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.

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 we had almost universally assumed we were the centre of life.

Of course, humans do not read about humans out of biological interest alone. 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 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 premises. Heinlein’s ring in Between Planets (1951) is a MacGuffin, a somewhat arbitrary object of interest to the characters but not so much to the reader, and it is the same with Tolkien’s rings in The Lord of the Rings (1954); in both cases the rings are useful tools with consistent properties beyond mere plot tokens. 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 naturally assert an illusory superiority. For example, almost 80% of drivers rate themselves as better than average.4 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.

People with such illusions breed more. We have therefore built a culture that supports our illusions. The very lack of artificial constraint that pushes fantastic fiction toward novelty also pushes it further inward, toward our illusory superiority and centrality. 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 the wrong places.

Psychologists have a phrase for people with a clearer view of reality. They are the mildly depressed. The practice of science requires and fosters an inhuman perspective, a poison to illusion. This is a wonderful thing even if the illusions seem pleasant, and 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.

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.

Unlike fantasy, SF shares a second border with nature writing. Science fiction is not about people. Where fantasy literature is intuitive and flattering, SF is counterintuitive and unflattering in its equally unrestrained use of the imagination.

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 the characters in the foreground singing the praises of motherhood and apple pie, but in science fiction, the universe is not on their side.

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