I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy. I bet lots of you did, too. It’s become an enduring part of our culture, and I’m thankful for that. Kids today love fantasy and sci-fi franchises as much as other kids love sports and other hobbies. My middle school years were filled with strange looks and cautious questions about my choice of books and films, at least until Harry Potter hit the scene. But fantasy and sci-fi aren’t new. Generations of amazing, even genius speculative fiction writers came before us. These writers taught me how to travel to other worlds, and my world has been bigger and better for it.
Last night, I enjoyed a short story by one of my favorite authors: “The Last Question”, by Isaac Asimov. I’ve long admired his work, but when someone told me that he’d written a brilliant short story that deals with the same topic as a story I’m currently working on, I had to check it out. Not only was I dazzled, but it got me thinking. How come good, classic science fiction gives me this certain catharsis? And why does good fantasy feel different from good science fiction? Presentation aside, what is the difference between them?
There is a debate between the true meaning of ‘fantasy’ and ‘science fiction’. A teacher in my YA fiction class said it came down to ‘trees or rivets’, meaning a book with trees on the cover was fantasy, but metal rivets were a mark of science fiction. I don’t really agree. My favorite sci-fi series from the halcyon middle school years is Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, a science fiction series that carefully masquerades as fantasy. There are plenty of other works that blur the line, too. What about space operas that include magic? What about fantasy set in the far future? Does science fiction require space travel or aliens? Is it about the story structure, or maybe the tone?
Does the difference even matter?
You may be wondering where I’m going with this. I’m not really here to make a definitive statement on the differentiates these two cousin genres, but I do want to talk about the distinction that matters to me. As a kid, I noticed an intangible difference in tone and purpose that I struggled to put words to. Fantasy stories took me on grand adventures, and they just so happened to include magic and dragons. Science fiction stories made me think. That, I think, is why I preferred science fiction, even though I’ve grown into a fantasy writer. I’m not trying to say sci-fi is smarter, or that fantasy can’t make the reader think. But to me, there was a trend that gave these two genres entirely different flavors.
As an adult, I think I’ve put my finger on the difference that my younger self couldn’t find. Thinking back on the roots of each genre and to the writers who codified them, I found a pattern that made sense to me. I thought about writers like Tolkien, Asimov, Herbert, Verne, and Lewis. To put it simply, fantasy stories talk about the real world. They do it through metaphor and abstract imagery, but fantasy is filled with reality. Science fiction, at least at its roots, asks us questions. The answer isn’t always there, but the question shines through. It may be a question about the current state of humanity or where we’re going in the future, but it’s a question just the same.
Sure, there is crossover. These ideas aren’t rigidly limited to one genre or the other, or even to these two. But I believe these are the soul of fantasy and science fiction. Both were formative to my tastes and worldview, and both have given me countless adventures.
I want to thank the science fiction gene and its incredible writers for asking me those questions. Thank you Asimov for asking me about the value of human knowledge. Thank you Verne for asking me about humanity’s potential. Thank you Herbert for asking me about the importance of resources, and how to ethically use them. Thank you all for teaching me about the importance of our world, our selves, and our future. Science fiction made me future-minded, taught me to think critically, and made me care about where we are going.
I’ve named classic writers, but I know there are a thousand new science fiction writers who may shine just as brightly. I hope you ask me powerful questions, too. Even if you don’t give me the answers. Sometimes, that’s even better.
Don’t worry, fantasy lovers. I’ll write a love letter to fantasy another day. For now, as I grapple with the infinite possibilities proposed by that little short story that I discovered last night, my mind is on the stars.
Thanks, Sci-fi. You helped make me who I am. Never stop exploring.