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 very 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 It as if we’ve gotten more self-centered over time. In Milton’s description, the gods of ancient Egypt are “disguised in brutish forms rather than human”,2 in contrast to the 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. 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 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 distinction.

Shared realism

Conditioned by bad writing, some people infer that realism must be absent wherever magic or made-up technology is present, but the real is prevalent in all fantastic fiction. Points of contact with the reader’s world, be they vegetation, 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 hard SF, advanced technology is distinguishable from magic and derived entirely by extrapolation, but there is still much in common between fantasy and hard SF. In both, realistic extrapolation is applied to large fictional premises. 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, yet they are both tools put to reasonable uses in each story, as a result of their consistent, made-up properties. Despite these commonalities, constant revision of our predictions, and deliberate attempts to blur old lines and draw dual audiences, a meaningful distinction between fantasy and SF can be found elsewhere.

Science versus happiness

Barack Obama once got the question how his politics would change if humankind became aware of extraterrestrial intelligent life, without having made contact with it. Here’s his answer:

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

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. Obama says that some on his staff were cheered by the stars-to-sand statistic. They may have taken it as a joke.

Psychologists have found a relationship between happiness and the clarity of our view of the world. 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.

In the absence of depression, we naturally assert an illusory superiority. For example, almost 80% of drivers rate themselves as better than average.5 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. Whether these natural biases make us happy is, again, not so clear.

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. Perspectives like John Holdren’s, 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.

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 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.

A meaningful distinction

I propose that SF and fantasy share only the freedom to imagine anything.

Fantasy is that literature which 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.


Fundamentally, science fiction is not about people. The subject of SF 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. The characters in SF make this 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.

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. It is a literature of ideas, capable of prying open 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. 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. McCormick et al., “Comparative Perceptions of Driver Ability: A Confirmation and Expansion” (1986), available here