Why Science Fiction and Fantasy Are Fundamentally Different

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 12, 2016

I’m endlessly annoyed that science fiction and fantasy are linked together in the public’s mind. Philosophically, they are polar opposites, Science fiction is the enemy of magic, and magic is the foundation of fantasy. These two forms of literature parallel two opposing philosophies of reality: science and religion. We all exist in one reality, but we have chosen to explain reality in two contradictory ways: evolution and magic. Religious fundamentalists understand this distinction, which is why they are so fervently opposed to evolution and science. If you understand evolution there is no need for God. If you understand the Christian theology, there is no need for evolution.

Most people try to incorporate both belief systems into their world view, but that only shows they don’t understand the profound and complete differences between the two. You can’t have God and Evolution as the primary creator of life on Earth. You can’t have Science and Magic. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart is an excellent example of science fiction. Because Randall Flagg is a driving force in The Stand by Stephen King, it makes that book a fantasy novel, even though it follows in Earth Abides footsteps. Once you add the supernatural (magic) to a story it can’t be science fiction, even if it’s using a standard science fiction concept and setting. I bring up these two books because they are both nominated in polls for the best science fiction books of all time. (And yes, I know many writers want to create hybrids, like All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.)

Earth AbidesThe Stand

Even though I don’t like that science fiction and fantasy are always lumped together, I can understand why. Most people want to believe in magic, but they accept science. That’s why they pray when they fly in an airplane. Most people are clueless to how their smartphone works, but they accept technology as magical. When folks go in for surgery they ask their friends to talk to God for them, even though the outcome depends on the surgeons’ scientific knowledge and evolutionary biology of the patient.

Magic is based on the power of the word. Magicians work by incantation. They learn their spells through study of arcane knowledge. God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. God creates with the power of words.  The person who wrote The Gospel of John understood that when he said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  When primitive people tried to understand how reality worked they came up with the logic of magic, and the power of words. That’s why magical spells are so important to magicians, they are imitating the power of God. It’s also why most religions disavow magic.

Science, which came very late in human development, assumes there is no magic, and words don’t create but describe. Science assumes everything can be explained through observing reality. Technology is applied science. Science assumes there are no magical beings, no magical forces, and no magic itself. For any story to be truly science fiction it must assume magic does not exist. For any story to be fantasy, magic is an integral part of its reality. That’s why Star Wars is fantasy, and not science fiction.

Stranger in a Strange LandStranger in a Strange Land Avon

Science fiction is far from perfect, and far from scientific. Probably one reason the public lumps science fiction and fantasy together, is all to often science fiction claims magical concepts can be scientific. A great example is Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. There were many science fiction writers in the 1950s that desperately wanted to believe in extrasensory powers. Writers and editors like John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, or Theodore Sturgeon, believed humans could evolve to have god-like powers, or possessed untapped psychic potential that could be developed. Heinlein proposed that Valentine Michael Smith was raised by ancient beings on Martians that taught him to use such powers. But is that science fiction or fantasy?  Mike essentially works miracles. Stranger in a Strange Land is an anti-science fiction novel. Heinlein even melds religion and God into his story. Some have claimed Heinlein was being satirical, but Heinlein also wrote essays about his beliefs in ESP, and even predicted science would prove the existence of the afterlife one day.

Childhood's End

I am working on the fourth edition of the Classics of Science Fiction and I’ve come up against a problem. The Stand by Stephen King is often cited in polls where fans vote for their all-time favorite science fiction novels. But how can a novel with a character like Randall Flagg be science fiction? But then, how can Stranger in a Strange Land or Childhood’s End be science fiction? One point in Heinlein and Clarke’s favor, is back then they believed ESP type powers would be scientifically provable in the future. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s there were theories about ESP, and scientists conducted experiments to detect latent psychic powers in humans. Others theorized that future species of mankind might evolve such powers. In the years since, science has not found a shred of evidence to support such theories, and we have to assume such wild talents are only fantasy. Yet many people still want to believe. Nearly all the powers of super-hero characters represent a desire for magic. We don’t like being ordinary and powerless, so we love stories with characters who have powers. Unfortunately, science fiction writers aren’t immune to such desires for magic.

