The Truth is Out There, But is It A Fantasy?… on the X-Files and the difference between sic-fi and fantasy


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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71 Responses

  1. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    Did Cordwainer Smith write science fiction or fantasy? His work is high mythology in a spacesuit, is it not? But it always passes for SF.

    What about Orson Scott Card? I’m not sure how to classify him, either, at least not using your criteria.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Having not read either, I am the wrong guy to ask.Report

    • Avatar JohnQ says:

      Card writes fantasy…

      …oh – sorry, I was thinking about his political ramblings. 😛Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      The line can be hard to draw. Is The Anubis Gates fantasy or SF, when the odd goings-on can be explained either as cutting edge physics or the last gasp of ancient magic?

      As for Smith, how can you call spaceships that ward off the Pain of Space by being lined with oysters anything but hard SF?Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        Easy. “Scanners Live in Vain” is a story about taboos and their violation, about the importance (or not) of social hierarchy and the tragedies that await when that hierarchy is disturbed. It’s hard SF on the outside, but inside, it’s something closer to fantasy, or possibly to King Lear.

        “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is a retelling of the Fall of Man. Maximilien Macht? He’s Lucifer, or, as his name indicates, the greatest one made. “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” is the Hero(ine) with a Thousand Faces. And so forth.Report

  2. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    This is not bad, but you’re making the same mistake all the folks on the MD page are making.

    Science fiction and fantasy aren’t mutually exclusive categories of speculative fiction, and the aspects that make you a member of one set aren’t complemented to make you a member of the other.

    I agree, character is a major factor of fantasy construction. But character is incidental to whether or not you’re science fiction.

    Rejoinder up tomorrow, I hope, on MD.Report

  3. Avatar Kimmi says:

    …riffing off you, playing with ideas.

    At the heart of science fiction is the explorer, the discoverer, the person we wish to be, conceptualized by action.

    At the heart of fantasy, is the person we model ourselves upon. The Knight, The Trickster, The Girl in Chainmail. conceptualized by belief.

    and then you have stories about the character who isn’t there… the tabula rasa. Where, I ask, will you put that story? Science fiction or fantasy?Report

  4. Avatar Kimmi says:

    McCaffery’s books are science fiction wif dragons.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      I’m sorry, Kim. I don’t make the rules. If they have dragons they have to be put in the fantasy pile over there.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Take it up with Stan, the guy who edits Analog (and published certain Pern stories)

        Author George R.R. Martin described Analog as having “the reputation of being hard-nosed, steel-clad, scientifically rigorous, and perhaps a bit puritanical”

        (last time I checked, Stan was writing about wanting more fantastical elements in science fiction, too).Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck says:

        What if they have AI-controlled combat robots that communicate with the pilot via cybernetic mental linkages, and their mission is to defend a space colony from periodic attacks by mindless omniphagic alien beings?Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          Dragon = Fantasy. Period.

          Some things you need to be firm on, or else the whole universe will just go to pot.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            Well then you have to define dragon. Pern’s dragons, for instance were merely psychicly gifted bioengineered flying lizards.Report

            • Avatar Brett says:

              They still fit European-style dragons in every sense of the word: fire-breathing, flying giant lizards that people could ride. In fact, they were even more fantastical due to qualities such as psychic powers, teleportation, and even time travel if I recall correctly.Report

          • Avatar Brett says:

            I wouldn’t go that far. You could conceivably engineer flying reptilian creatures with arbitrarily advanced genetic engineering technology. It’s possible that you could even make them “fire-breathing”.

            What makes the Pern dragons fantastical is not merely the fact that they’re dragons, but that they’re

            1. Large (physics generally limits the size of your flying creatures unless the atmosphere is much more dense, or they’re made of much stronger material than most flying creatures).

            2. Possess abilities that are blatantly magical and/or supernatural, such as teleportation and time travel.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

              Teleportation as measurable psychic power isn’t “magic”, per se.

              One note: a sufficiently described system of magic is indistinguishable from a system of physics in an alternate universe. Thus, any “fantasy” novel that spends great time and explication on magic is basically science fiction, with the science just being based on alternate rules.

