It is relatively easy to confuse these two reading genres. They seem virtually identical at first glance.
I myself had a hard time at first differentiating between these particular reading genres. Only when I did a bit of thorough research on my own was I able to wrap my head around the distinction.
Several glaring differences distinguish science fiction and fantasy from one another. In this article, we will be analyzing these various similarities and differences in depth.
The fundamental difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction narratives describe what is possible, whereas fantasy narratives describe what is impossible. Science fiction elements have a firm basis in reality. In contrast, fantasy elements are founded purely on facets of the imagination.
This notion can be summed up with a quote from renowned American fiction writer Miriam Allen de Ford:
Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities.
This is the primary differentiating factor between science fiction and fantasy, but not the only one. There are additional components to consider which further classify these two reading genres. We will analyze all of these elements in greater detail in the latter portions of the article.
What is Science Fiction?
To understand the discrepancies between these two reading genres, we must first remind ourselves of what precisely these reading genres are.
First, we will take a closer look at the explicit meaning behind the science fiction genre.
The science fiction genre is defined as a genre of speculative fiction that investigates the possible consequences of future scientific and technological innovations.
A prominent example of a science fiction novel is Red Rising by Pierce Brown.
The story of Red Rising is set in a futuristic time period where space travel and exploration are no longer rare commodities. Space technology has developed to the point where multiple planets and moons have been colonized.
Despite all the superior advances in science and technology, the world still feels believable. There are no supernatural elements that defy the laws of the universe. All of the technological aspects follow a clear line of reasoning.
*If you would like to read more on the scientific and technological innovations in Red Rising by Pierce Brown, check out my book review here!
Some prominent characteristics of science fiction are provided below.
- Space Travel and Exploration
- Advanced Technology
- Authentic World
- Interplanetary Conflict
These characteristics are not the only defining elements of science fiction. Nonetheless, these are commonly considered the trademark ingredients of science fiction.
What is Fantasy?
With the fundamentals of science fiction out of the way, let us turn our attention to the exact workings of the fantasy genre. For our first order of business, we will define what the fantasy genre is in explicit terms.
The fantasy genre is defined as a genre of speculative fiction that integrates magical, otherworldly components into the narrative.
A standard example of a fantasy work is Fire & Blood by George R.R. Martin.
This work indeed employs magical, otherworldly components in the plot structure.
In the world of Westeros, dragons reign supreme. Harnessed by men and women to carve a path to power, these winged beasts wreak havoc wherever they go. Dragons are so integral to the story of Fire & Blood that one could argue there would be no story without this mythical species.
The setting of Fire & Blood is also vast and complex, feeding into the otherworldly atmosphere of the novel.
*If you would like to read more on the magical, otherworldly components of Fire & Blood by George R.R. Martin, check out my review here!
Several typical characteristics of fantasy narratives are marked below.
- Unique Magic System
- Elaborate World Building
- Dangerous Quest
- Mythical Creatures
Of course, there are additional fantasy characteristics not listed above. However, these are the trademark characteristics that most people utilize to define fantasy.
Similarities Between Science Fiction and Fantasy
To understand why individuals confuse science fiction and fantasy, it is necessary to discuss the commonalities between these two reading genres.
This will provide a solid foundation to work with before delving into the differences between science fiction and fantasy.
Founded on the Question of What If…?
The overarching similarity between science fiction and fantasy is that both of these categories are built on hypothetical ideology.
These literary genres are considered to be speculative fiction. This means that both science fiction and fantasy are established on the question “What if…?”
What if time travel was a possibility? What if teleportation became the predominant means of transportation? What if you could control the environment with a mere wave of your hand?
It is these sorts of questions that are employed by science fiction and fantasy authors alike. It jumpstarts their writing journey, leading them down new and unfamiliar paths to bring something entirely original to the world of literature.
The identical writing foundation of science fiction and fantasy is the most prominent source of confusion among casual readers. The theoretical world unites these two distinguished reading genres in a way that is unparalleled in literature.
Similar Central Conflicts
Science fiction and fantasy revolve around remarkably similar central conflicts.
One typical central conflict seen in both of these genres is the external conflict of individual versus society. These narratives analyze the back and forth struggle between the personal motives of an individual versus the rigid expectations of society.
Although the detailed specifics of the conflict vary, the general premise remains the same.
