News Ticker

World Building: Fantasy vs. Science Fiction

There’s a long, multi-site discussion thread going on the favorite of favorite topics – genre definitions. In this case it’s science fiction and fantasy under the spotlight. At the risk of adding to the websites that are tracking this, I summarize the discussion here. Still, if the topic interests you, I would suggest reading the individual author posts in their entirety.

It all started with fantasy author Sarah Monette’s blog, Notes from the Labyrinth, and a series of “Thinking Out Loud” posts. The first part, Toward a Praxis of World-Building, attempts a definition at world-building in sf/f.

I’ve said elsewhere that it’s a slight misnomer to describe sf/f as a genre (or genres), because what they really are is modes of storytelling defined by their setting. But what I’ve just explained to myself–and to any of y’all who are still with me–is the fact that, yes, they are a genre, because setting in sf/f isn’t setting. It’s world. And the world is part and parcel of the stories that are told and the manner of their telling. If you can transplant a science fiction or fantasy story into a mainstream setting, it isn’t speculative fiction. That isn’t to say it’s a bad story, simply to say that the marker of the specific genre is that the setting and the plot are codependent on each other.

She follows that with Part 2, enticingly subtitled “Fantasy vs. Science Fiction“:

There is a difference between the world-building in fantasy and the world-building in science fiction (although, like every other genre distinction in the world, it can be collapsed if you want to, and there are some stories I’m working on that are trying to do just that), and that difference is actually the refutation of Clarke’s Law. Technology and magic are distinguishable, because the world-building they engender supports different kinds of stories. Characters and cultures (and authors) interact differently with a world that is predicated on technology from a world which is predicated on magic.

Put your surfing shoes on, because sf author Ted Chiang has a response to this with his “Technology, magic, and consciousness” post.

…a useful way to understand the difference between SF and fantasy is to consider the difference between science and magic. This isn’t a question of conforming to current scientific understanding; we can imagine an alternate set of physical laws without calling them magic. I submit that what distinguishes magic from science — even imaginary science — is the role of consciousness. Magic has a subjective component — the intention, desire, or willpower of the practitioner — that is explicitly excluded from scientific experimentation

Not content with merely hopping between two websites, the thread makes an appearance on sf author Jeff VanderMeer’s website, where he has an interesting chat with a hopefully imaginary Evil Monkey that has a weakness for vodka…

Evil Monkey:

So does fantasy work really well in a pre-industrial setting?


If it does, it’s because lazy writers are using old tropes and old backdrops and just dusting them off before they use them. Yeah, there’s a lot of heroic fantasy with pre-industrial settings. I don’t know, though, that the setting is as important as the mind-set behind it. The minds creating these books are still from a post-industrial world. That has to affect how the writer writes the book. Some more than others, obviously.

Meanwhile, Sarah Monette had posted a Part 3: “What the Heck Was I Talking About Anyway?“:

The problem with genres is that they are Ouroboran. They eat their own tales. (I am so leaving that typo exactly the way it is.) A genre is defined by the works in it, and a work’s genre is defined by … yeah. You see the problem. And yet, you can come to a workable consensus of what a genre is, even though no single work will have all the characteristics defined as typical of the genre, and most works in a genre will have characteristics that don’t fit. It’s that kind of discipline, genre theory, and I like it because what it’s interested in are the places where the definitions don’t hold and the boundaries become infinitely permeable.

Not content in the discussion, Sarah has a Part 4: “and why am I talking about it?“:

And trying to define science fiction and fantasy–although most of the time, honest to Pete, it’s as silly a pastime as teaching a duck-billed platypus to tango–has the potential to help us understand what’s going on when we write science fiction and fantasy, and what’s going on when we read it. Entertainment, you say, and yes, that’s true, but if entertainment is all we’re after, there’s no need to bother with stories that invent ansibles and FTL drives and generation ships (on the one hand) or talk about wizards and selkies and ghouls (on the other). Storytelling is the universal, it’s the particular localizations that tell you about the storyteller and the storyteller’s audience.