              Inverted, any insufficiently described system of physics is indistinguishable from magic. Thus, any “science fiction” novel that handwaves away physics and treads the road of epic character action is basically fantasy with laser beams instead of fireballs and lightsabers instead of Stormbringer.Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Fantasy == Nostalgia, then?Report

  6. Avatar Steven Donegal says:

    I’m simple minded. Science fiction has to have science in it. For example, I don’t consider 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, etc. to be science fiction. They are possible and unpleasant future fiction. Same with Mad Max. Now Cat’s Cradle–science fiction because of the ice-9. Stranger in a Strange Land–science fiction because he’s a Martian. Anyway, I do agree with Tod, dragons =fantasy; wizards =fantasy; magical unicorns=fantasy, or Republican economic policy, take your pick.Report

  7. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    Sci-fi, fantasy? What of demons? I would think they belong to their own mythopoeic category that stands, by my definition, within the Judeo-Christian worldview.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that I might find demons closer to the fantasy end of the spectrum and farther away from the documentary end than you.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      Satan stands at the crossroads between Judaism and Christianity, because in Judaism he’s really just a minor figure, but in Christianity, he’s this big awesome Dragon (*snerk* teehee!)Report

  8. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    I have to disagree with the assessment of Harry, who is IMO a capital-T Tool: perhaps he’s fulfilling his destiny, but he is protected, honed, and positioned to do so by Dumbledore.

    I’ve always wanted to be the Companion. The person who, at the critical juncture when the Hero/Heroine sticks their hand out behind them and cries “Rope!”, has not only survived all of the same risks as the Hero, but has carried the damned rope the whole way, and remembered to pack it back at the beginning because the Hero can’t be bothered with practical little details.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      i want to be the one who carried the 10 foot pole. (yup. geeky)Report

      • Avatar NoPublic says:

        Hey, I had a dwarf who made a killing making break-down 12 foot poles. In fact somewhere I still have the parts for the prototype one we actually forged and machined by hand.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      Mr. Cain, in mythic fantasy, the longstanding tradition is that the Companion gets it, eventually. Only Odysseus gets home.

      I’ll stick with being the Cloaked Adviser.Report

  9. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    Does anyone want to explain to me why Alyssa Rosenberg’s opinions are worthy of being taken so seriously?Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      She started the conversation, and she seems nice?Report

      • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

        I don’t mean any offense to her or anything, but sometimes it seems like she’s the only critic in the world whose opinion matters.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          Really? I feel like no one I know knows who she is whenever I mention her.

          For me, she has a tendency as a critic to come at a pop culture “thing” from an angle I hadn’t considered. (Admittedly, sometimes this is because I’m a guy.) I always appreciate people who make me stand in new places to look at things I’ve already been looking at.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Because she’s watching X-Files for the first time.

      You can’t help but feel great envy for (at least some of) the experiences that she will have for the first time.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        This, in my case. Plus, everybody else is wrong (see today’s MD).Report

        • Avatar wardsmith says:

          SciFi vs Fantasy is easy. If there’s no science there’s no scifi. In all my favorite SciFi stories, the /science/ becomes part of the plot, like another character almost.

          It turns out that “sci-fi’ is male-dominated and male-consumed, which accounts for its 6% share of the fiction market. An author looking to make a buck can substitute magic for science, achieve much of the same plot contrivance, and he hasn’t turned off all those women who drop out of math once it hits algebra.

          Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series crosses the line somewhat because the “present” of the story was presaged by a past which was already science fiction – futuristic. Post apocalypse, magic takes center stage. I’m also told (but can’t verify) that women made up the majority of his fans.

          I’m currently reading ‘Mysts of Avalon’. Clearly it is fantasy, but has enough history nibbling around the edges to keep my interest. There’s the rub, a guy wants some reality with his fantasy whereas a woman is more than content to let it flow into princess fairy land (as long as she gets to wear beautiful flowing gowns, jewelry and ride a white horse or unicorn).Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            scifi used to be male dominated. that’s really changing. Read any Asaro lately? Ya know, the lady who managed to get elected to President of the Science Fiction Writers Association, even though it explicitly banned women in its charter? (n.b. heinlein ran off with the charter — I rather think they’d have changed it before now, otherwise).

            There are a lot of good women writing science fiction — and science fiction has come a long way from pulp where women were just around to shriek and lose their high heels.

