Nerd argues about distinction between fantasy and science fiction

Film at eleven

99% of what people write for people to enjoy is about people. We can’t get enough of ourselves. The exceptions lie mainly in non-fiction, but also in the best science fiction (SF). Fantasy and SF, the two main genres of fantastic fiction, are best distinguished by their alignment with human intuition or against it.

Now, to follow out this reasoning, what is the marvellous?—that which we do not understand. What is it that we really desire?—that which we cannot obtain.
The Count of Monte Christo (1844)


There is something unusual about early European rock art. It’s got very few people in the pictures. Most Stone-Age Europeans preferred depicting non-human animals, which makes sense. There are about 1.6 million described species on Earth. It would be a sign of terminal self-centredness for all rock art to be about just one of those species, but the early European stuff is an exception to what has become a general rule. For whatever reason, San rock art has more people, and so does art in general.

Past the Stone Age, humanity has come to stand at the centre of human culture with few further exceptions. Gilgamesh, for example, is two thirds a god, but is “celebrated more for his human achievement than for his relationship with the divine.”1 In Milton’s description, the gods of ancient Egypt are “disguised in brutish forms rather than human”,2 in contrast to the still-more human gods of ancient Greece and Christianity. Indeed, the tendency to write about people is almost religious. The actor Jarl Kulle once called actors a profane priesthood whose mission is to show what it means to be human.

On the Origin of Species (1859) was received as discovery because Europeans had assumed humans were the centre of life, but of course, humans do not read books about humans out of biological interest. Before Darwin, Copernicus’s work overturned the irrational assumption that we were the centre of the universe itself, but this, too, is just an epiphenomenon. A typical reader might say, “When I read something, I’m looking for me and my experience.”3 Nowadays, we are interested mostly in our own selves.

The cave walls of ancient Europe made poor mirrors. Novels make better mirrors. Lots of people pick literal mirrors over novels and avoid reading. Readers must be curious about something new, something more than their own familiar reflection. To read novels at all, they must be tuned to a fairly specific level of curiosity.

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. They share the freedom to imagine anything. 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. 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). Genre fantasies like Harry Potter can use time travel without being called SF. Space travel and robots were once the domain of science fiction, but now exist in reality.

Unlike the robots on a modern warehouse floor, a lightsaber in Star Wars (1977) is magical 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 distinction.

Shared realism

In fiction, we routinely recognize the real in things like inertia, vegetation and communication. This is because authors apply mimesis, the deliberate imitation of the real. The result is verisimilitude, similarity between fiction and truth. The median degree of that similarity is lower in fantastic fiction but it can’t drop very far, because readers have to start the reading process from their own knowledge.

Realism is not quite the same as verisimilitude or mimesis. Literary realism is the artistic conceit of presenting something as if it were real within the context of a fiction. For example, consider this passage from Japanese Literature (1955), about puppet theatre in the fantasy genre:

The tricks of the puppet-operator, such as having fire in the foxes’ tails as in Japanese ghost stories, were undoubtedly meant to capture the interest of the audience by their realism.

Adding fire to the tail of a puppet fox is not mimetic. It does not make the puppet look more like a real-world fox. Instead, adding the fire is an act of realism in the proper sense. It shows that the monster, while magical, is nevertheless real to the play’s other characters; it is real in the same way that the other characters are; they perceive it as real in the context of their lives; and the audience knows all this because the fox—with its fire—is presented in the same manner as the other characters. This realist conceit is necessary for the spectacle of the flame to “capture the interest of the audience”. The same thing happens everywhere in modern fantasy and science fiction.

A common form of realism in both genres is extrapolation. This is where the author arbitrarily sets up large fictional premises and works out how these premises affect the story, instead of continuing to make up more premises along the way. Robert Jordan made up the ground rules of a magic system for the Wheel of Time and worked out the consequences in detail over some 10,000 pages, like Larry Niven and other authors of science fiction who are more commonly associated with the method of extrapolation.

