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The thin line between science fiction and fantasy

This topic has been bopping around in my head for a couple days now. It came up in chat yesterday because picking a genre for our novel is the next assignment over at the Forward Motion 2YN class.

The two genres I'm most exposed to, at least when it comes to reading, are science fiction and fantasy. I like it when there's some romance in there as well, but it's not a constant, and I definitely prefer it as a sub-genre... no "romance novels" for me, thanks. What I've been wondering about, though, is that dividing line between the genres of fantasy and science fiction, and when it's okay to cross them.

My understanding has always been that science fiction is about objects that can do amazing things, and fantasy is about people that can do amazing things. Sometimes that's cut and dried, sometimes it isn't.

Example 1: Lois McMaster Bujold's Vor series. Unquestionably science fiction. There are spaceships, wormholes, interplanetary travel, aliens. (In some ways it's a milieu story because the backdrops of Beta Colony and Barrayar are so important, but it boils down to a character story in the end.) Miles Vorkosigan is an absolutely unique guy, but there's nothing so obviously out of the ordinary that it would make it a fantasy tale.

Example 2: Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series. Unquestionably fantasy. It takes place in an alternate history. Some characters' "gifts from the gods" could perhaps be undiagnosed medical/mental conditions, perhaps, but there are also men who control the seas, people who can see the future, curses and whatnot. (The two trilogies here are both character stories, and IMO the first is much stronger, but they're both very good.)

But what about...

Example 3: Sharon Shinn's Samaria books? In the beginning, the first book, Archangel, seems to be plainly fantasy. There are angels flying around, for crying out loud, actual men and women with wings who sing to the god, Jovah, for rain or medicine or whatnot. But then Shinn starts dropping clues about how this is taking place on what seems to be another planet, and maybe Jovah isn't a god after all, but a spaceship in orbit, and angels are only genetic freaks whose job it is to keep the ecosystem in balance. The uncovering of this apparent conspiracy actually becomes the plot of the next two books, and in a companion book, Angelica, the main character actually visits the ship, even though she doesn't know what she's seeing. And yet all of the books have a fantasy novel feel about them. If you look on amazon, the first book is tagged as fantasy or romantic fantasy, but by the time you get to the third, it's also tagged as science fiction.

It doesn't get much clearer when you get to TV. Okay, obviously the Stargate series are science fiction; even though they might play off of mythology, there is always a technical reason to it. The object that can do amazing things is (among other objects) the Stargate itself. In Star Trek we are usually focused on the amazing things that the ships can do; even though some of the characters can do amazing things, like read minds and shape-shift, this is always explained in terms of biology and science.

Example 4: But what about The X-Files? It's sci-fi, is the obvious conclusion. There are aliens, for Pete's sake, and it took place in the present day, modern world. But many of the Monster of the Week tales dealt with people that could do amazing things, like start fires with their minds or actually 'talk' someone into killing themselves. Sometimes we are given a medical reason for these abilities. Sometimes it's only hinted at, or offered up as a possibility, and the audience, along with Mulder, look at Scully with a "yeah, right" kind of expression.

Example 5: Star Wars. It's movie, not TV, but whatever. This is another hard one. There are ships, and amazing technology, and aliens. But there's also people, Jedis, who have amazing abilities, can move things with their minds and sense things that other people cannot. That borders on fantasy, doesn't it? (Of course, Episode I killed that with their talk of midichlorians, but I prefer not to think about Episode I unless I must.) We generally think of Star Wars as science fiction, but it incorporates fantasy elements... prophecies, for example.

Anyone else out there interested in this subject? Think of any other examples of sci-fi/fantasy hybrids?
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You know, I've never read any TP... and I'm not sure why. Whenever I'm in the bookstore his covers always scare me a teeny bit 8-|

As far as Red Dwarf goes... I'm afraid I can't help you there.

Love your icon.
The way I've always looked at it is that in sci-fi it's more about the science, even though you have hard sci-fi like anything by Greg Bear all the way to space opera like anything by E.E. "Doc" Smith, while fantasy is more about the fact that it steers clear of technological themes - so you could have fantasy works which don't involve any magic or supernatural forces. Of course, there can't help be a lot of overlap between the genres as you've indicated.

In terms of examples that blur the boundaries, I'd have to suggest the "Pern" books by Anne McCaffrey as being somewhere in between sci-fi and fantasy.

