The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

imagesWhy are Science Fiction and Fantasy so often grouped together? Obviously, because they share readership and so are well placed together in book stores. And… heck… some of us write both! Still, there are very real differences.

Look, fantasy is the mother genre — e.g. Gilgamesh, the Illad, Odyssey and most religions. Science Fiction is the brash offshoot. All literature has deep roots in fantasy, which in turn emerges from the font of our dreams.

Having said that, what is my definition of the separation? I think it is very basic, revolving around the notion of human improvability.

“Do you believe it is possible for children to learn from the mistakes of their parents?”

For all the courage and heroism shown by fantasy characters across 4000 years of great, compelling dramas — NOTHING EVER CHANGES!

Aragorn may be a better king than Sauron would have been. Hurray. Fine. But he’s still a freaking king. And the palantir on his desk that lets him see faraway places and converse with viceroys across the realm is still reserved for the super elite. No way are we going to see mass-produced palantirs appearing on every peasant’s tabletop from Rohan to the Shire. (The way our civilization plopped such a miracle on YOUR tabletop.) It never even occurs to Aragorn or Gandalf to give the poor the godlike powers they themselves get to wield… let alone provide them with libraries, running water, printing presses or the germ theory of disease. Only little Peregrin Took seems to get a glimmer of an idea in that direction. The only character who briefly ponders possibilities, and he’s soon bullied out of it.

The trend toward feudal-romantic fantasy may seem harmless. But dreaming wistfully about kings and lords and secretive, domineering wizards is simply betrayal. Pure and simple. Those bastards were the enemy for 6,000 years. Some kings and wizards were less bad than others. But they were all “dark lords.” We are the heirs of the greatest heroes who ever lived. Pericles, Franklin, Faraday, Lincoln, Einstein. Any one of whom was worth every elf and dragon and fairy ever imagined.Fantasy has its attractions. Something about feudalism resonates, deep inside us. We fantacize about being the king or wizard. Heck it’s in our genes. We are all descended from the harems of the guys who succeeded at that goal. The core thing about fantasy tales is that, after the adventure is done and the bad guys are defeated… the social order stays the same.

Fantasy may be the natural genre… but should we be proud of that?

==The Possibility of Change==

Science fiction, in sharp contrast, considers the possibility of learning and change.

changelessnessNot that children always choose to learn from their parent’s mistakes! When they don’t, when they are obstinately stupid and miss opportunities, you can get a sci fi tragedy… far more horrible than anything “tragic” in Aristotle’s POETICS. Aristotle says tragedy is Oedepus writhing futilely against fate. A sci fi tragedy portrays people suffering, same as in older tragedies… but with this crucial difference — things did not have to be this way. It wasn’t “fate.” We – or the characters – could’ve done better. There was, at some point, a chance to change our own destiny.

One type of tragedy makes you weep – hey, Oedepus is powerful stuff. But for millennia the deep moral lesson – the thing taught in all “campbellian myths” – is that resistance is futile. The overall situation, the rule of fate, remains the same.

The other type of tragedy – the new kind – is a cautionary tale that may change your decisions. It may alter destiny.

You can see why the absurd old farts who inhabit most lit departments hate science fiction. SF considers it possible that the eternal “verities” and relentless stupidities praised by Henry James might someday be obsolete! If we make kids who are better than us (our goal, duh?) then their Startrekkian heirs will still have problems. Why insist that our descendants have to fret over the same ones? Can’t they assume the solutions we find, take them for granted, and move on to new, interesting issues of their own?

Isn’t that what we did?

The implicit assumption in most fantasy is that the form of governance that ruled most human societies since the discovery of grain must always govern us. Oh, kingly rulers my topple and shift, but the abiding assumptions and social castes generally do not. And when a fellow like Tim Powers resists that assumption, he is writing science fiction, whether or not there are pirates, or wizards or demons.


Anne McCaffrey says “Never call me a fantasy author! I write science fiction!” Indeed. Despite the dragons and lords and medieval craft and renaissance fair stuff… her characters have heard of flush toilets and universities and democracy…

…AND THEY WANT THOSE THINGS BACK! They want starships. And Anne is going to let them earn those things. They will get them back, and move on. And she is a science fiction author.

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ChangeIsSee more Speculations on Science Fiction and Fantasy

David Brin

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55 responses to “The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

  1. Fascinating analysis which moves beyond the traditional definition for each genre. However, I think your analysis only applies to the contrast between high fantasy and science fiction. What is called urban or modern fantasy accepts a world where kings don’t rule over society and individuals are empowered with change in their own lives.

