Sci-fi and Fantasy: Why They Differ and Why You’d Blend Them

I’ve been wanting to post more regularly, so I decided share some of the insights for the book on plotting out stories that’s been on my TODO list for a while. (Embarassingly, I’ve actually wanted to do that for a while, but I haven’t been taking my own advice that perfectionism is bad if it prevents you from ever getting anything done.)

As a way to bite the bullet, I’ll start by sharing something I just realized yesterday: The fundamental difference between science-fiction and fantasy.

It all began yesterday when I found myself puzzling over why authors like Anne McCaffrey (Dragonriders of Pern) and Marion Zimmer Bradley (Darkover) chose to write what were essentially fantasy stories, but give each setting a sci-fi backstory. (Both settings are the result of colony missions regressing socially and technologically.)

Think about that for a moment. You’re starting from a clean slate, you won’t be writing about the colony’s fall any time soon (assuming this one is successful), and you have full creative control… so why would you choose to mix science-fiction and fantasy in this way?

I puzzled over it for a bit, then mentioned it to my brother, and he pointed out what I was missing: Fantasy and science-fiction embody different perspectives on the world. (Another piece of advice from my notes. Never underestimate the value of bringing in alternative points of view.)

Science fiction, as we know it, began with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus” (also the first example of what we now call “speculative fiction”) and has a strong history of looking at the world as it is, rationally exploring its warts and caveats and annoying shades of grey in all their detail and nuance. (Given how much movie adaptations have had to simplify it, I strongly recommend following the link above to a public domain copy of Frankenstein on Project Gutenberg.)

Fantasy, by contrast, looks at the world as our instincts and emotions wish it were. It revels in black-and-white conflicts, magical powers, and embodying points of view in individuals who you can like or hate. (Because, for better or for worse, something deep down in us wants a name and a face to blame when bad things happen. Nothing is more uncomfortable and dehumanizing than the helpless feeling of being denied even the bitter solace of hatred and a desire for revenge. Better to cling to the belief in a god or a conspiracy or what have you, than to accept that you were so insignificant and impotent as to have your life destroyed by a mindless, random act of nature.)

I especially want to focus on that part about turning characters into avatars for viewpoints and moral stances. What are gods but creating someone to blame for the actions of abstract forces? What is magic, but a way of “fixing” the fact that we are small and weak in the face of a big, scary, unpredictable, uncontrollable universe? (And what a “lever” to give to those tiny, weak humans in a story, so they’ll have the strength to “move the world” without getting lost in a sea of faces?)

(I suspect this is also why I hear of many more fantasy epics than sci-fi epics. An epic is a story about a small, seemingly ordinary person proving their worth and changing the world, and fantasy’s narrative tendencies would exert a stronger bias in that direction than sci-fi.)

This distinction is actually the key to why Bradley and McCaffrey wrote their stories as “fantasy settings in sci-fi universes”. Every story needs to set up a frame of reference, so the readers know how to judge what they’re reading. In Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, that frame of reference is Arthur Dent, the ordinary Brit who tells the reader what normal is, so they can properly judge just how ridiculous, silly, and downright insane the setting is.

In the Pern and Darkover series, setting the fantasy world within a sci-fi universe is the author’s way of saying, both to the readers and to themself, that “this setting may have the trappings of fantasy, but the narrative style is following sci-fi rules”. Dragons and lord holders, keepers and magic… but, underlying it all, the recognition that this is a rational universe, which demands a certain degree of deference to the complexity and nuance of its happenings and its inhabitants. No matter how much power one may have in these universes, magic cannot craft a true and simple solution to a complex problem any more than Superman can punch clinical depression.

Now, that’s not to say that this dichotomy is inherent or without exceptions… but this sort of hybrid setting does serve as a very useful shortcut. It’s a good shorthand for telling potential readers to expect a certain type of look at a feudal-esque society and it saves you the trouble of having to strike what may be a difficult balance. You don’t want to flood your readers with needless detail, but you’ve chosen to write a story where the narrative style encourages readers to pick things apart, looking for holes… and we already know that the real world is internally consistent enough to satisfy. (Which is why this also works for fantasy-contemporary hybrids, like the Harry Potter series. The key is to temper fantasy’s more “expect anything” aspects by tying the story to something we judge more strictly.)

So, in conclusion, setting your fantasy in a “mundane” universe is useful as a way to get a certain kind of setup done more quickly so you can get to the meat of your story. Feel free to use it… just do it because it advances your goal as an author, rather than because you’re trying to copy the feel that someone else’s works give you.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Sci-fi and Fantasy: Why They Differ and Why You’d Blend Them by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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