            FWIW, Women demand more complexity of characters than men do. This shows up a lot in videogaming — far fewer women want the shiny toys of a FPS (except Thief, and Deus Ex. But those prove my point, don’t they?)Report

            • Avatar wardsmith says:

              Oh, there have been GREAT women sc fi *writers*. The issue is the /readers/. You just don’t see women picking up scifi books in the airport bookstores for instance. They’ve (thankfully) gone away from the Harlequin romances with bodice ripping heroes for the most part, my guess is they were embarrassed more by the cover art than the content. 😉Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

              [T]he Science Fiction Writers Association… explicitly banned women in its charter.

              [Citation needed.]Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                By my count, Catherine Asaro was the fifth female president of the SFWA.

                Marta Randell was first (1982-84), followed by Jane Yolen, Barbara Hambly, and Sharon Lee.

                I will not attest to the embedded sexism of the entire history of the SFWA. Maybe somebody should ask Marta?

                The 1960s and 1970s had quite a few prominent female writers. The 1950s had a fair share of sexism in publishing, I’d imagine, but the 1950s weren’t exactly an exemplar time for anybody.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith says:

                LOL, asking Kimmi for a citation.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                now, now, I did cite “growth industry”. course that’s just a term of art…Report

          • Avatar Brett says:

            I would still put Wheel of Time into the “definitely fantasy” category. The lost civilization in the story made us of the magic, integrating it into almost every aspect of their technology. It was part and parcel of their advanced technology.Report

  10. Avatar pete.mack says:

    For Star Wars, I believe the term you are looking for is Space Opera.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Yeah, but people say similar things about Star Trek. And yet I still find that I think of one as being fantasy, and the other being sic-fi.Report

      • Avatar pete.mack says:

        So you are saying it’s the difference between opera and soap opera?Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          No, I think I’m not quite going there at all.

          I was mostly trying to parse out why I throw somethings into the “fantasy” pile, and others onto the “sic-fi” pile. And I decided for me the answer, more than anything, is character and character development.Report

  11. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    The Twilight Zone offers a perfect parrallel example. I wouldn’t be able to pin that down either, especially since it’s even more anthology-like than X-Files (at least X-Files has some meta development, unlike the Twilight Zone where each episode exists alone and complete).

    Personally, I’ve never liked the distinction much myself. I mean, what if you have knights riding on robotic dragons? Or scientists that go back in time and fool around with prehistoric dinosaurs?

    In many ways I look at Game of Thrones more in the Sci-fi light, if only because in addition to being mythic and plot driven, there’s still a lot of social commentary and analsys of ideas (honor, courage, duty). And in many ways (this comes from a viewer the show who has put off reading the books for now), the wall in the north is deeply technological, allowing people and cities to grow soft and decadent while they relegate their duties to technology and a few lone watchmen.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      Hmm, so in conclusion, I think having relatable, non-mythic characters is part of the “social commentary” function that sci-fi tends to serve. But I’ve done more than enough to blur the distinction I’ve been trying to make, so I’ll give up.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        everyman must exist. but everyman can be holmes, just as much as watson. In science fiction, there must be the lost man — the one whose surroundings are unknown. Otherwise you’ve just got people talking about stuff Everybody Knows, and that’s Boring.

        As an alternative, you could use a child… but people rarely do that. Gives me an idea though!Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      It’s funny you brought these two TV shows up; I had actually given them some thought when I was trying to figure out how I separate sic-fi and fantasy.

      I came out on the same end of you with TZ, and without going to far down the rabbit hole decided that I tend to separate them by episode into either sic-fi or fantasy. (Or in some cases, horror. Like the one about the creepy child’s doll that talks, which feared me out as kid when I first saw it.)

      And I had the exact same thoughts about Game of Thrones that you just touched on. I decided where I came down on that was that it was a fantasy that the author decided to fuse with political fiction. I think I find that he takes mythic archetypes and puts them in situations where they have to succeed by also being political animals – which is kind of a cool concept. (Or at least was for a while. I am really running out of steam as a reader after Feast for Crows.)Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      The Twilight Zone is horror.Report

  12. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    btw Tod, congradulations on getting linked to by Rosenberg.Report

  13. Avatar Srynerson says:

    Fantasy book characters are mythic, and their stories are a way of tweaking and putting new spin on classic archetypes. . . . This is why for me Star Wars fits so seamlessly into the fantasy genre, the Millennium Falcon not withstanding. * * * Sci-fi characters, on the other hand, are usually people like us who are put into odd and alien situations to make metaphorical points. . . . Though science fiction protagonists are also heroes, they function as a way for us to explore our world’s current trends and fears (on steroids) with eyes similar to our own.

