Big Break Studios posted a blog recently about genre busting, and that got me thinking about the interesting divide between science fiction and fantasy.

tardisFantasy and science fiction fans have an oddly antagonistic side.  I think part of this is due to what makes fantasy and science fiction fun.  Who was the best Doctor? Which craft would win in a race? Which craft would win in a fight? Which character would win in a fight?

It wasn’t until I really started finding my stride as an author that I noticed this strange habit of fans of one genre not appreciating the other. How big is it? How prevalent? I don’t know, big enough to notice? Anecdotally, for every fan I hear that screams at the other genre, I hear another that just enjoys a good story. The inspiration from this post is that the very fact that these two genres aren’t more closely linked surprises me.

So I thought I’d sit down and talk about the largest areas of contention.  NOTE: All of this is anecdotal, I’m curious if anyone has a more analytical example.

Possible vs Impossible: The Science in Science Fiction.

mathematics-1509559_960_720Speculative science is the heart of any science fiction novel. A science fiction writer is bound by unwritten contract between himself and his readers (I’m a guy, so I’m using the male personal pronoun). Things have to have rules. There must be an explanation for how, scientifically, this story is plausible.  I actually FIRST encountered this in high school science. The teacher was quite admit about disproving any and every science fiction movie out there. As he continued to dispute each movie, I couldn’t help but realize he must have ACTUALLY watched them. Weather he did that just to disprove it or enjoy it is really more of a personal issue, but the point is he watched them. Brandon Sanderson mentioned a discussion he’d had on a panel regarding magic systems and then released his “Laws” on magic.  This brings me to the point of contention:

Science fiction fans want a plausible, scientific reason to justify the possibility of the story. Fantasy fans want a sense of wonder. Feel free to argue and debate this point, but I’ve already said this evidence is anecdotal and these opinions are mine. It’s also my opinion that the reason science fiction fans demand plausibility is the very fact that they want to believe this story could happen. One (fantasy) is about escape where the other (scifi) is about hope.  (And let the debate on that assertion begin).

I don’t really care about this particular sticking point, as I believe both genres do what matters most: They show readers who they can be, if only…If only we strive to travel the stars, we could learn so much more. If only, to me, means nothing more than, “when we.”

spaceship-1188391_960_720
I know neither of this are either of the ships I mentioned, but I fear copyright in some cases.

Try this experiment:  Go to a convention. Find a pair arguing about weather the Falcon could beat the Enterprise in a space battle.  Go to them and explain it doesn’t matter because a team of dragon riders from Pern could take them both down at the same time. Before they get going. Make sure you specify that these “dragons” are in reality nothing more than genetically enhanced alien lizards that evolved through cloning and gene modifications.  Call this your control group.

Then, go do the same thing with another pair of fans, but don’t explain the genetic modification tools.  Try not to laugh as this pair of individuals debating the military characteristics of non-existent spacecraft looks you in the eyes and says, “it doesn’t matter because dragons aren’t real.”  I’ve done this experiment, but I failed to avoid laughing. I’m sometimes a petty person.

cat-1299082_960_720Most of the derision I see across these genres comes from that particular fissure in the genre planet. A few authors are doing fantastic things, and that’s inspired me. What if fantasy authors worked a little harder to make their magic plausible? What if science fiction authors worried a little less about how possible things are? I have two projects in the works that I think pay tribute to both genres. They’re primarily fantasy in terms of marketing but when I can explain something scientifically, I do. The magic systems in each project (Perception of War, the series Sojourn in Despair comes from, is one of them) is fairly hard (if you subscribe to Sanderson’s First Law).

I think there’s a trick to that though. That trick is commitment to your core genre. You want to avoid Deus Ex Machina whenever possible. A story that ends on an overly convenient plot device, regardless of genre, isn’t going to go over well with the fans.  But this divide I’m discussing, I think, comes more from this assertion:

Fantasy fans are more willing to suspend disbelief than science fiction fans.

So, if you’re writing fantasy, I wouldn’t recommend taking three chapters to dissect your magic system right up front. Fantasy readers usually stop at, “Guy can fly.” It’s wonderful to weave in a few explanations of powers as the story progresses, especially if that ability is going to be the key to saving the universe (see Sanderson’s First Law). Science fiction fans demand more details. They’ll want to understand how things are possible sooner, and are therefore more willing to accept large data chunks in the story early on, (accept and larger are dangerously unspecific terms).

What are your thoughts? Which side of the line do you fall under?  Also, I meant what I said. A wing of dragon riders of Pern, and I’d argue a single dragon like Ruth or Mnementh could take out both starships. Seriously.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

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24 thoughts on “The (Hopefully Decreasing) Divide Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

  1. You pose some interesting questions here! I’ve heard these debates, but I don’t usually take part in them.

    I don’t like to have to suspend disbelief in a story, whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi or anything else. That doesn’t mean I need the story to measure up to what I think is possible in real life, though. I just want a consistent story world.

    So, for me, Deus Ex Machina should never come up. Even if God or a God-like character–say Chuck Shirley from Supernatural or Q from Star Trek–literally intervenes to save the day, it won’t feel like Deus Ex Machina. I already know that said intervention is possible in this world. (Of course, when Q intervenes it’s probably because he got the crew into the mess to begin with . . . but that’s awesome in its own way.)

    With this approach, I don’t care much if a story is fantasy, sci-fi, visionary fiction, or whatever. I don’t have a deep enough scientific background to judge whether a sci-fi story is offering me a plausible future technology, so I’m going to be looking much harder at the characters, plot, themes and world view. As long as the story world has its own inner consistency, throw whatever magic or technology you want at me.

