Why Science-Fiction and Fantasy are Not the Same Genre

Defining Science-Fiction and Fantasy scifi-fantasy

Science-Fiction and Fantasy are both two great genres.  However, they are not the exact same genre as many book listings would have you believe.

Often in bookstores you will find a science-fiction/fantasy section which holds books that fall under both of these categories.  There are also bookstores that simply mark a science-fiction section and then proceed to dump both science-fiction and fantasy under it confusing the issue more.

Now don’t get me wrong there can be quite a bit of overlap between the two genres, and there are parts of them that are similar.  For instance the fact that they both are fictional and thus are stories about things that have not occurred.  Despite certain similarities, though, science-fiction and fantasy have certain key differences.

There are many different ways of defining these two genres, and debates have been raging about what makes a book science-fiction or fantasy for a long time.  Here is a basic definition of each genre:

  • Science-Fiction: a story that, although has not happened, has a possibility of happening based on current real scientific facts.  These stories often take place in the future and/or show a certain phenomenon that is now possible such as time travel.
  • Fantasy: a story that is completely invented and could not (most likely) ever actually occur.  These stories usually have some element of magic to them such as supernatural creatures, people with some kind of supernatural ability, and/or take place in a completely made up world.

Separating the Two

Fantasy books are places where fantastical creatures are real, and people find out they have great supernatural powers and have to save the world.  It’s the land where the totally impossible is possible. Think things like Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Science-fiction on the other hand, and I cannot stress this enough, is a story about something that could actually happen.  Sure you hear “time travel” in a book’s summary and you automatically think, “that could never happen.”  The truth is it could, just not with what we currently have at our disposal.

The possibility is there.  That’s where science-fiction comes in.  As Ray Bradbury, who has written some awesome science-fiction such as Fahrenheit 451, stated “science-fiction is a sociological look at the future.”

Some parts of science-fiction that were written previously are actually starting to show up in current science.  It is currently possible to genetically modify a body before it’s born.  Most of this research is to help prevent birth defects and diseases, but the possibility now exists to choose genes for things like personality and physical appearance.

This eerily mirrors a character in Orson Scott Card’s book Ender’s Shadow who was part of an experiment which genetically modified babies in the womb giving them super intelligence.   This may be only one part of the story, but it does show how science-fiction stories, while not real, have the possibility of at least somewhat becoming a reality where as fantasy stories do not.

Science Fantasy?

There are some stories where the realms of science-fiction and fantasy overlap so much it’s hard to tell which genre the story belongs in.  One of the biggest examples of this is Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels.

Although they have dragons, leading many to think of them as fantasy, they are based on and use a lot of science within them.  Anne McCaffrey herself saw them more as science-fiction as she always took great care to craft the science into her dragons.

There are those who put books like this into the newer genre of science fantasy, but explaining that would take a whole other post!  So for now just know that while it is possible for science-fiction and fantasy to overlap on occasion there are still certain key things about each genre which separate it from the other.

Why I feel I need to Tell You This

The other day I saw Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief labeled as science-fiction.  Granted this was the movie not the book, but seriously?  In what world is Percy Jackson science-fiction?  How is a story about demigods, and Greek gods, and magical this, and supernatural that anything other than fantasy?  When I saw that my pet peeve about science-fiction and fantasy always getting mixed up rose to the surface, and I just had to help spread the word.