Cheaper tricks are also common to both genres. Heinlein’s ring in Between Planets (1951) is like Tolkien’s ring in The Lord of the Rings (1954): They are both MacGuffins, that is objects of interest to the characters and not the reader; they are tools the authors needed to sew up a plot; and yet they are both tools within their stories too. The two rings are put to reasonable uses in each story, as a result of extrapolation from consistent, fictional properties: Concessions to the universal need for verisimilitude.

Despite these profound commonalities, and deliberate attempts to blur superficial distinctions and draw dual audiences, a meaningful distinction between fantasy and SF can still be found elsewhere.

Science versus happiness

Barack Obama was once asked how his politics would change if humankind became aware of extraterrestrial intelligent life, without having made contact with it. With gallows-adjacent humour, he responded: “It wouldn’t change my politics at all because my entire politics is premised on the fact that we are these tiny organisms on this little speck, floating in the middle of space. The analogy I always used to use when we were going through tough political times, and I tried to cheer my staff up; I’d tell them a statistic that John Holdren, my science advisor, told me, which was that there are more stars in the known universe than there are grains of sand on the planet Earth.”4

Obama felt reassured by a clear view of the facts, and psychologists have actully found a relationship between happiness and the clarity of our view of the world. However, it is an inverse relationship. Experiments show that people who are mildly depressed exhibit the least bias in judging people’s performance and levels of control. Whether knowledge can induce this state of mild depression, however, is not so clear. It is our natural self-deception, not factual ignorance, that protects us from clinical depression.5

In the absence of depression, we naturally assert an illusory superiority. For example, almost 80% of drivers rate themselves as better than average.6 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. These natural biases might not make us happy, but we certainly weave them into our fiction.

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. Inhuman perspectives, 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.

Like the natural world it studies, science is a healthy corrective to some of our worst tendencies, including many of the things that make us unhappy. Regardless of its effects on our mood, 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. It is scientific experiments that tell us why we are built to expect flattery, and why we read books to look for ourselves.

Wishful thinking apparently raises our self esteem to the point that we more readily woo partners and invest in our children. People with the illusion of superiority are more confident and so they breed more. We have therefore built a population of wishful thinkers, and a culture that supports our illusions.

Because it does not have the limits of other fiction, fantastic fiction tends toward novelty. The same freedom also pushes fantastic fiction toward flattery, in support of our illusory superiority and centrality. This is why 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 in strange places.

Conclusion: A meaningful distinction

Fundamentally, fantasy is about people. It puts free imagination to the service of human self-congratulation. Where it pretends to show the possible, it’s harmful, and it does not gel with a scientific perspective.

Science fiction borders on fantasy and has a second border with nature writing. Where fantasy literature is intuitive and flattering, science fiction—like science—is counterintuitive and unflattering in its equally unrestrained use of the imagination. In every other way, the two genres now look similar.

Science and mild depression suppress our natural tendencies toward wishful thinking and narcissism. This seems to prevent many serious ills. The practice of science requires and fosters an inhuman perspective, a poison to illusion. Because it takes that perspective, SF is frequently irreverent and creepy, unlike fantasy. It is a literature of ideas, capable of prying open comforting faith to let in natural light.

The subject of a science fiction story may be a mode of social organization, a new species, an alternate history, a set of natural laws, a numinous chain of reasoning, and so on. Human characters in SF are not subjects, but tools of mimesis: They make the subject available to a human audience. Therefore we may see people in the foreground singing the praises of motherhood and apple pie, but in science fiction, the universe is not on their side.


Some high-grade SF under the definition outlined above:

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

  2. John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667/1674). Milton also suggests that humans walk upright because they are sapient and created to look like the gods. 

  3. Spoken by an interview subject in Elizabeth Long, “Women, Reading, and Cultural Authority: Some Implications of the Audience Perspective in Cultural Studies” (1986). Compare the subtitle of Glory Edim’s Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves (2018), mixing Long’s observation with identity politics. 

  4. Barack Obama on The Ezra Klein Show podcast, 2021-06-01. 

  5. This last part is not a mainstream view. For a summary of it, see for instance its proponent Robert Sapolsky, interviewed on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, 2024-01-20. 

  6. McCormick et al., “Comparative Perceptions of Driver Ability: A Confirmation and Expansion” (1986), available here