There are other ancillary comments floating arounnd by others (for example Emerald City and WeirdWriter, from whom I found this thread), so read to your heart’s content. Or, if you prefer, go watch the badgers.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

11 Comments on World Building: Fantasy vs. Science Fiction

  1. My only comment is that I don’t think Clarke’s Law was intended to be applied to storytelling. It’s meant to be used in the ‘real world’ where sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That doesn’t mean we can’t take a guess at the science behind the ‘magic’ or to believe that science is being used even if we can’t/don’t understand what it is. And, certainly, there are fantasy settings where technology is treated like magic, Gene Wolfe springs to mind, but I see her point although I don’t believe Clarke’s Law should be used to make it.

    Oh, and any post that uses an imaginary, vodka swilling Evil Monkey is alright in my book!

    As for the distinction between SF/F, well, I’ll go all Ed Meese on you and say ‘I can’t tell you what SF is, but I know it when I see it’. And the funny thing is, my distaste for fantasy is well known, but, the more I’ve been reading, I realize my distaste is more of the ‘classic’ fantasy variety. That is, those stories told in the mold of Tolkein with elves, trolls, orcs and such, and using a lot of magic and prophecies. That would include Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks and their ilk. I will say that I enjoy Gene Wolfe’s fantasy books because they are different. The same with Scott Erikson’s stuff, George R.R. Martin and, the book I’m reading now, Lord Valentine’s Castle. None of these are classic fantasy, although Erikson’s books come close, but are more of a military take. The other’s have a healthy does of SF under the covers. I guess I really like the fusion of sci-tech in a fantasy world. Almost as much as I like the harder SF only stories. But that’s just me…

  2. Update: John Scalzi offers his own acid test of sf vs. fantasy.

  3. Even more SF versus Fantasy discussion

    SFSignal: World Building: Fantasy vs. Science Fiction That cross-blog/Lj discussion about the differences between SF and Fantasy that involves Chiang, Monette, Bear and Vanderemeer that I mentioned the other day has expanded, SF Signal (link above) has…

  4. Allan Rosewarne // December 3, 2005 at 2:39 pm //

    Boys and girls,

    goin to add my $0.02. But I see John Scalzi’s explanation incomplete and non-sastifying, IMO, he’s relying on the tropes used by the story {“Batteries” vs. mystical god power source) and I think the differences go beyond the use of tropes. Please see discussions of Pernverse and Star Wars for how using tropes as classification can be ultimately non accurate. IOW, if one thinks Pern is fantasy since the Pern residents live in a seemingly preindustrial society and environment and there are dragons, well you might want to reconsider. It puzzles me a bit why Cheryl Morgan did not refer back as she did in the last year in Emerald City zine to some analyses done by Gary K Wolfe on the differences between SF and F storytelling.

  5. FYI – legal scholars chill, Ed Meese did not say the line attributed to him by JP, but instead Justice Potter Stewart in a concurring opinion in 1964 overturning a ban on pornographic film.

  6. My commentary on SF vs F.

    They are cut from the same cloth. They are too alike to be claimed as different. That you like one or the other is nice – read what you like and feel free to judge a book by its cover. You’ll miss some great books in both categories if you do, but life is short so it doesn’t really matter.

    Elves are effectively aliens, and you make the same argument for any non-human race in a fantasy setting. Both are just as annoying when promoting the same hackneyed stereotypes. Bug-eyed bipedal aliens are just as lame as pointy-eared elves or long-bearded dwarves with scottish accents.

    Most times, fantasy settings involve faith – faith that ‘magic just works’ or ‘elves just exist.’ There is a reason Tolkien refers to his work as myth – it relies on an element of blind belief, without any ability to really probe and judge the viability of elves or hobbits or dragons. However, SF does the same – the ‘FTL drive just works’ or ‘aliens just exist.’ Both involve you suspending your disbelief – most fiction does, but SF/F requires more of it than most (and this is why there are plenty of SF/F haters out there – they can’t or don’t want to do this.)

    Right now, there is more bad fantasy than bad sci-fi because the ‘follow the crowd for a buck’ fiction authors are all writing there. That’s fine – I’ll tend to avoid fantasy until the pendulum of public opinion swings back the other way.

  7. The saga continues…

    Ted Chiang restates his argument.

  8. Oh, and Hal Duncan has something to say, too.

  9. And I have something to say too:

    You never see Ed Meese and Potter Stewart together do you?

    I rest my case.

