Sunday, January 20, 2013

Parallels Between SciFi and Fantasy

In more recent times, the boundary between science fiction and fantasy has been almost completely erased from little to no trace of distinction left between the two genres. The shift in taste of modern day readers has contributed immensely and has helped widen the scope of the genres.

Despite the dramatic changes in approach, both genres maintain a level of credibility in setting and plot and of course, there are obvious (and sometimes, conflicting) parallels between the two forms of storytelling. Below, I have outlined these parallels and conflicts but you may have a different opinion or take issues with my ideas. It's a free world.

1. Magic
With all due respect, magic is exclusively an element of fantasy. Of course, there is a fantasy sub genre called science fantasy that burrows deep into the realm of science fiction. That said magic as an element of storytelling is strictly fantasy.

2. Parallel Universes
The concept of a parallel universe existing side by side with the present is a constant feature of both fantasy and science fiction. While SciFi may attempt to access this world through a Time Machine, fantasy's vehicle is usually a magic portal that opens up on another planet, world or realm.

3. Explorations in Science
Science fiction has got to indulge the basics of science or it cannot be science fiction. The plot of a science fiction story must be scientifically grounded and oriented and this is one of the strongest distinctions between the two genres. Fantasy depends on magic for its relevance; science fiction depends on science, naturally.

4. World Creation/Building
Both genres have laws that may survive solely in fictional worlds created especially for the story. This usually works well with fantasy but sometimes, the ideas in a science fiction story may not seem plausible at least, for the next gazillion years. World creation might be the author's only alternative to make his story plausible and relevant to his audience.

5. Space Odyssey
Space travel is an ingredient of science fiction and probably, has no ties with fantasy.

6. Strange Language
The idea of creating a special language/dialect for fiction is most common with fantasy. Because of the idea of other-worlds that exhibit cultures quite different from ours. Science fiction tales sometimes, require a new tongue especially, where aliens are involved or people from the ancient past (in stories dealing with time travel).

7. Machines (Technology)
I almost left this to speculation, you know it's almost interchangeable with 3. Explorations in Science. But then. I fought against it. Thing is, you can't write a fantasy story where the knight uses a ray gun to pulverize the dragon. Or where the bride arrives just in time for the wedding via FTL. There ought to be an orderly, and consistent relation of parts.

8. Fictional/Weird Creatures
The idea of a world executing its own laws and culture and populated by a different specie of people demands the existence of strange creatures, as well. Both genres are prone to feature weird creatures as part of their plots.

9. Supernatural Beings
Fantasy reeks of elves, dragons, unicorns, werewolves and the likes. These beasts and supernatural beings are void in SciFi. Rather, there is Frankenstein's monster. dinosaurs and every sort of genetically modified creatures. The supernatural is the dividing line between genres. Like someone said, if the process can be explained by scientific formula,  it's science fiction.

10. The Laws
All that explaining makes discussing this point at length almost unnecessary. But since there's a method to this madness, there are laws guiding the limits of both genres. Fantasy laws are more or less magical laws while science fiction ones are scientific formulas and laws.

But I suppose, I won't be excessively forward if I said the distinguishing line between fantasy and science fiction is fast diminishing and might be rendered obsolete and put out of use effectively, a few years from now. After all, science is the new magic.

Keep your pen bleeding!


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  1. The line between scifi and fantasy depends almost entirely upon "the laws." More specifically, how well "the laws" align with our current knowledge of science. After all, "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Star Wars is more fantasy than scifi because it only cares enough about the technology as far as it puts people in space where they can duel with lightsabers and use what would arguably be called actual magic to throw things and expel lightning at each other.

    But nobody can suspend disbelief into a universe where reasonably consistent laws do not apply. The distinction between fantasy/scifi and other genres of fiction is that The Laws in F/SF differ from those of the reality that we inhabit. At least, the physical laws. I still refuse to accept that the laws the govern interpersonal relationships in practically all works of literature are anything but pure fantasy. Especially love stories and romance novels.

    1. Somebody once noted that Star Wars is adventure with a science theme and should not be considered science fiction. And I agree that the (magical) laws of fantasy and (scientific) laws of science fiction separates one form from the other. But even then, the laws themselves are usually broken and the fabric between the two realms is overstretched and thin. It's only a matter of time before it gets ripped off and both genres meld.

      Thanks for visiting, Stephan!

  2. No.

    Hollywood execs, writers producers etcetera just generally don't understand what science fiction is and couldn't really give a crap because they just want $$$$.

    Star Wars is technomythology or Speculative fiction(aka Fiction) not SCIENCE fiction.

    1. Speculative Fiction is a broader genre of fiction which includes Fantasy, Horror and Science fiction. Somebody has suggested 'Star Wars' is an adventure in space which borrows science themes. But there are many sub genres of the form today and one needs to be prudent when classifying literature or film as science fiction.

      Thanks for visiting!

  3. Is the problem that science fiction has gotten dumb? Three weeks ago I began writing a program that counts the use "scientific words" in a body of text. Words like 'gravity' and 'molecule' and 'orbit' increase the science word count. I then modified it for a second count of fantasy words like 'magic' and 'wand' and 'castle'. So depending on the length of the document this results in a DENSITY of science and fantasy word usage.

    So far I have tested hundreds of sci-fi works and not nearly so many fantasies. But what milestones should be used as references to judge the results? Mary Shelley's Frankenstein of 1818 is widely acknowledged as the first science fiction story with a scientist in a laboratory. But in 1818 the word 'scientist' did not exist, it was not coined until 1834.

    How many more "science words" have been invented since then? What about LASER, electron, proton, neutron? So if a work claiming to be science fiction gets a lower SF density score than Frankenstein then is that sufficient reason to raise eyebrows?

    Here are the results for Frankenstein:

    brain 1
    experiment 1
    microscope 1
    physiology 1
    research 2
    thrust 2
    atmosphere 3
    chemistry 3
    scientific 3
    symptoms 3
    theory 4
    chemical 5
    laboratory 6
    language 17
    science 19 == 71

    sword 1
    vampire 1
    wand 1
    magic 2
    castle 2 == 7

    Totalled file: MS_Franky.txt for SF word test.
    total number of words was: 20 used 78 times
    total document length: 420K SF word density 0.169 Fant word density 0.017

    So where is Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games?

    alien 1
    astronomical 1
    experiment 1
    hypodermic 1
    momentum 1
    nerve 1
    planet 1
    symptoms 1
    theory 1
    program 2
    thrust 3
    electric 4
    pressure 7
    brain 9 == 34

    magic 1
    magical 2
    sword 7 == 10

    Scanned file: SC.ThHungerGams.txt for SF word test.
    total number of words was: 17 used 44 times
    total document length: 552K SF word density 0.062 Fant word density 0.018

    So a 200 year old SF book gets more than double the score of a new one. Is the real problem that SF readers do not care about science any more with computers everywhere? Computers produce great graphics for movies but can't tell the differences between Avatar, The Matrix and Lord of the Rings.

  4. I enjoyed this post and would like to see you continue with a post that explores and perhaps clarifies notions around "speculative fiction." What is it, what are the trends (where has it been; where is it now; where might it be going), how do agents and traditional publishers tend to look at "speculative fiction," etc. Are "bizarro" and "new weird" just subtypes within the larger domain of "speculative fiction"? Is "speculative fiction" (as a term) gaining in currency, or waning?

    In the meantime, thank you for this excellent post.

    1. Kas, I'll see how I can straddle that line but meanwhile, I suggest you do some online research of your own.

      Thanks for visiting. I really appreciate it.


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