Essentially, the protagonist is pitted against the virtually limitless resources of society in an attempt to expose the flaws of the societal system. It does not matter whether the narrative takes place in an advanced futuristic society or a primitive medieval system.
This is just one example of a central conflict that is utilized in both literary classes. There are numerous other examples of conflicts that stretch across both reading genres as well.
Individual versus self, individual versus fate, and individual versus individual are just a few other examples of these similar central conflicts.
Applicability of Themes to Real Life
For the most part, the themes of science fiction and fantasy are also applicable to real life.
For instance, a prevailing theme in science fiction is courage. Time and time again, science fiction novels emphasize that courage is necessary to tackle individual pursuits. From revealing to the world the dangers of AI to jumping headfirst into hyperspace, the quality of courage is essential.
This is a notable takeaway for readers that could easily translate into the real world. Petty tasks and life-altering undertakings both require courage. Science fiction teaches readers not to shy away from conflict but to embrace it with open arms.
Moreover, fantasy also describes themes that are easily implemented in real life. For example, the theme of love and sacrifice is a convenient example of the real-world applicability of lessons taught by fantasy.
Protagonists are routinely faced with heart-wrenching decisions. Their pursuits frequently clash with their loyalty to loved ones. Often, they must choose between the two or risk losing out on both endeavors.
The reinforcement of this theme encourages readers to explore their relationship between love and sacrifice. There is an optimum balance between the two extremes that you can only discover through trial and error.
Working on the basis of extremes rarely ever works. Fantasy demonstrates that uncovering this fragile equilibrium on your own is critical to your overall success and quality of life.
Inspiration for Many Subsequent Sub-Genres
Multiple sub-genres have sprung up over the years from both science fiction and fantasy. This is due to the dominant success and prestigious reputation that each genre has steadily acquired over time.
Science fiction alone has birthed the reading sub-genres of apocalyptic, cyberpunk, first contact, military science fiction, post-apocalyptic, space travel, and time travel.
The fantasy genre has produced similar results.
Fantasy has birthed the reading sub-genres of children’s fantasy, dark fantasy, fantasy romance, high fantasy, low fantasy, urban fantasy, and young adult fantasy.
The inspiration of other newer reading sub-genres has helped fuel the momentum of science fiction and fantasy, which is why these reading genres continue to gain popularity today.
Differences Between Science Fiction and Fantasy
Now that the similarities between science fiction and fantasy have been addressed, we can get down to the nitty-gritty.
Below you will find the critical differences that classify these two reading genres into separate categories.
How Possible the Story Events Are
As previously mentioned, this is the foremost differentiating factor between science fiction and fantasy.
Science fiction explores what is possible, though improbable, in the real world. Space flight, genetic engineering, and even far-fetched concepts such as aliens are all believable concepts that frequent science fiction.
Fantasy explores what is impossible. In these sorts of narratives, authors can integrate theoretical concepts into the story, such as complex magic or talking animals. Even though these creative notions could never genuinely exist, they can exist within the realm of fantasy.
The complicated part about this underlying aspect is that what is impossible vs. possible is subjective. Thus, the perplexing grey areas that divide science fiction and fantasy are not always so clear.
This complication is explained further under the section Can A Literary Work Be Considered Both Science Fiction and Fantasy?
Compliance with Laws of Nature
Compliance with the laws that govern the universe is another significant classification aspect.
Science fiction strictly adheres to the laws of nature. Every scientific or technological innovation must follow the inherent rules of the world without fail.
This means that all of the superior technology introduced in these types of narratives must have airtight reasoning to back up its existence. Technological developments can not just materialize out of thin air. There must be an element of rationality present.
Fantasy has no such restraints. With fantasy, novelists can explain the sophisticated phenomena and miraculous feats in the fictional world with one word: magic.
No rationale support or concrete evidence needs to be provided in fantasy, especially in the domain of soft magic systems. The awe-inspiring feats of magic require no explicit explanation.
This is part of the intrigue of fantasy. The mystical nature and infinite liberties that magic systems can offer pull the reader onto the edge of their seat.
Needless to say, proper compliance with the laws of physics can be a helpful tool for classifying science fiction versus fantasy.
Basis in Reality
This is another notable area where science fiction and fantasy differ.
Science fiction narratives are fixed firmly in reality. The plot structure, the description of the setting, and the disposition of the characters are inspired by the real world. The world of science fiction merely embellishes existing technologies to their fullest extent.