  10. The official John C. Wright definitions are: Science Fiction is the mythology of the scientific age; fantasy is the nostalgia of the scientific age for the pre-scientific world view was have (some of us reluctantly) left behind.

    I call it a mythology because SF uses stories and poetic devices to convey a world view. The common elements of the SF world view is that the universe is an inanimate machine whose inner workings are discovered by reason primarily (although luck and elbow grease helps).

    As a mythology, SF stories can have elements which have nothing to do with modern science. Faster-than-light engins and time-travel machines and Vulcan Mind Meld are things held by modern science to be unproven or impossible. Nonetheless, a psionicist who controls the Force through the use of midi-chloridian bodies in his bloodstream occupies a science-fictional universe. The miracles and the magic he does are held to be something that could be explained by scientifically discoverable laws of psychic phenomena.

    Mr. Chiang in his second post touches upon a good point. He says that if you teleport by dialing a destination number in a teleport booth it “feels different” than if you ask a living individual to teleport you by his innate powers.

    The difference in feeling is because the pre-scientific universe was an animate universe, the natural world merely one province in the Supernatural Empire. Our delight in these pagan musings is seeing the panoply and splendor (or thrilling at the grim horrors) of the denizens of the Other World. The thing that makes fantasy fantastic is the magic. A sword-and-sorcery tale without the sorcery would simply be a tale of swords: SCARAMOUCHE by Sabatini, rather than WELL AT THE WORLD’S END by Morris.

    And magic seems magical because it depends on the soul, on the individual powers of Merlin or the wisdom of Gandalf, on the will of the Wounded Fisher King or on the whim of the mercurial fairy.

    Naturally there are overlaps and intersections. Both the Galactic Emperor in STAR WARS and the Padishah Emperor in DUNE live in universes that are fantasy-flavored science fiction. They are swords-and-spaceship epics, with “crazy old wizards” named Kenobi, and “Bene Gesserit Witches? named Lady Jessica. Flash Gordon dons both raygun and swordbelt to go fight the evil Ming of Mongo. The favored weapon of the Galactic Empire is the sword; the favored costume of the Futuristic City is the toga.

    This does not mean the genres do not have their own distinct mood and approach, it merely means that some authors write, and some audiences admire, a past-flavored future: as if an artist were drawing the calligraphy of a medieval manuscript with a modern airbrush pen.

  11. To me it all comes back to how you’re most able to suspend your disbelief. That’s what fiction is all about really – getting you to enjoy the story – no matter the genre or subject – through internalizing it. You empathize or identify with the characters, situations, or actions – and through that find entertainment. Even when the characters are unsympathetic, evil, or just morally opposite we find ourselves enjoying the exploration none the less.

    Some folks seem more willing to believe in fantasy worlds – it’s certainly easy (for some) to just check your brain at the door and go about blindly believing in telepathy, elves, or magical swords. A great example of this is is the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R Donaldson. In this series, Thomas is wisked away to a fantasy setting and attempts to disbelieve in the fantasy world and his newfound magical powers. He fights with it just as the reader does, and Donaldson does a reasonable job getting you, and Thomas, over the hurdle. If you dislike fantasy you might find this series readable, by the way.

    For other readers, that’s just unsatisfying and is too difficult to identify with – they’d like to have a scientific basis for the fictional elements. The science that happens to permit FTL travel or teleportation or telepathy – despite the science being either bogus, unexplained, or based on the latest theories by today’s greatest minds – is easier to accept. Stories such as The War of the World, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Ringworld fall into this category and are all solid entries.

    Certainly some works include elements of both genres. To me Star Wars does this darn well – it has sci-fi in the science that allows the construction of the planet-destroying Death Star and fantasy in the magical element of the force. Jack Chalker’s Soul Rider series does this too – the series starts out as fantasy until the characters realize they are in the equivalent of a massive planet-sized Holodeck.

    One benefit of sci-fi is that it allows the author to explore “What If?” scenarios that simply aren’t possible with fantasy. “What if I were in the past and magic worked?” just doesn’t hold the same intellectual interest as “What if my clone turned on me and tried to kill me?” This is the reason I feel sci-fi holds so much more interest to me than fantasy – I love exploring how things might become, even if they are projecting thousands of years into the future.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: