Walk through virtually any bookstore these days (though real-life bookstores are becoming few and far between), and more often than not, you’ll find science fiction and fantasy lumped together, as if they were virtually the same genre. 

To be fair, on a surface level, this comparison holds true. For example, both sci-fi and fantasy stories involve imaginary worlds, strange creatures and forces beyond those that we experience in the “real world.” For this reason, the two genres also tend to appeal to the same sorts of readers, those who yearn for an escape from the everyday. But beyond these broad similarities, sci-fi and fantasy bear some key distinctions that most people tend to overlook or ignore. 

You may think the need to distinguish between sci-fi and fantasy is a minor point, yet another example of the perpetual hair-splitting that typifies the world of geekdom. But when it comes to writing in either of these genres, such distinctions are vitally important.

If you’ve struggled to differentiate between the two genres, I’d like to offer five few general guidelines to direct your thinking in this area.

Science fiction revolves around the introduction of a disruptive technology.

Whether it’s time travel (Looper), artificial intelligence (Ex Machina), the ability to predict crimes before they happen (Minority Report), cyborgs (Blade Runner), or cloning (Jurassic Park), each sci-fi story revolves around a disruptive technology that completely reorders the world in its image.

Typically, when the technology is first introduced, it is viewed—especially by its makers—as a revolutionary development that will transform society for the better. While there might be a few rumblings around the edges by malcontents and luddites, overall, people are convinced that a major problem has finally been solved.

However, not long into the story, something goes wrong, and the very people who created the technology or who benefited from it are now threatened by their creation, with the fate of the entire world potentially hanging in the balance if the technology is not brought back under control, destroyed or kept from falling into the wrong hands. A struggle ensures, and in the end, order may be restored, but it often comes at a tremendous cost. When the smoke clears, lingering doubts remain about how long the new status quo will last or if human “progress” is all it’s cracked up to be.

This story pattern is similar whether the threat unleashed takes the form of a device (HAL 9000) or some sort of monster (Godzilla, Frankenstein). In the latter case, it’s the monster rather than a device that must be defeated or destroyed. But in the end, the technology that gave rise to it is often targeted for destruction as well (think of the mob descending upon Dr. Frankenstein’s lab) to make sure the monster can never arise again.

Science fiction stories may bend the laws of physics, but they rarely break them.

Even if a sci-fi story appears to break one or more laws of physics, a plausible explanation will usually be offered to justify the apparent discrepancy. In this regard, although a series like Star Wars is often classified as science fiction, seeing as it involves spaceships and robots, it actually has more in common with fantasy. The stories certainly employ all sorts of disruptive technology, such as the Death Star, that unleash a battle for control, but the truly disruptive power in the Star Wars universe is the Force, which is essentially a form of magic. Furthermore, Star Wars has little to no regard for the laws of physics. Rather than build the story by extrapolating on these laws, it ignores them altogether.

On a metaphorical level, science fiction stories reflect our ambivalence toward our own technological progress.

Whether we’re talking about nuclear weapons, surveillance technology, genetic modification of food, cloning or other forms of biotechnology, science fiction is a great way to explore the pros and cons of human curiosity, technological advancements, and our desire for power and control. While such stories tend to be pessimistic in tone, rather than an absolute rejection of technology, they are more often offered as cautionary tales, urging us to look before we leap. Such stories tend to argue that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

Fantasy fiction revolves around the introduction of a disruptive power or being.

Similar to science fiction, fantasy stories typically grow out of the introduction of a powerful force or magical being that disrupts the status quo and threatens to destroy the world or reorder the world in its evil image. Rather than a new threat created by human technology or advancement, however, this threat is often a reintroduction of an ancient evil, such as Sauron in Lord of the Rings or Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, someone or something long thought to be vanquished but which has somehow found a way to rise again. This evil may be resurrected intentionally by someone who hopes to use it to their advantage, or it could happen unintentionally, like Smeagol stumbling across the ring of power in the Lord of the Rings. Similar to a science-fiction story, once the evil is vanquished, an effort may be made to ensure the evil can never rise again, such as destroying whatever relic or individual brought the evil back. Also similar to science fiction, fantasy stories can function as cautionary tales, but instead of warning us against human progress, they warn us against selfishness and transgressing cultural taboos.

While science fiction is rooted in the possible, fantasy fiction is rooted in the impossible.

Both science fiction and fantasy fiction follow rules, but in fantasy fiction, the rules are different from the ones that govern the real world. As mentioned, science fiction merely extrapolates the laws of physics into the future or to a degree not yet reached by humanity. Fantasy fiction can operate by a completely different set of laws. That’s not to say fantasy stories don’t also follow a rigid internal logic, but readers of fantasy fiction don’t necessarily want to know how Gandalf is able to summon powerful spells in some moments but not at others or what sort of power he’s tapping into when he does. All they care about is whether or not he’s able to come through in a crisis—and what will happen if he fails. 

Whenever fantasy writers attempt to offer an explanation for how the world of magic works, that’s when they fail. Star Wars is exhibit A in this regard. The moment the Force went from being described as an energy field created by all living things, something that surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together to instead being the product of midi-chlorians, intelligent microscopic life forms that originated from the foundation of life at the center of the galaxy, all of the mystery and magic that made the Force so interesting disappears. 

Unlike science fiction, which goes to great lengths to explain the force that’s disrupting the universe, fantasy cloaks everything in mystery, and if you’re writing fantasy stories, I advise you to do the same.

I’m sure many other similarities and distinctions can be made between the two genres, but this should serve as a good starting point as you pursue your own writing in this area. 

Kevin Miller
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