Should I delete any novel from the Classics of Science Fiction list whose theories have been shot down by science since they were written? I doubt even Stephen King thought The Stand was science fiction when he wrote it. King is an exceptional storyteller, and uses whatever ideas are useful to forward a story, but I doubt if he’s concerned with their scientific validity. And probably many science fiction writers, if not most, choose story over science. But for me, I’ve always thought the essential quality of science fiction was theorizing about the scientifically possible. I want science fiction to be anti-magic. I read science fiction to imagine what’s possible for humans to create with science, and not with magic. But all too often, science fiction is corrupted by our desires, and we ignore our understanding of science.

Many of the stories from The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Star Trek in the 1950s and 1960s dealt with ideas we thought were science fictional back then, but after a half-century of scientific advances, should be seen as fantasy today. Isn’t it about time we begin discerning magic from science?

I’ve been watching the new miniseries, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, based on the novel by Susanna Clarke. That’s what inspired this insight into what distinguishes science fiction from magic.  Like the immensely popular Harry Potter stories, we enjoy tales where magic exists. But I wonder how many fans of fantasy actually believe magic is possible? We do know that all believers in the various world religions do believe in magic. They don’t like to call their miracles magic, and often abhor talk of Earthly magic, or even claim it sinful, but all scriptures about miracles work in the same way as stories about magic.

We science fiction fans need to learn to spot the use of magic in science fiction stories. No matter how much we love The Demolished Man or The Stars My Destination, and claim they are classics of science fiction, they are fantasy. But so is the matter transmitter in Star Trek and the time machine in the classic H. G. Wells novel. The main reason the public lumps science fiction and fantasy together is because we all want to believe in magic. More than likely, faster-than-light travel will prove to a magical idea, and words like hyperspace travel, warp drives and wormhole travel are just magical incantations by writers.

Which brings me back to my problem. Should I list The Stand in the Classics of Science Fiction list? Or other books that fans routinely think of as science fiction. For example, I can’t see why so many vote for Animal Farm by George Orwell in a science fiction poll, or Alice in Wonderland. By the way, I’m only talking about polls specifically for science fiction, and not polls for science fiction and fantasy books. I can make an editorial decision and just leave them off the list. Or I could list them in red. I’ve thought of listing any book that was never meant to be science fiction in red, and books that were legitimate attempts to be science fiction in the past, but are now obviously fantasy, in blue.


23 thoughts on “Why Science Fiction and Fantasy Are Fundamentally Different”

  1. Include, exclude, shift, invent new category, include, exclude, shift… The cycle seems a tad ridiculous? What’s the point of obsessive categorization? I am interested in good stories, and realistic science when necessary for an author’s aim. We would be discounting 90% of what is generally considered science fiction…. And of course, SF with different aims, fabulist, or metaphorically, or a darn good story in space would be discounted! Chop off PKD, all books with interstellar travel (magic), or aliens (haven’t met them yet, it’s all a magical guess), telepathy (magic!)…

    Seems like a useless exercise to me.

    1. I am sorry if I sound harsh but I am legitimately confused about what is accomplished? Why must we produce some definition and then retroactively proclaim “this is SF” and “this is not SF”? Because, definitions and conceptions evolve and we need to be cognizant of the evolution! That is part of what makes SF so fascinating, a constantly shifting idea of what is genre, what isn’t, whether something play with convention….

      1. Because without the distinction, we have no need of the label science fiction. We could call all stories fantasy. There is an intellectual challenge to writing science fiction if you think its different from fantasy. Joachim, if all you want is story, then yes, there’s no need of such distinctions. But if science fiction is to be a unique art form, and have a purpose, then we do need to be able to tell the difference between it and fantasy.

        I’m afraid that most readers will side with you Joachim, because good stories is what they seek. They don’t need to discern the difference. But I believe it’s important to tell science fiction from fantasy in the same way it’s important to tell the difference between science and pseudo-science.

        1. I don’t only want story, who said that? But, genres are by their very nature fluid! You have set off on some impossible and fruitless task that ignores the fact that ignores authorial intent. There are no firm definitions with other genres, and authors purposefully play with genre, and try to subvert genre…

          Almost all “science fiction” is pseudo-science (aliens, spaceships, etc) . To argue otherwise is ridiculous. Telling the future is pseudoscience, what makes you think humans have any scientific ability to do so?

