It’s not surprising that humankind stands at the centre of human culture, but it is surprising that there are so few exceptions to the rule. The ideal holds in every socio-economic class and in every era. Gilgamesh, though two thirds a god, is “celebrated more for his human achievement than for his relationship with the divine.”1 The same holds true beyond literature. The actor Jarl Kulle once called actors a profane priesthood whose mission is to show what it means to be human.

A typical reader might say, “When I read something, I’m looking for me and my experience.”2 This invites the question why readers pick books over mirrors. They must be curious about something new: something other than themselves.

Genres are markets for people with such a specific level of curiosity: People who want more of the familiar and a little novelty. The genres of fantastic fiction tend to be higher in novelty as a natural consequence of having fewer limits. Other genres forbid what is required in the genres of fantastic fiction: deviations from accepted history, larger than a fictional corporation.

Foreground motifs

Much of the repetition in fantastic fiction takes the form of commonplace ideas like vampires and time travel. Some such motifs exist in reality. Space travel is no longer the sole domain of science fiction. In a 1989 interview, Orson Scott Card joked that “fantasy has trees, and science fiction has rivets”. This is a difference that we can immediately observe on book covers and movie posters. It’s marketable because it’s superficial.

The superficial distinctions are not central. SF like Blindsight (2006) can posit that vampires are predatory hominids, not the magical creatures of Dracula (1897). Fantasy like Harry Potter (2004) can use time travel without being called SF.

A lightsaber in Star Wars (1977) is a magical sword for all intents and purposes. Asking how it works, whether in scientific terms or in the context of the imaginary world, is equivalent to asking the same question about Excalibur. We normally expect both magic and advanced technology to work by author fiat with very similar results in both genres.

The “weird tale”, on the border between fantasy and SF, is marked by its aversion to the commonplace motifs. In order to be suggestive, it must eschew the most recognizable and therefore most familiar features of either genre, but this distinction by the absence of superficial markers is necessarily a superficial one.

Shared realism

Conditioned by terrible scripts, some people infer from the presence of magic or made-up technology that realism must be absent, but the real is prevalent in all fantastic fiction. Points of contact with the reader’s world, be they plants, communication or mass, are necessary to make a fantastic setting comprehensible and accessible—particularly as entertainment—even if the story is not about people.

In both fantasy and SF, realistic extrapolation is applied heavily to fictional premisses. Tolkien’s rings are useful tools with consistent properties, not mere MacGuffins. In hard SF, advanced technology is distinguishable from magic and derived entirely by extrapolation, but this subgenre has fallen into obscurity under the domination of motion pictures.

Despite these commonalities, and constant revision of our predictions, as well as deliberate attempts to blur old lines and draw dual audiences, a meaningful distinction between fantasy and SF can be found elsewhere.

Science versus wishful thinking

Hugo Gernsback, the editor credited with inventing the term “science fiction”, wanted 25% science in the stories submitted to his magazine. Science, not lightsabers, made SF different from earlier literature. This is still true in the sort of writing that wins awards, but requiring scientific knowledge is a barrier to entry for the uneducated. When film replaced paper as the premiere medium of popular entertainment, the capital intensity of the new medium led producers to avoid such barriers. Science content was marginalized, but science is more than a body of knowledge, and therefore not always a barrier.

Above all, science is the most useful set of methods we have for finding truth. Using these methods, we humans have gotten to know ourselves better than we can through fiction alone. Scientific experiments tell us why we are built to expect flattery. Our natural perception of ourselves is distorted by the need to maintain and enhance self esteem. We exaggerate our contributions to a group effort and we are skeptical and forgetful of negative feedback. We attribute our failures to others or to random chance. The average human being literally believes herself to be better than the average human being, because people with this belief breed more.

We write about people because we are naturally self-interested. The work of Copernicus and Darwin was received as discovery because we had assumed we were the centre of the universe and of life, respectively. The very lack of artificial constraint that pushes fantastic fiction toward novelty also pushes it further inward, toward wishful thinking. We get a lot of epic fantasies and space operas about Campbellian heroes, celebrating human potential and—by extension—the reader or viewer looking for herself.

The genes that make us appreciate such flattery have carried their weight. A distorted, selfish view of reality makes us more noticeable, more bold, and hence more likely to achieve reproductive success. Psychologists have a phrase for people with a clearer view of reality. They are the mildly depressed.

A meaningful distinction

Fantasy is that literature which puts imagination to the service of human self-congratulation. Where it pretends to show the possible, it’s harmful, and it does not mix with a scientific perspective. Above all, the practice of science requires and fosters an inhuman perspective, shorn of pleasant illusions. This is a wonderful thing, even as a basis for literature.

Like the natural world it studies, science is a healthy corrective to our natural tendency toward wishful thinking and narcissism. Where fantasy is intuitive and flattering, SF is counterintuitive and unflattering in its unrestrained use of the imagination. It can be about something other than ourselves. Its characters make available the true subject, whether it be a mode of social organization, a new species, an alternate history, a set of natural laws, a numinous chain of reasoning, or any conceivable other idea.

In the literary landscape, SF shares a border with fantasy because of its freedom to imagine. It shares a second border with nature writing. In SF, we may see characters in the foreground singing the praises of motherhood and apple pie but, crucially, the universe won’t listen. Science fiction is not about people. For this reason, the genre frequently seems irreverent and creepy. It is a subversive literature of ideas, capable of prying open every comforting faith to let in natural light.


Some high-grade SF under the definition outlined above:

  1. Andrew George, The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (1999), page xxxiii (introduction). 

  2. Spoken by an interview subject in Elizabeth Long, “Women, Reading, and Cultural Authority: Some Implications of the Audience Perspective in Cultural Studies” (1986).