The title of this post may be a little misleading. If you were expecting an epic death battle between two literary genres, I’m afraid you will be disappointed. The purpose of this post is to take a quick look at why science fiction and fantasy—two literary genres often associated with each other—are different.
There are similarities, of course. The most striking is that fantasy and science fiction aren’t realistic. Fantasy is unrealistic because of supernatural elements such as magic and monsters. Science fiction, however, doesn’t involve the supernatural. Its unrealism comes from scientific discoveries or developments in technology, society and history that haven’t occurred.
Let’s start with science fiction.
Since the emphasis of science fiction is naturalistic, the genre focuses on the development of human society. Robots, spacecraft and laser weapons reflect the evolution of the human race.
The lack of supernatural elements in science fiction precludes any kind of divinity or absolute morality. Because of this, the genre doesn’t usually depict struggles between good and evil. The ultimate goal of characters in science fiction is usually survival, not moral triumph. What matters is the continued existence of the human race.
Due to this lack of absolute morality, the themes of science fiction are usually psychological, ethical and existential, not moral or religious.
Although it’s often paired with science fiction, fantasy is fundamentally different.
Since the emphasis of fantasy is the supernatural, the genre traditionally places little importance upon the development of human society. Cars, computers and guns are replaced with horses, scrolls and swords.
The supernatural elements in fantasy often indicate some kind of absolute morality, whether a standard good-versus-evil morality (e.g. The Lord of the Rings), a morality based upon maintaining cosmic balance (e.g. A Wizard of Earthsea) or some other moral system. The typical goal of fantasy characters isn’t merely survival, but moral or cosmic victory.
Due to the presence of absolute morality, the themes of fantasy are usually philosophical, moral and religious, not psychological or ethical.
In a previous post presenting a short, untidy and highly idiosyncratic history of fantasy, I made the observation that many of fantasy’s greatest authors have been Christians: George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, among others. I think it’s no coincidence that Christians, who believe in the existence of the supernatural and an absolute moral law, should leave such a profound mark upon a literary genre defined by supernatural phenomena and moral struggles.
Science fiction and fantasy are both unrealistic, but for opposite reasons. Fantasy is characterized by the supernatural, science fiction by a naturalistic worldview. These genres are opposite sides of the same coin.
What about stories like Star Wars or Star Trek that are considered science fiction and yet involve the supernatural? Consider the Force in Star Wars. It isn’t merely a scientific phenomenon, but a spiritual force. The Jedi aren’t scientists, but monks. Even so, Star Wars is usually considered a science fiction franchise. It has aliens and space battles, after all.
I think stories like these are sort of a hybrid genre. Let’s call it science fantasy. Stories in this mixed-up genre tend to demonstrate the outward characteristics of science fiction—advanced technology, space travel and so on—while expressing the moral and philosophical themes typical of fantasy fiction. Final Fantasy is a fine example of science fantasy: magic, lasers, swords, spacecraft and an unmistakable struggle of good against evil.
In the end, I believe science fiction and fantasy belong together. These genres represent radically different approaches to the same concept: a world unlike our own.
Which genre do I prefer?
Fantasy, of course. It has dragons.