Most science fiction is actually a blend of scientific fiction and fantasy.

Quentin Cooper, looking over a top 100 sci-fi movie list which has many questionable entries, ponders this question: BBC – Future – Why is science fiction so hard to define?.

Time Out, the weekly listings magazine, recently ranked the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time. They did it by polling 150 “leading sci-fi experts, filmmakers, science fiction writers, film critics and scientists” and getting them to each provide their 10 favourites.

As lists go it’s a decent one. It’s hard for me to take issue with a top three of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Alien. Especially as my not-quite-four-year-old is named Hal partly after the homicidal computer in 2001. If we’d had a girl it was toss-up between Pris and Ripley.

Once you begin to get away from the top though, things soon get less clear cut.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil – their number seven – is my all-time favourite film (or at least it is most days) but I don’t think there’s much science amid the dystopian fantasy. Go one place higher – and for all its spaceships and robots and aliens, Star Wars is essentially a hi-tech fairy tale, with Luke Skywalker a space-faring Harry Potter figure using the magic of the force to battle evil Darth Voldemort.

Cooper goes on to look at past attempts to define science fiction.  Personally, I think science fiction is relatively easy to define.  It is speculative stories that we can’t rule out as impossible.  The problem is that few stories appear to fit this definition.  And I think this is because much of what we commonly call science fiction is a blend of scientific fiction and outright fantasy.

As Cooper mentions, Star Wars is straight fantasy, but it is  usually categorized as science fiction because it looks like science fiction, with spaceships, robots, and lots of machinery all around.  I’m a big fan of Star Wars, but the writers and producers make no apologies for having their spaceships move more like airplanes and aircraft carriers than actual spaceships.  Indeed, most of us groaned when Star Wars attempted to give a pseudo-scientific explanation for the Force (midichlorians), the most obvious element of outright magic in the franchise.

I think Star Trek, at least in many of its TV incarnations, is more science fiction than fantasy, but it largely is a blend of both.  Many of the fantasy elements were added by Gene Roddenberry as compromises to make a weekly TV show work (warp drive, transporters, humanoid aliens, artificial gravity that never fails, etc), but they’re there all the same and have only become progressively more dug in over the years, even though the original need for many of them is now gone.

Hard science fiction in TV and movies is exceedingly rare.  The most obvious example is ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, a movie that, aside from geeks and Kubrick aficionados, is usually found to be too uncompromising for casual viewers.

On the other hand, hard science fiction remains a strong category in science fiction literature.  But even literary hard science fiction is rarely “diamond” hard.  I’m a big fan of, and highly recommend, Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space series, which is usually lauded as hard science fiction space opera.  But even Reynolds takes some liberties to keep the stories interesting, such as having his 1g starships powered by a mysterious secret technology that turns out to involve time wormholes.

Of course, almost all fiction has fantasy to some degree, either in the way people behave, the capabilities of tools, or in how nature works.  We don’t read fiction because we want cold hard reality.  If we wanted that, we’d just read non-fiction.  Most of us read fiction because it’s usually more fun than the non-fiction alternatives.  In that light, it makes complete sense that science fiction authors incorporate fantasy elements into their stories.

All of this is to say that there’s no bright line separating science fiction from fantasy.  It’s more of a continuum, with stories from Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke being much closer to the science fiction ideal, and stories from J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis being much closer to the fantasy ideal, with a vast sea of material in between.

And the real difference between the genre of science fiction and the genre of fantasy is that one typically has spaceships and machinery, while the other typically has dragons and magic.  Fantasy with spaceships will typically get categorized as science fiction, and medieval fiction with rigorous science for its “magic” is likely to still get put in the fantasy section of the bookstore.

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10 Responses to Most science fiction is actually a blend of scientific fiction and fantasy.

  1. Are Warp Drives and Transporters (teleporters) fantasy? Warp Drives are theoretically possible (the Alcubierre Drive) and they’ve built (admittedly limited) teleporters already.

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    • Good questions. It depends on who you ask. When Roddenberry came up with warp drive, it pretty much was just hand waving to explain interstellar travel (similar to hyperspace). Alcubierre came up with his concept decades later, and physicists disagree on how feasible it is. (There is a NASA scientist researching the physics, so we might know more in a few years.)

      From what I’ve read, the transporter, at least as described in Star Trek, is fantasy. I don’t recall the exact figures, but the amount of information that would have to be transmitted would take longer than the age of the universe by many magnitudes. If you grant the existence of subspace and the ability to do calculations and transmission faster than light, then it could be possible. But it was put in the series to save the cost of having to show shuttle landings, which is why the show rarely and only lightly touched on the full implications of it. (Think bottle sized starships with crew in storage, backups of people taken prior to dangerous missions, etc.)

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  2. Brett says:

    I think the best definition of Science Fiction is a thematic one, with it being stories built around exploring the implications of futuristic technology, events, and settings. You can try and point to stuff that technically isn’t ruled out by the laws of physics, but it’s still pretty speculative technology and often rather fantastic. It’s best not to make that your dividing line IMHO.

    That helps to distinguish it from “fantasy” stories, which have a broader variety of themes. I’d call Star Wars “Space Fantasy” instead of “Science Fiction”, because while it has spaceships and advanced technologies its themes and essence are those of fantasy stories.

    Of course, we could just dispense with the efforts to define genre and just call it all “Speculative Fiction”, since that’s what it really is.

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    • I like the “space fantasy” label. I do think the sub-genre labels are useful, primarily because, while I don’t mind watching space fantasy movies (or more accurately I’m resigned to them), I usually prefer not to read those types of novels. I’d rather spend my time on hard(ish) science fiction. (I do read some fantasy, but it’s more the explicit fantasy stuff.)

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      • Brett says:

        Me too. I’m a little surprised that “Space Fantasy” isn’t more common, because it’s a useful guide for describing stuff like that. Plus it allows for similar descriptors for other movies – Event Horizon and Alien were Space Horror, for example.

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  3. Margaret Atwood dislikes being called an SF writer, despite the fact that her novels are realistic, though often set in dystopian futures with some speculation about science and technology.

    From her point of view, the scientific stuff has very little to do with the story. Rather, she writes speculative fiction about social issues.

    Just another example of how it is difficult to categorise.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Atwood#Atwood_and_science_fiction

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  4. Pingback: The definition of the science fiction genre | SelfAwarePatterns

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