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Old 04-29-2008, 02:35 PM   #1
Threshold
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Comparing Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, and Fantasy

The discussion in this thread (Science or Fiction) got me thinking about the overall differences between the genres of science fiction, science fantasy, and fantasy.

This set of theories is a work in progress. So be gentle, and feel free to help me flesh it out.

Some quick terms:

SFi = Science Fiction
SFa = Science Fantasy
FA = Fantasy

I think in general, the two main goals of all 3 of these genres are:

1) Escapism: They give the reader, player, or watcher the joy of escaping their real life for a bit to experience an incredibly different world.

2) Confront Modern Issues in a Less Confrontational Way: All three genres tend to address and discuss issues that matter to us in our real lives, but by putting them in such fantastical frames of reference, they are able to boil the issue down more and present it in a way that is a little less contentious or political.

So, where do they diverge?

Fantasy tends to deal more with huge moral issues: good versus evil (Demons vs. Angels. Evil Overlord vs. Knight in Shining Armor, etc.), human rights (slavery, serfs vs. nobles, etc.)

Science Fiction tends to deal more with ethical issues: cloning, artificial intelligence, personal liberties, state control and/or monitoring (Big Brother), utopia/dystopia, etc.

Science Fantasy blurs the lines a bit, and can deal with both pretty easily.

Obviously, there are exceptions. There are fantasy works that may deal with issues of state control, and scient fiction works that deal with good vs. evil. But I think in general, the above generalization holds true.

Anyway, as I said this is a work in progress. I am interested to hear what others think.

Last edited by Threshold : 04-29-2008 at 03:08 PM.
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Old 04-29-2008, 05:14 PM   #2
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Re: Comparing Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, and Fantasy

Wow.

Excellent thread and something I've thought about from time to time. Unique way to describe this. I can't say that I can add to what you've stated, but I think you are on the right track.
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Old 04-29-2008, 06:54 PM   #3
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Re: Comparing Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, and Fantasy

I think science fiction and science fantasy both approach a lot of the same issues, but they do so with different frameworks.

A science fiction "universe" tends to be based more in accepted scientific theory, so that the issues it explores can be dealt with through a filter of what really could happen. In science fantasy, the reins on reality are loosened a lot more, setting aside conventional scientific wisdom to allow for more farflung ideas.

That's not to say you can't have interesting science fantasy elements cropping up in good science fiction - Peter F. Hamilton's books are a good example.
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Old 04-30-2008, 12:57 PM   #4
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Re: Comparing Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, and Fantasy

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A science fiction "universe" tends to be based more in accepted scientific theory, so that the issues it explores can be dealt with through a filter of what really could happen. In science fantasy, the reins on reality are loosened a lot more, setting aside conventional scientific wisdom to allow for more farflung ideas.
I agree. Also, you see a lot of things in science fantasy that seem like traditional fantasy-type elements with a scientific spin.

Magic becomes nanobots (like in Anarchy Online).

Swords become energy swords.

Fireballs become plasma weapons.

While that is often a lot of fun, and I have no problem with it, it is a decidedly different feel than a hard science fiction theme.
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Old 04-30-2008, 03:31 PM   #5
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Re: Comparing Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, and Fantasy

I once read something by Robin Cook, author of "Coma" and many other novels, in which he opined that true science fiction, in his view, is based on the cutting edge hard science of the time, and extrapolates a story from that. The fact that he's a medical doctor, and writes what I would call suspence or even horror novels based on current medical advances, lends credence to the 'science fiction as ethics commentary" label.

I guess the line blurs for me the further into the future such tales get. Star Trek? I'd call it science fantasy typically, except that we now have crude 'communicators' only 40 years after "Kirk out" and "Beam me up, Scotty" became mainstream. Classis Star Trek and ST:TNG prided themselves on using NASA consultants for the basis of their science exposition, so I tend to view it as Sci-Fi, rather than SF.

For no other arbitrary reason than my own personal criteria for which is which:
Starship Troopers, The Fifth Element, Total Recall, Event Horizon, Demolition Man, Star Wars, The Terminator and Dune strike me as Science Fantasy, although each and every one of them contains elements to fit Rod Serling's definition of Sci-Fi. I think it's mostly because they contain portrayals of science hardware, extrapolation of human behavior, or divine-ish alien powers that I just don't think are ever going to be possible. It even makes me cringe a little to lump Dune in with them.