    The problem I have with this approach to distinguishing between “science fiction” and “fantasy” is that it means different stories that are set in the same “universe,” featuring the identical characters, technology, etc., are deemed “science fiction” or “fantasy” entirely depending on how a particular writer/director chooses to portray the characters’ interactions with the surrounding world in that particular story. To put it another way, your definition leads to the bizarre result that the Star Wars movies are “fantasy,” but numerous Star Wars comic books and novels featuring the same characters are “science fiction.”Report

  14. Avatar Brett says:

    All of it (SF and Fantasy) should be grouped under the category of Speculative Fiction, with sub-categories that get more specific than the broad labels we have right now.

    In any case, I think the boundary between SF and Fantasy is blurred. You can make points about thematic elements, but what it usually comes down to is that Fantasy is overt about its magical/fantastical elements being fantastical. SF, on the other hand, cloaks its fantastical elements in the guise of “black box” technologies that usually don’t make much sense when you examine the physics. Star Trek may claim to be more scientific, but its science and technology are about as solid as melted butter (and that’s not including situations where you get things like the Q and other such supernatural entities).Report

  15. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Thanks! I was assuming no one would click on them all to see what I’d decided to link to; still, picking the links was great fun.Report

  16. Avatar David Cheatham says:

    I have an easy rule to tell sci-fi and fantasy apart. I don’t. 😉 But here is how I used to define them: Spec-Fi is any story set in an obviously untrue universe.

    All works of fiction are ‘untrue’ in some manner, but by ‘obviously untrue’, I mean if we were placed in such a universe, and did not know of the work of fiction, we would not think it odd. There may be no actual Dunder Miffler, but The Office is not spec-fi, because if we ended up there (and had never heard of The Office.) we would think it was entirely reasonable.

    Please note that ‘obviously untrue’ sometimes gets a little vague, which is why I once confused some people by referring to Touch by an Angel as Fantasy. Apparently, they _wouldn’t_ have been startled to be in a world with walking and talking angels sent by God.

    But, anyway, there are three sorts of common untrue worlds:

    Fantasy, in which the world is untrue by things that appear to violate physics. Science Fiction, in which the world is untrue by things that are not true, but could be. Alternate History, the one everyone’s forgotten about, which is untrue because events that we know went one way actually went another.

    But at _this_ point, science fiction refers to stories with certain things, like FTL and aliens and time travelers and whatnot. And fantasy refers to stories with certain things, like magic and elves and vampires and stuff.

    None of those things are _actually_ more plausible than anything else. There’s a subset of science fiction called ‘hard sci-fi’ that claims to stick to plausible things, but the point isn’t what _does_ violate physics, it’s what _appears_ to, and I’ve given up trying to tell them apart, because my ‘appears’ doesn’t appear to match anyone else’s ‘appears’

    I realized that that the idea that FTL is probably _less_ based in physics than a magical secret world that memory-erases people.Report

  17. Avatar Meaghan says:

    You may have put a little too much thought into this one Tod. Maybe. Just a little. Although, you do have a point about the dragons.Report

    • Avatar RTod says:

      “Put a little to much thought into it?” Meaghan, have you looked around this site? The amount of brain activity we put into craft beer, Game of Thrones, Herman Cain and insurance regulation?

      “We Put a Little Too Much Tought Into It” should probably go right up there on the banner under the logo.Report

      • Avatar Meaghan says:

        I think you’re correct Tod, that would make a great tag line for this particular site. In fact, that goes nicely with the conversation around gaining female perspective. I don’t think that the name is why there is a lack of women visiting and commenting on the site. I think the site requires a special kind of person who enjoys putting “a little too much thought” into things.

        It appears more men are attracting to this kind of activity then women. It is about finding the right kind of people, not the right gender ratio.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          What I hear you saying, Meaghan, in a polite and intellectual way, is that we are way too nerdy for our own good.

          This is true.Report

          • Avatar Meaghan says:

            Not at all.
            Well maybe a little nerdy, but that works for some people. 🙂
            My initial comment was brought about by my intrigue. I find you all and your discussions fascinating. I have never met a group of peole who spend so much time and brain power debating and discussing such a variety topics. I beginning to feel like I’m observing a case study in a psychology class somewhere or watching a conversation play out in a bar late at night.Report