When discussing fiction, we often think of something like science fiction or sci-fi. Of course, if you think about it, all types of fiction have genres (mystery, horror, thriller, and so on). Still, there is one clear element in sci-fi and fantasy: the element that doesn’t belong in our world.
However, it is not all black and white. Some works of science fiction are so close to our current reality that we can barely classify them as such. And even works like 1984, which is a dystopia (and falls into the massive category of science fiction), are only sometimes classified as such.
But then, what distinguishes science fiction from fiction? And what makes each part of the genre?
Star Wars vs. Star Trek
The Sci-Fi vs. Fiction debate comes up a lot when talking about Star Wars, and that’s not a coincidence. Star Wars is a space opera (or space fantasy), a subgenre of fiction that mixes elements of both genres. Note well that here I said a subgenre of fantasy. Despite being set in space, there is one crucial reason why Star Wars is classified as a space opera: things are explained with magic.
OK, let’s go. The first elements that can define the two genres are the explanations used to give rise to the world and the scenario in which the story takes place. In science fiction, we have science as a basis. In fantasy, we have magic.
Well then: in Star Wars, there is nothing remotely scientific that we can classify in the story. Although we have robots and spaceships, they are only part of the story. They are more part of the scenario than a configuration of the world itself. The central part of Star Wars is the Force. And what is the Force, if not something magical, that controls the balance of the universe? There is no scientific explanation for the Force or many other Star Wars elements, not lightsabers. Everything connects through the Force, which dictates the world’s rules.
This is not the case in Star Trek, for example. While yes, some explanations are vague, the entire Enterprise is based on the science part, from teleportation to spaceships. There is a scientific basis, and it is what primarily controls the world.
It’s harder to see this difference when it comes to space. We are so used to seeing science fiction as something necessarily connected to other planets and outer space that we don’t even consider that it can be any other genre. The rule, in the end, is pretty simple: Is there science or magic?
Science fiction vs. Fiction in Books?
Obviously, the easiest way is to ask yourself what the “rule” of the world is and how that world works. Lord of the Rings? It has magic, so it’s fiction. Star Trek? Science, so it’s Sci-Fi. But this rule becomes more complicated when dealing with books that fit this genre but do not necessarily include elements that would be obvious. The Hunger Games and pretty much the entire dystopia genre falls into this niche – science fiction that doesn’t necessarily feature the genre’s common motifs like spaceships and robots.
That’s where we can come in with the theme that defines the genre. Yes, all genres tend to have a piece they address more heavily. Literary fiction addresses the nature of man, and children’s fiction generally addresses the theme of what it means to be a child. In science fiction and fantasy, we have recurring themes, which in this case, develop differently.
For the most part, fiction addresses the theme of man vs. society. It is a common debate, but one that places, in this case, the hero at the center and how he interacts with the world around him. The most common hero’s journeys revolve around this – how does the hero fit within this place? What does he want to change in the world? Usually, the world dictates the rules by which the hero must live. To take the classic Lord of the Rings example, it is clear that we have all the differences between species. Frodo must exceed these expectations and take the ring to be destroyed before the whole world suffers the consequences. For the most part, if the hero doesn’t complete his quest, the world as a whole suffers as a result.
Consequently, almost all fantasy is about the hero finding his place in his world. It is usually reflective of society and how human beings interact with it. Not as an individual but as a whole.
In science fiction, the opposite often happens. The Hero’s Journey is not about the outside world. Usually, it tends to be the search for what is inside the human being – what it necessarily means to be human. Star Trek manages to present this through other species. Westworld does this through robots. The theme of sci-fi often revolves around the human being, not the outside world. As much as yes, it is essential to save the world or something like that, the answer is never out there. It is within the hero himself seeking to discover the meaning of life and what it means to be an individual. While the fantasy answer is how the hero fits into his environment, the sci-fi answer is what makes him an individual, a human being.
The Discussion Continues
This difference in themes leads to many discussions about which of the two genres is better (which I find a bit ridiculous). A good fantasy author can bring the theme of the individual to his book, just as a good science fiction author can also bring the issue of society into his writing. Dystopias are there to prove that both can happen at the same time. Of course, to fit within their own genre, no author can fail to write the central theme and conflict that generate their narratives.
Also, we can go into the many subgenres that this umbrella represents. For fantasy, we have epic fantasy (Throne of Glass, Lord of the Rings), which provides the reader with an entirely different new world. Urban fantasy takes place in our world but with magical elements. We also have horror and paranormal stories (The Turn of the Screw), space opera (Jupiter Ascending), magical realism (Night Circus), mythical fantasy, and historical fantasy. In science fiction, we have genres such as steampunk (Leviathan), military science fiction (Ender’s Game), alien invasion (Independence Day), apocalyptic fiction (Snowpiercer, The Day After Tomorrow), and time travel (12 Monkeys).
There are still many controversies when we are talking about science fiction and fantasy. They are not yet highly defined genres since we can always bend the barriers. When it started, space opera was classified as sci-fi, but more and more, we see all of this within the fantasy genre. Many of the movies and books we read can even fit into two or more subgenres, showing that the narrative between them can be very fluid.
So, which one do you prefer and why?