Surface

Genres are sets of expectations. They are markets for people wanting more of the same, with mild variations for novelty. The genres of fantastic fiction provide a little less repetition than other genres, and a little more novelty. This is a natural consequence of all other genres being limited to the present and to accepted history, with hardly any deviation larger than a fictional corporation.

The repetition in fantastic fiction takes the form of commonplace ideas: vampires, time travel etc. Many of these are real. 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 and familiar.

The “weird tale”, which exists on the border between fantasy and science fiction, 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.

Commonality

We normally expect both magic and advanced technology to work by author fiat, with very similar results in both genres. Luke Skywalker's lightsaber 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.

Also in both genres, extrapolation is applied heavily to fictional premisses. Tolkien's rings are useful tools with consistent properties, not mere MacGuffins. In hard science fiction, advanced technology is distinguishable from magic and derived entirely by extrapolation, but this subgenre has fallen into obscurity under the domination of motion pictures. In general, science fiction as a literature of elegant causality is also diminished since the advent of cyberpunk in the 1980s: Science has shown our universe to be messy and non-deterministic at many scales, despite our intuitive beliefs.

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.

Despite these commonalities, as well as constant revisions of our predictions about the future and deliberate attempts to blur old lines and draw dual audiences, a meaningful distinction 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 science fiction different from earlier literature. This is still true in the sort of writing that wins awards, but required 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. Scientific experiments tell us that 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.

We write about people because we are naturally self-interested. 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. 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”.

Conclusion

Fantasy literature puts our unrestrained imagination to the service of human self-congratulation. Because it does not pretend to show the possible, it isn't harmful, but 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, science fiction—like science—should be counterintuitive and unflattering in its unrestrained use of the imagination. It should be about something other than ourselves.

In the literary landscape, science fiction shares a border with fantasy because of its freedom to imagine. It shares a second border with nature writing. In science fiction, we may see characters in the foreground singing the praises of motherhood and apple pie but, crucially, the universe won't listen. The characters are there to make available the true subject, whether it be a new mode of social organization, an alternate history, an alternate set of natural laws, or any conceivable other idea. 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 and letting in natural light.

Examples

Some “true” science fiction under the definition outlined above: