Don’t Make Me Choose: Sci-Fi Vs. Fantasy

The 2007 Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards was not without its fair share of controversy, but one particular discussion in the Drunk Duck forums caught my eye, and led me to write this article today: Should Gunnerkrigg Court have been nominated as an outstanding Science Fiction, or as an outstanding Fantasy comic?

Sure, Gunnerkrigg Court has robots and various forms of high-tech gadgetry, but it also has dragons, demons and a mellow minotaur. The question tapped into a much broader issue, as many webcomics rely heavily on motifs from both genres, such as Nerdcore, Hero by Night, The Adventures of Dr McNinja and countless humor strips which seem to bring in robots and wizards on a whim. It seems to be getting harder to tell one genre from another.

The particular forum discussion regarding Gunnerkrigg Court was settled with the argument “If it had just had robots and gadgetry, then it would be Science-Fiction, but because it also has magic then it must be Fantasy instead.” This led me to an intriguing thought: If Fantasy can have robots, but Science Fiction can’t have magic, does it therefore follow that Fantasy is a broader, more inclusive genre than its high-tech cousin? What is the relationship between Science Fiction and Fantasy?

To begin, I think we need to adopt a broader definition of “Fantasy” than most of us would be accustomed to. Most likely the word conjures up images of dragons, wizards, armies and oddly-shaped people wearing pseudo-medieval garb performing perilous quests to save a non-existent world from destruction. Our perceptions of the genre are shaped by the most common elements we find in “Fantasy” books, but this is a very narrow subset of a much broader body of work. If we restrict Fantasy to this set of archetypes, then we exclude ghost-stories, alternate histories, and fairy-tales – not to mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter. So what universal quality binds these stories together? What makes them special?

Simply put: Fantasy is fiction which involves that which we know to be unreal in our contemporary, perceived world. Literally, Fantasy involves the fantastic.

Fantasy gives us a framework for exploring ideas which are difficult to address in a modern setting: questions such as the responsible use of limitless power, the potential consequences of having an afterlife and mankind’s capacity for good and evil. Within the Fantasy genre, authors are allowed to contrive implausible scenarios using a variety of devices which free us from our earthly limitations. The most common of these devices is magic.

Herewith I make my first controversial point: Though magic and other fantastic devices play vital roles in the telling of Fantasy, these devices in themselves are not what Fantasy is actually about. Like all fiction, the goal of Fantasy is to tell a story, and the role of magic is to serve that story. When the story starts to serve the magic, then the author has failed as a story-teller.

So what does this have to do with Science Fiction? Cue my second controversial point: I believe that Science Fiction is Fantasy.

As the writer and artist of a Science-Fiction comic, I’m occasionally criticized for producing work which is not always scientifically accurate. I have fiery explosions in an oxygen-starved environment, space-fighters with wings, and dog-fights. I’m the first to admit that my action sequences are not entirely realistic, and that I would be very surprised if space-based combat in the future resembles my work in any way at all. But these are choices I made for the sake of the story, and I stand by them.

Part of the problem is the common misconception that the role of Science Fiction is to predict the future. It’s easy to see how we arrive at this conclusion, since the vast majority of Science Fiction stories are set in the future and include speculation on present trends in scientific discovery. However if prediction is the ultimate goal of Science-Fiction, then the classics of the genre must be regarded as monumental failures. The Earth hasn’t been conquered by Martians, we didn’t send a manned spaceship to Jupiter in 2001, squads of firemen aren’t burning books and nobody lives under the omniscient gaze of Big Brother (at least no one of consequence). If Science Fiction were right then we’d all have flying cars and be living on the moon by now – but nobody predicted the internet. At most, Science Fiction can only ever speculate, it cannot predict.

The goal of Science Fiction should be that of any other fiction – to tell a story. We may try to convince ourselves that spaceships, transporters, telepathy and clones are more realistic or plausible than magic and dragons, we might even churn out technical manuals to explain how everything is meant to work. But ultimately we are working with plot devices which do not exist, and will probably never exist since we’re so bad at the prediction game. My argument, therefore, is that the advanced technology of Science fiction is magic, it simply supposes a scientific foundation for its fantastic devices rather than a supernatural one. It should exist for the sake of the story, not visa versa.

So if Science-Fiction is a subgenre of Fantasy, are we as story-tellers shooting ourselves in the foot when we try to draw clear distinctions between the two genres?

It seems to me that these arbitrary dividing lines are unhelpful, leading to false expectations. We are summarizing these comics using their plot devices rather than their stories. Maybe we should avoid trying to squeeze Gunnerrkrigg Court into any genre, and instead place the emphasis on what the comic is really about: growing up.

But this goes far beyond the simple appreciation of other people’s comics. We need to be asking ourselves this most important of questions: What is our comic really about? If we put all the devices aside – spaceships, dragons, ghosts, wizards – what remains? It’s in this crucible of thought that we find the true substance of our story, and we will be better writers for it.



  1. Too bad Phil Foglio hasn't uploaded the "What's New" where Phil & Dixie describe the difference between SF & F.

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