          Childhood’s End is not scientific. How in the world is it? We haven’t found alien life, there’s telepathy (that’s a pseudoscience the last time I checked)…

          1. I agree that genre is fluid, and authors play with forms, and try to redefine standard definitions. But I also feel the essence of science fiction is still speculation based on scientific knowledge.

            But Joachim, don’t when you read a science fiction story ask yourself if the author’s idea is possible, could it happen in the future, is it an extrapolated trend we need to worry about now? When you read a story about possible life on Europa, doesn’t it make you wonder how much research and thought the author put into the story. Do you ever read a science fiction story and think the author has imagined something no one else has ever thought of before that might be true and could exist in reality – for example the heavy planet Hal Clement created?

            And aren’t you agreeing with me over Childhood’s End? When Clarke wrote it, I bet he thought such things might be possible, but do we now? I think there is fun judging current science fiction by how well it speculates, and it’s also equally fun to read old science fiction and judge how well its speculation has held up up over time. The War of the Worlds is a great example. It’s basic premise of an alien invasion is still valid. Now its speculation about life on Mars and how it got to Earth in the 19th century is no longer valid. Yet, I feel its truly a classic of science fiction.

            And I think Childhood’s End can be seen as failed speculation, but classic science fiction. Things get iffy when we think about Stranger in a Strange Land. I’m not sure Heinlein meant it to be science fiction. And even more problematic is The Number of the Beast. By then we know Heinlein is living in his old-man fantasies. I tend to think Stranger is a Heinlein power fantasy too. But I also think Stranger was meant to push the envelope of science fiction, like what you are talking about in a previous message. If all these stories are just variations of fantasy, then yes, making such distinctions is pointless.

          2. Ok, so, in essence, you simply want to identify “hard SF” from “not-hard SF”? If so, isn’t this already done? Why can’t the genre hold both scientifically driven and non-scientifically driven if the future speculation is of a different nature?

          3. Why add the adjective? Why can’t “science fiction” be a precise concept?

            Why use the word “science” in the label if there is no science in the story?

            When I’m in the mood to read some science fiction will any old kind of fantasy do? When I’m in the mood for cookies I pretty much go to the store knowing exactly what I want.

            I know I’m being unrealistic hoping the term “science fiction” could mean something other than a dumping ground for stories about any kind of wild idea. This is just a pet peeve of mind. And it is getting away from the goal of the essay above.

            While watching Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I’m perfectly willing to accept magic in the story. But it boggles my mind when people call Star Wars science fiction, when there’s not even a whiff of science or speculation in it. Just because a story has robots and spaceships does that make it science fiction? I’m not being critical of Star Wars here, because its obviously a well loved fantasy. My point is science fiction is about speculation. It’s an intellectual exercise. Science fiction has generated a body of memes that we continue to evaluate. Sometimes though, writers uses those memes without speculation to tell a story. And I’m asking, is a story with science fictional elements science fiction by default, or is science fiction the process of imagining those elements?

          4. Why have some ultra-defined view as if it is possible to do so when what is possible vs. what is not is utterly unscientific?

            I think most SF stories described as “hard” with “real” science are dumping grounds for wild ideas all dollied up with the illusion of scientific exactitude… By why are aliens with faster than light travel more possible than humans with faster than light travel?

            Future speculation can take many different forms, including, as you imply intellectual exercise. And sometimes, intellectual exercise is just that, an intellectual exercise that may or may not be bounded by science but still gets at something future and speculative!

            I am not sure the “science” is what makes the science fiction… But rather, future extrapolation which may or may not take some exact scientific form. But yes, there are definitely differences with fantasy, but, at a certain point I think it is genuinely hard indicating what in the far future is possible or whether it is magic.

          5. I apologize for the errors in some of my comments — writing too fast. “Dollied” isn’t the word I mean, rather, “dolled” up 😉

            The passion takes over… haha. Jim I like your articles, they are always fun to read.

  2. I am all for acknowledging the blurriness, acknowledging the historical context, acknowledging the an author’s purpose in writing (perhaps it’s to tell some near future tale as scientifically as possible, and that’s fine, but certainly not the intent of every SF author), AND, acknowledging that conventions do exist (and they have changed) but they definitely can be subverted…. And yes, acknowledge satire, some SF is to poke fun at norms etc, and it’s still SF even if it’s joking about its science content!

