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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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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...?
Re: so here's part 2
LOL, wow, you spent a while on that, kudos :D

Good point about the Ring, although I would have to point out that the Ring wasn't just an object that was made by somebody, it was a part of Sauron just like the locket or diary or the other Horcruxes were a part of Voldemort in Harry Potter. At least that was my impression, based on the movies (I've never read the books).

I haven't watched all of the shows you mention, although I'm familiar with the weird mash of stuff on Supernatural. BSG I would have to call spiritualist science fiction -- there, I just made up a label.

It makes me wonder if television in general tends to straddle the scifi/fantasy line more than books do, and why that is.

I don't think I contributed anything useful to the conversation just then, but I did enjoy reading your thoughts :)
Re: so here's part 2
I would have to point out that the Ring wasn't just an object that was made by somebody, it was a part of Sauron

I agree. The One Ring contained part of the essence of Sauron, which is what gave it the power, and what also allowed his voice to be channelled through it. It's also why Sauron was destroyed when the ring was destroyed.

Another show that was obviously scifi but crossed the boundary was Farscape. Crichton had special powers which allowed him to know when a wormhole was going to appear. This was granted to him by the "Ancients", and seemed to have no real scientific basis for existence - though the rest of the universe obviously was very scifi.

I think you're right that many TV shows tend to cross that boundary more than books do - though that doesn't seem to go as much to movies as there seem to be a lot clearer distinctions between scifi and fantasy movies.
Re: so here's part 2
Crichton had special powers which allowed him to know when a wormhole was going to appear. This was granted to him by the "Ancients", and seemed to have no real scientific basis for existence

That's another one that follows along the "magical/mythological but with alien origins" trend, which again makes me wonder how "fantasy" of an element it is if there's aliens behind it.
Re: so here's part 2
And to be honest, everything was scifi apart from the abilities of the Ancients themselves, which may well have been technologically based save that no information was ever provided on that.

which again makes me wonder how "fantasy" of an element it is if there's aliens behind it.

Good point. I guess you almost have to assume it's technologically based, even if the technology is beyond our comprehending and grants fantasy like powers.
Re: so here's part 2
But then, where would it go if the aliens themselves have non-technological magical abilities, like the power to heal or read minds or control the environment around them? and what if, beyond that, they are treated as somewhat magical and not just "genetic abilities of an advanced race"?
Re: so here's part 2
ooh, yay for made-up labels! :p I'm gonna steal that one.

and good point about the Ring. though I did confess to it being a bad example ;)

It makes me wonder if television in general tends to straddle the scifi/fantasy line more than books do, and why that is.

that's a really good point, actually. Made it has to do with the fact they go on for a lot longer, have a lot more stories in them, and have multiple writers...? Maybe something to do with the fact that it's visual, and fantasy vs scifi has as many visual cues as thematic ones...? I really don't know, but I think you're right.

I guess I didn't even get into movies, either... though I guess I can think of a couple straddlers there, too... The Fifth Element, maybe? (though that goes back to argument about whether something being alien in origin takes away its magical quality or not)... or The Fountain? That one was all kinds of weird genre-wise.

Still, I can think of less movies off the top of my head than shows, so maybe it does have to do with the multiple stories by multiple writers element.
Re: so here's part 2
so maybe it does have to do with the multiple stories by multiple writers element.

Or perhaps just that it's harder to continue an ongoing series that is "pure" scifi. I mean, most movies are based on scifi books, and there aren't all that many scifi books which could be serialised into a TV show. Okay, okay, there is the Foundation series by Asimov, but everyone would be bored after the first couple of weeks it's so mind numbing. ;-)
Re: so here's part 2
Good point. At the very least, it would be difficult to continue any series that has any level of true mythology to it while remaining "pure scifi"...

There are shows like Stargate and Star Trek that I would call almost entirely "pure" scifi (save Deep Space Nine and the whole Bajoran Prophets thing, which would fall into the same group as Farscape, and IMO that's why it's the most awesome Trek series of them all)... but they are both basically serialized with each episode being a basically contained story, and the arcs are essentially plot-based on not mythology-based (e.g. "aliens trying to take over the universe" a la Stargate as opposed to "trying to discover the deeper truth behind the happenings in the life of X" a la Farscape), if that makes sense. Any "mythology" in both is entirely alien-technology-based, as far as I can recall, and in fact Stargate goes so far as to explain away some myths as actually being alien in origin.

But still, despite the long-running nature of both franchises, they're basically the minority.
Re: so here's part 2
I did think of, and have watched, both those shows, but as you said they are in the minority. And I think that if you look at Stargate you can almost see why that's the case because, despite the show's success, once it passed a certain point (which varies based on the viewer) it lost something which the earlier seasons had. It almost seemed harder for the writers to come up with something fresh, and they did of course then resort to new aliens who had special powers. ;-)

I also agree that DS9 was the best of the ST series.
Re: so here's part 2
Hee.

2. B5 is 'sci-fi' to me: ships, spacecraft, travelling, etc.

3. Earth Final Conflict is also sci-fi

4. Life On Mars...uh...I'm kinda stuck there. It's kinda...almost urban fantasy. Except...not. Because the elements I associate with fantasy aren't there, and while the time travel is the initial premise of the series and his time diplacement is a key part of the interactions... Urban sci-fi?

5. Supernatural is supernatural/horror for me. As are the X-Files. But then, I'm a wuss when it comes to the horror genre.

6. The New BSG? Sci-fi. Fantasy elements, yes, and a lot of spiritualism, but still...sci-fi. The meaning of life and being human - of humanity vs AI, of "born thinking" vs. "programmed thinking" and "can robots have souls". BSG asks many of the same questions as the Terminator series: the difference between man and robot - except that in T:SCC, the differences are clear and defined, and in BSG, they're blurred.

7. Sanctuary is fantasy-sci-fi with an emphasis on fantasy.

8. Buffy and Angel goes under fantasy, at least. Urban fantasy, even. I'm not sure why I classify the Buffyverse as urban fantasy, but Sanctuary as fantasy-scifi - it might be to do with the fact that the reasons in the Buffyverses are always mystical/magical, while the reasoning in Sanctuary is scientific.

The lines are very blurry for me, and I'm not sure I've made much sense in my comment!

But I agree with you that it's a conglomeration of the parts into a whole that defines a genre for me.
Re: so here's part 2
If by "urban fantasy" and "urban scifi" you mean taking place on Earth in the present, then, yeah, that's a good label for Buffy/Angel and Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes... now, whether the latter falls more toward scifi or fantasy I think will depend on if/what they reveal the actual mechanism to be... personally I think it may be more only pseudo time travel through some fantastical life-after-death means, but that's obviously not a canon explanation.

and I totally agree that B5, EFC, and BSG are definitely scifi, but they still have some aspects that are sort of pseudo fantasy (or, I should say, under the category of fantasy elements with an alien basis).

and ya know, for some reason I never thought of BSG as being at all similar to T:SCC... and I have no idea why lol
Re: so here's part 2
for some reason I never thought of BSG as being at all similar to T:SCC...

I think because their trappings are so different, people miss that both shows feature humans vs. machines and the constant question of where the line is drawn. :)