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The Nature of Science Fiction and Fantasy Part 2

If ‘science fiction’ is storytelling that relates to or makes use of scientific method — basically, separating the observer from the observed — ‘fantasy’ as a genre is different in nature partly because its origins predate scientific method. Ancient fantasy stories, all the way up to the Middle Ages, were written when the general view of the universe was so totally alien from our own that it almost reads like a piece of fiction itself.

Pre-science, the observer and the observed were not separated — indeed, a mediaeval thinker might have had difficulty with the distinction made between them today. What was observed, according to prevalent philosophies, was a created world — a cosmic story, written in the stars and stones by supernatural means, centring on the adventures of human beings. Nature — the observed world of phenomena — was a sub-set of a much larger cosmos, about which we knew very little. Nor were we supposed to know more than we did: divine mysteries were part of the experience of living, pagan or otherwise.

This is a very different way of looking at reality than our own. In this worldview, the universe was not an endless empty space, racing away from us at the speed of light, but a closed and ultimately comfortable haven, if you were in harmony with it.

What we get in fantasy, then — at least, older fantasy (we’ll examine modern fantasy shortly) — is a world which is often unrecognisable culturally to our own, in which human beings and physical materiality have a relationship unlike the relationship they have for us in contemporary society. In the worldview which gave rise to fantasy, the human being is an object in a chain of being with other objects, a created entity, manipulated, shaped, at the mercy in one way or another of godlike or supernatural beings — in Christianity, these beings were mainly benevolent towards humanity. In fantasy, the nature of the world is that it is alive; the universe is full of resonant meaning, even if we as lowly humans don’t grasp most of it; the laws of physics (as far as they are ever delineated in such stories) can be circumvented or adapted or broken by magic or miracle at moment’s notice, usually by sentient and spiritual beings.

In most older fantasy, then, outer space is Heaven, a place desired and the home of all desire; human society is based on spiritual principles; human relationships are subject to divine regulation (morality) in some way, and so on. The subjective nature of human life is not a mote of dust in an objective universe as in our modern worldview: human individuals have a special worth and meaning, being made ‘in the image of God’.

Dystopias, a common occurrence in science fiction, hardly arise in the fantasy genre because of these different underlying fundamentals: the life of a human being is a vastly significant thing in a loving universe. Classic and mediaeval fantasies assume that their audiences are as aware of these principles in the same way that science fiction tales assume an acceptance of vacuous meaninglessness at the root of existence in modern audiences.

Modern Fantasy

Modern fantasy draws on these foundations: so we find, in modern popular culture, the fantasy genre predominantly features settings of a mediaeval or classic nature and the events and plots are based on mediaeval or classic predecessors.

The rise of modern fantasy is commonly accepted to begin with the work of George MacDonald in the late 19th century, whose stories had such a powerful effect on C. S. Lewis in particular, and thence on the group known as the Inklings, which included Tolkien. The rest is history — Lewis and Tolkien wrote the genre-resurrecting works which sparked the whole modern movement.

Part of this modern fascination for fantasy, though, could be said to also be to do with the rise of the scientific method and its resulting separation of observer and observed.


What happens when you make such a separation is primarily two things: you get a much better understanding of and mastery of the physical universe, enabling an explosion of technologies designed to improve the physical lives of human beings; and you get a strange and long-lasting spiritual disaffection, as the formerly ‘connected’ human beings start to perceive themselves as disaffected ghosts, mere chemical reactions in a vast and inhuman universe. You get a society capable of sending people to the Moon or replacing an organic heart with a bionic machine; but you get genocide and psychological manipulation on a grand scale.

In the 1960s, as the material affluence of human societies reached a point where leisure became available to the bulk of the population, many younger readers, soaked in the science fiction pulp stories which had flooded the prior decade, reached for a new kind of fiction, one which spoke of more meaningful eras, kinder values, deeper significances: and this was the time when the works of Lewis and Tolkien became hugely popular.

That popularity spawned imitations. Before the ‘60s were over, the bookshops were flooded with a new kind of speculative fiction, most of it drawing on tropes established by Tolkien and Lewis (who had both in turn drawn on earlier works) but with an emphasis on entertainment rather than deeper spiritual themes. It was as though the population was starved for what the fantasy genre had to offer, so hungry that they were very willing to consume even less satisfying forms because those same stories at least took place in worlds where magic and gods and miracles and unearthly creatures existed.

In essence, part of the strength of much modern fantasy rests in its escapism from scientific materialism.

Both genres, then, could be said to owe their existence, or at least their huge popularity, to the scientific worldview: science fiction uses that worldview as a basis for storytelling in worlds which are founded upon it; fantasy adopts a different worldview which to some degree rejects scientific materialism and draws on other foundations.

In science fiction, the observer and the observed have a particular kind of separated relationship: people build time machines and spaceships and weapons and devices and societies of various kinds and we get fictional narratives from all these adventures.

In fantasy, the observer and the observed have a different kind of not-quite-so-separated relationship: people use magic and conjure spells and discover arcane weapons and devices and live in societies which echo a pre-separation past and we get fictional narratives from their adventures too.

In science fiction, anything resembling ‘magic’ tends to be explained as an advanced science; in fantasy, ‘science’ has not usually arisen because the connection between human beings and the physical world is still an intimate one.

In science fiction, mystery and meaning need to be understood objectively — mental powers like telepathy, for example, are ‘psionic’ and can be achieved through ‘training’ by almost anyone, given the right conditions; in fantasy, any attempt to create a kind of dispassionate ‘objectivity’ is usually the work of sinister forces — mental powers are a sign that someone is more sensitive to deeper realities, a senior kind of being in a universe that tends to be hierarchical in nature.

These are generalities, of course, but they hopefully illuminate some realities about the two genres.

Part of the success of the Star Wars franchise back in the 1970s, for example, was that it took what was outwardly a science fiction universe — full of spaceships and blasters and alien creatures — and apparently embellished it with some fantasy tropes: a mystical, life-enhancing ‘Force’, glowing swords and wise old wizards. Part of the upset when the original trilogy’s prequels came out years later was that creator George Lucas, perhaps influenced by the scientific materialism of the modern age, attempted to rationalise the mystical Force as a byproduct of microscopic ‘midi-chlorians’ in the blood. These tiny entities were clarified to be intelligent life forms that resided within the cells of all living organisms, forming a symbiotic relationship with their hosts and through which the Force spoke, allowing certain beings to use it if they were sensitive enough to its powers. The mixture of science fiction and fantasy had to be carefully managed: in order to gauge an individual's potential in the Force, blood tests were used to estimate the number of midi-chlorians within the subject's cells. The science fiction worldview thus suggests that anyone might be Force-sensitive, rather than ‘chosen’, as in a more hierarchical fantasy worldview. This distinction gets even blurrier when Anakin Skywalker is revealed as the apparently fatherless ‘Chosen One’, destined to ‘restore balance to the Force’, a motif which draws more from fantasy’s spiritual tropes than science-based ones.

Star Wars is an example of ‘science fantasy’ — a blend of tropes from both genres which of necessity walks a fine line between the empty, purely material worldview of separated observer and observed, and the radiant, spiritual worldview where the inner and the outer are intimately connected.

We’ll take a look at some of the implications of all this next time.


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