Science Fiction vs. Fantasy: Speaking for the Defense

A new thread at Google Groups asks why Fantasy is gaining market share over science fiction. Reasons include “sensawunda”, difficulty identifying with post-humans and/or truly alien psychology, easier suspension of disbelief in fantasy, elimination of tech that is “not helpful from a story point of view” and flexibility

The replies in the thread are somewhat down on sf, but I would say that these arguments just don’t ring true. For point of reference, I should say that I definitely prefer science fiction over fantasy. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I find very similar arguments for why sf is more to my liking.

First off: Sense of Wonder. Hel-LO! This term was first used in reference to science fiction for a reason. Indeed the term was coined by sf author Hugo Gernsback. What else evokes sense of wonder than something that could conceivably come to pass? It’s quite doubtful that magic and dragons will ever be real. (Although, I’m not too sure about hobbits.)

Being able to identify with characters in a book is a good thing. I agree. And in most cases, the protagonist of fiction stories is human or, in the case of sf, shows human characteristics. (I’m guessing that stories where the main character is a dinosaur or wooly mammoth exhibit such human traits as will to survive, etc.) Including post-humans or exotic aliens in a story does not mean it is immediately unidentifiable. Rather, it adds to the glorious “sensawunda” that is the main attraction of sf in the first place.

Suspension of disbelief is critical in both sf and fantasy. In my opinion, fantasy is more likely to be unbelievable because things are explained away by virtue of it simply being magic. However, as discussed previously on this blog by sf author John C. Wright, “…any story, fantastic or mundane, that pulls a solution out of thin air is a bad story.” The point here being that the disbelief is tied to the writing, not the genre.

The same argument for skillful writing can be applied to the argument against technology in a story. Having a futuristic optical light-cone-emitting laser can not only be helpful, it could mean the difference between a stagnant scene and one filled with dramatic tension. Technology is not a storytelling impediment, it is another tool the author can use to evoke wonder. And, in the world of fantasy, aren’t swords and trebuchets the latest technology of the era?

The thread says “In fantasy, you can do whatever you like, which makes it easier to plot. In science fiction, there are all these scientific constraints.” Well, yeah, that’s what makes sf so cool. It exists within the bounds of scientific reason. Doing whatever you like is what makes fantasy so much harder to swallow. See previous comment on suspension of disbelief.

The thread, especially the comments section, says more. Don’t even get me started on quality of writing in one genre vs. another. “Quality” is a subjective term and to assume that one genre attracts the cream of the crop is ridiculous. Every genre has it’s good and bad writers, its literary and hack writers, and an infinite number of gradients in-between. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In terms that the raging fantasy fanboys in the thread can understand, is Terry Brooks fit to wear J.R.R. Tolkien’s jockstrap?

I have no idea why fantasy is outselling sf. Maybe Harry Potter makes it fashionable? For sure, the points mentioned in the thread are not the reason.

20 thoughts on “Science Fiction vs. Fantasy: Speaking for the Defense”

  1. Excellent post John, and I will say that I like both genres pretty well. Although lately my focus has been more on Sci-Fi since many fantasy stories roll up the exact same way – save the Eoin Colfer Artemis Fowl books. But ultimately, fantasy is selling well due to the popularity of Harry Potter. I mean lets face it there is a marketing engine at work here that is pushing similar themes down folks throats. I was in Waldenbooks in the mall a couple weeks ago (and we all know how much that store is loved here) and they had a whole display setup that showed Harry Potter and other fantasy novels for younger readers. There was no Sci-Fi equivalent at this point. Personally, I don’t think it has anything to do with the writing or the themes, but more in how the books are advertised. I mean if Harry Potter were a space marine recruit going to OCS on Mars would there be a glut of novels in a similar vein?

  2. My guess as to why Fantasy is outselling Science Fiction (and this is only one man’s guess):

    1. Our culture has changed since the days when scientific speculation about the possibility of flight out of the earth’s atmosphere and to other planets was speculation.

