Top 5 Ways People Differentiate Fantasy and Science Fiction

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This is about to get confusing. There’s a HUGE difference between science fiction and fantasy. But I don’t know what it is. And neither does anyone else.

Well, that’s not totally true. I have a personal idea of what’s “science-fiction” and what’s “fantasy,” and so do most people. I’m going to cover some of the more popular ways sci-fi and fantasy are divided.

And just so you know, this posts is all Fullmetal Alchemist’s fault. See, I used to have a solid idea which was which until this show/manga came around.

1. The Layman’s Way: This is the traditional idea of science-fiction and fantasy. If there’s a dragon, it’s fantasy. If there’s a space ship, it’s science fiction. These people think Dragonriders of Pern is fantasy and Star Wars is science fiction. These people use traditional tropes to “feel” which story is which. I used to be in this camp, until I came across stories that I couldn’t “feel” into one genre or the other like Fullmetal Alchemist. However, for those who like this way, you can classify something that doesn’t  feel one way or another, “science-fantasy.”

2.The Level of Explanation Way: These people classify something as “fantasy” if the magic/technology isn’t explained. Someone waves their hand or pushes a button and presto! force-field, it’s fantasy. It doesn’t matter if the person making the force-field is a star-ship captain (a-la Captain Kirk) or a wizard (a-la Gandalf). It’s fantasy if it’s not explained because the lack of scientific explanation makes it fantastical. If the magic system is explained, like Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, then it’s science fiction, even if the explanation doesn’t work in real-life (though, some may require more realistic explanations behind the science/magic). This way of defining things gets a little hazy when trying to define softer magic systems, those that fall in-between Lord of the Rings and Mistborn, like Sword of Truth. There’s an explanation, magic is divided into catagories and passages about prophecy that made me cross-eyed. BUT, how the magic works isn’t explained. So it’s half-way. It’s not totally fantastical because there’s some explanation, but it’s not exactly scientific, more like labels than explanations.

3. Past and Future Way: Fantasy looks towards the past and science fiction looks towards the future. Seems simple enough. I used to use this way to define the two in combination with way #1. But, things get a bit confusing again. When exactly is the “past” cut-off line. Fullmetal Alchemist has cars, tanks, and guns, but magic instead of any technology-based powers (except automail). Is a car too far into the future for fantasy? But there’s no TVs, cell-phones, or other modern appliances let alone technical advancements, so it’s not science fiction either. Yet again, “science-fantasy” works.

4. The Legend of Korra is an Anime Way: Alright. I’ll be up-front. I don’t subscribe to this way of thinking AT ALL. I’ll explain it, explain why I don’t like it, and then explain why I am falling into some of the same traps.

So, this way gets its name from people who insist the Avatar universe is an anime. By definition in the West, anime is animation created in Japan for a Japanese audience. And while the Avatar universe has some Asian animators, it’s created for an American audience. Some people want to label the Avatar shows anime to justify why they like it. How do I know this? Because I’m the person I’m about to describe. They dislike most American animation that’s either low-brow humor or for children only. They’re irritated they can’t simply label the animation they like as “anime.” And they try to get around their by labeling whatever they like as “anime.” Yes, I’m guilty of this. But no, the Avatar shows aren’t anime.

Anyways, how does this way of labeling things work? These people define science-fiction as stories where the status-quo changes and fantasy as stories where people fight to maintain the status quo. Combine this with the (legitimate) criticisms that fantasy is white-washed and male dominated, and you have some unfortunate implications. Basically, this way of labeling the genres sweeps everyone who writes and enjoys fantasy into one category, the same kind of people who, at worst, argue about reverse sexism and racism and, at best, are stuck living in the past with no desire to look forward.

I’ve read the articles that defend this idea. To me, it sounds like the same arguments that try to discredit the fantasy genre I’ve heard 100s of times. Personally, I think this is a way literature snobs can read a fantasy book and like it without having to acknowledge a fantasy novel as a legitimate contribution to literature (as it’s widely-known that, while not “respected” per-say, science-fiction has more “literary merit” than fantasy in the general public’s opinion).

It seems like people say that fantasy book credited with exploring interesting ideas (like Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives) is “science-fiction” and fluff fantasy (like Terry Brook’s Shannara) remains fantasy because its “worthless” and “lives in the past.” Even worse, it’s a way for people to get rid of the fluff in science fiction, like Star Wars, and dump it into fantasy. They’re like the anime fans that say Avatar is an anime because they want to put everything they like under one label and refuse to like something in a category they usually ignore or dislike.

Of course, I might not be any better than them. I like fantasy more than science fiction.  So, is my negative reaction to this justified, or am I just irritated that, if people label stories that move the status quo forward, then I can’t say I like “fantasy” any more, but I’d have to say “science fiction and fantasy.”

5. The “Where Does It Come From?” Way: This is the way I define science fiction and fantasy. If the power comes from technology, it’s science fiction. If the power comes from a person, it’s fantasy. Power coming from a person or object makes a story “fantastical,” while power coming from technology makes the story “science-y.” If a story has both, like Star Wars, I look at the surroundings use ways #1 and #3. Something like Fullmetal Alchemist is a fantasy as the powers come from a person, with a few science fiction elements (like automail). I like this way because, no matter what, I can label something as fantasy or science fiction. Oh wait . . . Scrapped Princess (explaining how it doesn’t fit nicely into either category spoils quite a bit of the story). I guess there’s still a time and place for “science-fantasy.”

What do you think? How do you define them? Or don’t you care? Sound off below.

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