Movies like "Armageddon", "Deep Impact", "Contact", "Dune", "The Postman", "I, Robot", "The Matrix" (barely), "Batman Begins" (yeah, based on a comic book, but much of American sci-fi is thus sourced), "Suspect Zero", "Aliens" and "Pitch Black" strike me as science fiction, although the sequel to Pitch Black leaps headlong into science fantasy. I guess my dividing line is very very subjective, because it really comes down to "Do I think this could ever happen?" And some of these examples will shift over time as science reveals that they either could or could not happen.

Oftentimes, that blurring of distinction is merely a function of the type of tale told. Any of these could easily be recategorized. Alien, Aliens and Event Horizon as horror movies, Demolition Man, I, Robot and The Matrix as social commentary (although Aliens' Bishop practically quotes the "Three Laws Safe" protocols of Asimov fame), and Starship Troopers and The Fifth Element as action films, and "Armageddon", "The Core" and "Deep Impact" as disaster films. So many storytellers are well aware of Serling's (and others') distinctions in the dividing line, and I believe they intentionally blur it in the tale to set their stories apart.

Oddly enough, the further one travels into the future, out into the cosmos or beyond whatever boundary that categorizes a book/movie as science fantasy, the more likely at some point in the future we're to see it become science fiction, since the further you go into space, time, etc, the more likely it will be that current science will have leapt the next hurdle and brought the possible ever nearer to the borders of probable.

Having said that here is my completely subjective list of movies that will =always= be science fantasy:

The Last Starfighter: For no other reason than because the defenders of the universe are NOT watching our dorky video-game players for someone with the "skillz 2 save teh universe", nor would they ever. Not in my universe.

Timeline: The science for time-travel in it is -whack- and of all the reasons in the world to travel back in time, the absolute last one in the world would be to go back and rescue a historian.

Jurassic Park: Simply because all the interesting dinosaurs in that movie were Cretaceous Period denizens, velociraptors were only six feet long from head to tail (and would get pwned by a Rottweiller) and had feathers, and because a whole lot of bacteriological issues. Not to mention that when T-Rex attacks San Diego, he'd be in for a huge surprise at the prevalence of gun-toting food sources.

Any movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger: Since we all know he's going to be president someday, any movie that shows him as anything else is fantasy. With that in mind, ONLY Demolition Man has the right of it, predicting accurately this political development.

Demolition Man: Yeah, yeah, it bounces around. I put it on this list because anyone who thinks people are going to give up traditional sex EVER, especially with Sandra Bullock, needs to get out more, or just step in front of a bus. Never happen.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: There are no words for why this should never ever happen. In an extremely cruel world, there will be a sequel.

The Matrix, and that movie with Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver: Again, the following people are not being sought to save the universe: Aging TV actors, Sci-Fi convention attendees, computer shut-ins, or anyone who thinks Missi Pyle would still be hot even if she had tentacles coming from....somewhere.
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Old 04-30-2008, 06:27 PM   #6
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Re: Comparing Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, and Fantasy

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Originally Posted by Disillusionist View Post
that movie with Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver
Galaxy Quest!


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Originally Posted by Disillusionist View Post
or anyone who thinks Missi Pyle would still be hot even if she had tentacles coming from....somewhere.
There is definitely something very, very weird with her looks.

That was a very exhausting and interesting list. I totally get your point where the more "absurd" the science (The Last Starfighter being one of the best examples on that list) the more science fantasy it probably is.
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Old 05-01-2008, 12:26 PM   #7
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Re: Comparing Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, and Fantasy

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So, where do they diverge?

Fantasy tends to deal more with huge moral issues: good versus evil (Demons vs. Angels. Evil Overlord vs. Knight in Shining Armor, etc.), human rights (slavery, serfs vs. nobles, etc.)

Science Fiction tends to deal more with ethical issues: cloning, artificial intelligence, personal liberties, state control and/or monitoring (Big Brother), utopia/dystopia, etc.