  3. I think Science Fiction and Fantasy are lumped together because of something that they have in common that sets them apart from all other genres. They offer worlds that cannot be set in current time and place, yet they comment upon our current world. SF comments upon todays world by showing what the effects of technology would be on our society and our individual lives. Fantasy similarly recasts our world to ask questions of human nature, but fantasy uses slightly different axioms than science fiction. For example, I am now reading Michael Fletcher’s Beyond Redemption, which is fantasy, but is closer to a philosophical exploration using certain established rules, which only make sense if magic is part of the explanation. But the point is the exploration of experiences. The essential function of both genres is essentially the same: to mirror our world and our experiences in an outlandish setting, and so to explore truths about human experience. Whether magic is the explanation for the difference or technological development is, hardly matters from this perspective.

    1. Jeroen, I hope I didn’t imply that fantasy couldn’t be as intellectual or philosophical as science fiction.

      Magic can sometimes be a metaphor or allegory for something in reality, but in most fantasies, like the Harry Potter ones, magic is just magic. In both religion and fantasy, we wish to be more powerful than we really are. Science tells us we’re creatures of chance, and we don’t like that. We want our lives to mean something, and to have power over them. Fantasy fulfills those desires.

      When I work to define science fiction and fantasy differently, that doesn’t mean one is better than the other. They are like cheese and crackers. Sometimes you want a bit of cheese, sometimes just a cracker, and sometimes both.

  4. Not all fantastic fiction includes magic. I either overly categorize all my speculative fiction by subgenre (like hard SF or epic fantasy or space opera) or let bygones be bygones and go with the more generic (pardon the pun) science fiction or fantasy. Whether one encroaches on the other is beside the point for me, provided the story is well told. Since I prefer character based tales, I tend to read more fantasy than science fiction, but there is a rare gem produced from the more empirical model.

    I found it odd that you equated fantasy with religious fanatics. I had not thought of it in that way before. As I stated before, I’ve always thought of fantasy as more character based and science fiction less though, and more focused on answering the ‘what if?’ question. Or that science and religion were anathema to each other. I know many scientist and engineers who are people of faith, mostly because the more you know, the more you discover you don’t know. But again, I’m not here to push any buttons or cause offense. “Think and let think” is one of my favorite quotes. I’ll let you discover who said it.

    My personal pet peeve comes from a romance or a mystery that masquerades as speculative fiction, like when the science or the magic is barely incidental. Sometimes cross genre work produced is readable, but most of the time I just see it is a bad attempt at marketing to a different readership.

    1. Well I have a broad definition of magic. Anything supernatural is magical to me. And I wasn’t equating fantasy with religious fanatics, but religion in general. Religion evolved out of magical thinking. Many older “religions” are magical based. Modern religions have tried to move away from magic, but magic is at their historical roots. Think of animal sacrifice in the Bible. What modern people think of as magic is very different from ancient magic. I’m thinking more Joseph Campbell. I also include among the territory of magical thinking any belief that has no basis in fact. Like sailors seeing something and making up stories about mermaids and sea monsters, or primitive people thinking lightning was the gods being mad. Humans have always, and still do, a compulsion to make up explanations for what they see in reality. I consider many explanation under the umbrella of magic – ghosts, fairies, devils, etc.

      Modern people often try to blend science and religion, but I question that. Each system works to explain reality. Some people try to combine things, like saying since the Big Bang explains reality, but God created the Big Bang. I guess that’s a reasonable way to make peace between the two. But neither system can solve the origin problem. If God created the universe, who created God. If the Big Bang started the universe, how did the Big Bang come about. I side with science, but I understand why other people side with religion. I can’t prove I’m right, and don’t try to. I just pick sides.

      I’ve read science fiction that’s essentially romance set in a science fictional setting. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some people really love those kind of stories. My preferred kind of science fiction is where the writer works to imagine something I never have imagined before, or even read about, but still sounds scientifically plausible. Those kinds of stories generate a lot of sense of wonder for me.

