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The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

A few years ago, I was asked for my thoughts on the difference between science fiction and fantasy, partly because of the release of Tempest: The Inner Circle Writers' Group Science Fiction and Fantasy Anthology 2019. I wrote about this back in 2018, just as two earlier anthologies were coming out, and this article sums up my thinking pretty well, so here it is again:

Let’s wade into the minefield of discussion about the differences between science fiction and fantasy. Just for amusement. And because, at this writing, some are asking about those differences as they apply to the two Inner Circle Writers’ Group anthologies, Galaxy and Storm.

Firstly, a kind of confession: I designed the Storm anthology and its guidelines around the idea of ‘eucatastrophe’ for a reason. Tolkien defined ‘eucatastophe’ as the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible and probable doom. It might sound a little esoteric, but it’s actually the way 90% or more of stories usually end. I call that kind of story either an Epic or a Comedy. The hero triumphs; the forces of Good win the day; the girl gets the boy; laughter and harmony succeed, and so forth. Stories which don’t end that way - i.e. they finish on some note of disaster, doom, death (and other words starting with ‘d’) - I call Tragedies and Ironies. You can read much more about those genres and how they fit together (and a whole lot more) in my book How Stories Really Work. But the reason I specified that I prefer eucatastrophic stories for Storm was because I wondered if writers would be able to produce them.

Why? Because we live in an Ironic age. This is the age of materialism: science is dominant, matter is all, space is empty. When we look up at the sky, we see an endless, dizzying void slowly decaying into entropic chaos; when we examine things microscopically, we see non-particles which might not even be there. It wasn’t always that way: people used to look up into the night sky and see a finite vault, an immense, stabilising and beautiful clockwork machine in which everything above the orbit of the Moon was in perfect musical harmony, and beyond which lay Heaven and God and eternal bliss and salvation. And when they looked at small things, they saw objects ‘kindly enclyning’ to each other as they yearned after that same Heaven - they saw a ladder of elements leading all the way to God.

‘But that version of reality wasn’t true,’ I hear some of you say. ‘We know better now.’

I’m not particularly talking about Truth (though I perhaps could). I’m talking about the framework in which our culture operated then and operates now. Inside that cultural framework, stories are written. We shifted from a broadly Epic framework, which contained an ordered world and included angels, faeries, the music of the spheres and Heaven itself, to a broadly Ironic one which contained a chaotic universe in which order itself was a mirage and Life a chemical accident. Whether or not either one of these versions of the universe is objectively ‘true’ doesn’t affect the fact that within each a whole set of parameters developed regarding what constitutes a story. In the time of the Epic, stories were about noble knights defeating evil dragons to rescue virtuous princesses (and a whole lot more, but that’s the general cultural perception); in our time of Irony, despairing anti-heroes are overwhelmed by emptiness in their quest for self-annihilation - again, that’s a broad perception, but you get the idea. Hollywood makes billions because it sometimes successfully super-imposes the Epic over the Ironic (think Marvel Cinematic Universe), but the general cultural trend is towards the material and ‘scientific’ conception of things: i.e. that everything started with a big bang and is heading for a big collapse, with everything in between being hopelessly meaningless.

Against this background, I wondered, would writers rise to the challenge and be able to produce counter-cultural short stories: stories which capture something of the nature of Providence and Epic by having that eucatastrophic ‘turn’ in them? Storm, the fantasy anthology, revealed how successful some were.

That’s the confession out of the way. Back to the topic of science fiction versus fantasy. But in delineating that confession, you can probably see where this is going. The rise of ‘science fiction’ as a genre exactly parallels the rise of the Ironic cultural framework. Most people place the beginning of the genre in the early 19th century with works like Frankenstein, during the so-called Romantic period (it’s possible to argue that Romanticism was a cultural effort to try to side-step the rise of materialism). The point is that, as humanity came to rely more and more on the discoveries and developments arising from the breakthroughs in our understanding of the physical universe, so fiction came to draw on new parameters as well. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, the pulp authors of the 1930s and so on - they were all playing with the new framework of ideas which was growing like a shell around them: trips to the Moon or the centre of the Earth, time travel, alien invasion - these things would have been inconceivable a hundred years previously. Now, in the brave new world which science was outlining, authors explored the frontier of the imagination. Even as that frontier became darker, with science’s forays into genetics and human experimentation, robotics, inhuman psychology, artificial intelligence and even artificial life, stories became darker too: dystopias like 1984 and its many imitators grew in number.

Science fiction has its own spectrum: there are the happy adventure tales of noble space-knight-like characters battling the evil dragon-like cosmic emperors to rescue virtuous blaster-wielding princesses; and there are the dark, brooding and introverted works of Phillip K. Dick and many others. Plus everything in between. That’s why the Galaxy anthologies, devoted to science fiction (and fantasy), are still exciting ventures.

But fantasy, when it is at its best - what they call High Fantasy, which is what Storm was supposed to be all about - hearkens back to an earlier framework, or points outward to a Bigger Picture.

Think of it like this: the universe is an immense and wonderful stained glass window. Science and science fiction writers look at the structure of the window itself - how it is put together, what it does, how it works; the other way of looking at things, which gives rise to High Fantasy, looks through the window to see what’s outside.

Both have their merits; both have tremendous artistic power. That’s why Galaxy now combines both genres.

I hope that answers a few questions. If you have any more, please drop me a line.


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