  2. Oh, I like this.

    I forget where I heard it, but I also like the definition of “In SF, when there’s a new technology, anyone who gets hold of it can use it. In Fantasy, you have to be born to it/otherwise achieve the ‘right’ to use it.”

  3. This is a nicely observed new way to look at the difference. The old definition that science fiction plots have to rely on science doesn’t really distinguish the two sufficiently as there is a lot of fantasy masquerading as science fiction in TV and movies nowadays. I think your touch stone about the possibility of change is a good one and I shall endeavour to apply it.

  4. BTW I love your banner photo. I got to work there briefly in the autumn of 1982. I drove a bronco along that windy narrow road in total darkness when I paid a visit to the NASA telescope. Despite the weird effects of altitude I survived the attempt.

  5. Good distinction! If rigorously applied, it might also classify some works, traditionally considered as SF, as being really fantasy in disguise. Frank Herbert’s “Dune” novels, for example.

  6. I am minded of Heinlein’s three types of science fiction, and it seems to me that your postulate does apply to “what if” and “if only” types, but not necessarily to the “if this goes on” type of S.F. “If this goes on” is based on the premise that we don’t learn from our parent’s mistakes, that things don’t improve, etc. (Which may be closely related to the cautionary tales you mentioned) and only sometimes do things get better. (Example: 1984 – the central character considers trying to change things, but in the end the status quo hasn’t changed. Big Brother is still in charge.)

    • In 1984, Orwell was not trying to say that change couldn’t happen. He was writing a cautionary tale–which you might argue is a ‘what if’–about power and oppression. Just because it ends badly for the protagonist does not disqualify it under David Brin’s definition, I think.

  7. Bill Goodwin

    I don’t say I’m in favor of elitism, but palantirs on every desktop perhaps pose problems of their own (please understand: I playing devil’s advocate recreationally–as a way of poking and prodding thoughts and seeing what they’ll do).

    Might the constant exposure of everyone to what only a few can aquire, while driving the marketplace, also result in a coarsening of mentality? Is it NECESSARY that everyone have the best possible life? Desireable on the individual level, certainly…but on the global level it promotes overpopulation and mob-thought. We’ve got this awful problem: what’s best for the individual and what’s best for the group are not quite the same thing. Humanity seperates like oil and water. Now that communism’s in decline, theocracy’s after its job. I’m not sure “Freedom” can ever entirely triumph (nor be seperated from its shadow: Licence).

    Meanwhile, the irreducibly subjective, non-verifiable depth of things that fantasy pays literary token to addresses some deep awareness of that chronically missing stitch Godel showed us. As in evolution itself, there would seem to be two forces at work in the human psyche: Variation and Consolidation. Sf explores variation, and fantasy tries to tug things back.

    I wouldn’t want to be kept ignorant, or ordered around by a king, but in a Harrison Bergeron kinda way, maybe the primal individualism of swordsmen and sorcerers is not to be undervalued. Because subjective and objective experience (the former shaping fantastic literature, the latter celebrated in sf) tease forth each other’s best fruits. We favor one or the other as temperament dictates, but are always peeking over the wall, sensing that we’d lose all bearing in a “single vision” world. Problems arise from confusing fact with metaphor, not from letting one or the other lead in the dance, if you follow.

  8. I wonder how you would fit Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy into this schema? It seems to me that Asimov has substituted “psycho-history” for fate, and the only character who seriously challenges the future which psycho-historian “wizards” have painstakingly laid out for humanity, is the Mule, an antagonist. (I am here only concerned with the first three books, the fourth goes off in a different direction, and I haven’t yet read Foundation’s Triumph.)

  9. McKenzie

    Herbert beat his readers about the head with this idea. God Emperor is a masterpiece of recursion that Hofstadter never mentioned–the gene-memory must be changed so as to stop the dream of aristocracy and the solution is, oddly enough, the most repressive regime there not just *has* been, but *ever will be.*

    Mankind leaving behind adolescence and assuming personally responsibilty is a big idea to argue in a book, but it’s just the sort of thing, Dr Brin, that you show again and again as one reads Glory Season, Earth, The Uplift series, even Kiln People and The Practice Effect! The idea is like a Heinlein juvenile for the species, a sort of Have Self-determination Will Travel.

