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Old 01-14-2011, 08:12 PM   #1
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The difference between Science-Fiction and Fantasy

I started re-reading my paper-book version of "Songmaster" by Orson Scott Card and on the front cover was the quote, "Card has joined the front rank of SF writers" (Publishers Weekly); I'd been thinking it was a fantasy novel. Before that I'd read an early Terry Pratchett, "Strata", that I'd classified to myself as science fiction rather than fantasy. On a separate thread here began a discussion of whether Orson Scott Card's "Speaker for the Dead" and/or "Xenocide" where science fiction or not. This all made me start wonder, not for the first time, exactly what the difference really was.

Disclaimer: My examples of science fiction authors are a little dated, the truth is that I've read very little recent science fiction. My tastes have turned more to fantasy.

Someone like Arthur C. Clarke was almost always what I consider to be real/true science fiction. The majority of his work was based on specific scientific theory and/or discovery; he'd take an actual theory or concept and try to follow where it might lead. There may be a few leaps of faith and flights of fancy taken in order to fill out the story but, with a few exceptions, most of it was usually about a particular idea or set of ideas. Sagan, Niven, Pournelle, Brin, as other examples, mostly seem to try very hard to give even their most ambitious works a level of scientific veracity, as if to try and convince you that it really could happen exactly like they say.

Someone like Isaac Asimov did not always (or not so predictably) produce such pure science fiction. Even his most famous books, Foundation and Robot series, are based less on scientific fact and more on flight of imagination - or so it seems to me, feel free to disagree . Authors like Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein sometimes blurred the lines even more. I think H.G.Wells fits in here somewhere too, a preference for the support of science but not overly constrained by it.

Other authors write books classified as science fiction but you get the distinct impression that the "science" part is not all that important to them. It's more "in the style of" science fiction rather than anything else. Here I'm thinking of some of the books (the ones usually categorised as science fiction) by Anne McCaffrey, Piers Anthony, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and even C.S.Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet etc).

So where does that leave us? Can we classify science fiction as simply an absence of magic? That's not very effective if you remember the most famous of Arthur C. Clarke's three laws: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." By such an observation almost any fantasy tale could be construed as science fiction. And anyway, I don't think that magic is a necessary ingredient of fantasy.

The best I can come up with is:

Science fiction is where the author expects the reader to believe, in any dispassionate assessment made looking back at the story, that the story and the world in which it takes place really is something that could happen in the future. (We need to further clarify this to indicate the "reader" in this instance is someone from the time that the book was written; someone that has only a general/common knowledge of science. A subcategory of "credible science fiction" could be extended to cover books that are believable even to those with a greater than average knowledge of science.)

Which leaves us with fantasy as those works that the author never expects us to (dispassionately) believe are truly possible, however much we may become involved in the story while reading.

A category by author's intention is not ideal but does get us past some difficult situations. With something like Michael Moorcock's wonderful "The Dancers at the End of Time" trilogy my instinct is always to place it as fantasy, where I put most of his work, but there's not a lot of reason why it couldn't be considered science fiction. Set so far in the future it would seem just as believable as Clarke's "Against the Fall of Night" or Asimov's short story "The Last Question". But I doubt if Moorcock truly intends his readers to believe that his dancers are seriously possible, I think he was just having fun, whereas I think Clarke and Asimov treat their creations much more seriously.

I've rambled long enough (at least ). What do you think?
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Old 01-14-2011, 08:33 PM   #2
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there is the classic Heinlein test; "if an egg beater does not exist and someone dreams it up and writes about it and later the egg beater is made, that is science fiction" (or something along those lines)

for fantasy, I just apply the unicorn test; if fanciful mythic creatures appear on scene, or people have magical powers, it is fantasy. I'm not entirely certain where that leaves treecats, but it is a start
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Old 01-14-2011, 08:40 PM   #3
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I always find this kind of discussion fascinating to read, but I've never felt the overwhelming need to have everything fall into neat little columns.

I just slap the speculative fiction label on all of it and keep on reading
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Old 01-14-2011, 08:41 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by gmw View Post
The best I can come up with is:

Science fiction is where the author expects the reader to believe, in any dispassionate assessment made looking back at the story, that the story and the world in which it takes place really is something that could happen in the future.
I don't think it's limited to the future. A time-travel story set in Shakespeare's time is still science fiction. Steampunk is science fiction.

I believe SF is comprised of elements that are supposed to be technologically plausible within at least a layman's understanding of math, physics, cosmology, etc. (SF that is easily refuted by anyone with a PhD in biochemistry is still SF.) And it can have elements that are disproven at the layman's level, as part of its "what if" premise, if they're clearly marked. ("As you know, Bob, after the nuclear wars, the earth's electromagnetic field was warped, and batteries no longer hold a charge. We're all pretty sure that's impossible, but with no working laboratories to figure out what's really going on, we just cope with it.")

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Which leaves us with fantasy as those works that the author never expects us to (dispassionately) believe are truly possible, however much we may become involved in the story while reading.
I think I believe that fantasy needs to include magic, but not necessarily wizards or spellcraft. There's a blurry area where it crosses into folklore (I'm unsure whether I'd think a Life-of-Bigfoot story was fantasy or not), but off the top of my head, I can't think of anything I think of as "fantasy" that doesn't have some level of magical or inexplicable-mystical content.

The hard part, for me, is those stories that aren't specifically tech or magic based, but obviously in the "speculative fiction" range. Ellison did a number of these. There may be a thematic way to consider these stories, rather than a plot/content method; I'm still trying to figure out how I'd describe that.

