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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.

Too bad Phil Foglio hasn't

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

Personally I avoided that

DumokDuvalles's picture

Personally I avoided that all together by calling My comic Sci-fantasy or by it's more perjorative title "Orc Porn" but I do agree with the author that Sci-fi in and of itself is a subcatagory of Fantasy. Personally I like the term "Speculative fiction" which was coined by the folks at invisible universe.

A Call to Destiny an Adult Sci-Fantasy webcomic.

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Re: Personally I avoided that

[quote=DumokDuvalles]..."Speculative fiction" which was coined by the folks at invisible universe.
[/quote]

No; the term was popular in the 1960s, and there are a few uses of it before then (Heinlein, for one). Usage varies somewhat, and it means different things to different people - but what term doesn't?

As for the original subject, I can only quote Arthur C Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Sci-fi can include magic within certain limits, just as fantasy can include robots within certain limits. Some stories count as both, while some are only one or the other (or neither). Somewhere, there's a rather blurred grey area where things are sci-fi, or fantasy, or both - depending on how it's written (the same story from a different viewpoint can fall into a different category) and how you look at it.

Sci Fantasy

Scarybug's picture

[quote=DumokDuvalles]Personally I avoided that all together by calling My comic Sci-fantasy or by it's more perjorative title "Orc Porn"[/quote]

I occasionally use the term "Sci-Fantasy" to describe Nerdcore as well. I've never called it "Orc Porn", though it does at one point contain the phrase "Sweet goblin poon". Tongue out

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Nerdcore: The Core Wars

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Wait; there's a point to

Wait; there's a point to make, and I think I just figured out what it is. In hard science fiction, you're allowed to speculate about technology - that is, how we use the scientific facts and what we can build. In fantasy or soft science fiction, you're allowed to speculate about nature itself - that is, come up with "natural" laws that have nothing to do with those we understand.

I think that...

The distinction between science fiction and fantasy is kind of a tempest in a teacup. "Speculative fiction" encompasses both rather nicely. You can use "fantasy" as a term that encompasses soft science fiction (where the "science" is all plot devices and no actual science) if you want, but it eliminates a useful marketing distinction.

However, I disagree that science fiction is a subcategory of fantasy. "hard" science fiction can be written with NO fantastic elements - no magic, no psychic powers, no FTL, no time travel, etc. "Soft" science fiction on the other hand, which seems to comprise the majority of it since SF went more mainstream, is a bastion of plot devices built using IJD technology.

The difference...

tamtrible's picture

I think the category of "speculative fiction" is less trivial and catch-all than you're making it sound. Every spec fic story has, somewhere at its core, a "what if"--"What if there were elves?" "What if we had a colony on the moon?", and so forth. Most of the better spec fic actually tries to more or less realistically answer the question(s).

In some cases, the difference between fantasy and sci fi is crystal clear. Hard sci fi and high fantasy are pretty clear-cut. One has realistic science, the other has pure magic.

But even in the less clear-cut cases, there tends to be a difference in feel. Different set of tropes and all. (Oddly enough, the "god" gambit is more a sci fi trope than a fantasy one)

Two points and an example

Okay, first, it's very obvious that scifi and fantasy are both subsets of fiction in general, and I guess this "Speculative Fiction" is simply a term for whatever isn't realistic fiction.

Second, I think that most science fiction--if not all--can be categorized as fantasy, based on the previously-mentioned principle that "Any sufficiently advanced science will appear, to a more primitive culture, to be a form of magic." (I know I mangled the quote, but I think you know what I mean)

My favorite example of this is Stargate SG-1. In fact, I believe that at one point in the series, either Dr. Jackson or Major Carter makes a reference to the above quote. As anyone who's seen the series knows, the Jaffa believe the Goa'uld to be "Gods", in part because of the "magic" they command--magic which comes from devices scavenged from a race even more advanced than the Goa'uld themselves.

And now, I must stop myself, lest I fall into rant mode...

I'm with tamtrible

To an extent. IMO the term "speculative fiction" was born to answer two problems. One was that Sci Fi had become a lot more mainstream and there was an attempt to give it a more "serious" label. The second was the very blurring of the genres. Look at The Flying Saucerers, on the face of it a fantasy but with Clarkian "sufficiently advanced science" in the place of magic. China Meivelle's New Crobuzon push the steampunk boundaries and could be equally considered fantasy and sci fi. Once you start looking at Robert Rankin or Tom Holt you get caught in comedy crossfire while you are at it.

It is a spectrum and just like the arguments of where green stops and yellow starts the boundaries are where the observer wants to see them.

I disagree, slightly.

tamtrible's picture

I agree with you conceptually, but I disagree with your terminology, in a possibly significant way.

I believe that fantasy and science fiction are (mostly) separate genres, but both are subsets of the genre "speculative fiction".

Spec fic is any work with some significant element of "unreality"--something that is not like either the present or the past, beyond the degree necessary to make something fictional.

Fantasy is spec fic where the "unreal" element is essentially magical in nature (elves, spells, demons, and so forth). Sci fi is spec fic where the "unreal" element is essentially scientific in nature (robots, space ships, time travel, and so forth). Some spec fic, such as the aforementioned Gunnerkrigg Court, qualifies as both. Some qualifies as neither. Some, such as Star Trek, is what I tend to call "science fantasy"--the trappings of science fiction, but with essentially no effort to make any of the science match, you know, real science.

It's all a spectrum, with gradients and overlaps and such. But there is some distinction, and I think neither is entirely a subset of the other.

I'd argue that there is a

almamater's picture

I'd argue that there is a legitimate distinction between fantasy and science fiction, since the two genres are concerned with different core issues and themes, even though they both involve elements that are "fantastic" to contemporary readers.

Fantasy is rooted fundamentally in the concept of the supernatural, or a realm beyond human understanding, whereas even unrealistic science fiction is interested more in the ideas of scientific progress and the outcomes, both positive and negative, of increasing knowledge.

Gunnerkrigg Court mixes elements of fantasy and science fiction, just like many comics and other works blend elements of distinct genres. However, I think it would be a mistake to conflate the genres just because some works use elements of fantasy and science fiction.

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I'd say that most

Scarybug's picture

I'd say that most Science-Fiction is Fantasy. Including Star Trek and Star Wars, and any other sci-fi that has teleportation, psychics, or faster-than-light travel. This is because, as plausible as one tries to make these concepts seem, they are very probably impossible, and therefore "fantastic".

However, I think making the argument that so-called "Hard" sci-fi is fantasy is a little more difficult. For instance, very little of what takes place in Neuromancer is impossible, at least given modern understanding of computer science and man/machine interfaces.

Of course, as science and technology advance, what we can reasonable call "fantastic" or "possible" changes. So you also have to take the time of creation into account when deciding if some work of sci-fi is "hard" and therefore not "fantasy".

Also, thanks for mentioning Nerdcore Smile

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Nerdcore: The Core Wars

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