    Science Fiction is naturally a literature of the head, in that it deals with the real constraints of engineering and physics. With apologies to Michael Moorcock and the New Wave, there is a natural tendency for the heroes of SF to be engineers and scientists, unemotional men who use reason to solve problems.

    Technology horrifies too many modern men, and our culture, as a whole no longer prizes the use of reason to solve problems.

    Fantasy is naturally a literature of the heart, in that it deals with problems solved by emotion, or faith, or magical thinking. Frodo does not outsmart Sauron: he prevails because his heart is pure, and because Supernatural Fate intervenes at the last moment. One might think fantasies like LORD OF THE RINGS would appeal only to the most nostalgic of conservative tastes: people who admired the romance and mystique of monarchy. But the sense that modern civilization has poisoned the Earth, that technology is Mephistopheles, that we all need to return to the Earth and Get Back to the Garden is a widespread idea among in academia and in Hollywood. These ideas have a natural resonance with a fairy-tale version of the middle ages: if only magic actually had worked, then we could all live as hobbits or elves, in union with nature, without the factory-smog of Mordor tainting the air.

    Whether one thinks it a good thing or a bad, it is beyond dispute that the culture in the 1940’s and 1950’s was a culture that prized pragmatism, grit, manliness, and hard-headed practicality. Look at the difference between what the public thought about the bombing of Hiroshima when it happened and what the public is lead to think about it now. No man in the 40’s and 50’s got in touch with his feminine side, not in public.

    The culture was different. There were more boys who like airplanes and rockets than there were boys who liked elves.

    2. Our technology has changed. In the Golden Age of science fiction, advances in atomics, aeronautics, and astronautics allowed writers to envision a future that very easily lent itself to an adventure story: namely, the planetary romance. Strap on your blaster and jump in the space-rocket the mad professor next door made in his back yard, and go to Mars to shoot four-armed barsoomians and marry the princess.

    Modern technology does not as easily lend itself to the adventure story. Biology, for example, can lend itself to tales of posthumans and superhumans or bio-discrimination (such as the lamentably under-appreciated movie GATTACA); or advances in computers can stimulate the vast and vastly fertile imagination of someone like Walter Gibson or Bruce Sterling. So cutting edge tech can still prompt a sense of wonder, but it takes more skill to organize such ideas into a tale with thrills, chase scenes, giants, torture, murder, and rescuing the princess. It is easier to for a writer to shoot an astronaut through space to Mars and fight a Mars-giant with his ray-gun than it is to land a cybernaut in cyberspace and fight a cyber-giant with his L33t hacker Skillz.

    3. Our expectations have changed. In the Golden Age of science fiction, the possibility that technology would dramatically shape our lives by the year 2000 was a possibility that contained drama, and was ignored by the mainstream. Here in the future of 2005 AD, the notion is so widely accepted, that it is no longer as much a source of fascination. The main political debate this country faces today is about cloning. Science fiction is harder to writer because people who actually live in Sciencefictionland (like us) are not as easily thrilled and impressed.

    4. Hard Science Fiction is naturally more difficult to write well than fantasy, because both writer and reader need to be familiar with the basics of science. While high fantasy requires a certain poetry of prose, so to speak, sword-and-sorcery does not. The Science Fiction writer usually has to do more homework than the fantasy writer, and a damn sight more math.

    (I need to get my physicist friend to help me out when I write SF. For my fantasy, all I need do is dream.)

    JCW

  3. My thoughts are:

    Public interest ebbs and flows like the tide – it moves from topic to topic and back like a pendulum (Foucault even.) Right now fiction interest lies more towards fantasy, tomorrow or next year or next decade it might be all about sci-fi again. I believe this is natural – much like the reader who moves from one author to another or style to another in their own personal reading habits. This shouldn’t surprise us.

    The global village acts more like a group of teenage girls than a group of college professors. In other words, what is believed to be hot gets attention while the rest does not. The internet shortens the time difference between what the US and Asia and Europe thinks and so we see global movement towards this and more quickly than ever before. I’d argue that this is natural and the rate of change is increasing – before you know it we’ll be talking about 0-day fashions. As a society we’ll return to our love of sci-fi when an accessible sci-fi book becomes popular. Harry Potter in space – you heard it here first.

