Fantasy vs Science Fiction


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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42 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    It’s pretty easy to imagine that those who are powerful through magic would have a pretty natural hostility towards science, which allows the masses to accomplish many of the same things that they can do.

    Hence the hostility towards science on the Right today. Somehow the Catholic church and some of the older Protestant churches make it work.

    The complaint I often hear from sci-fi fans about fantasy is that there are no rules or the rules seem to be very poorly defined. I am more of a sci-fi guy myself, with some exceptions, but maybe my love of Star Wars allows me to overlook that flaw.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      The complaint I often hear from sci-fi fans about fantasy is that there are no rules or the rules seem to be very poorly defined.

      The people who think that should read Brandon Sanderson. Seriously, he writes fantasy like a science fiction author.Report

    • Avatar jason says:

      The Name of the Wind is fantasy with some clearly defined rules. Some of the magic has scienctific-ish rules.Report

  2. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    The Black Ocean series has magic and technology and manages to flatten out the hierarchy.

    Glynn Stewart and his Starship’s Mage has a similar conceit*, but preserves the hierarchy.

    *Magic allows for FTL. Black Ocean uses travel across the Astral Plane, Stewart uses it to fold space one light year at a time. Magic can do other things as well, but the primary reason it persists is FTL.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

      The first season of Star Trek Discovery brushed dangerously close to fantasy with it’s special warp drive. I had to resist the urge to eyeroll a couple of times.Report

  3. Avatar Marchmaine says:

    It all rather depends upon the metaphysical underpinnings of magic, I’d think. If they are nonsensical like the Force then you have a really bad story, but cool special effects.

    I could imagine an interesting scene in which a guy just like Oscar explains the physics of flight… propulsion, lift, aerodynamics etc. etc… to a guy who can just up and fly.

    BUT, does the magic that enables flight also enable flight at 500 mph? Proof against tiny objects? Proof against deceleration and all the millions of things required to go 500 mph? Maybe it does, but now we’re layering all sorts of ancillary magic on top of z-axis locomotion.

    Could be an interesting hybrid world where those who have access to magic are the ones who also invent Aluminum tubes with wings to propel them long distances (albeit with different safety features to allow them to abandon the muggles and a disabled craft).

    Any how, there’s no philosophical reason why magic and physics would be at odds… you just have do define the metaphysics and limitations of Magic in reference to physics.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      I dissent from calling the Force nonsense. Midichlorians are nonsense, but the Force is a clever idea – though of course not entirely original.Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine says:

        Sure, the force as an unoriginal idea stolen from a hundred other notions of “magic” is fine up to a point; the point at which the Force needs to be defined for purposes more than plot devices. Which is where the metaphysics (or maybe bio-physics) of Midichlorians come in, and, as you rightly put they are nonsense. Not because they are made-up, but because George Lucas just isn’t bright enough to build an original world that includes things like, well, the Force and Midichlorians. Everything else he stole is fun though.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

      Interestingly enough, it appears that the sequel trilogy is pushing toward an understanding/representation of the Force that is more democratic and available to anyone, not just certain bloodlines.

      Will this transform Star Wars into SF rather than fantasy? I kind of doubt it.Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine says:

        Sure, there are all sorts of notions for how one uses/accesses/develops magical powers… not all stories with Magic have hierarchical “annointed” ones. I’m just in the camp that thinks that the definition of your magical rules/universe has to underpin everything or else your world will collapse.

        Obviously this is not a prerequisite for printing money hats, but hey… the internet.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The old tabletop game Mage: The Ascension had the Technomancers start out as the bad guys but eventually be the winners.

    Magic for the masses. You want to start a small fire? Here.

    You want to start a larger one? Well, Elon Musk *WAS* selling something, but he’s sold out.

    You want a carriage that can go down the road without needing a horse? You want to fly like a bird?

    Technomancy can let someone work this magic with only the smallest amount of training/practice.