And while they aren't books, many superhero comics and graphic novels (especially movies like X-Men) are somewhere between sci-fi and fantasy.

The "Tales of Alvin Maker" series by Orson Scott Card probably are more fantasy than sci-fi, but "Prentice Alvin" placed in the Hugo Award which is typically for sci-fi novels.

To a certain extent, the Dune novels by Frank Herbert are probably also crossover novels, because while there certainly is science in the fiction, there is a fair amount of fantasy as well.

Some books that you may enjoy a lot which are somewhere between sci-fi and fantasy are the "Thursday Next" novels by Jasper Fforde. Start with The Eyre Affair and see what you think. Strong female lead character, lots of references to literature, though primarily English literature, and some wonderful puns, word play, and humour.

On an unrelated note, my Jack McDevitt books arrived yesterday and I've started reading the first one as you recommended - A Talent for War. I'm about 70 or 80 pages in, and have to say that in many ways it reminds me of Dune. Not in the details at all, as the books are very different, but in the depth of the world McDevitt has created. So many planets and people, with so much information about them that you only piece together in bits, and have to guess at a lot of what is there. It makes for a great read.
Thanks for the reccs. It's great to have something on my reading list to-be. Public library here I come!

So glad the McDevitt books came! Right now I'm rereading LMB's The Warrior's Apprentice but I'm almost done with that and can start on ATFW :)
So glad the McDevitt books came!

Yes, they seem like very well written books so far. Obviously sci-fi, but it's very understated in many ways.
while fantasy is more about the fact that it steers clear of technological themes - so you could have fantasy works which don't involve any magic or supernatural forces.

If there's nothing magical or supernatural, what about that novel would make it fantasy?

The closest I can come up with are GRRM's ASoIaF... it's been a long time since I read them, but aren't there creatures of some kind in the woods? Oh, and dragons. Dragons are pretty much a fantasy staple.
Another great example is Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series.... the basic concept is a planet that was colonised by a lost ship from Earth. However, they landed on Darkover, a mineral-poor planet, that has telepathic aliens.

Skip forward a few hundred generations and Earth has found them again. But now, due to cross-breeding with these aliens, the humans are highly telepathic, have trained themselves to be specialised in their telepathy... but there's a huge science-fiction element in it, because the Earth technology is trying to edge out the 'magical' technology from Darkover. It's a huge, sweeping story, over 10 books by MZB herself and others have continued the story. It's a great example of both genres mixed successfully.
Ooh, that sounds very cool.

The idea I'm playing with for my 2YN story is that Earth was undergoing some kind of crisis a long time ago - ecological, war, haven't decided yet - and a bunch of people up and left and colonized Mars. Meanwhile the survivors on Earth devolved to a pseudo-medieval society and are slowly rebuilding with some otherworldly help. But then the Mars colonists (who aren't identified as such right away) show up. They have lost a lot of their history but they 'know' that the country where my main characters live is the birthplace of the god they worship, and the people living there now are obviously heretics.

And this all sounds really scifi, but the story is told from the POV of a guy who has never left his hometown before the story starts, much less contemplated humans living on other planets. When he finds out about the secret invasion, he assumes (like I want the reader to assume) that it's terrestrial.
If it were me, I'd classify it from the POV, rather than the whole thing... it'd hold up the suspense, until you reveal that it's 'Marsians' who were originally from Earth, who are helping.

But that's just me! :D

I think, given what you've just written, that you'd really enjoy the MZB books. I'll look up a small list for you, I can't remember which one you'd be best starting from... but they do bounce around in Darkovers' history, so there's some from planet fall, some from their feudal times, etc, etc. I'll talk to hubby and we'll narrow it down to a few good recommendations.
Let's just say there's a reason they always call the genre Scifi/Fantasy ;)

As for what classifies as each, I guess I have a slightly different chart than you, so maybe my answers would turn out a bit different (though, strangely, I agree on both the mix examples you gave that I've heard of: The X-Files and Star Wars... at least if you ignore the new SW movies lol).

For me, Scifi and Fantasy are about different elements of the story as they add up to a whole. This includes things like overall atmosphere, setting (which has lots of variants: another planet vs earth, the present or future vs the past, the known universe vs one that follows different rules, the known world vs a made-up earth-like location, etc), aliens vs creatures or mythical beings, science vs mythology or magic, technology vs hidden/secret/ancient/etc power... things like that.

