Worlds of Design: Fantasy vs. Sci-Fi Part 2
  • Worlds of Design: Fantasy vs. Sci-Fi Part 2


    I hope I showed in my last piece that "science vs magic" is not a sufficient way to differentiate fantasy from science fiction. What about other ways?


    What about the size (and speed) of typical vehicles as a separator? Science fiction often has vast spaceships that you "never" see in fantasy, yet even fantasy can have small space-traveling ships as in the Spelljammer setting for AD&D. Games that are clearly fantasy rarely have land or sea vehicles that can travel 60 miles (100 km) an hour or more. They have nothing like airliners or container ships; rarely anything like a railroad (but some do . . .).

    Benny Sperling on Twitter suggested "Low tech (fantasy) knights, wizards, kings vs high tech (sci-fi) robots, space ships, AI".

    This led me to think that in fantasy the fighting is almost always melee or short range (catapults, arrows, and spells), whereas in science fiction the fighting is almost always at considerable if not immensely long (in outer space) ranges. This is a useful distinction, though with exceptions, in a fantasy video game such as Age of Wonders III, the wizards are casting their battle spells across dozens or hundreds of miles. But I can't think of a fantasy (story or game) with combat ranges longer than the size of a planet . . .

    Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom stories involve both short range (sword) and longer range (the Martian warships) fighting; I'd call Barsoom more fantasy than science fiction.

    "Science fiction is fantasy about issues of science. Science fiction is a subset of fantasy. Fantasy predated it by several millennia." Raymond E Feist

    The biggest typical explosions in science fiction are immensely greater than the biggest explosions one typically encounters in fantasy.

    Knights? We have knights in armor riding horses, we have Jedi Knights, it's just a word. If by Knights we specifically mean armed horsemen who hold their land in fee to an overlord, then we have something that's medieval, and medieval often translates to fantasy. But that's more often because of low tech and short range fighting than because of the feudal system! We can have a fantasy such as Empire of the Petal Throne that has little resemblance to the medieval. (Though some would call EPT science fantasy, because the technology is supposedly science-based.)

    Benny also mentioned Kings, but many science-fiction Empire stories involve monarchies. As for "AI", we see fantasy golems and automatons that exhibit signs of intelligence.

    What is "science fantasy?" Star Wars, perhaps, but not Star Trek. Scientific trappings over what is otherwise a fantasy? I think I'll try to avoid the term.

    Believability might come into all of this. Science fiction can be quite believable, whereas fantasy is almost always fantastic and ultimately unbelievable. Yet one of the most believable fictions in our genres is the Lord of the Rings, clearly a fantasy. Star Wars isn't believable (though it's enjoyable), and many would say it IS a fantasy. Fantasy elements in what is otherwise science fiction tend to break immersion (take the player out of the game), as do scientific elements in what is otherwise fantasy.

    Where do we fit in alternate history - for example, Harry Turtledove's series in which the South wins the Civil War? It's no longer real, though starting from our reality, and it may be realistic. Do we just call it Alternate History and leave it at that? This is related to stories, e.g. Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, where time- or multiverse-travelers go to an earlier time(line) and use their knowledge of technology to make big changes. Fantasy? SF?

    In the end, I think I have to point first to natural versus supernatural as a means of separating fantasy and science fiction. After that I focus on fighting methods, especially ranges, and to vehicle and explosion sizes. Star Wars is fantasy because of the supernatural elements, the prophecy and The Force, and somehow a lot of melee and short range combat. The Pern books are science-fiction because there is no supernatural element. And so on.

    You might be able to have an interesting discussion with your players about this topic. It's an intellectual exercise in considerable part, but one that many have tried over the years if we can judge from the weight of material online.

    This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
    Comments 44 Comments
    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      IMO, the Pern series makes an excellent case study for this topic. The first two(order of writing, not chronology) books are pure fantasy. Young coming of age girl living in a feudalistic setting learns she has noble blood while she discovers she can talk to flying dragons, which can teleport and breath fire. The White Dragon book starts shifting the series to a post apocalyptic science fiction setting when they discover they are the ancestors of space faring colonists that had a small problem with volcanoes and critters falling from space. This gets repeated somewhat with the Harper set. After that, we the reader probably consider the Pern setting a SciFi setup with lots of fantasy tossed in.