    The sci-fi of the 50’s was often born out of fear of technology – that the bomb or the atom or the robot will turn out to destroy us or change us beyond recognition. That this hasn’t happened is obvious, and people have learned to adapt to such rapid change – or are at least more tolerant and less afraid. This means that fiction about this is less interesting – reading about how radiation turns a man into a spider just doesn’t cut it. I predict that this too will return – something in technology will scare us again (genetic tampering or nanotechnology or bio-terrorism) and our appetite for fiction that helps us explore those fears will increase.

    Personally, I’m happy to see the more casual, ‘in it for the money’ author leave the sci-fi genre – I’d cringe to see Mercedes Lackey getting into sci-fi. Let sci-fi be ruled by the authors that are in the genre because it calls to them and they aren’t afraid to include technology and its impact on our lives. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that publishers want sci-fi authors to create ‘buxom images of the new reality.’ I like that thought – let’s stretch the boundaries of where we are going as humanity and sci-fi is a great way to do it.

  4. Just an FYI Scott – Mercedes Lackey has done some “sci-fi” books or maybe they are better termed fantasy in space :) Go go Baen books.

    And I will agree culture in general runs from this fad to the next – another visit to our local Waldenbooks illustrates that with the large selections of shelf space now dedicated to Anime books and young adult series, but for “us” (and I use that term loosely) I think there is still a good supply of quality books with many authors still catering to this genre. At least I hope so :)

  5. A good post with insightful comments, but JCW’s is so good I’m going to have to use some of my bookstore credit on one of his books! However, I have one slight correction/addition. When he writes:

    In the Golden Age of science fiction, the possibility that technology would dramatically shape our lives by the year 2000 was a possibility that contained drama, and was ignored by the mainstream.

    True, sf has never been really mainstream, in the way Westerns were, among anyone other than boys. Still, “the future” had been a common topic in popular culture at least since Edison, with the core assumption that this future was being created by engineers and inventors. Newsreels, Sunday supplements, Popular Science and especially Modern Mechanix kept such things in the public consciousness.

    So, I’d argue that the popular “What’ll they think of next?” meme is actually pretty close to a science fiction sensibility. But for most it was a momentary amusement, and not a fannish Way of Life.

    Another point: science fiction is about the future, and fantasy is usually about the past, or at least takes place in some time that isn’t in our future. Fantasy requires no progress, but sf does. When the future looks dark or confusing, fantasy is much more comforting.

  6. Oh I was so with PapayaSF until the last sentence:

    When the future looks dark or confusing, fantasy is much more comforting.

    Historically I don’t think that has been true – instead, when something is dark or confusing that’s when it has success in the fiction world. Fiction is a way of exploring our fears – of pushing the limits in a viceral manner without it being too real just yet. Books help us in that way – allowing scenarios to play out in our mind and give us a way to push on that fear without it being real yet.

  7. Personally, I find the “fantasy is more comforting” idea a bit of a hoot. Most fantasy readers (and writers as well, I suspect) have little idea of how tough life **really** was in the technological equivalent of a fantasy world. Lack of medicine? Lack of clean water? Lack of properly prepared (and stored) food? No thanks! I’ll take a SF world!

    As for uplifting, there are plenty of SF books that have uplifted and comforted me. I credit a lot of Clifford Simak’s books in bringing me back from the brink post-9/11. Clarke has inspired me a lot. Same with Asimov, Heinlein and dozens of others.

    I’ve read fantasy extensively, as well, but probably more of the classic stuff than the post-D&D craze stuff. I really haven’t found any of the newer stuff to be all that comforting or inspiring.

    As for style, both genres, I think, excel when they obey rules. When the author sets up the universe and sets up the “operating system”, I think that the fiction works best when he or she stays within the constraints of that system. When you bend the rules or ignore the rules, then you are being lazy. Skull sweat might have given you a better story.

