What do the words Science Fiction mean to you? Most people tend to think of high-technology, spaceships, the future, aliens, and bad movies, or similar ideas. What about Fantasy? Oh, those are just stories about magic, dragons, and elves. There aren’t a whole lot of similarities are there? Yet the two genres of fiction are always lumped together in bookstores or libraries, and many fans of one are also fans of the other. Clearly they must have something in common.
Now, some of you are probably already taking exception to the (very rough) definitions I gave above, which is precisely the point I’m getting to. The traditional, accepted definitions of Science Fiction and Fantasy are flawed in my opinion, in that they focus almost exclusively on the setting of the stories, and not the stories themselves. This is a mistake in my opinion, as the setting, while important, is not more valuable than the story set in it, in that the setting can be changed, while the story remains the same.
The Star Wars stories, for example, are some of the most popular science fiction stories in our society, considered science fiction because they are set on spaceships and alien planets, with laser guns and robots everywhere. But replace the spaceships with sailing vessels, space with the high seas, lightsabers with swords, blasters with crossbows, and the Force with...well, the Force is already magic isn’t it? Even with all these changes, the story would still work, with the Millenium Falcon becoming the the fastest schooner in the world. What about Babylon 5? This would take some more work, as the science is much more realistic and well thought-out, but I think it could still be done. The Vorlons and Shadows would become ancient races of wizards, the Minbari are obviously Elves. The Narns seem rather dwarf-like in spite of their size, while the Centauri would just be another human culture. And besides, how could any story that has Rangers not be a potential Fantasy tale?
Going the other way, from Fantasy to Science Fiction, Into The Darkness and its sequels, written by Harry Turtldove are the tale of a war on a world where Dragon Riders drop explosive “eggs” on enemies, soldiers fire magical “sticks” at their enemies and ride great armor-plated Behemoths with even bigger “sticks” strapped to them. Dragons? Magic? Must be fantasy. Change the dragons to airplanes, however, the sticks to rifles and cannons, and the Behemoths to Tanks, and do you still have a believable story? Well, as much as I'd like to pretend World War Two didn't happen, that’s what the books were based on.
And lets not even get into the magic of the Dune series, the Dragons of Pern, or the Spelljammers of D&D fantasy, or any of the many genre-bending concepts out there, My head hurts enough as is.
Earth or not earth, technology or magic, elves or aliens. To me all of these differences seem largely cosmetic, dressing up the basic story, and while one type may look better on a particular story than the other, they are not something that the story should be categorized by.
Another difference between the two that I have heard is that Science Fiction stories are about the toys and the environment, while Fantasy stories are about the characters that use those toys and operate within that environment. To quote the friend who suggested this “in a moment of crisis, is your hero going to save the day through a tech advance, or through the innate ability of someone, whether himself or someone else or by using an enemy's weakness against him? that's kind of what differentiates the two for me. In sci-fi, more often than not they come up with some tool or some environment quirk, and that's what moves the story. Fantasy takes away the toys, usually, and the characters have to carry the story.” While I certainly think this is a good way to categorize stories, I’m not so sure if the terms Science Fiction and Fantasy are the best for describing the two categories, as “Science Fiction” as a label has a disctinctly technological flavour to it, and its entirely possible to have a story in which a magical toy makes all the difference, and I don’t like calling that Science Fiction. I’ll get back to this point later.
A theory I’ve had on separating the two types, which seems to put most stories under their accepted labels, is that Science fiction is about triumphs of the mind, while Fantasy is about triumphs of the spirit. Out-thinking your opponent, whether by inventing new technology, or just outsmarting them, would be a Science Fiction idea under this theory, while defeating them through sheer force of will, whether fighting on against unbelievable odds or resisting temptation would fall into the realm of Fantasy. I don’t much like this theory anymore, partly due to the stigmas attached to the labels, and partly because so many stories use a combination of the two.
Partly because I’ve given up on trying to find an accurate way to distinguish between the two, and partly because they seem to blend together no matter what definition is used, I suggest that we give up altogether on thinking of Science Fiction and Fantasy as two different genres. Instead we could have one genre, with each story further classified based on the focus of the story. Possible classifications include: Technological, Magical, Character Driven, Speculative, or any other descriptive words needed, with the author/publisher choosing how they want to classify the book. Even the Technological and Magical classifications may be unnecessary - as Arthur C. Clarke argued, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Besides, the two are often interchangable, with only cosmetic differences (but there are also people who like/dislike stories based on these differences – they only like stories with spaceships, hate any story with magic, or maybe they prefer stories with elves and dragons. To these people, who seemingly have little desire to look even slightly below the surface of the stories they’re reading, have only one thing to say: BAH!) What else could be used? (ideas are welcome).
One big problem with this idea is what to call the unified genre. I have an idea, but it is almost guaranteed to be unacceptable to as many as find it acceptable: Fantasy. Now, all you die-hard Science Fiction readers, hear me out. The Oxford English Dictionary defines fantasy as:
- The faculty of inventing images
- A fanciful mental image; a daydream
- A whimsical speculation
- A fantastic invention or composition
No matter what you classify as Science Fiction or Fantasy, I think any of the stories could easily fit within this definition, especially under the first and last points. There is a very deep connection between all stories that have been termed as Science Fiction or Fantasy, and that’s the authors desire to take something that may otherwise never exist outside of his imagination, and share it with the imaginations of others.
This is far from a complete idea, merely the beginnings. I would welcome any feedback / suggestions / differing opinions, and especially more suggestions for classifications within the unified genre.