What Distinguishes Fantasy from Science Fiction

One thing I've recently been interested in is the elements that distinguish fantasy stories from science fiction stories. The two genres are often lumped together in bookstores and people's minds (at least, people who don't read either genre), but they do have some definitive differences. 

Science fiction must be plausible with regards to the world that the author lives in. For example, it is possible that the Matrix could exist in a far future, when AI spirals out of control and traps humans to survive on a planet ravaged by global warming. The main difference between science fiction and regular fiction is that scifi has a major advancement in technology that does not exist when the book was written. This technology usually has a monumental effect on the new world, and the story is heavily built around the advancement. For example, the Matrix itself is a major advancement in technology that the protagonists must discover and battle to save the human race.

By contrast, fantasy has elements that are not plausible with regards to when the book was written. These new rules cannot exist even with infinite advancement of current technology - magic, Apparition, innate superpowers, unicorns, etc. The world of Harry Potter is filled with elements that nonmagical Muggles cannot develop with our clumsy technology. In fact, Muggle technology fascinates the Weasley father as he explores the myriad of ways "Muggles get along without magic": Harry Potter's world replaces Muggle technology with spells and teleports and parchment with quills. Perhaps this replacement explains why many fantasy stories exist in a medieval, swords-and-sandals universe: the humans don't need to develop what we today perceive as "modern" technology because they have magic to replace it with.

These definitions have a few pitfalls. The one that always annoyed me the most was the catchall of fantasy as a genre: put one impossible element into a story, no matter how minor, and it automatically gets a unicorn sticker and stuck in the Fantasy shelf. For example, a story that is all science fiction might have one character blast somebody with magic. Most people would call the phenomenon impossible and slap a unicorn sticker on it, regardless of the obvious science fiction elements that surround the one fantastical thing.

As a real-life example, take the enormously popular (and controversial) His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This series is all about universe-hopping. Some worlds are clearly fantastical, one world is our own reality, another is probably science fiction, etc. Should we disregard the obviously "real" universes and call the whole trilogy fantasy because it has a few elements of fantasy? That is most commonly done, because again, one impossible element and you can never take that unicorn sticker off. Or should we call it realistic fiction with fantastical elements? You'd probably have a bunch of people relocating them to the fantasy section anyway.

Just to complicate things, I bought a very interesting book that explained the science behind His Dark Materials, which shows that some of Pullman's universes are not science fiction but realistic fiction! What now? Is it still fantasy?

With that we come to the second pitfall: some universes have elements that could be taken as science fiction or fantasy. Say a book is all science fiction until someone uses an unknown technology that could be magic or, well, an unknown technology that isn't explained. Is that theoretical book fantasy? If you explain away the technology, is it science fiction now? Using our definitions, for the book to be science fiction the technology would have to be able to operate in our universe - possibly with modifications like space or time that seem plausible.

And therein lies the source of the hairiness: it all seems so relative to the reader. Would you consider Star Wars plausible? Everything in it is basically possible, right? Yes?
What about Percy Jackson & The Olympians? Sure there are gods and monsters and all that, but it seems plausible that World War II was caused by a son of Hades vs a son of Poseidon and a son of Zeus. No, you don't believe me? You don't believe that the Mist cloaks fantastical elements to unmagical eyes, so that the rest of the world can go about their daily business without learning about the Greek pantheon that lives in the Empire State Building? It's about as plausible as the Matrix. But the difference is that the Matrix could be developed using modern technology, and the Greek pantheon couldn't exist in our universe. Or could it? Hmm?

No wonder people lump the two categories together into "things that aren't real and won't be real and can't be real", away from the realistic fiction. And the dystopia. 

The Hunger Games is not fantasy, it's dystopic science fiction. Katniss's universe is a plausible extension of our own, with only slight advances to modern technology (the force fields for example). The Matrix is also dystopic science fiction, yet you don't usually hear people calling The Hunger Games dystopic science fiction the way you hear people label The Matrix science fiction. Maybe they just ignore the technological advances in The Hunger Games, or consider new technologies to be a natural byproduct of dystopia. But dystopia does not have to be science fiction (take Moira Young's Blood Red Road). AndThe Matrix is clearly dystopia, but usually remembered as an achievement of science fiction. I suppose the movie came long before the slew of YA dystopic fiction that took every Barnes & Noble by storm.


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