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Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

By Galen Strickland

 

Usually when I use the term SF I mean science fiction, but of course it can also mean speculative fiction, in which case it would cover both science fiction and fantasy. Many people like either one or the other but not both, others like both and don't draw too many distinctions between the two categories. I have even read some opinions that list science fiction as a sub-category of fantasy. But to have a meaningful discussion about them I suppose a few definitions are in order first. I don't think I would get much argument from anyone on these:

Science Fiction: any story of a speculative nature dealing with possible (not necessarily probable) futuristic scenarios. These would include space exploration, genetic engineering, cloning, nano-technology, etc.

Fantasy: any story dealing with ideas and concepts generally considered to be not of this world. These would include stories about wizards, witchcraft and sorcery or similar themes, or those concerning vampires or werewolves, or creatures such as unicorns, dragons, or other mythical beasts.

Those seem to be very straight-forward definitions which would make it easy to categorize most any work of speculative fiction, but in reality the process can be a very tricky proposition. What about time travel or faster-than-light spaceships? Very few scientists would give those concepts much credence (at least based on current knowledge), but generally speaking tales utilizing them would be labeled science fiction. And when dragons are depicted as the sentient beings of another planet is that fantasy or is it science fiction? So we quickly see that things are not always as simple as we might wish. Looked at in this perspective Anne MacCaffrey's The Dragonriders of Pern would be science fiction and Heinlein's The Door into Summer a fantasy. This does not alter the fact that both are well-written, fascinating stories whose popularity has proven to be most durable over the years.

Science fiction itself can be broken down into many sub-categories, the two basic ones being hard and soft SF. Most of the stories dealing with the technologies mentioned in the above definition are of the hard variety, whereas soft SF would tend to deal more with the individual and cultural effects rather than with the technologies themselves. Most of the work produced during the heyday of the New Wave movement was generally of the soft SF type but there was much fantasy as well, and this is the time when the definitions began to get a little blurry. Before this things had been simpler; Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein were science fiction, Tolkien, Eddison, and Peake were fantasy. But what of Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, or Philip José Farmer who wrote a little of both. And then came Harlan Ellison, J. G. Ballard, Thomas Disch and others whose work was very difficult to identify with either category. Even Heinlein wrote some fantasy, some of it very early in his career. And how about my current favorite, Gene Wolfe. Most of his work is fantasy of one flavor or another, but he has also written stories that are definitely science fiction even though much of it has a fantasy feel.

As I have stated many times both on this site and on other boards across the net I generally have a preference for science fiction over fantasy, and hard over soft SF, and yet in reviewing my authors list you will see many that would be considered soft SF writers, as well as a few whose main focus is fantasy. Again I must state that what I really look for is a well-written story with believable characters. It's just that I have tended to notice more variety in science fiction than I have in fantasy, although of course there are many varieties of fantasy as well. I'm not that interested in yet another quest for a magic ring, or sword, or talisman (or whatever) and yet I rarely tire of yet another speculation on new technologies, space colonization, or possible alien encounters. It is all a matter of what pleases you the most. I may not have read some of your favorites and you may not be familiar with some on my list, but I think we all can agree that when we read we want to be entertained first and foremost. And that is what I think is of primary importance; that you are entertained enough to continue reading no matter what the genre. Anyone who loves to read is an important commodity these days, and whatever sparks your imagination and helps you to be more aware and receptive to various ideas and concepts is alright in my book. That is why I can say I am primarily a science fiction fan but will never hesitate to recommend Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to someone if that is what I think will interest them in reading. I will still recommend Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, Asimov's Foundation, Niven's Ringworld, or Pohl's Gateway, but will also mention Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, or Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, among others, since they are exceptionally well-written stories too.

Happy reading everyone!

 

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