I recently spent some time with my parents camping as a form of vacation. It was an unremarkable if fun time with family. Upon the drive back, things became quite intellectually interesting with a question from my mother, “what’s the real difference between science fiction and fantasy?” Upon first glance, the question seems rather asinine – of course, there’s a distinct difference! Fantasy is clearly fantasy because of the use of magic, and Sci-Fi is clearly sci-fi because of the use of science and technology. Simple, right? Except when it’s not.
I must, therefore, define what makes each unique, as a genre. It cannot be as simple as “one is swords and sorcery and the other is laser guns and space ships.” It is true that fantasy does often involve swords and sorcery, as well as fantastical creatures such as dwarves and giants and dragons. It is also true that science fiction often involves energy weapons and interstellar travel, as well as robots and artificial intelligence. As the resident professor level geek in my family, the question was initially addressed to me, and it led to the initial statement of, “well the difference between is that fantasy doesn’t occur in our world, i.e. LOTR, and Star Wars, and science fiction deals with our world’s future or our past i.e. Star Trek, .” However, we quickly found that that differentiation doesn’t really work, because of titles like Treasure Planet, Supernatural, and Harry Potter easily defying said definition. Basically, we are back to square one.
So where would something like Star Wars, with a foot firmly planted in each genre, fit? Due to the fact that it includes elements of both, we must invent a middle ground: Science fantasy. Even though Star Wars deals with technology and cosmic travel, the use of the all-knowing Force directing the events of the galaxy places it firmly in the realm of fantasy. Other such examples of the genre lines being extremely blurry are found with the Warhammer franchise, which spans literal millennia, the DOOM video game franchise which takes elements from both fantasy horror and sci-fi horror, as well as Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere and Claudio Sanchez’ Coheed & Cambria epic, two franchises that are too difficult to really define as either one or the other.
All of this pretentious lead up leads me to believe this toasty take: the only difference between science fiction and fantasy is how well we understand the magic at hand. Natalie Portman’s character in the MCU famously said “magic is just science we don’t understand yet.” It is this definition that allows the MCU to literally inhabit every corner of both genres, from the dimensional sorcery of Dr. Strange and Thor to the much harder science of Spider-Man and Ant-Man. If the two genres were really so different, could a single franchise really cover so much ground?
To further explain my point of view, let us look back at Writer Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. Books like Elentris, Way of Kings, and Mistborn are all clearly fantasy in the micro – but if you take a big picture point of view, the Cosmere is clearly Science Fiction. Each of his magic systems is built on science, there is a give and take with each system that must be upheld to. There are rules – rules defined by science. Sure it’s fantastical, but each system must be upheld to its rules or the entire thing falls apart.
Basically, Science fiction and fantasy are not binaries, they’re two directions on a single spectrum of a much larger understanding of fantastical fiction. The only true defining aspect of each genre is how deep the understanding of the individual world’s laws go. On the one hand, we have Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, where magic can do whatever, however, simply because the science behind it is not clearly defined. On the other hand, we have Jurassic Park, Eragon, and Full Metal Alchemist – where for everything created, there must be a clearly defined cost. Sometimes the “magic” eschews closer to our understanding of science, like with examples of “hard” sci-fi, like The Martian and Star Trek, and other times gets further away, Like with Star Wars or the Cosmere. Regardless, My point still stands – it’s all one genre.
What’s your take on this conundrum? Lemme know in the comments below what y’all think!