      My problem is there are many, many kind of stories labeled science fiction, and I wish we had more precise labels for each. Like the word “fruit” does point to grapes, oranges, and bananas, but if you want an orange it’s helpful to have the word “orange.” Because I’m hung up on the word “science” I’d like the term science fiction to mean stories about science speculation. For some of Lois McMaster Bujold’s stories, I might call them Romantic Space Opera, or Romantic Aristocratic Galactic Empire Fiction. I’d call Star Wars Galactic Empire Fiction. Ditto for The Foundation stories.

      1. Yes the Foundation series is an epic galactic yarn but it also deals with the far out theory of what happens when psychology works itself all the way up to a science. It is definitely science fiction. Much like with atoms, there just need to be enough humans to have macroscopic properties.

  5. Hi James

    An interesting discussion, although you seem to have made all science fiction fantasy, I don’t say your are wrong based on the premise you established, just that I would be sad, because for the most part, I prefer science fiction to fantasy. ( insert sad face here). Whenever I hear this discussion, it brings to mind a story called Bellerophon by Kevin Christensen I read in Destinies Spring 1980 Vol.2, No.2 edited by James Baen. It starts as follows” It has been alleged that fantasy and science fiction are one and the same. Not so; science fiction addresses the potentially real. Examples: Chimera, Pegasus, and Bellerophon.” Christensen then retells the myth of Bellerophon on an O’Neill cylinder, one of my favourite science fiction artifacts, complete with Pegasus, Chimera and flawed hero. It seems it has only been published once since in The Endless Frontier, Vol. II edited by Pournelle and Carr. If you ever see it, it is a fun read. I know the sticking point is “potentially” Otherwise I tend to fall back on the quote I sometimes see attributed to John W. Campbell’s “Science fiction is what I say it is”. And having put my two cents it, and probably overvalued at that, I will leave you to the challenge of editing your Classics List (which I really enjoy ) and reread Bellerophon.

    Happy reading and all the best.

    1. You got me curious Guy, so I found a copy of Endless Frontiers vol II for $3 and ordered it.

      I don’t consider all science fiction to be fantasy. But scientific speculation isn’t that common in science fiction. Most people just want a good yarn set in a science fictional setting. I’m not criticizing them for that.

      Guy, that was a good piece you had about Bud Websters and anthologies:



  6. Hi James

    To be clear my quote is not part of the story but a head note or blurb suppled I suppose by Baen. Each story carries one.

    Sorry for the confusion.


  7. Thanks James

    Hopefully you enjoy the story, I just reread it and felt it held up. I feel that Christensen was not only playing with this very idea of fantasy vs SF. The story also contained nods to other SF writers like Bradbury and Saberhagen.


  8. Science fiction I’m sure you know James,is part of our literary cultural heritage.It’s roots are probably as deep as our civilisation is old.The late,great Brian Aldiss claimed that it is typically Gothic in mode,and that Mary Shelley’s “Frankinstein” was the first recognisable science fiction work.I’m sure you’ll agree,that the importance and influence of that piece,was indispensable to the creation of modern science fiction novels and short stories,but was it ever scientifically feasible?I would seriously think not,but whether or not this it’s neccessary to it’s enduring importance to the written genre,seems to be a mute point I think.

    Of course,not all science fiction is set in the future,with some of the best works within it,being set in the reality of the present,that don’t need any scientific extrapolation.I don’t think there’s a better example of this,than Bob Silverberg’s “Dying Inside”,that’s concerned with a very real person within contempory society,but can it’s telepathy theme,a strong trope in science fiction,be considered more than within the limits of pseudo science?The borders between the realms you recognise as science fiction and fantasy,become extremely fuzzy.

    Another novel,Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood”,could certainly not be considered science fiction on surface recognition,and would easyly fit in your definition of fantasy,but is it really that simple to define,given it’s layering of psychological themes pertaining to memory and inner space?Modern science fiction has increasingly adopted such themes within it’s subject matter.

    It seems that a definition separating science fiction and fantasy is more difficult than you think.This is why I prefer to lump most of it under speculative fiction,which can’t really be called a genre.

    1. I still believe there’s a value in distinguishing science fiction. Most people don’t care, so they don’t try to define things by their unique distinctions. But I believe science fiction is a unique cognitive tool to speculate about what science has yet to discover.

      1. Yes alright,but perhaps we should expand our definition of science[and science fiction] by considering how we can increase our knowledge of it by what constitutes truth and reality.The books I mention above,allude to my statement I think.

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