  8. It’s worth rememberin that Fantasy has been gradually overtaking science fiction in the book market for over 20 years now. It starts with Terry Brooks and the original Shannarah trilogy I think. They had a wider appeal than the more “difficult” Thomas Covenant books of the same time period.

    More recently you see huge successes like the Wheel of Time books and thats when formula fantasy really gains control The Sword of Truth series is the same way. Harry Potter is certainly part of the growing popularity of fantasy, but it was happening anyway.

    As for why Fantasy is outselling science fiction. I think the answer is very simple. Its more accessible. There’s a lot of good science fiction out there, but a lot of it is a difficult read. The majority of the easy reading in science fiction is tv tie-in fiction.

    While calling a lot of fantasy “formula fiction” is a little derogatory, the truth is that many readers (and if I’m honest I have to include myself in this) LIKE formula fiction. Thats part of the appeal of Harry Potter, or The Wheel of Time or even a less popular series like The Dresden Files. We don’t really want huge shocks or surprises. We like to know roughly what we can expect in a book we’re spending money and time on. Formulas are reassuring.

  9. Star Trek novels are formula fiction. So are David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels. But…how many Star Trek novels have really **stuck** with you? Personally, I only count one.

    The same will be true of a lot of formula fiction in the fantasy genre. How many of them will stick with you? At some point you’ll get tired of a constant diet of light-weight tales.

    Hopefuly then you (and this is the generic “you”, for those who consume those mass quantities) will make the leap to more substantial fantasy. Try Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, heck, even Susanna Clarke sometime, you may find the effort worthwhile. Try some Tim Powers, some Neil Gaiman. Wander through the works of Ray Bradbury or Lord Dunsany. You may never go back to the Wheel of Time.

    Fantasy can be as “difficult” or less “accessible” as much as science fiction can. Science fiction can be as “accessible” or less “difficult” than fantasy can. The same can be stated of any genre of fiction. Mystery novels? “Chick lit”? Mainstream fiction? You name it, there are all sorts of levels.

    I’m currently reading the USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos. Nope, it isn’t science fiction, but it was the model for a “difficult” SF novel (Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner). The going is a bit tough, but it’s worth the effort. Later this year I’ll tackle Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon and probably The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis (keep checking the Year in Books 2005 entry at my blog to see how I do).

    On the other manipulator, I’ll be reading the latest Harry Potter, working my way through more Honor Harrington books as well as other lighter weight items. You need to mix it up a bit.

    A steady diet of heavy weights is not good. Neither is a steady diet of light weights. Exapand your mind and feed your head.

  10. My points were directed towards why fantasy was gaining marketshare over science fiction. The fact that formula fiction might not be as literary, or as clever or great a writing achievement doesn’t relate at all to marketshare.

    Look at TV, what are the big hits? Multiple cop-show variants, all running to a formula. Then from time to time something different comes along (lets say The Sopranos) and shocks the system a bit, but in the end… most people are still watching CSI and Law and Order, not Sopranos.

    The fantasy genre right now is producing a lot of formula fiction and thus it’s gaining marketshare. There’s some original and challenging fantasy out there too, but that’s not what’s driving book sales.

    Science Fiction could do the same thing, but I think if it did then most of the people who’d posted in this thread would just be complaining that the marketshare for “good” science fiction was suffering.

    More often than not “formula” will outsell “challenging” or “unique” in any genre. Thats just life.

  11. Hmm, several good points here which I wouldn’t dream of trying to expand upon. One thought though that maybe wasn’t hit as much (looking back quickly) was that due to technology being a part of our daily lives so much (my typing on a blog, using wearable technology, etc) I would consider it possible that people are using Fantasy book as escapism, to view a world not as the reality was (poor to no sanitation, minimal education, etc) but to what they envision it to be. Centaurs and wizards and giants oh my! It could very well be that people are sort of self-medicating their own stress levels by reading some intellectual cotton candy (mashed potatoes, potato chips, substitute your own useless filler food here) with fantasy rather than sci-fi which by its own definition seeks to create a viable alternative to our modern world. Is Warp Drive for example likely to happen, probably not…but it could. The star trek communicator however, those are probably bigger than my cell phone currently is (unless you count the cheesy ones you clip on your shirt from TNG). The point is, for people that are stressed out, reality tv’d out (which isn’t real..I know) and tired of dealing with the world in general, they would prefer a complete escape to where the bad guy always looses, the guy gets the girl, and it’s relatively cut and dried and that more often than not describes a fantasy book. Two cents worth..plus a little change