      The dragons do complicate the speed of travel side of things as they can teleport(between) pretty much anywhere the rider can visualize to the dragon. Even to other planets.
    1. dragoner's Avatar
      dragoner -
      Science vs magic does work in that by origin, one is natural, and the other is of supernatural origin. Looking beyond just simple effect.
    1. Ed Laprade's Avatar
      Ed Laprade -
      I'll stick with Damon Knight's (I think he was the first to use it) definition: "Science fiction is what I point to when I say it." Every other definition I've ever heard of has exceptions.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Where do we fit in alternate history
      Interestingly enough, Harry Turtledove's first entry into alt history per se was Guns of the South, which had a clear sci fi element due to time traveling South Africans. His next entry, How Few Remain, was more pure alt-history in the sense that there are no fantasy or sci fi elements per se, just history going differently than it did.

      He also clearly had historically influenced fantasy in the form of the Videssos series, which was definitely fantasy, undoubtedly, but had clear parallels to the Byzantine history he had trained to study.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ed Laprade View Post
      I'll stick with Damon Knight's (I think he was the first to use it) definition: "Science fiction is what I point to when I say it." Every other definition I've ever heard of has exceptions.
      Basically the "I give up!" definition.

      This is why I said these aren't natural kinds in last week's discussion, but instead family resemblances around prototypes, and thus no airtight definition exists. That doesn't mean we can't explore what seems to characterize the prototypes, though.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Not some bad broad brush similarities. And, obviously, exceptions do exist. The Black Company books feature airborn cavalry on flying carpets. Steven Erikson's Malazan books feature continent destructive spells. Even in D&D, we've got things like the Rain of Colorless Fire and the Cataclysm in Krynn for massive effects.

      But, like you say, if we look at the stuff that lies in the center of the genres, yeah, I don't have much more than quibbles with this.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by dragoner View Post
      Science vs magic does work in that by origin, one is natural, and the other is of supernatural origin. Looking beyond just simple effect.
      The big problem with delineating science and magic as natural/supernatural is that most magic in fiction is just a local variation on physics. Wizards understand how magic works, because magic is a natural force in their world, and it can be understood scientifically.

      Worlds where magic exist outside of the local natural law, and can't be understood because no deeper explanation exists, are exceptionally rare. Moreover, a world where magic can't be understood makes for a poor game setting, since anything can happen and the players have no way to meaningfully account for it.
    1. dragoner's Avatar
      dragoner -
      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      The big problem with delineating science and magic as natural/supernatural is that most magic in fiction is just a local variation on physics. Wizards understand how magic works, because magic is a natural force in their world, and it can be understood scientifically.

      Worlds where magic exist outside of the local natural law, and can't be understood because no deeper explanation exists, are exceptionally rare. Moreover, a world where magic can't be understood makes for a poor game setting, since anything can happen and the players have no way to meaningfully account for it.
      Traditionally it was from a god or god-like beings as the source of magic, a miracle of sorts, and thus beyond simple nature. I don't think it was understood in the times when people still did believe in magic, other than as superstition. It is probably more of a modernistic viewpoint that magic has taken on the trappings of science, probably for modern people to more connect with it.
    1. barasawa -
      For me Science Fiction is based on the idea of science, even if sometimes the science is speculative or even that of a different universal set.

      Fantasy on the other hand employs the supernatural and magic is supernatural.

      Psionics seems to be magic, but the idea that embodies it is that it is the currently not understood potential of the human mind that can direct or even create changes to itself and that which is around it. The standard basis for it is supposed to be scientific.

      But writers aren't constrained by the limits of such definitions and are free to write things that embody both SF & F at the same time. Not to mention that things we may assume are one or the other, weren't envisioned as such by the author.

      Don't forget these two little phrases you might have seen before...

      Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
      &
      Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from science.

      So at a certain point of development, there's no real reason for us to even argue about it. In general, if it feels like science fiction, call it such. If it feels like fantasy, declare it fantasy. If it seems to have both in it, just call it science fantasy.

      Of course there's something easier than trying to pigeon hole everything. If you enjoy it, just call it good.
    1. Yaarel -
      The distinction between ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’ is today obsolete.

      Now there is only one ‘speculative’ genre, where a monster might come from folklore or aliens or both, and marvels might be magic or advanced technology or both.

      I call it all ‘scifi’. And done.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Yaarel View Post
      The distinction between ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’ is today obsolete.

      Now there is only one ‘speculative’ genre, where a monster might come from folklore or aliens or both, and marvels might be magic or advanced technology or both.

      I call it all ‘scifi’. And done.
      But, there are very good critical reasons for genre specification. If a genre is so broad that it just becomes Spec Fiction, then, well, it encompasses just about anything. I mean, the latest Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr had steam punk elements in it that were obviously anachronistic. Does that make it spec fiction? Not really. It's still a mystery movie with a bit more action than perhaps the books had.