    SF is so much *more* than entertainment. It’s, as I saw blurbed on a Richard Bach book, not just a great story, but a great philosophy of life.

  10. I really like this notion of improvability as a point on which to turn our distinctions. It would be interesting to apply it to fantasy that has distinct anti-monarchical and pro-democratic themes, such as that of Terry Pratchett, and to SF which is little more than fantasy with chariots replaced by rocket sleds.

    This is a fun game to play, though I think sometimes when we make up definitions and defend them too vigorously, we end up committing the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

  11. I like scifi. I’m not a raging fantasy nerd. (I’m sure you’ll find some other way to dismiss me as insignificant though.)

    What an artificial and strange way to divide books! This made me quite worked up actually.

    If I understand your view correctly, it has very little to do with fiction about science and fantasy literature. Sure, SF books may tend to contain fewer magical kingdoms and more worlds where science thrives.
    If a book contains characters wanting to build libraries and educate the masses, characters changing the social order, that’s what makes it a science fiction?


    I mean, it’s original, I’ll give you that. It’s still obviously wrong. If I was allowed a bit of strawmanism, I’d say you’ve just called fantasy the domain of juvenile, selfloathing and conservative royalists and slavers.

    Your LOTR example is not really helping – it seems a bit redundant to criticize a conservative linguist who openly disliked progress and machines for not writing about spaceships and alien democracy.

    I get that it’s the huge audience you’re aiming this dig at – we’re all dumb, because we care about them swords and kings instead of robotics and nanotechnology.

    And I agree, science is AWESOME and there should be more good science fiction and more people should read it. More people should WANT to read it.

    But I think this “difference between science fiction and fantasy” hypothesis of yours is wrong.
    We could surely come up with examples of fantasy books using those principles and themes you elevate as the exclusive virtues of science fiction, and they’d be pure fantasy – no Tim Powers’ pirates.

    Maybe I got all of this wrong. Perhaps I simply didn’t understand the article correctly – English is not my native language. (please, do excuse any mistakes I might’ve made!)

    I’m not trying to troll for the sake of trolling, I simply disagree with what I just read.
    My father is a big fan of your books and I intend to finally bring some of them here and read them.


  12. Heath Fodor

    Excellent perspective on these differences! I would even go as far as plug George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (Soon to be an HBO show) into your fantasy model. The characters in that series are fighting over who will rule as King over Westeros. The poor are poor and the rich lords stay rich lords.

    So, is the need to explore wish fulfillment through the reading of fantasy something that is in our bones? Is the need to swing foam swords and maces at one another attracted to wanting to become king? King of the foam fighters. Being a Gen Xer, I see more and more of my generation escaping reality through activities like these. I find more reality in science fiction. To me, it is the gift that keeps giving.

    • Have you read the same story I did? There are not many stories where characters change more over time than in A Song of Ice and Fire. From kings guard to kingslayer to an honorable person trying to keep his vows…from stupid naive little girls in fairyland, to abused child to a teenager who is becoming better and better in politics of the Game…a bastard boy, feeling rejected, then becoming a kind of hero, and commander of an army, to a teen who makes very tough choices…not to mention Dany, Sam, Bran, Robb, Catelyn, Davos….even the point you made about the rich staying rich…think of what happens to Tyrion at the end of the story we have so far…

  13. What a very interesting way to separate the genres – I like it, although I have to agree with above commenters that it’s certainly not an infallible rule, nor is it the only way to look at things. I will keep it in mind when reading, though, and ask, “Is this science fiction masquerading as fantasy, or the other way ’round?”

    Also – a fantastic angle to use if I have to defend teaching science fiction to my students in high school….

  14. As Bill Goodman suggested, we do need to ask whether all humans are actually equal. Equality of opportunity (genuine, not the pretended form that we often see in our society) is desirable, but we’ll never reach a state in which all humans perform at the same level in everything–not without gross rewiring or social control.

    Pehaps you should say that fantasy is about who we have been and who we are, while science fiction is about who we want to be or fear becoming. That’s a qualitative distinction that makes sorting books on a shelf difficult and probably takes in a lot that really isn’t either one, but it is a good general notion.

    In defense of “The Lord of the Rings,” though, the ending does leave the reader with the understanding that human beings are now in charge. Magic is leaving the world (read special powers that only a few possess), and human culture must now make its own choices about how life will go into the future.

    • You said: “Pehaps you should say that fantasy is about who we have been and who we are, while science fiction is about who we want to be or fear becoming.”