    Doug

  12. And to tie the two spectrums together (and throw in an “accessible” science fiction story to boot!), how about “The Saturn Game” by Poul Anderson. Astronauts on a voyage to the Saturn system get caught up in a fantasy roleplaying scenario to the point where they can no longer distinguish reality from fantasy and throw the mission into jeopardy.

  13. I think yas all should get a life. Im being forced to study this crap for an assignment, and its boring enough. Let alone doing it in my spare time. Maybe if yas got off your computers and stop talkin about whats better out of fantasy and science fiction, you could start turning your fantasy into a reality! But im pretty sure your fantasy would involve some twisted creature that consumes (metaphorically) and navagates its way through your large dark cave that never shuts up, and theres two bodly positions on your body i could be refering to. Hav a good nite!

  14. Ummm, gee, Mark, given the quality of spelling in your three posts, I would have to say that you are not doing a very good job at that studying. Have you ever heard of a “dictionary”? Or if that’s too difficult, how about a “spell checker”?

  15. Its really quite simple – SF&F readers go to specialist bookshops or SF&F sections of general bookshops.

    But general readers often pickup something at Target, K-Mart, etc & what do these have – mainly ‘best seller’ fantasy eg McCaffrey, etc whereas your SF&F fan is reading say Turtledove (if reading fantasy)& Banks, Hamilton, Reynolds, MacLeod, Baxter, etc.

    Occasionally they also have some SF like Peter Hamilton.

    As to Honor Harrington – can not compare this to Star Trek.

    Formulaic is a term too easily abused – too broad a definition encompasses every series that has has a continuity of main character(s) whether TV, bestseller fiction or literary fiction.

  16. “As to Honor Harrington – can not compare this to Star Trek.”

    Why not? They are both SF. They are both serials. They are both space opera. They are both formula fiction. They are both rather shallow in terms of character and complex plotting. They both have legions of fanboys and fangirls. Etc.

    What’s not to compare?

  17. I don’t think there is anything complicated to explain why Fantasy is outselling Scifi. Both span quite a huge amount of books and ideas. You can write a fantasy book about the middle ages and go with realism (a lot of research goes into that) or you can write one about magic and fairies and wizards. You can write about a scifi with pulse lasers and ship thrusters and complex tech terminology (again, a lot of research), or you can write one that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where aliens harvest people with giant steel pods (from a humans perspective, there’s no need to know how the pods work , so scifi doesn’t always require excessive amounts of research). And there are plenty of each kind out there, simple scifi and fantasy, and complex (and sometimes dry but not always) versions of the genres as well.

    The reason I believe Fantasy is outselling Science Fiction is because it just so happens that more people are enjoying Harry Potter than Starshield. There are simply more books out there within the Fantasy genre that are appealing to people right now. There’s no social reason other than these are good books. Honestly, have you seen a Harry Potter equivalent Science Fiction book? I haven’t.

    It’s how all products work, there are dips and rises. This happens to be Fantasy’s rise in the market. It might last it might not, but it’s no more beating out Science Fiction than Science Fiction would be beating it if Meyer’s The Host caught on like Twilight.

    The real question is, why are authors like J.K. Rowling so popular as opposed to others? My guess: They’re better writers in the eyes of more people, and as a result (because they thought up a story that happened to be Fantasy [we writers rarely go thinking up what genre we’ll write when first starting out, just what story]) the genre they write has been boosted. Nothing complex at all, pure competitive economics.

    I would personally like to see Science Fiction take more strides in the YA realm of fiction. Talk about boosting sales.

    Anyway, good blog, I agree.

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