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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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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.
Yes, in a way they're more like a mystery or caper novel, with the scifi as the backdrop. I love the world-building in his Alex books.
That's exactly what it is - a mystery novel.

And you're right, the world building is incredible. You wonder how much detail he had to plan out before he started writing all this.
That's a good question... even the little excerpts of 'books' before each chapter make it really 'feel' like there's been all of this history that's happened in the meantime.
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.
If there's nothing magical or supernatural, what about that novel would make it fantasy?

If it was set in an historical AU? For example, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. It's in an historical setting, but the events are not real, and nobody has any special abilities. I guess you'd probably classify it more as an historical novel than fantasy, but it crosses the boundaries.

There probably aren't many things that fit into that category as even the books that tend not to give people special powers do tend to have the fantastical creatures - such as dragons as you say.
Well, I know there's that whole series of alt. history novels - I forget the author's name - and it always seems to end up in the scifi/fantasy section :)
There are a couple of authors - Eric Flint is one that has done historical AU stuff that comes to mind though.
Oh yeah, that's the name I was thinking of.

And then there's Harry Turtledove. Saw his "The United States of Atlantis" in the bookstore and it cracked me up.
I've heard Turtledove called the "king of AU" or something of the sort, but most of his stories are much more SciFi than Fantasy - aliens invade Earth during the middle of WWII and so all humans join forces to resist the alien invasion, etc.