Science Fiction or Fantasy: Picking a Label

The Science Fiction Literature track “Science Fiction or Fantasy?” panel on Friday at 2:30PM Embassy A-B (Hyatt). tackled a subject often debated by fans of science fiction and fantasy. Moderator Suzanne Church kicked off the panel by asking each member to give a one-sentence definition of science fiction.  Church suggested that science fiction asks “what if” and answers the question with science.

Jean Marie Ward considers it a “specific genre in which all elements have a naturalistic explanation” though not necessarily a plausible one.  Larry Davis credited Isaac Asimov with inventing “speculative fiction to describe the way science speculates” about the world, adding that the essence of the future is not predicting things like cars but those like traffic jams.

Phyllis Boro said she believes stories that ask the reader “to take one leap, and from there all the science fits” are believable as science fiction.  Track director Sue Phillips considers science fiction “the genre which engages my mind with ‘what if’ and preferably has really good characters.”

Moving to a discussion of what constitutes fantasy, Church said she views it as having a specific genre element “that is not in any way going to happen, but you write about it anyway.”  As an example, she cited vampires.

Phillips said that a simple definition would be “Fantasy has dragons.  But then you have Pern, which is science fiction.”

The panelists then discussed Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Ward disagreed that fantasy includes things that cannot happen.  Paraphrasing Hamlet, she said, “The world is greater than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.”  In her view, some element, such as vampires, dragons, or faster-than-light travel, may not have a naturalistic explanation, but the story may be “comfortable” with that even if the explanation is along the lines of “the magician did it.”

Davis added that fantasy lies “outside the realm of reality” though it’s set in our world.  Boro noted that fantasy gives a character an ability to do things that she couldn’t ordinarily do.  She qualified her statement with the observation that some things believable to one person, such as ESP, may be fantasy to another.

Church added that many people claim fantasy has some magical element, but that scientific advances could be considered magic to people whose science isn’t at that level.  She asked the panel what the difference is between magic and science that hasn’t yet been invented.

Citing the Clarke quote about magic and technology, Ward suggested that naturalistic thinking is the dividing line, citing as an example the contrast between the way modern society views the iPod and the way people would’ve perceived it a couple of hundred years ago.  “It’s all in the how, rather than the what,” she said.

Davis described science as a “black box for the things you can’t know with the tech at the time.”  He noted that Gregor Mendel’s work in genetics was performed without knowing anything about modern biochemistry.  For us, he added, “FTL is the black box, but you can speculate that we could get into that box to do it, but if we can’t, then it’s fantasy.”

Anya Martin joined the panel as the discussion moved into perception as part of the genre division.  Boro observed that her grandmother grew up in an age of buggy whips and died before the lunar landings, adding that things in her life that were fantastic are now not only plausible but real.  At some point in time, she suggested, nothing is impossible.

Martin said fantasy comes from myth, the supernatural, or the world of fairy tales rather than outer space or disease management.  When science fiction breaks down, she suggested, it’s because it doesn’t make sense within the rules of science while fantasy doesn’t need to be explained.  Boro added that science fiction involves things we can prove but fantasy “just is.”

Ward proposed zombies as the perfect mesh of science fiction and fantasy.  Martin noted that vampires similarly involve both, with vampirism a possible disease strain.  Ward added that vampirism is sometimes the result of a curse, adding a contrasting fantasy explanation, and went on to say that scientists theorize that a zombie virus may be possible.  Church observed that zombies are undead creatures but may be scientifically contaminated.

Steampunk, the panelists noted, also melds science fiction and fantasy, combining steam-related scientific principles with concepts like aether.  Davis said Einstein had wrestled with the concept of aether and never really explained why he ultimately rejected it.

Several panelists discussed the aesthetic appeal of steam, Church noting that there’s a romantic element to steam as an alternative to modern propulsion technology like gasoline engines.  Ward observed that there is a divide among readers, some insisting steampunk must have magic and others maintaining it must not.

The panelists discussed the disparate elements of Dr. Who, Davis describing it as a “nonrational mix of science fiction, fantasy, and whatever” and Church chiming in, “Like steampunk, it’s so cool we don’t care.”

As the program drew to a close, Martin observed that the difference between science fiction and fantasy has often been merely a distinction chosen by publishers, who called Dr. Who science fiction.  In her view, the best science fiction or fantasy breaks rules.

Davis commented that the discussion and questions demonstrated that people were thinking and that’s what fantasy and science fiction are all about.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.