    Anyway, the Technomancers defeated everybody. Why spend years figuring out how to start a fire when you only need to spend a buck to do it?Report

  5. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    I sort of eyeroll whenever someone brings Marx into a discussion of art.

    But the distinction he’s pushing at is quite real. These days I strongly avoid “birthright” based stories about the “chosen one”. It’s pretty easy to associate this with aristocracy and rule by birthright. I think half-way through Rowling realized that Harry Potter was a “chosen one” story, and tried to band-aid it a little.

    As an interesting contrast, starting in 3rd edition, D&D presented wizards not as something you did by birthright, but something that was learned by dint of long, hard study. The implication in most world builds is that the settings economy simply does not support having very many people engaging in such arduous study.

    In contrast are sorcerors, who run on natural talent and birthright.

    Which brings me to Doctor Strange, who is called Sorceror Supreme, but in D&D terms, he’s a wizard. He’s taught things. He sought them out. He’s smart and hardworking, maybe even obsessive, so he excelled.

    In spite of all this, fantasy (and to some extent SF, too) often tries to address a question of “so you have some skills. What are you going to do about it?” This is a good question, with many good and bad, but interesting to watch or read, answers.

    Ultimately, heroic fiction always has as its core the question “What makes someone a hero?”Report

    • D&D presented wizards not as something you did by birthright, but something that was learned by dint of long, hard study.

      This was taken, IIRC, from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books, which were definitely fantasy, though Vance wrote both fantasy and SF, though most of his SF books were of the “fancy spaceships are like yachts; cheap ones are like Buicks” genre.Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

        Yeah, the original system was totally Vancian, including the idea of prepared spells. But many players did not like this system, and wanted to do more “seat of the pants” magic, which is why 3rd Ed provided the sorceror class, which prompted a clearer delineation between the two.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          I actually liked the prepared spells aspect, it meant you had to plan carefully, or be ready to take the time to change your load out. Figuring out the trade-offs was part of what separated the good players from the crap ones.Report

          • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

            Hey, I played a 3e wizard myself, and did the prepared spells thing. I found scrolls were really useful to deal with unusual contingencies. And I think people get to play the character they like, as opposed to the character *I* like.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw says:

      Children don’t like fairy tales where a young child is plucked from his humdrum life of milking cows and cleaning out the fireplace to go to some tower and study for the next 20-30 years. They want to fantasize about a destiny which transports them to a whole new world of wonderous options.Report

  6. Avatar Murali says:

    Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera plays with the hierarchy thing a bit. In the series all the humans except the main character has magic, at least in the beginning. (it turns out that he is a really late bloomer). Of course the Aristocrats (people who have political power and the apex of the citizenry) and Citizens (people who own land) have more than the freemen (non-slaves who do not own land) . Genetics certainly plays a part in power levels, but magic is a) widespread and b) very useful.

    The reason why technology has not developed is because people use magic for everything. Necessity is the mother of invention. A society in which magic does everything is one in which technology levels remain stagnant or even regress.

    The background of the series is one in which the humans in the setting are the descendants of one of the lost Roman legions which wandered into an interdimensional portal and ended up in that world somehow acquiring magic later. One of the issues that cropped up was how everyone was sceptical that the magic-less romans managed various feats of engineering. That is to say, that the magic had made certain technologies redundant and hence the level of technology regressed.Report

  7. I tend not to think that the distinction between science fiction and fantasy is very useful. Both fall under the broader rubric of “speculative fiction,” which has the useful definition that it is literature that explores ideas or settings that are not intended to be representative of the real world, past or present. In science fiction these ideas ostensibly are scientifically plausible, while fantasy lacks this constraint. In practice, this doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

    I also think that fantasy tending toward quasi-medieval settings is more about path dependency than anything intrinsic. Modern fantasy grew out of Victorian High Fantasy (Lord Dunsany and that crowd) via Tolkien. Imagine if the great inspiration for modern fantasy had been Lovecraft rather than Tolkien. And it isn’t really true that fantasy in post-industrial settings is rare. The field has grown beyond its origins. Urban fantasy has been a distinct sub-genre for decades. See also: Buffy.

