Fantasy vs. Science-fiction

I’m going to try something different now to help try to post more often. Namely, not worry so much about the result and just try to exorcise the ideas as they come. Without further ado…

I was thinking about how I typically enjoy science-fiction novels more than fantasy and I wondered why this was. Then it occurred to me that fantasy is typically regressive and nostalgic. It represents a longing for the child’s world and an escape from reality. Harry Potter is a good example of this, as is the Lord of the Rings. I would even say that Star Wars is a fantasy film, rather than a science-fiction film. The technology in Star Wars is rarely focused on or explained (compared to Star Trek, which does attempt to explain), instead the story is consumed with the magical metaphysics of the Force. So, Star Wars is a space fantasy. Complete with wizards (Obi Wan) and dark lords.

Fantasy is about a small, simple, magical world. This is the world of the child, but also the world of the past. Looking back things become simple and romanticized. The concept of the Golden Age is as old as we are.

Fantasy worlds operate as cartoonish backdrops for personal dramas and interpersonal narratives. There is often little explanation of how things work or any real consciousness of the larger objective reality. There is a narrowness of perspective that often dictates a flatness and reliance on cliche that relegates fantasy narratives to the ghetto of genre fiction. Fantasy narratives like The Lord of the Rings occasionally break out and do something impressive, but only by taking on greater reality and connection to the real world. Much of LoTR is inspired directly by Anglo-Saxon and Germanic history and much of its resonance is due to its connection to this world, also referred to as “Middle Earth” in Norse myth.

Science-fiction is about the future from the perspective of the present. It is not really about the future itself. This is why science-fiction often ages badly. Science-fiction seeks to enlarge the compass of the known. It is speculative. And, in speculating it is often laughably wrong. But, it also points the way and suggests possibilities for how the present could develop along its current course. Science-fiction is prophetic where fantasy is sentimental. Science-fiction, since it encourages a more broad perspective, is more creative and interesting. Fantasy is referential and narrow and as soon as it becomes unmoored from cliche it ceases to be fantasy and becomes science-fiction or speculative fiction.

Of course, many science-fiction narratives are so narrow as to resemble fantasy. Just replace the tableau of swords, elves, and magic with lasers, aliens, and advanced inexplicable science and you have the same uninteresting garbage.

Tags: , , ,


  1. I tend to agree with this. When I’m not writing mainstream, I tend to write fantasy; but I’d never made the connection to the fact that I also write and collect children’s lit.

    Interesting post! :)

  2. I strongly disagree (at least on a conceptual level)
    Although i do agree that large parts of fantasy is like that (hell not even as interesting as you make out) particularly because what very annoying dominates fantasy in shelf space (im actually annoyed bookshops have a fantasy or a sci fi or a crime section, it would serve everyone better if these were just placed in with all the other novels) is the god awful LOTR derived sword and sorcery stuff i grew out of when i was 15.

    im actually of the opinion LOTR isnt that great and set fantasy into a state of arrested development its only just beginning to get over.

    i’d actually argue sci-fi is nearly all about the here and now, even most hard sci-fi authors write as much, if not more, about the present as they do the future.

    But fantasy is fantasy because it is deals with the impossible., I disagree with the argument fantasy is all about elves and wizards and all that rubbish.

    i’d argue that gulliver’s travel’s was one of the first fantasy novels, and there are few more intelligent less childish books (and is in no way sentimental, its scathing satire). the back drops and fatastical elements and lands swift creates serve not as a way in which to examine the human condition or political thought etc (and i highly recommend it if you havent read it, particularly because no adaptation has ever done the last half of it as far as i know)

    fantasy i believe is merely the inclusion of the impossible or the out right imaginary in a work and is far more broad than people like to admit. in terms of novels (i’d argue there is a lot of fantasy before the modern novel as well) include books like gulliver’s travels, frankenstein, alice in wonderland, dracula, dr jekyll and mr hyde etc etc and i’d also argue the magical realism of authors like Salmon Rushdie who would never normally be considered fantasy is fantasy. or grant morrison’s the invisibles which is very much a mix of sci-fi and fantasy.

    also i believe the terms fantasy and sci-fi are damaging and restrictive, i dont think there is that much difference in imagining something that could exist and that doesnt or cant exist. definitions tend to fail. whats kurt vonnegut, called a sci-fi writer but there isnt any science in there, its as imaginary as anything. I argue that the term conceptual fiction should be used, it just means the fiction being described incorporates a concept that doesnt exist in ‘real life’

    it means we dont get bogged down in what is what and what it means. it would also reduce the negative associations with sci-fi and fantasy. there would of course be identifiable subgenres like hard sci fi but they are there all ready.

  3. *Bad* fantasy is simple and cliched. Frankly, so is bad SF. Good fantasy can be just as inventive and thought-provoking as good SF. And your statement that fantasy celebrates a nostalgic Golden Age entirely leaves out urban fantasy, which is just as much about today as SF is.

    The one part you did get right is that fantasy is often about personal dramas and interpersonal narratives. Much, but not all, current SF does not interest me because they get so caught up in scientific or military jargon that they render the characters as flat vehicles for the tech. If I wanted a physics lesson, I’d read a physics text. That’s not what I read novels for. I want to live in someone else’s head for a while. The best SF and F lets me do that.

  4. To paint ‘fantasy’ vs ‘science-fiction’ is in itself a flat and imbalanced opinion. It’s like saying all crime novels are crap, or all literary novels are genius. Such strong generalizations can’t really be made about art of any sort, not with any accuracy.

    A good fantasy novel will delve into the dark and the light, into human perspective and the essential nature of life. At its best, fantasy is one of the most human genres we have.

    I think that the issue of SF VS. Fantasy is far overdone. They do cross boundaries a lot, and so tend to get lumped together. Often a fan of one is a fan of the other. They do, however, still deserve to be treated as separate and equal entities.

    After all, our religion, our mythology, a good deal of our culture is based in fantasy. Disney hurt fantasy’s representation a great deal, sanitizing the myths and fairytales. Real fantasy, old fantasy is as bloody and deep and dark as it gets.

    If fantasy is a child’s world, then too often science fiction is the whiz-kid’s experiment room.

    There should be no ‘either or’ here. As with all art, each author, each book and story should be judged individually.

  5. There’s tons of fantasy out there that’s not childish, regressive, simple, nostalgic, or narrow. Lots of fantasy (esp. quest fantasy like LoTR) is deliberately consolatory, but there’s just as much out there pushes boundaries rather than hiding behind them.

    Check out China Mieville, Hal Duncan, Kelly Link, Jeff Vandermeer, Storm Constantine, or M. John Harrison.

    It doesn’t make sense to me to make such broad, dismissive generalizations.

  6. Here’s a link to an essay that refutes a lot of what you wrote:

    Though the presumptions you make on what constitutes fantasy and science-fiction still exist, both genres have evolved over the years to become more than these (Eric, above, gives the names of some authors to read as examples). The arguments you make are no longer relevant because of many recent works written for both fantasy and science-fiction. Many authors writing in these genres have pushed their efforts beyond what your essay confines them to.

  7. […] Fantasy vs. Science-fiction | Letter Never Sent (SF,Fantasy,Comparison) […]

  8. Interesting post :) Love the design of the site too, well done!

  9. guys thank you so much for the comments.

  10. This is my first time I have visited your site.

  11. Howdy! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m undoubtedly enjoying
    your blog and look forward to new updates.

  12. Does your blog have a contact page? I’m having trouble locating it but, I’d like to send you an email.

    I’ve got some ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great blog and I look forward to seeing it grow over time.