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The Nature of Science Fiction and Fantasy Part 1

At this writing, I am on a ‘Le Guin binge’ — I recently completed Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind and am now reading The Left Hand of Darkness, which I last read sometime in the 1970s. In addition, I am struggling to complete some creative writing of my own, some of which I have been working on for almost 50 years. Both activities have flushed out an issue which has raised its head before and which probably merits further investigation, namely the difference between the genres of ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’. This issue in turn reveals even more fundamental questions about the nature of creativity in general.

Ursula K. Le Guin was an award-winning master of both genres: her Earthsea stories rank with the best in the fantasy genre and books like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed show a complete proficiency in science fiction. She seems able to step from one genre to the other and back again without missing a beat. This is partly because in all her stories the focus is on people, human beings in real situations, rather than on the exterior elements of either science fiction or fantasy — but somehow those elements are the stronger for it.

Back in the 1980s, I was working on a giant Masters thesis about the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Le Guin. I never completed it, but it was, amongst other things, an exploration of the roots of both genres and began to delve deep into the act of creating itself. Since then, I have written about this subject in various places, as I strive to pull together various fictional works of my own in some kind of cohesive way. Perhaps as a writer you feel the same way as I do: that the work of the great authors, those who have mastered their genres, apart from delighting us in various ways with their stories, also leave us templates, clues, trails, blueprints and treasures in terms of how to do what they do so that others can do the same. We all have to find our unique voices as artists, but the techniques and devices and approaches of master authors can help us to do so. It’s worth exploring their legacies.

However, as soon as we step through the wardrobe door, so to speak, we can find ourselves entering wholly unexpected dimensions.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Science fiction is standardly defined as a genre of speculative fiction, typically featuring imaginative and futuristic science and technology, space exploration, time travel, parallel universes, extraterrestrial life and so on. Thematically, some of it explores the potential consequences of scientific, social, and technological innovations, but a vast proportion of the genre exists purely to entertain. These standard definitions then wander ‘off-piste’ by suggesting that science fiction is an extension of earlier literature, going back to ancient times - not quite true, as we will see - and that it is related to fantasy, horror, and various other sub-genres. Functionally, the genre provides entertainment, while also being able to be critical of present-day society, as well as evoking a sense of ‘wonder’. Only a few critics notice that, as a distinct genre, its rise closely parallels that of the machine age, and that, prior to the Industrial Revolution and the movements in thought and philosophy which accompanied it, the character of speculative fiction is so different as to be almost unrelated to ‘science fiction’. If we strip away our familiarity with the name of the genre, it can give us further clues: ‘science fiction’ is storytelling that in some way relates to or makes use of that particular view of the world which is associated with scientific method, namely an approach to reality based on separating out the observer from the observed.

What we get in science fiction, then, is a world which is often recognisable culturally to our own, in which human beings and physical materiality have a relationship very much like the relationship they have for us in contemporary society — the physical world is an object, a thing to be mastered, manipulated, shaped, put into service in one way or another for human beings. In science fiction, the nature of the world is that it is inert; the universe is largely hollow and empty; the laws of physics can be circumvented or adapted or broken, but only by a superior set of laws which are of the same non-sentient and material kind. Instead of space, we have hyper-space; instead of electricity, we have ‘the Force’ - but the split between people and their environment remains more or less the same.

In most science fiction, then, outer space is a void which needs to be explored or feared; human society is based on materialistic principles; human relationships are subject to psychological manipulation, and so on. The subjective nature of human life is a mote of dust in an objective universe which is essential empty of personal meaning.

There are exceptions to these generalities, of course, but as a broad genre, this all holds true.

Dystopias arise regularly in the genre precisely because of these underlying fundamentals: if the life of a human being is a small and meaningless thing in a vast purely physical universe, societies can develop which simply magnify that asserted truth.

This gets even more fascinating when we look at fantasy as a genre and compare the two.

Fantasy is usually defined as a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe, frequently inspired by myth and folklore — i.e. by tales that are pre-scientific in origin. It’s usually distinguished from the genre of science fiction by the absence of science-orientated themes — but therein lies some wisdom about the difference between the genres. A great deal of fantasy begins with a totally different premise to that of science fiction: rather than centring itself on imaginative and futuristic science and technology, space exploration, time travel, and all the rest, fantasy commonly frames things around an older world view, one in which the universe is not primarily material but spiritual. Thematically, instead of looking at the potential consequences of scientific, social, and technological innovations as science fiction does, fantasy tends to tackle what we would now call ‘subjective issues’: the place of the individual in a structured society or in relation to the superhuman, forces like ‘magic’ or powers that appear to defy conventional physics and which indicate that the cosmos is not purely material.

Unlike science fiction, fantasy is an extension of earlier literature, going back to the very earliest stories told by human beings. It also provides entertainment, notably in the ‘sword and sorcery’ sub-genre and such groupings, which feature battles between brawny heroes and monstrous creatures and so forth, but tends not to focus on the criticism of present-day society, often because its stories are set in remote worlds, sometimes appearing not to be like our own — their focus is on character arcs and human truths, because these things act as the bridge to our contemporary framework as readers. Fantasy as well frequently evokes a sense of ‘wonder’ — but there’s more to this, as we will see.

As a distinct genre, looked at over the centuries, fantasy has experienced a decline rather than a rise. It could be argued that all stories used to be fantasies — centuries ago, all heroes were superhuman or even god-like, and plots featured miraculous events and magic as a matter of course. As the Industrial Revolution and its movements in thought and philosophy developed, these modes of thinking faded: the world, it seemed, was being slowly revealed to be a heartless machine, not only requiring fewer gods, but perhaps no God at all. One result was the rise of the novel, featuring ordinary people in more or less ordinary settings. Science fiction, in which humanity takes command of that soulless universe (or meets other creatures who have done so) gradually took over from pure fantasy as a form of speculative storytelling. It wasn’t until the second half of the Twentieth Century that fantasy as a genre made a strong reappearance, for reasons which will be examined next time.


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