    One caveat, though. If an author is offering an urban fantasy or the like, and part of her story is set in our actual world, I want to see the real word stuff done right. If she happens to give a character a profession I know really well, and she doesn’t get it right, I will find myself in ‘suspend disbelief’ territory. (Hence choosing a profession for a contemporary character is a scary part of writing for me.)

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    1. I like to keep my urban fantasy urban (as in closer to real than not). I hope I got the occupations down right. I actually enjoy the debate so long as feelings don’t get hurt. Those examples you brought up are great though. A lot of books now have some VERY powerful characters, but they’re more forces of nature and plot devices than anything. I appreciate you stopping by. Sorry for the delayed response. I traveled to the other side of the country, so I’m just now getting my feet under me.

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  2. An interesting question to consider. Personally I’ve never felt that science fiction and fantasy were all that distinct. One is a story about what could happen based on some creative interpretations of the rules that govern our world, while another is based on the rules of a different world.
    I like to think that good storytelling transcends genre, although I do enjoy the escapism of other worlds, other times, both past and future.
    In regards to my writing, I haven’t really settled on anything specific. I tend to write the story, and then after it’s complete come to a decision about how I feel most would categorize it.
    I think whether it’s magic or science, on a subconscious level readers want to develop a sense of the underlying rules and patterns. Nothing needs to be outright stated, but if the author understands the rules that govern why and how something works, that order will come through in the story.
    Also, Dragons…in…space!

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    1. I can say there is absolutely a distinction between the two. The perceived “animosity” maybe isn’t accurate, but they are distinctly different. I’ve already learned that genre is a very real concept. Great stories have elements that blend well, but they still ultimately fall in a single genre. Fans like it, marketers, publishing companies. They use those genres and the formulas they abide to build a sense of reliability. The reader has SOME expectations going into these books, and they should be met. The way you approach it does work, but when you do it that way, you have to step away from yourself and evaluate it like a reader would. Perhaps have your betas offer a genera to you. Dragons always win, man. Everyone knows this.

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      1. I’ve actually heard some compelling arguments that the lines separating the two are becoming less distinct. The most common example is Star Wars, citing that while the concrete setting is science fiction, many of the underlying ideas and plot patterns are more akin to fantasy. Similarly, the Dune series features a medieval government, and the messianic subplot of the Fremen. Even the Matrix, which is predominantly science fiction, has a messiah in the form of “the one”, with powers that are so powerful that they border godhood, contrary to the limits and rules which govern the rest of the diegetic world of the story.

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  3. For me, fantasy novels deal with supernatural phenomena that involve the imagination. Any and all technology is appropriate for the time period. On the other hand, if a novel deals with real world phenomena with technology advanced for its time period and involves physics or mathematics, then I consider it science fiction. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a fantasy because the main character doesn’t time travel to the 6th century and the technology he develops is not advanced for his time. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is science fiction because the technology is beyond the time in which the novel is set.
    But whether it’s fantasy or science fiction, it really annoys me when the unreality is illogical or irrational.

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    1. That’s the most important aspect of it. There has to be consistency. The reader wants realism, and that’s what matters most. All readers have a preconceived idea of their genera. The trick for writers is to determine where the overlap is. It’s okay to stretch, but readers should get what they want form a book. Your classification of the genres is in line with what I believe as well. Thanks for stoping by. I look forward to talking more scifi and fantasy with everyone on the blog.

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  4. ‘Make sure you specify that these “dragons” are in reality nothing more than genetically enhanced alien lizards that evolved through cloning and gene modifications.’

    That sounds suspiciously as if you’re implying these “dragons” are science fiction critters rather than fantasy ones. Next thing, you’ll be saying that a futuristic science fiction story set on a colonized planet where the inhabitants have lost their previously high level of technology is NOT a time-travel story set in the far past… *shakes head*

    “I write this way because I must, because the part of me that wishes to remain honest while telling the calculated lies of fiction feels obligated to indicate in this manner that I do not know everything and that my ignorance, too, must be manifested in the universes which I create.” I may have dropped a comma somewhere — I typed it from memory — but that’s what one of my favorite authors (Roger Zelazny) had to say about blurring the line between science fiction and fantasy.

    (Pernese dragons can teleport. OF COURSE they’d be able to take out a single starship. In fact, they could do it without harming anyone: just pop in, steal some small-but-vital engine part, and pop out again. The Enterprise, built and crewed by people who think of teleportation as a technology-only thing, would never even suspect…)

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    1. I would argue firmly for the belief that Pernese dragons are scifi and not fantasy, but I wouldn’t pound a table or let myself lose a friend over it :). Thanks for stopping by. What you bring though is a fantastic “nerd” question. Are Pernese dragons therefore the dominant power in a fantasy/scifi universe? If not, what would be? (As I think on it, I find it hard to think of what could win in that matchup.)

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      1. I have no idea. The dragons aren’t an “‘I Win!’ button,” if that’s what you mean, but nothing is when the setting is designed properly. Just about any “power” (tech, psi ability, magic, etc.) should have a possible counter, even if that counter is merely “Stop/out-think them or talk them out of it before they have a chance to USE their special whatsit.” I can think of at least one sci-fi novel setting where those dragons wouldn’t be able to teleport onto a ship because the ships are shielded against anyone/anything doing so. And we all know stories where the winner in a fight was the one who thought faster or knew something the “stronger” opponent didn’t.

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