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A category by author's intention is not ideal but does get us past some difficult situations.
I refuse to base any definition on author's intentions, in part because pigheaded authors don't get to define how readers understand their literature. Non-pigheaded authors should be open to reader interpretation; their "intent" was "tell this story;" categorization might've been done for sales reasons but may not have been part of their concept at all.

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With something like Michael Moorcock's wonderful "The Dancers at the End of Time" trilogy my instinct is always to place it as fantasy, where I put most of his work, but there's not a lot of reason why it couldn't be considered science fiction.
Distant future, dying earth, infinite-power rings based on technology the users no longer understand... science fiction. And like the Pern series, that label is fairly irrelevant to figuring out who'll actually enjoy the stories.
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Old 01-14-2011, 08:43 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by DiapDealer View Post
I always find this kind of discussion fascinating to read, but I've never felt the overwhelming need to have everything fall into neat little columns.

I just slap the speculative fiction label on all of it and keep on reading
I think a large part of the population agree - hence shop signs like "SF/F" and so on. But yes, I thought it might be an entertaining discussion, especially with relevant quotes and thoughts from authors etc.
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Old 01-14-2011, 09:13 PM   #6
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I don't think it's limited to the future. A time-travel story set in Shakespeare's time is still science fiction. Steampunk is science fiction.
Good point ... although I do find travel back in time a little harder to swallow, even/especially as a laymen. To me it always feels like fantasy.

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I think I believe that fantasy needs to include magic, but not necessarily wizards or spellcraft. There's a blurry area where it crosses into folklore (I'm unsure whether I'd think a Life-of-Bigfoot story was fantasy or not), but off the top of my head, I can't think of anything I think of as "fantasy" that doesn't have some level of magical or inexplicable-mystical content.
At the risk of starting a conversation already repeated elsewhere: I'd put the "Twilight" (and most other vampire) series up as an example of fantasy without magic (usually).

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I refuse to base any definition on author's intentions, in part because pigheaded authors don't get to define how readers understand their literature. Non-pigheaded authors should be open to reader interpretation; their "intent" was "tell this story;" categorization might've been done for sales reasons but may not have been part of their concept at all.
I guess I was more thinking about my reader's interpretation of the author's intention - rather than actually asking the author. When I read Clarke, Niven, etc I get the very distinct impression that they want their story to be believable. When I read Moorcock, or McCaffery, I get the impression that the story only has to be believable while you read it, they don't really care whether it's possible or not, that's simply not relevant to their story telling.

Quote:
Distant future, dying earth, infinite-power rings based on technology the users no longer understand... science fiction. And like the Pern series, that label is fairly irrelevant to figuring out who'll actually enjoy the stories.
This is perhaps the one good reason for having this discussion. Describing Moorcock's dancers and McCaffrey's dragons as fantasy helps new readers choose what they may be interested in. Describing them as science fiction is quite misleading - it seems to me.
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Old 01-14-2011, 09:30 PM   #7
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For me, the definition has changed as I have (im?)matured. I read a lot of Asimov and Andre Norton in junior high. The demarkation line was simple: One was magic and the other was robots.

Then the lines started to blur. "The Memory of Earth" by Orson Scott Card is all about a magical world, but one of the characters is paralyzed and rides around on hovering devices.

Maybe.
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Old 01-14-2011, 11:02 PM   #8
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for fantasy, I just apply the unicorn test; if fanciful mythic creatures appear on scene, or people have magical powers, it is fantasy. I'm not entirely certain where that leaves treecats, but it is a start
Treecats are alright. Just another alien lifeform.
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Old 01-14-2011, 11:36 PM   #9
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Treecats are alright. Just another alien lifeform.
and given the setting that is indeed the case, but what about when someone wants to insist that unicorns, goblins and trolls are just alien life forms?
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Old 01-14-2011, 11:40 PM   #10
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and given the setting that is indeed the case, but what about when someone wants to insist that unicorns, goblins and trolls are just alien life forms?
Write me a story with a spaceship, a undiscovered planet and unicorns and I'll agree.
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Old 01-15-2011, 12:02 AM   #11
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I used to be quite militant about this distinction . Then, I read this little ditty* that brought me down several notches and made me see the light . (*specifically, pages 21-23 (especially 23) of the link I provided. Very eye-opening).

I realized that the only times I felt compelled to make that distinction was when confronted with bad science fiction or bad fantasy. That is not to say that there are no differences at all, just that the differences do not relate to the quality of the book in any way.

Just a thought
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Old 01-15-2011, 12:03 AM   #12
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Write me a story with a spaceship, a undiscovered planet and unicorns and I'll agree.
hmmmm
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Old 01-15-2011, 12:33 AM   #13
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I see fantasy as what if this were and scifi as what might someday be, I suppose that would place speculative fiction under scifi even though it takes no science to imagine what might be soon.
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Old 01-15-2011, 12:36 AM   #14
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Science Fiction and Fantasy really fall on two opposite ends of a spectrum. In some ways you can think of the individual books falling somewhere between the two sides. Stories like 2001, Rama, Ringworld, and such will fall closer to the "Science Fiction" side of the spectrum while Dragonlance, Lord of the Rings, and other High Fantasy stories fall closer to the Fantasy side. Those are all easily distinguishable. Stuff like the Pern series tends to hover to either side of the middle of the line. A book like Enemy Mine, while clearly sci-fi, isn't focused on technology and actually takes efforts to abandon technology altogether for a significant portion of the story. This might fall a little closer to the middle.

When managing my book catalog, I have no issues labeling a book as Science Fiction AND Fantasy if I can't decide either way.
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Old 01-15-2011, 01:21 AM   #15
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Another vote for the specfic genre, but if I had to have a definition, I've always liked Orson Scott Card's one as linked by thrawn_aj above.
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