Science Fantasy blurs the lines a bit, and can deal with both pretty easily.
As an editor, I'd classify something as Science Fiction if the science is believable. Science Fantasy would apply to a story with all the trappings of Science Fiction, but in which the science doesn't hold up as well. The line is a blurry one; some folks think that if your story contains time travel, that makes it fantasy, because time travel is theoretically impossible.

Fantasy for me is anything speculative that doesn't fit into the above categories (and can't easily be classified as Horror).

Hope this helps!

Marti


Marti McKenna, Editor
Aeon Speculative Fiction
Aeon Speculative Fiction
The Internet Review of Science Fiction
The Internet Review of Science Fiction -- Issue
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Old 05-01-2008, 01:49 PM   #8
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Re: Comparing Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, and Fantasy

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As an editor, I'd classify something as Science Fiction if the science is believable. Science Fantasy would apply to a story with all the trappings of Science Fiction, but in which the science doesn't hold up as well. The line is a blurry one; some folks think that if your story contains time travel, that makes it fantasy, because time travel is theoretically impossible.
That is a pretty good definition, and it is very similar to Rod Serling's.

Do you have an opinions on my theories about the types of themes that these genres tend towards?
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Old 05-01-2008, 02:29 PM   #9
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Re: Comparing Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, and Fantasy

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Do you have an opinions on my theories about the types of themes that these genres tend towards?
I think you pretty well nailed it. As you say, there are exceptions.
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Old 05-01-2008, 04:31 PM   #10
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Re: Comparing Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, and Fantasy

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As an editor, I'd classify something as Science Fiction if the science is believable. Science Fantasy would apply to a story with all the trappings of Science Fiction, but in which the science doesn't hold up as well. The line is a blurry one; some folks think that if your story contains time travel, that makes it fantasy, because time travel is theoretically impossible.
Thanks for speaking up on this!

Is the definition something that's set up by publishers or something you personally define in the course of your job? And by believable, do you mean that it's based on the science that we know today? In order to do that, it seems like editing science fiction would require a greater knowledge of science than say someone who edits romance novels. Though, by that reasoning Angels and Demons by Dan Brown falls under science fiction as well. That would probably be one of the exceptions, though.
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Old 05-01-2008, 07:05 PM   #11
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Re: Comparing Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, and Fantasy

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Is the definition something that's set up by publishers or something you personally define in the course of your job? And by believable, do you mean that it's based on the science that we know today? In order to do that, it seems like editing science fiction would require a greater knowledge of science than say someone who edits romance novels.
As with most things, there aren't really any standards set in stone for the publishing industry, though I imagine large book publishers have some in-house guidelines that help them market their book lines. As a short fiction editor, it's definitely something I define as needed (with the help of my co-editors), but we do agree on the basics as I outlined above.

Now to clarify that: by "believable" I mean essentially that the author has made me believe it's possible. As you say, that's going to depend somewhat on my scientific knowledge (she might not fool the reviewer who takes her to task on the details), however it also depends on the writer's skill at revealing just enough to make a technology seem tantalizingly possible without delving into the nitty gritty details that, while of interest to some audiences, can also make the flaws more apparent.

That's my current take, anyway.
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Old 05-01-2008, 08:31 PM   #12
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Re: Comparing Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, and Fantasy

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Now to clarify that: by "believable" I mean essentially that the author has made me believe it's possible. As you say, that's going to depend somewhat on my scientific knowledge (she might not fool the reviewer who takes her to task on the details), however it also depends on the writer's skill at revealing just enough to make a technology seem tantalizingly possible without delving into the nitty gritty details that, while of interest to some audiences, can also make the flaws more apparent.
Thanks for the time to reply. I'm facinated by how the publishing industry works, and my current obsession is science fiction. I recently read Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and he states that science fiction sells far better than fantasy, and thus, publishers are much more interested in that genre. He claims that it is easier to get published as a science fiction author than a fantasy author. Granted, this book was written in 1990. I don't know if things have changed in 20 years. Many of his books, however, fall under science fantasy, in my opinion. (That doesn't detract from how amazing and talented he is.) Do you find it to be true that publishers are more interested in science fiction/fantasy than pure fantasy?
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