Twilight Times Feature

SF? Fantasy? What's the difference?



Sally O. Odgers


Science fiction and fantasy are two popular genres which are quite often confused by readers, non-readers and even (unfortunately) by reviewers. Each has its own set of givens or unwritten rules, and each will probably fail if erroneously judged by the rules that actually pertain to the other. Do these rules matter? Not if you’re an omnivorous reader and require nothing but a "good story". However, if you’re a purist, or a writer, or if you want to know what to expect, it’s as well to have some idea of what you’re actually reading or about to read.

The basic differences between science fiction and fantasy can be a bit blurred, but here's the way it seems to work for most people.

(1) Sci fi usually takes place in the future

Fantasy often takes place in the past.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to judge the time-setting of sci fi, especially when events take place on another (non solar-system) planet. If the characters live a medieval-type life, with guilds, villages, animal-drawn vehicles and candles or lanterns, this could have any number of explanations;

(a) These people have developed (or evolved) on this planet and have reached the medieval period of existence.

(b) These characters have arrived on this planet and have been abandoned, and have regressed to medieval existence.

(c) These characters have arrived and been abandoned, have regressed to stone age and are now progressing once more.

(d) The ancestors of these people have chosen to live in this way, probably for philosophical reasons.

For an example of medieval lifestyle in sci fi novels set in our future, try Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. The presence of telepathic dragons might lead you to think of these books as fantasy, but the dragons have been genetically engineered by early settlers on the planet of Pern, and then natural disaster has led to the colonists being cut off from Earth. In the course of the series, (which wasn’t written in chronological order), the settlers arrive on Pern, develop the dragons, discover useful local matters, face disaster, lose touch with Earth, develop a new civilisation, and then rediscover technology through archaeological finds, learning, for example, that the "Dawn Sisters" stars are actually the orbiting and abandoned spaceships that brought their ancestors to Pern.

Science fiction rarely takes place in the actual past, perhaps because so much of it demands a higher level of technology than we have now. Even H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, though quaintly old-fashioned now, was set in the author’s present or near-future. Reading early works by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein is interesting in more ways than one; their books are often set in our future, yet since they didn’t foresee the invention of the microchip, their computers are vast, and characters still use slide-rules rather than calculators.

(2) In sci fi there is a scientific (or pseudo scientific) explanation for events, even if the protagonists believe in magic.

In fantasy the explanation is usually magic, either actual, assumed or psychological.

Actually, things such as extra sensory perception and astral traveling can belong to either the scientific or magical worlds. It depends on the way they’re presented. Hypnosis, for example, undoubtedly does exist, but what about astral travel?

(3) Sci fi usually includes some development of existing or putative scientific principal.

Fantasy often calls on myth and existing or putative legends.

Space travel is a reality, but at present we can’t hope to go far enough in a human life-time to reach another habitable planet. The fact that we can't do this yet doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll never be able to do it. Therefore faster-than-light travel is classified as sci fi, and not as fantasy.

Just occasionally, myth can be used in a scientific way; for example, elves or fairies (myth) might be explained as aliens or a race-memory of Picts (scientific).

(4) Sci fi often happens on other planets.

Fantasy often happens on other worlds.

Other dimensions can occur in either.

So, what’s the difference here? Well, another planet is a place to which you might travel if you had a spaceship that was fast enough. Another world is a place which you would never reach by ordinary "spaceship" means. It may lie behind a curtain (as in Out of Phaze by Piers Anthony) or through a mirror, (Alice Through the Looking Glass) or in a non-specific place which can be reached by mind power, astral travel or magical invitation.

(5). Sci fi often deals with the clash of science and superstition, progress and the status quo.

Fantasy often deals with the clash of good and evil, or of power and the lack of it.

A very common theme is sci fi is the return of medieval ways and attitudes. This often happens after a cataclysmic clash during which technology destroyed a good deal of the world and its civilisation.

Technology comes to be considered evil (as in Peter Dickinson’s The Weathermonger) and quite often the hero/heroine is involved in the discovery that technology can have its non-evil uses.

In fantasy the focus is more likely to be on the ownership of magical power rather than technology. A character who calls up demons will be as feared in fantasy as a scientist who holds the key to an epidemic or bomb will be feared in science fiction.

(6) Sometimes the two are blended seamlessly. The result is probably best referred to as science fantasy. i.e. Christopher Stasheff's The Warlock in Spite of Himself. In this novel, Rod, the sci fi protagonist, has a spaceship and a robot. He goes to Gramarye, another planet (not another world), but finds magic operational there. There is a scientific explanation for the magic, but the inclusion of (engineered) werewolves, ghosts, banshees etc give the mythical effect of fantasy.

So, next time you read or write a sci fi, fantasy or sci/fan novel, it’s worth stopping to consider which one it actually is!



Sally Odgers is the author of over a hundred titles, including children's books, YA and adult. Sally writes in several genres, but her favourites are fantasy, science fiction and historical - all of them laced with romance. Favourite titles include Translations in Celadon and Shadowdancers, both fantasy romances, Trinity Street and Aurora, both sci fi, and Anna's Own, historical romance. More information on these (including availability) can be found at Sally's home page; under Books for Sale.

Upcoming titles include the historical romance Powderflash available May 1999 from New Concepts Publishing, the humorous romance Kissing Cousins a 1999 release from Fiction Works and the SF caper story Shakedown which will be available from DiskUs in July 1999. All three are e-books, an exciting new venture for Sally.

Sally lives in Tasmania with her husband Darrel and their daughter Tegan. Son James has recently joined the Royal Australian Air Force. She is a regular columnist in two e-zines and an occasional contributor to others.

Visit Sally's web site.

Editor's note: Ms. Odgers recently signed a contract with Twilight Times Books for her exciting paranormal suspenseNight Must Always Come, a Sept. '99 release.




Copyright © 1999 Sally O. Odgers. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 4-24-99.

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