Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fantasy or Science Fiction?

I find it funny how many people are still baffled by the distinction between science fiction and fantasy. You might think, it's easy. Science fiction is the one with spaceships, and fantasy is the one with dragons and magic, right? Wrong.

It really is easy to distinguish the two, but not the way most people think. It has nothing to do with the setting, but content. First rule of writing SF is: "If you can throw out the sci-fi element without significantly changing the story, it's not science fiction." In other words, if I put a story on a spaceship, that could just as easily have been placed on a train, a ship or any other present day setting, it's not really science fiction. Science fiction needs to have both science and fiction in it. If I put a story on a spaceship, and make it about, for example, the impact of prolonged life in space on human body, now I've got something. That kind of a story could never take place on a train, at least not on what we now consider a train. Some new kind of a train that goes through space, now that would be another story.

But I digress. I didn't mean to talk about what sci-fi is, but what makes it distinguishable from fantasy. Let's take a look at vampires. They're extremely popular fantasy creatures, it's as though every schmuck and her grandmother are writing about them. So, every story containing a vampire must by default be fantasy? Wrong. Sure, if you create a world where vampires exist, and they simply exist, without any rationalization, it's fantasy. Even if you put that vampire on a spaceship, it's still fantasy. (I ran across a book like that once. It started on a spaceship, and it made me believe I was reading sci-fi, but a few pages in, a vampire appeared. I was so disappointed I stopped reading.) But if you go an extra step and explain how vampires came to exist by genetic mutation, or by disease in the blood, or, I don't know, human experiments, or by any other scientific means, that don't necessarily need to be a 100 percent scientifically correct, guess what? You're not writing fantasy anymore. You're writing science fiction.

Still, you can't just go about and explain things "scientifically" without some actual knowledge of science. For example, the other day I ran across a post on a forum that said something in the lines of "Come check out my new sci-fi book! It's about a boy and his dog that get abducted by aliens, and the dog and it's flee get enlarged to human size, and then they all work together to escape." Um. I had to fight the urge to post back: "That's all very nice, but it's not science fiction. It's fantasy." Why is it not science fiction? First, you need to know something about insect anatomy. Insect's respiratory system is designed to carry air directly to the cells through very narrow tubes called tracheae by the means of propagation phenomenon, and propagation phenomenon is possible only on short intervals. So, if you enlarge an insect, you also lengthen the tracheae, the oxygen won't be able to reach the cells and the insect will suffocate. Also, their circulatory system is not evolved enough to work on large scale, you need to have a strong heart to fight gravity and insects don't have one. There's a reason insects are small. There's also a premise here that an enlarged insect would gain human-like intelligence simply because it's enlarged. Hm. You can't just throw stuff in that go against basic scientific facts and call it science fiction. That might have worked fifty, or even twenty years ago, because some facts weren't well known then, but today when all information is at the tip of our fingers, it's inexcusable. If you don't want to do your homework, stick to writing fantasy instead. You might still have to do some research, as many good fantasy writers do, but at least you make your own scientific facts there.

Not all scientific facts need to be proven, they just need to be not proven wrong. For example, telepathy has not yet been scientifically proven, nor the existence of aliens, ghosts and what not, but they also haven't been scientifically disproven, and therefore free for speculation. Take Frank Herbert's Dune, for example. On the same forum, someone was asking how Dune can be SF with all the Bene Gesserit and Quizat Haderach and everything. All that, the telepathy, the prophecy, the seeing of the future, even folding of space by their pilots, it's all explained by the chemicals in the spice altering their nerve system. It might not be a scientifically proven fact, but it is a legitimate scientific assumption. Who can say that in the future, we will not find a chemical substance with these very properties? That's the essence of science fiction - speculating on what will be possible one day, what discoveries we might discover and what impact they will make on our lives.

Turns out I did end up speaking mostly about what SF is. No matter. I love SF. How about you?


  1. Food for thought. Thanks. I will have to rethink my world's premise. Might be SF after all. I have magic users and so I classed my work as fantasy.

  2. Hm, unless you can explain magic as something produced by science, I think you're safe to leave it in fantasy.

    I believe it's important to figure out the right genre. I like both fantasy and SF, but it irritates me when something I thought was fantasy turns out to be SF, and vice-versa. I suppose it's the same for other readers, so we need to make sure that we give them exactly what we promised.