Science fiction vs. Fantasy

Someone I know recently mentioned that I had written a science fiction novel to one of their friends. She replied:

“Oh, I don’t read that stuff. I prefer dramas and fiction with real characters, not wizards and warlocks.”

Thankfully, she was set straight on this point, but it does raise this question. Why exactly is there this confusion between fantasy and science fiction?

To someone who writes and reads sci-fi, the genres do not really seem all that similar, although I do understand that both genres are speculative fiction, and are almost treated like ‘His n’ Hers’ versions of one another by some publishers. They are usually shelved together in bookshops.

I don’t think I would ever write a fantasy novel (famous last words), because, to be brutally honest, I find the world creation really rather too fluid. This is obviously a very personal opinion, and I can hear the howls of annoyance from fantasy authors as I type this. However, as a designer, I feel that having some rules to work around (those of science) actually makes a stronger product. They are the armature of my creativity. If impossibilities can be got around by introducing a new power or some magic, well, that seems a tiny bit like cheating to me.

Also, there seems to be a cannon of ready-made character types which lead to the misconception I mentioned earlier about ‘wizards and warlocks.’

I’m not generally all that keen on rigid genre definitions – there are so many good books which don’t neatly fit into the shape of one genre or another. However, somehow the perception of the content of fantasy novels seems to have crept over to define science fiction as well.  I’m not really sure how this has happened, but I’m just a bit worried that this misconception will be turning away potential readers, like the person I mentioned above. Likewise, I’ve heard it expressed that other people wouldn’t read SF /F because they don’t like robots and spaceship stories (which is such a narrow definition of science fiction it makes me grit my teeth).

How can we make the distinguishing features of both science-fiction and fantasy clearer to the general public? I have no idea, but I’m open to suggestions anyone might have. Perhaps by continuing to produce good work, and by continuing to talk about it.

12 thoughts on “Science fiction vs. Fantasy

  1. Typical case in point: Terry Pratchett. He’s a fantasy writer, but you always find his books in the sci-fi section. I even know of interviews where he’s been asked about why he writes sci-fi and he’s had to protest that he doesn’t!

    • Absolutely! Great example – and a great writer. Likewise, Neil Gaiman has been awarded prizes for science fiction, and he definitely writes fantasy. Not even a whiff of science.

      • Gaiman is also a great writer; he has done some sci-fi (including some work on Doctor Who) but you’re right – mostly fantasy.

        Terry is awesome. I love Discworld, and he’s a really nice guy. Nothing beats being in a group of fellow singers and discovering that the guest star of the convention is stood next to you singing along!

  2. I don’t think I’ve read any fantasy stuff but I’ve read lots of science fiction. I guess I can see how they could get confused since both are based on imaginary worlds, but like you said science fiction has science in it. That’s what makes it more interesting to me.

  3. Well the sub genres are trying to save the Sci-fi/Fantasy genres by naming them paranormal romance, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, alternate history science fiction… etc.

    People sometimes give me weird looks when I say that I read sci-fi/fantasy, like I stamped DORK on my forehead but so many authors are being overlooked because of the stigmatization of the genre.

    When someone asks me to recommend a book to them at the bookstore, I always mention a science fiction book and then they give me a face and I have to stand on my soap box to defend the genre! and btw, awesome picture!

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