Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

I posed this question to the Science Fiction Council during one of our meetings over Gravcom. Our royal chambers are simply the gravitational waves on which our voices are borne. We sit in our respective rooms across the universe and contemplate the soothsaying of science fiction writers.

What distinguishes science fiction from fantasy?

 I have been pondering this question ever since I started reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a book whose people have no fixed sex. Taking place on the icy planet Winter, the book explores a world without men or women.

As soon as I started reading it, I was reminded of fantasy books with kingdoms of elves and strange creatures. It was only when the larger universe surfaced with its space ships and light years that the science fiction elements suddenly became clear.


That feeling of being in a fantasy world got my cogs turning, and I had to grease them before I could come to some conclusion: perhaps fantasy and science fiction depend on two different types of knowledge bases.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but science fiction seems to deal more with the mechanization of the world- either its absence (dystopian futures of hunger) or its presence (space operas and cyberpunk).

The fact that The Left Hand of Darkness opens on a wintry world isolated from any other planets and major technologies, coupled with the strangeness of its people gives it its fantasy element. As soon as the larger universe and mechanical progress (interplanetary communication devices and ships) surfaces, the fantasy portion is steeped in science fiction.

Do all visions of the future (the ones in science fiction) require mechanization of some form? I would venture to say that the answer is yes, but I am open to counterarguments since I am not as familiar with the genre as some of the Science Fiction Council members.

When I think of The Hobbit or The Dark Elf Trilogy, I picture worlds without vast technologies populated with strange creatures that only slightly resemble humanity. While strange creatures can populate science fiction- who doesn’t love aliens- it’s the mechanization that really defines the genre.

Perhaps these are all questions we should not ponder in our postmodern world where genres hardly matter. Perhaps I am just a humble learner who is caught between the fantasy and science fiction worlds, between soothsaying and fantasysaying. I leave you those thoughts to ponder on this brilliant, wintry Monday.


3 thoughts on “Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

  1. Yes, I think that the defining characteristic of science fiction is the use of non-existing technology at the time of writing that has capabilities and power beyond those of any then-existing device. Therefore, Jules Verne’s visions of submarines were science fiction when he wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, even though actual submarines came to be years later. However, in my view this doesn’t mean that science fiction stories cannot incorporate organic creatures that also do not exist in reality but whose special attributes are independent from the existence of futuristic technology (e.g., certain aliens, like you point out, and animals in Star Trek or Star Wars). My inclination is to classify stories populated with special, non-existing creatures but without futuristic technology as “fantasy” and not “science fiction.” — Gustavo


    1. Thanks for your comment, Gustavo. I agree with you about technology’s playing a central role but not limiting an author’s freedom to explore organic futures. My new project is mostly science fantasy since it explores faith and evangelism in the near future.