I guess that last one kind of incorporates your idea of objects that do amazing things vs people that do amazing things, but I would say (unless I'm just misunderstanding what you mean by it) it's more of an overlap than a direct correlation... for example, I would never call the Lord of the Rings scifi despite the fact that the One Ring (an object, and obviously the key element in the story) can essentially speak and can make people turn against themselves (i.e. do what I would classify as amazing things)... because the power that drives it is mythological in nature and not at all scientific.

Obviously I doubt you would call LOTR scifi either (at least, I certainly hope not!), so that's kind of a bad example, but it's the only one that comes immediately to mind that I'm sure you've also heard of :p

Anyway, I don't mean all that to mean I think you're omgwrong!11! or something, just to show you what I mean by going by a different scale of what's scifi vs what's fantasy.

That said, some examples of weird scifi/fantasy blends.

Example 1: Have you ever read the Trade Pact Universe stories by Julie E. Czerneda? It's been years since I read any of it, and I never actually finished the series, but if I recall, it takes place on ships and different planets, but the story is about a woman with amazing and unique power that is kind of a mix of mythology/magic and science. Like I said, I need to read it again to be sure, but I recall it being somewhat of a blend, and that's my only book example, because I don't read enough :p

Example 2: Babylon 5. It was mostly clear science fiction, but it had lots of mythology elements between the alien races, such as Minbari being reborn as humans, Sheridan dying and given a Gandalf-like second wind until he has to leave again at the end (in fact, don't even get me started on the LOTR parallels in Babylon 5 ;)). Anyway, that's another example. I'd need to rewatch it all to get more specifics :p

(aaaand it said my comment was too long...)
so here's part 2
Example 3: Earth Final Conflict (sort of)... like B5, it was mainly pure scifi, with lots of aliens and technology and alien technology :p But then, it also had a somewhat mythological element to the main arc of the show in the form of a prophecy, and basically all the actions taken in the show were either for or against it. But then, the prophecy is alien, which would seem to eliminate any fantasy-ness to it. This begs another question: Does mythological or magical stuff turn into scifi if it's directly connected to another, more obvious, scifi element, such as aliens?

Example 4: Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. Um, yeah, what are they? I probably never would have thought about either show in this context until now, but now that I'm thinking about it, what genre do they fall into? It's hardly just a cop show... I mean, there's elements of time travel...ish, but then there seems to be something magical about how that happens... yeah, I'm at a loss on that one.

Example 5: This is kind of tangential, but what about shows that are just wishy-washy period, like bloody Supernatural. I'd say it's obviously not scifi, but is it fantasy? or is it just horror? I mean, it's not got all the usual elements that you would usually think of as fantasy, but then it does have spells and creatures and a clear mythology (it's based a lot on religion and modern myth, though... would that be a different genre than other fantasy?)... just not any of the kinds that usually make you think "fantasy". I mean, some of the creatures are basically human... hell, the shapeshifters are given a "genetic anomaly" explanation, which might even be called a scifi element. And I'm gonna stop there, because I could debate that one for ages.

Example 6: Dare I even mention Battlestar Galactica? Do the religious elements fall under fantasy? What about the non-scientific elements surrounding Starbuck's death and return, or the Six inside Baltar's head, or any number of other things...? But yet, earth is the mythological place in this show, so everything is from another planet... Yeah, I'll stop there on that one too.

Example 7: Sanctuary. It has clear elements of both scifi and fantasy. I think I'd almost just call that one scifi/fantasy and be done with it :p


Example 8: Buffy and Angel? Magic and stuff should obviously make it fantasy, but dunno, that just doesn't feel right lol. I can't explain myself on that one, but it doesn't seem like clear-cut fantasy somehow... maybe more wishy-washy like Supernatural (what with vampires and demons and other "modern myth") than part scifi.

Um, debate away...?
I always think of Star Wars as fantasy, but I've never looked closely at why. I think it's because of the amount of 'magic' (i.e. the force) in it, though that was rather boringly explained away (midichlorions) in one of the prequels.

I used to work in a bookstore and when I first got there the SFF section was split into fantasy and science fiction. It frustrated me because some authors are hard to categorise. In the end I waited until I got to manage the section and merged it all. Mwahahahaha!