      Without genre categorization, every conversation we start having about any book has to start with a lengthy conversation just nailing down the language that we would use to critique the work. Having genre categories allows us to have a common framework to start from. It allows us to have the right questions to ask.

      IOW, we don't go down a totally pointless road of trying to analyze how magic functions in Tolkien because it's fantasy - we're not really supposed to worry about how magic functions in fantasy, that's not the point. Also, because Tolkien is fantasy, we generally don't worry about certain aspects - we probably shouldn't critique the work from the point of view of what does it mean to be a human or an elf in the work. That's not the point of Lord of the Rings. We should approach it from a more moral discussion of good and evil.

      Sorry to beat that dead horse again. But, it still holds true. In a fantasy story, we generally aren't concerned with certain questions. The fact that orcs are made from mutated elves isn't really a commentary on 20th century capitalism (despite the fact that there probably are numerous papers written on this), or, if it is, it's still not really a central theme of the story. The central theme is about why someone would choose to be evil - Saruman's betrayal for example. So on and so forth.

      Without first nailing down at least a working definition of a given genre, it's very, very difficult to have any conversation about works within that genre because you wind up rehashing the same discussion over and over and over again.
    1. Jhaelen -
      I've read quite a few novels that are clearly 'just' Fantasy. In these novels the authors made no attempt to explain supernatural events in any way and sometimes didn't even bother to put down some rules applying to 'magical' effects or abilities.

      It's often harder to tell if a novel firmly belongs into the Sci-Fi genre. It's quite easy if the novel belongs in the sub-genre of 'Hard Sci-Fi', but if it doesn't, you have to come up with some rules for yourself. How do you feel about Nanotech, FTL-drives, alien beings from other dimensions or alternate universes?

      Sometimes there are only subtle hints that the novel actually belong in the sci-fi genre, e.g. in Iain M. Banks' novel 'Inversions' is set entirely on a planet in a society that resembles Earth's middle-ages. There's only one inexplicable event late in the novel where a reader who's familiar with his other 'Culture' novels realizes what's been 'really' going on.

      Orson Scott Card did something similar in his 'Worthing Saga': What to the inhabitants of the world where the story is set feel like miracles or acts of god are actually caused by the technically much more advanced beings that are secretly monitoring the world.
    1. Yaarel -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      But, there are very good critical reasons for genre specification. If a genre is so broad that it just becomes Spec Fiction, then, well, it encompasses just about anything. I mean, the latest Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr had steam punk elements in it that were obviously anachronistic. Does that make it spec fiction? Not really. It's still a mystery movie with a bit more action than perhaps the books had.
      I would describe that particular Sherlock Holmes movie as ‘steampunk’ scifi in a Victorian ‘gaslight’ setting.

      It seems useful to say that the ‘scifi’ genre includes subgenres, such as ‘cyberpunk’, ‘technotopia’, ‘space opera’, ‘urban fantasy’, ‘high fantasy’, and ‘superhero’.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Yaarel View Post
      I would describe that particular Sherlock Holmes movie as ‘steampunk’ scifi in a Victorian ‘gaslight’ setting.

      It seems useful to say that the ‘scifi’ genre includes subgenres, such as ‘cyberpunk’, ‘technotopia’, ‘space opera’, ‘urban fantasy’, ‘high fantasy’, and ‘superhero’.
      Those would all be subgenres of Speculative Fiction actually. And, no, that Sherlock Holmes was not steampunk since it doesn't include any of the steampunk themes, particularly the inversion of Victorian values. If Sherlock was a woman, then, you might have a Steampunk story. Maybe. But, there's a good example of trope not making genre. Just having clockwork stuff in a story doesn't make it Steampunk any more than having a Colt revolver makes a story a Western.
    1. Yaarel -
      @Hussar

      I use ‘scifi’ and ‘speculative fiction’ as synonyms ... because scifi has fewer syllables ... and enjoys an official sticker on the spines of many library books ... and is the kind of thing that shows up on the Syfy channel.



      In other words, the obsolete distinction between ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’ seems nonuseful.

      But the broad category of scifi (aka speculative fiction) along with a multitude of distinctive subgenres seems useful.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      But, there are very good critical reasons for genre specification. If a genre is so broad that it just becomes Spec Fiction, then, well, it encompasses just about anything.
      Indeed, alternative history is a good example. It's speculative fiction but often doesn't have any notable fantastic elements to it at all, just a notion that "things went differently."