Take space travel, for instance. In actuality, the world has barely scratched the surface in terms of space exploration. Nevertheless, science fiction can illustrate space exploration at its fullest potential, with planet colonization and interplanetary transportation.
Fantasy lies on the opposite end of the spectrum.
In stark contrast to science fiction, not every facet of fantasy has a basis in reality. Some aspects of fantasy are based on imagination instead.
For example, the concept of magic could never possibly exist in the real world. Producing physical matter from thin air defies reality. No amount of advancement in science or technology could bring this phenomenon into the real world.
Age of Existence
In terms of how long these reading genres have been around, fantasy is the clear winner.
Fantasy is ancient in the world of literature. It has been argued that the origins of fantasy extend back all the way back to mythological times. In fact, The Odyssey by Homer is debatably the first fantasy work ever.
Science fiction, on the other hand, is far newer. This literary genre has only come into prominence in the last century or so. Relative to the fantasy genre, the conception of science fiction does not even come close to when fantasy was first realized.
The similarities and differences between science fiction and fantasy are summarized in the Venn diagram below.
Can a Literary Work Be Considered Both Science Fiction and Fantasy?
This is a crucial question to consider in the categorization of science fiction versus fantasy. This query is essentially asking, “Are there exceptions to the classification system of science fiction and fantasy?”
To keep the answer short and sweet, yes! There are exceptions where literary works are considered both science fiction and fantasy.
This is because there is no clear-cut dividing line that separates the two reading genres. The factors discussed above help categorize science fiction versus fantasy, but they are not definitive tests by any means.
The principal difference between science fiction and fantasy is somewhat subjective.
Nobody knows for sure what sort of innovations are possible in the future. What is considered impossible now may be thrown into the realm of possibility in a decade or two.
Thus, the argument that science fiction investigates what is possible and fantasy investigates what is impossible is not always so reliable.
For this reason, the term “prototype categories” has been routinely applied to the genres of science fiction and fantasy. In essence, this means that these reading genres are continually evolving and sorting out the subtle details that define science fiction versus fantasy.
Why Do So Many People Confuse Science Fiction and Fantasy?
As aforementioned, there is no clear-cut objective line that marks what is possible versus impossible. This lack of knowledge regarding what technologies lie in the future blurs the division between science fiction and fantasy.
In addition, readers mistakenly look to the setting as a definitive marker when comparing science fiction and fantasy. Unfortunately, the nature of the setting is not always indicative of the nature of the reading genre.
Star Wars is a prominent example of this phenomenon. Even though the backdrop of Star Wars is space, this does not necessarily mean that it is science fiction. Some of the elements of Star Wars fall under the umbrella of fantasy more so than science fiction.
The definition for fantasy established earlier in the article is based on magical, otherworldly components. Would you consider The Force to be a somewhat magical, otherworldly component? I certainly would.
Thus, there has been an endless debate waging for decades on whether or not Star Wars should be considered science fiction or fantasy. It is probably a hybrid of both genres.
This goes to show that the setting does not necessarily define the genre of a given work.
Why Does Distinguishing Between Science Fiction and Fantasy Matter?
This question is what this entire article boils down to. Why does it matter?
For one, the reading genre of a literary work is a massive factor in its overall marketability.
If you are an aspiring author, this is a critical aspect to consider.
Determining your literary work’s exact genre will help you formulate your novel better to cater to a particular target audience. Constructing your story without applying this knowledge may hold your published work back from fulfilling its maximum potential.
Knowing the preferences and desires of your target audience is key to hitting it big in literature.
For this reason, it’s recommended that you use a professional book manuscript editing service to make sure that your novel appeals to your target audience. The Scribendi team is composed of professional editors specializing in critiquing, editing, and proofreading book manuscripts. Click over to Scribendi here for more information.
Discovering Other Works that Suit Your Individual Needs
If you are a casual reader and not an aspiring author, marketability may not be necessary to you at all.
However, this factor may be of some interest to you.
Learning about the difference between science fiction and fantasy is highly advantageous for discovering other gratifying fantasy works that suit your needs.
Say, hypothetically, that you have an intense passion for the fantasy reading genre only. Not knowing the difference between fantasy and science fiction may cause you to purchase a science fiction book.
It is only when you are at the point of no return that you realize all of the fantastical elements that you crave, like dragons, elves, and magic, are missing!
A grave mistake such as this may not only hurt your passion for fantasy. It may harm your love for reading in general.