long tradition of remaking the world in ways that challenge our mundane assumptions and beliefs. Science fiction and fantasy authors share a guild (SFWA), participate in the same workshops, and attend the same conventions. Any model, depicting how the two genres intersect would likely look more like a jigsaw puzzle or a large, intricate knotwork, which keeps getting more intricate as the dialogue between the creators goes on.


About Emily Mah

Emily Mah Tippetts writes romance as E.M. Tippetts and science fiction and fantasy as Emily Mah. She is a former attorney with degrees in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University and business law from UCLA.

Originally from New Mexico, she now lives in London with her family. She is a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and thus often includes LDS (Mormon) characters in her work. When she isn't chasing her small children or writing, she designs jewelry.

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About Unnder the Needle's Eye 

Eleven authors with one thing in common, we were in the Clarion West Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy class of 2001. Other than that, we're about as diverse as you can get. This anthology is one of the broadest samples you can find of up and coming science fiction and fantasy talent. Edited by Emily Mah. 

Our instructors were: Octavia Butler, Bradley Denton, Nalo Hopkinson, Connie Willis, Ellen Datlow, and Jack Womack.

Buy on: Amazon


  1. Great article! I heartily agree! :D

  2. Brilliant! I'd never looked at things this way - I'm more of a reader and writer than an analyser - and this was a fascinating and illuminating read, thanks.
    As you say, I think most of us have written in both sub-genres - it never occured to me as a young writer not to do so as I've always loved both and many of the authors I read also published in both. While I write predominantly in fantasy now, most of my earlier work was SF and I still have plans to go back there. No need to make a choice, is there?

  3. I'm sure many smarter and wiser people know more about these genres than I do, but in my mind, Fantasy and Science Fiction are two very different genres. We can try and part hairs, but after reading a story, I can tell in which genre it belongs. Even if the writer chose to throw a dwarf and a little magic into their futuristic world, it would still be Science Fiction to me, and not Fantasy.

    For me, Science Fiction takes place in the future and is more science based, whereas Fantasy takes place in a parallel world to our own where some form of magic exists.

    There are writers who combine the two, but often one genre shines brighter than the other.

    I also believe that Twilight is horror, simply because it has vampires and werewolves. It is not fantasy in my mind.

    The experts can classify things anyway they see fit, but not all readers will agree with them; we have our own opinions, and we live with them.

    Regardless of the neat little boxes we try and fit books into, the important thing is that it's a good story. So in a way, there are only two genres: the enjoyable read and the junk box.