Fantasy or Science Fiction? Special Guest Post By Don Hartshorn
I'm still learning a lot about the writing profession, but one of the things I have learned is that you encounter some absolutely ace people!! From book bloggers to publishers to really supportive readers to incredibly talented fellow authors, this industry is full of some amazingly lovely folk... so I've no idea why I've allowed this cranky curmudgeon to do a guest post.
Joke!! Don is one of the very best and nicest people I have had the fortune of meeting since joining the ranks of TCK Publishing, and the extremely talented author of blistering legal thriller The Guilty Die Twice (you can get your hands on it here). Like me, Don also dabbles in other genres, and I'm honoured to present here Don's thoughts on a debate that has been raging longer than the battle for the Iron Throne: what exactly is the difference between fantasy and sci-fi??
Fantasy or Science Fiction?
Hello! Don Hartshorn here, a guest blogger in Jon Richter’s territory. Before I get too far, don’t forget his latest, London 2039: Auxiliary, available in May. Buy early, buy often!
I write legal thrillers, but I have a very long history of devouring sci-fi and fantasy. To establish my street cred, I saw Star Wars in theaters 3 times in the Summer of 1977. And, yes, it was Star Wars, only Star Wars, not ‘A New Hope.’ So don’t ‘new hope’ me, I paid $2.25* a ticket each time, precious coin for a kid, I remember everything. It was ‘Star Wars,’ and Han shot first. I own the first edition of the Silmarillion. I convinced a friend to buy the first issue of Heavy Metal off the newsstand so I could read comics with boobs too. I read all the Foundation books. I read all the Xanth books. I started collecting comics when most of them were still bi-monthly, and you didn’t even know that comics used to be published every other month. You get the idea, I’ve enjoyed both genres for quite a while.
Given my love of sci-fi and fantasy, it troubles me when I hear people squabble about something NOT being sci-fi. Or sci-fi enough. Or something NOT really being a fantasy because it doesn’t have elves in it. I’ve given this some thought over the years, and I’ve come up with a theory about the difference between sci-fi and fantasy, which has nothing to do with the trappings or the tropes or conventions.
Sci-fi is about facts. Fantasy is about truth.
That’s it. There’s the difference. Thanks for coming by!
… What? You want more? You need explanation? Examples? … okay… fine…
Think about what you know, in your bones, is sci-fi. Anything by Asimov, or Heinlein, to get old school. Or Orson Scott Card, or William Gibson, or James S.A. Corey, or John Scalzi. If you want to think movies, think Alien, Terminator, Blade Runner, The Martian, or Annihilation. What do these have in common? Facts. The world they examine is a factual world (or contra-factual), where the protagonists have to determine what the laws of their world are in order to make sense of it. And once they do have the facts, their world falls into line pretty quickly. And, for that matter, once the reader has all the facts, the story usually comes to an end in short order.
What about those works you know are fantasy. Tolkien, or Piers Anthony, or Terry Pratchett, or J.K. Rowling, or Helene Wecker? In movies think LOTR, or The Golden Compass, or The Endless, or The House with a Clock In Its Walls. What do these have in common? Truth. In their journey through their worlds, the characters in these stories are working towards an answer, not to how things work, but to how things should be. They can never have the truth, not a definitive truth because that would be a fact, and truth is relative. Who’s to say the wizarding world wouldn’t have run soooo much better with Voldemort in charge?
In a sci-fi story, once you know the rules, they’ll never change under you. Can a spaceship go faster than the speed of light? No, because nothing can. Fact. But can it bend spacetime a little to enter warp? Of course it can. And it’s not the only one, many spaceships can do the same thing. The rules are the same everywhere. Facts.
In a fantasy story, the rules aren’t written in stone. They’re not even whispered over water. Does the One Ring corrupt every bearer with Sauron’s spirit? Yes, almost immediately. Unless you’re a halfling, then Sauron’s corruption doesn’t work so well. Halflings might even live hundreds of years while possessing the ring and only get kind-of corrupted compared to everybody else. And why is that? Nobody really knows, just go with it. No facts, only relative truth.
So, if you’re trying to determine if a story is sci-fi or fantasy, try using the lens of facts vs. truth. Is Star Wars sci-fi? Think about it the conventional way and try to decide: well… it’s got spaceships. Sci-fi. But it also has magic people fighting with swords. Fantasy. Bad guys in vests shoot green people with ray guns. Sci-fi. Guys can wave their hands and make people think and say stuff. Fantasy. Uh… maybe both?
But if you think of Star Wars as facts vs. truth, you pretty quickly realize the story’s about the spirit of overcoming. In fact, Luke stops relying on technology and turns to his crazy desert-dwelling mentor’s wacky religion to take out the Death Star. Moral: if people rely on their connection with others and a higher purpose, they’ll win every time. Truth, not facts.
Many thanks to Jon for letting me kick over this particular anthill. It’s a fairly common discussion (argument) but I hope my contribution gets you thinking in a different direction. Don’t forget Jon’s newest, London 2039: Auxiliary, and if you have a moment, check out mine, The Guilty Die Twice.
* yes, that’s two dollars and twenty-five cents. I’m American.