      I like that. I think those lines can be blurred a bit, because sf can also be about who we are, while fantasy can also be about who we want to be. But the who we have been (fantasy) vs. who we fear becoming (sf) works pretty well, though of course that doesn’t include all forms of sf or fantasy.

      These things are very tough to define.

  15. You hit it on the nail.

    I was talking to myself, a few months ago (I do that often enough), trying to figure out why I was taking the tack I was with a story I’m working on. It’s a fantasy with sci-fi underpinnings. I’m very certain to myself that it’s not a fantasy–although I do have “dragons” and “mages”. I knew some of what I was grasping for was based in how I loved Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley and C. S. Friedman and even Robert Silverberg, all of whom have novels with planets that were colonized in sci-fi ways, but which backslid for some reason. And when I finally traced back what “feel” or “thing” or “nuance” I was trying to capture, it was the general feeling of hope about knowledge and technology you get as a reader in sci-fi, verses a feeling of forced and willful ignorance you get in fantasy. It’s very strange: you can teleport someone using a “machine” or you can teleport someone using “magic”, which has the same effect on the immediate plot of a story, and yet the former inherently has more hope to me, because you can teach others how to make a machine. Magic is usually inborn and for the chosen few only. Don’t get me wrong: I love fantasy. But I don’t like how it steeps knowledge in arcane mystique, instead of sharing it freely.

    I think that’s why, for a fantasy, I like Patrick Rothfuss’s books so much: he treats knowledge as something to be savored, not frightened of, and hides all these little interesting things to know in his books.

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  17. Interesting idea. But it’s a no for me. The point of myth (which you could say is the source of fantasy) is about change (psychological, spiritual, intellectual and even societal). Myths explain, teach and guide for the eternal present through reflecting on what has gone before. Some myths did herald political change – or at least explain it. Look at the foundation of Rome, which went from kings, to republic to caesars – each with their own myths to validate the change. Some myths teach about the change from hunter/gatherer to agrarian living conditions, which was either an amazing leap for humankind or a total backward step. On your arguments I don’t see much difference between Fantasy and SF, except SF is now projecting into the future. And as for arcane knowledge, your droid tech robots with hidden agendas or genius scientist types also keep hidden knowledge. Today’s theoretical physicist was yesterday’s alchemist, in whatever they say beyond ‘hello’ is mostly baffling to the uninitiated (ie the PhD student = co pilot = sorcerer’s apprentice). But interesting idea. And there is no reason fantasy can’t democritise or otherwise whatever past they want.

    • I disagree; myth is all and very much about maintaining the established order: don’t do what the ‘gods’ tell you to do (or not to do) and look what happens: Pandora opens the box, Prometheus is tortured for eternity (following an act that was very ‘science fictional’ according to David’s theory); Oedipus gets blinded.

      All of those tales are very much all about teaching the next generation that they better conform. Hubris – not a trait the gods want us to indulge in. Hubris – the very thing that makes us believe we can someday go to the stars.

      • 1) You’re only talking about specific versions of Greek myths. (which are surely a subset of all myths, but not equal to the set of all myths)
        2) Those characters are still acknowledged and praised as heroes for those actions. (of course depending on the interpretation and the story teller) The fact their ends are tragic is more a result of the Greek love of tragedy itself as a concept. While fairytales end with everyone living happily ever after, “grownups” like their heroes dead at some point.

  18. Sorry, and having said all that I’m suddenly reminded of Monty Python’s take on King Arthur (the font of much fantasy), you know the bit, where Arthur, King of the Britons, explains he is king because the Lady of the Lake threw a sword at him. And the response from the peasants in the mud, who live in an autonomous collective with an elected leader. See fantasy can do change!

  19. Thank you David. The dividing line you’ve identified goes a long way towards providing a pretty solid one.

    I’ve been on the same subject of late and came to the conclusion (less succinctly) that the difference between the two was one of optimism vs pessimism, or, one brand was for those wishing to escape from their future while the other was for those who wish to engage (and perhaps change) it.

  20. Will

    There’s lots of science fiction that imagines a future society largely similar to the present (or the past), with better machines & expanded across some portion of the galaxy. Is this really science fiction or is it space fantasy, according to the criteria in this post?

  21. Thanks for the interesting argument. It has too much “SF good/Fantasy bad” in it for my taste, but I think you make some very interesting points about fantasy literature and how we can push our fantasy literature in some newer directions.

