There’s been a lot of talk lately about the genre of creative works known as science fiction and its place relative to the total body of creative work and I feel the need to weigh in with my opinion. The recent discussion about literary sci-fi only made this more interesting to me.

I have always believed that science fiction was a further classification of fantasy, with fantasy being a classification of fiction overall. For me then, the hierarchy would be:

Fiction -> Fantasy -> Science Fiction

Why do I draw this distinction? Because there are lots of works of fiction that aren’t really fantastic. A lot of mainstream TV is in this category, shows like NUMB3RS, The West Wing, and My Name is Earl. They try to be dramatic or comedic or tragic but heavily based on reality.

There are also lots of works of fantasy. These try to bend reality in some way by including an element that is clearly fantastic. Stories involving magic, or psychic powers or faster than light travel all show up here. I struggle with the right name here because the word fantasy means something to lots of people – things like elves and magic, for example. However the OED’s definition of fantasy doesn’t mention any of that, but merely the employment of the imagination.

Science Fiction to me is a further classification that often involves what is plausible as opposed to what is generally viewed as not. But of course, this isn’t always workable either – right now our science seems to suggest that faster than light travel is impossible, yet we allow it to seem plausible in what is viewed as classic science fiction. John commented on this in the past.

I believe that fantasy and science fiction are quite similar – not the least of which is that they are in the same section of your local bookseller. Now, I’m sure there are many of you that can’t stand to see all those seemingly endless books on elves, faries, and magic taking valuable shelf space away from your treasured science fiction books – but then these are the times we live in (I daresay that JK Rowling is as much to blame for this as anybody.) John has a comment about the seemingly arbitrary nature of some fantasy books making it difficult for him to suspend his disbelief (well, at least I think that’s what he is saying.) I agree with that – the Deus ex machina effect present in some fantasy seems too convenient. But otherwise they aren’t that far apart, I’m sure we see the similarities in popular works such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. I’ll never forget a series of otherwise forgettable books by Jack Chalker called the Soul Rider series that started off as a fantasy series full of magic until it is revealed that it’s (spoiler alert) all the product of a vast computer system hidden in the planets core capable of reading thoughts and performing energy-to-matter conversion.

Star Wars: Fantasy or Sci Fi?
There are many that have stated they find Star Wars to really be a work of fantasy or just a rehashed western, and to a large extent I agree – the force is the same as magic, and other parts of the film are almost the same as the old west (X-wings are horses, shootouts, etc.) But it is the Death Star which I believe forces the movie into the realm of science fiction. This moon-sized, planet destroying space station is the one element making it uniquely science fiction, to me.

Ultimately I believe the fact that so much of science fiction writing seems possible is part of what draws us to it. I enjoy hard science fiction a lot because it seems that much more possible, but I can’t deny I enjoy plenty of softer science fiction as well. A lot of fantasy drops into the completely implausible and that makes it hard to suspend your disbelief.

But the best part of science fiction has to do with the ideas! It’s the dream of many of us to imagine man spreading throughout the starts, speeding nanobots through our bodies, tinkering with our genes and ultimately discovering life beyond Earth. The exploration of these concepts are what separates science fiction from fantasy. Certainly we enjoy the exciting plots of Jack Vance, the breadth of thinking from Arthur C. Clarke, the amazing prose of Gene Wolfe, and the strong characters of Dan Simmons. But it is the ideas they bring forward that makes this genre much more than just pulp fiction. The time machine of H.G. Wells, the robots of Isaac Asimov, the clones of David Brin or the genetically modified humans of Robert Heinlein – and many, many more – are the ideas that fuel our imagination. The help us think about what man can be and should be. They help us dream, and help us expand our understanding of ourselves.

The genre struggles for respect in many ways, partly because there is plenty of pulp, but largely because the literary community isn’t interested in ideas, as much as it is characters and prose. This is a shame, really, because these ideas have the opportunity to shape us in a way that good prose – regardless of how good – never can.

I’ll leave you with this – which of these statements have the opportunity to shape our future?

  • There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
  • A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

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