    Riddle me this: Is Frodo the Chosen One, or the schmo who drew the short straw? Note also that quite explicitly, none of the people with the magic were the Chosen One.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog says:

      Whenever I go to the library looking for something knowing the basic premise, I go to the wrong section. Every time.

      Is it fantasy? It has spirits. Is it sci fi? It has space travel. Is it mystery? It concerns someone trying to figure out how someone died. Oh, nope, it’s general fiction.

      But if I’d started in general fiction, it would be one of the others.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

      The thing I love about LOTR is that Frodo is the hero because he chose to be a hero. Gandalf tells him that there are powers that wanted him to have the ring, “and that is a very comforting thought”, but these powers are vague and did not bestow any particular advantage. Indeed, Frodo is pictorially disadvantaged, being about half the height of most everyone else on the battlefield.

      To be clear, heroes only become heroes because they make a certain kind of choice. “I will carry the ring to Mordor” says Frodo, and this puts everything in motion. The gods approve, but they don’t control.

      Aragorn, who is sort of a dual to Frodo, also must make his choice to take up his birthright, which bestows certain things on him, such as long life. But mostly what powers he has comes from his experiences and his intentions.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        My favorite character from LOTR is Sam, a classic “companion” to the hero. You can always identify the companion — the person who goes through all the risk and danger and hardship that the hero does, has to eat in the kitchen while the hero gets to eat at the high table… And when there comes a moment where the hero says “Rope!” and holds his hand out, the companion not only realized at some point that a bit of rope might be useful, but found some six chapters ago and did all that other sh*t without losing it. High heels and backwards, indeed.

        Although, I think it was Rufo in Heinlein’s Glory Road who pointed out that the cooks eat the same food as served at the high table, only while it’s still hot, and that scullery maids are easier than princesses (no disrespect to anyone there, he was a victim of his times and audience).

        Among the ill-begun stories tucked away on this hard disk is one called Companion that starts with the hero saying “Rope!” and holding his hand out.Report

        • “Rope!”


          “In my hand!”

          “What, is it invisible?”

          “No, I mean put the rope in my hand.”

          “Ah. Funny thing about that. Remember when I told you I need 30 crowns to outfit us, and you said 20 would do?”Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain says:

            A mediocre companion whines about the budget. A good companion guesses correctly about which things to scratch off the list. A great companion handles the money and gives the hero an allowance, and the hero likes it that way. Frodo and Sam didn’t have to deal with money because Gandalf was a scheming old man who wasn’t about to let them see any after his experience with Bilbo.

            During my technical career, I had some managers who were heroes. I always thought of myself as a companion, being prepared and having a rope ready when it was needed. A colleague who was a fantasy fan set me straight one day when we were discussing it over lunch: “No one thinks of you as a companion. Everyone thinks of you as a wizard. Ask how the tech demo can possibly work in Minneapolis by next Tuesday, and everyone will tell you ‘Mike will pass a miracle or three.’ You’re the big-f*cking-magic guy, not the I-have-a-rope guy.'”Report

        • Avatar Kolohe says:

          You’re supposed to like Sam. Everyone is supposed to like Sam. Everyone likes Sam. He saves the day. He gets the girl. He becomes mayor. He sacks the quarterback. (wait…reseting)

          Anyway, Sam is the very avatar of an Idealized English Common Man. Down to earth, quietly heroic – and knows his place.Report

          • I am the avatar of an heroic common English bloke
            I made the tea and bore the Ring and watched my manners when I spoke
            With Tooks and Brandybucks or all the other gentry in the room
            And never bragged about my fight with Gollum at the Cracks of Doom


    • Avatar PD Shaw says:

      He was chosen to draw the short straw.Report

  8. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    Does the observation that “fantasy stories are rarely set in post-industrial revolution settings” hold if we recognize supernatural horror as a genre of fantasy?

