tv // lbd // shoulder touch

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?
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
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
Much as I continue to love Stargate and loved Star Trek until the end (yes, even Enterprise... shut up :p), with the exception of DS9 that's mostly because I care more about characters than I do about plot...

but I agree, it's clear they started to run out of ideas and had to, as you say, create all new aliens with special powers :P

there's still episodes that make me squee and arcs (mostly about specific characters, like Michael and Todd on SGA) that I love, but much as I love Trek and SG, I remain disappointed at wasted opportunities with both, particularly because they had the opportunity (especially with Atlantis and Enterprise) for great mythology but wasted it...

Goes to show why the mythology shows are always in people's top ten lists ;)