  2. I like your distinction between sci fi and fantasy, Ale, especially the idea that the content of sci fi foregrounds the absence or presence of tech, which is to say the potential for mechanical or replicable means or processes of transforming one form of life into another. I wonder if a further distinction between the genres might be to say that sci fi entextualises the absence/presence of tech whereas the content of fantasy enacts solely the absence of tech, requiring the reader–in a contextualing act of reception–to embody the presence of tech while intimately engaged with the narrative in question–intimately in the sense of internalising it in the very externally-oriented act of reading/listening/watching and with the concomitant sense of estrangement that accompanies all sensations of sublation, which is to say that form of love described as obsessive or impossible yet capable of stimulating textual limerance, especially a limerance characterised by the connoted absence of mediation denoted, paradoxically, by that connotation, which is to say, fairly commonly, a print novel concerning worlds in which the printing press is absent. Maybe this authorial kind of act–to focus solely on forms of life emergent only from the cosmos at large (or least on anatomical media such as quills, gall, minerals, and animal skins) and not through mechanised, man-made, and thus replicable means (perhaps atomised media such as steam and alloys and cogs and the standing reserve that was forests and is now pages)–exerts a more integrative or organic phenomenology in the reading of fantasy in that the reader’s mind becomes the site of the presence of half of the fundamentally modern sense of the dichotomy between no tech/tech for the sake of the story. Whereas sci fi does this for us, exerting a phenomenology of reading characterised by the decontextualisation of the reader’s mind as a site of this conceptual tension. Mythic logic still occurs–transformation–but the experience is, if not synchronic (versus diachronic), given the futural (and hence marvelously disorienting) focus of much of sci fi, at least externalised (versus internalised). The favourable result of the latter effect being the conviction–however temporary–that the inner does not simply become outer at the whim of the perceiving mind. Thus the logic of sci fi is to transform context into content yet, paradoxically, process into product, while the logic of fantasy is to transform content into context or process. The former exculpates, the latter implicates. The former permits, for me, a feeling of getting out, of space and spaciousness (haha). The latter of moving inward, of involution, of a thing that is infinitesimally bigger on the inside than the out. Weary at times of life, I have learned to love the former. But as you say about UKLG’s classic in your review of TLHoD there is some wonderful link between looking back over the Ice and the unrequited yet intense intimacy of the friend-lovers–and then back or down over the Ice and that heat with the wider, wilder, icy, burning vision from outer space that permits an intensely complex tension between the fusion and fission of narrative points of view that are so divided and yet so mutually constitutive–like the simultaneous presence and absence of love for the gendered and ambi-friend-lovers in the story itself–that emerges from UKLG’s novel, from what might be called a post-sci-fi novel. The transformative permutations of life (into death) and love (into loss) in UKLG’s novel is thus mechanical yet irreplicable in terms of both context and content–by means of the heart of the relation between the very tensions you define so well in your book review, Ale, that of the confusion between the gaze of the reader and author, of the sexes, of the genders–so that the impulses toward or tension between dichotomy (between light and shadow, the unfinished and the apocalyptic) versus unity (the averted gaze, dazzling blindness) by generic means also enacts the reader’s transformation across the divides of content and context–so painful, so delightful–that is demanded in reading such an ambi-sexual and ambi-generic work. Some things cannot be said word for word. Some times words have to stand in for standing in until once comes to see that absence too is a kind of presence. Thus I wonder: is the love story you point to compelling because–in addition to being absolutely weirdly (etymologically) hot (ironically)–it is a form of meditation on the tension between longing for absence and presence as such? Such that the power of presence–for presence is inimitably powerful, after all–comes to suffuse oppositions in a synaesthetic (where heat and cold, pleasure and pain, light and shadow in their farthest extremes meet) or even ecstatic way? Such that the oppositions of absence and presence are sublated into a larger opposition that is opposition in tension with unity? Thus I wonder if this novel is an allegory for the tension between the extremes of loving and dreading the possibilities of the convergence or divergence of position or perspective demanded by love? Which is to say the demand placed on anyone who persists in living not to change and thus to die–to enter, at least imaginatively, a state of the peace of utter union, with the all that accompanies that, which is, at least in passing, total dissolution–or to change and to die anyhow, in the sense of division–from the now, from the conception of self in the now, from the self’s conception of the beloved in the now–but only ever in part, requiring that we carry a vestigial sense of the eternal or of unchanging love with us through all permutations away from, around, or even within the same? If given that change and loss are interchangeable, or at least inextricable, then the responsibility laid on the self becomes almost overwhelming, in that the irreplicable nature of such imaginative and emotional transformations or discontinuities in conceptions of the loved and beloved–or home species and alien–or now and never–demands that all permutations of that vestigial yet crucial sense of the eternal or lasting or present be willfully and willingly held continuously in the mind over time. Continuity from discontinuity, but never wholly. Love from loss but never lastingly. The outer must become inner and the reverse of that but neither by whim nor by coercion, never purely by means of pure sacrifice of the other nor pure self-destruction. Desire becomes more complex. Maybe the longer the life, the more implicated each of us become in accepting the responsibilities of unrequited–eventually wholly unrequitable–love. Unless there is some kind of afterlife of the heart. Or more literally.


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