    Most fantasy where there is also high(ish) tech seems to be so called “low fantasy” – magical is a hidden force that intrudes on the protagonists’ world view. That often takes the form of horror, but not always.

    In a “high fantasy” setting, the industrial revolution doesn’t make as much sense – how do you get to an efficient modern steam or internal combustion engine, when the early evolutionary steps toward such a device are all so much less powerful and more explosion-prone than a summoning circle to call up a minor elemental?Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      Also, the Shannara series starts off as a high fantasy series. (in the books that were first released). The setting eventually becomes more magitech which tends to be more steam-punk-ish. i.e. things move into more victorian era settings. The other books in the series show that the supposedly medieval setting is actually the post-apocalyptic future of an urban fantasy setting (his word and the void series)

      The Recluse series bounces back and forth with technology levels, (for a while they had steam ships but those relied on magic to heat the water and stopped working when the magic fizzled out) but society is never easily categorised as medieval or victorian or modern.Report

      • Also, the Shannara series starts off as a high fantasy series. (in the books that were first released).

        Let’s restate that: The Shannara series starts off as a shameless copy of The Lord of the Rings, without even the decency to put much effort into filing off the serial number, but with the vital distinction that The Lord of the Rings is good.

        I can’t speak to Shannara after the first book. After reading it, lo these many years ago, I swore a sacred oath that I would never direct any money, directly or indirectly, Terry Brooks’s way. I have, in my advanced years, lost some of my youthful ideals, but to this oath I have been true.Report

        • Avatar Murali says:

          Let’s restate that: The Shannara series starts off as a shameless copy of The Lord of the Rings, without even the decency to put much effort into filing off the serial number, but with the vital distinction that The Lord of the Rings is good.

          The first shannara book I read was the third book. And I read it and the first two shannara books well before I read lord of the rings. So my impression of them is a bit different from yours. The first book is a solid fantasy book. It is true that it did not subvert any tropes, but that cannot be our standard for the goodness of a book.

          But I don’t see much similarity between the two except in the rather banal sense that both depict the hero’s journey and that they both have elves.So does every book set in the forgotten realms and greyhawk universe.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

      Honestly, that proclamation “fantasy stories are rarely set in post industrial revolution settings” went completely “clunk” to me. I see tons of steampunk fantasy these days, as well as modern fantasy. Not to mention Lovecraft. The entire superhero genre, I would argue, is fantasy. Not that I think the distinction matters much. There was much talk in the 70’s about “speculative fiction” as something that embraced both.

      It seems to embrace a yearning for a world which isn’t well-explained or understood.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog says:

      And come to that – how about this premise:

      Between sci fi and fantasy, pre-industrial-revolution settings are going to be over represented in fantasy. Because the whole point of sci fi is advanced technology.

      I mean, I guess you could say “OK, it’s set in something close to the historical Zhou dynasty – but with the scientific fiction that the boiling point of water is more like 200 C.”Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:


        “OK, it’s set in something close to the historical Zhou dynasty – but with the scientific fiction that the boiling point of water is more like 200 C.”

        If you told me such a story existed [and that it was worth my time to read], I would presume that it was most likely Ted Chiang who wrote it….

        Geniuses do have their eccentricities, most of the time.Report

  9. Note that Chiang here is Ted Chiang, author of Story of Your Life, later made into the film Arrival.Report

  10. Avatar Damon says:

    I’ve always separated the two like this:

    The Mote in God’s Eye + SCIFI

    The Thomas Covenant series of books = FantasyReport

  11. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.Report

  12. I don’t read enough sci fi or fantasy to comment knowledgeably on the distinction. But I do find one analogy quite apt:

    Humanities people (among which I sometimes count myself) see their knowledge/skills/acumen in ways somewhat similar to how the linked-to piece sees magic/wizardry. It’s hierarchical and mysterious (after a fashion) whereas STEM disciplines contravene that type of magic. Hence we see humanities types sometimes complain about STEM-focused policies as empowering a certain (kind of (unmerited)) power over a (presumably more meretorious kind of) power.Report