      Without genre categorization, every conversation we start having about any book has to start with a lengthy conversation just nailing down the language that we would use to critique the work. Having genre categories allows us to have a common framework to start from. It allows us to have the right questions to ask.
      Absolutely, as long as it doesn't become a straight jacket.


      IOW, we don't go down a totally pointless road of trying to analyze how magic functions in Tolkien because it's fantasy - we're not really supposed to worry about how magic functions in fantasy, that's not the point. Also, because Tolkien is fantasy, we generally don't worry about certain aspects - we probably shouldn't critique the work from the point of view of what does it mean to be a human or an elf in the work. That's not the point of Lord of the Rings. We should approach it from a more moral discussion of good and evil.
      Interestingly enough one way to view a good bit of Tolkien's work is as a piece of speculative comparative theology. Humans are, well, humans, and are supposed to be us in a long ago time. Elves experience God (er... Eru) in a very different way. In a sense, he engaged in a lot of the general logic of science fiction as compared to, say, a pulp adventure story, only focused on a rather non-traditional topic.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Yaarel View Post
      @Hussar

      I use ‘scifi’ and ‘speculative fiction’ as synonyms ... because scifi has fewer syllables ... and enjoys an official sticker on the spines of many library books ... and is the kind of thing that shows up on the Syfy channel.



      In other words, the obsolete distinction between ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’ seems nonuseful.

      But the broad category of scifi (aka speculative fiction) along with a multitude of distinctive subgenres seems useful.
      Well, except that fantasy predates SF by several centuries. You've got it rather backward. SF is an outgrowth of Fantasy, not the other way around. Grimm Fairy Tales (just to pick one example) are a lot older than any SF story.

      And, frankly, I don't find the distinction obsolete in the slightest. Nor do most libraries that I've seen that distinguish SF from Fantasy - our libraries certainly have different stickers for the two. The issue I have with subgenres, is it becomes the tail wagging the dog. You wind up with this explosion of sub-genres that become more and more hair splittingly different that they become meaningless. Is it "slipstream" or "science fantasy" or ....
    1. Jhaelen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Well, except that fantasy predates SF by several centuries. You've got it rather backward. SF is an outgrowth of Fantasy, not the other way around. Grimm Fairy Tales (just to pick one example) are a lot older than any SF story.
      Uh,oh. Now we're entering tricky territory.

      I wouldn't really consider Faerie Tales, Fables, or Myths part of the Fantasy genre. I've seen people call the 'Gilgamech' epos either the first Fantasy or Sci-Fi story interchangeably. I'm not sure I agree with either idea. Imho, Fantasy and Sci-Fi as a literary genre are a more modern invention. I'm much more comfortable with Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' as the first sci-fi novel.
    1. Yaarel -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Well, except that fantasy predates SF by several centuries. You've got it rather backward. SF is an outgrowth of Fantasy, not the other way around. Grimm Fairy Tales (just to pick one example) are a lot older than any SF story.

      And, frankly, I don't find the distinction obsolete in the slightest. Nor do most libraries that I've seen that distinguish SF from Fantasy - our libraries certainly have different stickers for the two. The issue I have with subgenres, is it becomes the tail wagging the dog. You wind up with this explosion of sub-genres that become more and more hair splittingly different that they become meaningless. Is it "slipstream" or "science fantasy" or ....
      Folkbelief was perceived as fact, according to how the universe works within their worldview.

      For example, when they talk about ghosts or goblins or witches or shapeshifters or power animals or dragons, these were plausible possibilities.

      Only today do we think of it as ‘metaphor’ or ‘archetypes’ or ‘fantasy’.

      And perhaps our own worldview has become too mechanical.
    1. Yaarel -
      @Hussar

      What the Norse understood to be ‘magic’ (seiðr) was achieved by the forces of ones own mind (hugar).

      What the 1950s science fiction writers understood to be ‘psionics’ (psi + electronics) was achieved by the forces of ones own mind (psyche).

      These are tautologically identical concepts. In this case, the ‘fantasy’ and the ‘science fiction’ are the same, except the choice of language to describe it.

      It is easy to have a ‘science fiction’ movie in a Viking Era setting, where the ‘mindforces’ (hugar) accompanies a plausible explanation.

      Actually, the movie Outlander resembles such. It is a Viking movie where the dragon is a space alien.

      To me, I can find no meaningful distinction between fantasy and science fiction.

      I am comfortable with the need of scifi (aka speculative fiction) to be able to represent both.
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