    As I mentioned above, I like Greg Camp’s comment (above) about fantasy being more about who we’ve been and who we are. My interests tend to run more toward psychological and spiritual themes, and I think those can be tackled more easily and directly in fantasy. With sf, postulating the future can take center stage–which is of course one of the things that makes sf so great and so valuable.

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  24. Using the definition given, the though the Lord of the Rings is fantasy, The Last Ringbearer should qualify as sci fi. Told from the point of view of Sauron’s forces, it argues that all that they were tryying to do was to make the world a better place through science.

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  26. What about the alternate past category of SF? Or stories based on remote possibilities in our own past? I think I write science fiction (though I do ignore true relativity because it’s pretty hard to have a plot without simultaneity) but I’m mostly trying to explore social systems and attitudes we don’t ever think about. (P.S., hope you don’t mind that I used a quote from The Postman on my twitter quiz answered 3/30.)

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  31. Yes

    Only Christians and other followers of backwards religions believe that kings deserve to be king and look fondly at feudalism because it matches their religious ideal. LOTR isn’t the only fantasy out there.

    • Han

      Sigh. Only bigots seek to belittle others for their beliefs and categorize them all as ignorant and believing the same things. It’s straw man and demonization fallacies.

      There’s no cause for insulting a religion or the people who follow it in this or any context, friend.

  32. Han

    It is far too easy to praise sci-fi and lessen fantasy when you only look at the theory of the former and the cliche of the latter, sir

    Each can be done marvelously, and each can have great meaning to the reader and how they think about humanity. But for the majority of science fiction writers, the genre is just a setting, not a noble pursuit; this is no different from the failings you level against fantasy. The theory of sci-fi is that it is about expanding human thought and understanding through innovative deed and thinking, yet there is nothing that states this cannot and is not done in fantasy, nor is it true that even a majority of science fiction writers put more than passing effort into this line of thinking. Many merely imply it is their theme, and in so doing, seek to elevate their work to the status of philosophy. I think I am improving the world, therefore I am?

    • Han

      A bit of a clarification.

      I feel what you are describing, Mr. Brin, is the difference between philosophy and simple entertainment, not sci-fi and fantasy. The philosophy is couched in a story, but it is about discussing the improvement of mankind first and foremost, and that can be done as easily in a story about rabbits as in a story about galactic spacefaring.

      Further, even when an author sets out to discuss such an important topic, as you evidently feels you do in sci-fi, the success of their endeavor is dependent upon each and every reader. While an author may feel their narrative raises grand questions about humanity, every single reader may feel it’s garbage, mental masturbation with no true depth. Or one reader may draw more inspiration from it than the author ever imagined, going on to write their own more profound story.

      In other words, readers draw different things from texts, regardless of the author’s intent. The intent is still there, but the effectiveness is what matters both as a piece of entertainment and as philosophical discussion. One person may see in The Chronicles of Narnia a great morality tale discussing the nature of faith and transcendence, while the next reader may see it as a silly fairy tale with no value. Each may feel the other is wrong. The author may have intended something else altogether.

      Sci-fi and fantasy are both just mediums for discussion or entertainment. Failing to achieve advanced thinking or entertainment in either genre is solely the fault of the author, not the genre.

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  34. Those telescope domes remind me of Kermit D. Frog’s eyes. Someone should make a Mega-mecha Kermit with eyes like that.

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  37. I knew there was a difference then you for pointing out what they are. A family member has annoyed me greatly telling me that fantasy and sci-fi and get this horror, mystery and thrillers are all basically the same *sighs* I’ve tried explaining the differences but she keeps arguing that because they are all fiction they are all the same and that I should read all the other genres. Seriously? I’m writing a dark fantasy not a nonfiction or a historical novel. /facepalm As for reading more i’ve read almost all of Robert A. Heinlein’s, Stephen king, Isaac Asmoth, Anne Rice, Piers Anthony, Jeff Grubb and Kate Novak, and many many other authors in different genres that I like. A few mystery’s and romances too and she still says they are teh same thing. What do you do with someone like that?

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  42. Loved this David ❤ very well-written and informative.
    People love the idea of getting some insights into what the world can offer, and Science fiction is a way to satisfy them. This genre allows people to expand their imagination.

  43. This post was truly worthwhile to read. David! Writing a science fiction novel isn’t an easy task, especially in writing science fiction. Besides, sci-fi authors aren’t simply narrating their experiences or day-to-day events; they create a new world.

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