Science Fiction or Fantasy: What’s the Difference?

Science Fiction or Fantasy: What’s the Difference?
June 20, 2016 1 Comment For Authors, Writing Advice David Wiley

Science Fiction and Fantasy are two genres that are often grouped together. They even have a name that contains them both under the same umbrella: Speculative Fiction. While there are some commonalities between the genres, mainly that they contain aspects of the worldbuilding that are different than our own world (usually, though not always), there are also some very distinct differences between the two genres. While there are many incredible sub-genres for both that we could dive in and explore, we’ll begin today by comparing the two considering the broad, primary genres.

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What Makes a Fantasy Story

First we will cover fantasy. When you think of the genre there are some very clear images that may come to mind: castles, knights, kings and princesses, swords and shields, elves, dwarves, orcs, dragons, and many other staples of the genre. Many fantasy stories are set in a Middle Ages England-inspired setting that contains rolling fields of grassland, vast kingdoms, and the fastest mode of transportation being via horse or carriage. Even those whose setting is inspired by another culture, such as Japanese, are inspired by an era before firearms were common, where individual warriors could fight with valor and honor and overcome incredible odds.

Image by RL Fantasy Design Studio

The limitations placed on the author in fantasy are almost non-existent, which is why many tend to pigeonhole fantasy as being stories where the impossible occurs. Many fantasy stories contain races and creatures that are not found in our own world, many of them inspired by Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Talking animals, walking trees, magic, and many other things are permissible in fantasy writing so long as their presence is plausible and the magic system is believable (and not just a tool the writer leans on to get their characters out of bad situations time and again. Surprise! I forgot to mention they know Spell X, which is the one spell they happen to need to defeat this threat to the world).

Many times a fantasy story follows the hero’s journey format, following a character or a group of characters who have humble beginnings but, over time, grow to take on the role of a hero and savior that is destined to overcome some evil force that threatens the world.

What Makes a Science Fiction Story

Science Fiction, on the other hand, has at least some grounding in the possible, even if it is improbable. Authors in this genre typically project the future based upon some aspect of science or reality, extrapolating it into a projection of the possible. The need for realistic speculation is far more abundant in Science Fiction, as many fans of the genre expect there to be some sort of sound reasoning behind the things that are happening (or have happened, leading to the current state of things).

Image from Pixabay

Some of the common things you will find in Science Fiction will include aliens/life on other planets, space travel, faster-than-light travel, advanced technology, invasion of Earth, apocalyptic settings, and many other things. While the author is trying to write with the possible in mind, the possibilities in Science Fiction are nearly as limitless as those in the Fantasy genre. Whereas Fantasy is primarily dealing with the past, Science Fiction deals primarily with the future. Because the future is unknown, whether dealing with the near future or the far future, much of it falls in the realm of speculation.

But most Science Fiction stories are not merely fantasy tales with robots and ships (although some, arguably, are exactly that). Some of the best Science Fiction out there postulates a hypothesis about the future, such as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep which questions what the world might be like if androids had human emotions. Or it might approach a topic like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 which considers a world where media has taken over people’s lives and books have become outlawed for the ideas contained inside them.

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Final Thoughts

When comparing and contrasting the two genres, there are as many similarities that you could find as there are differences. Even boiling it down into simple terms, such as Science Fiction is possible while Fantasy is not, does a disservice to the books within the genres that break free from the typical molds. There are so many great sub-genres worth exploring in both genres that really bring very different aspects and elements to the reading experience.  In the coming months this summer I will cover some of the main subgenres of both Fantasy and Science Fiction, as well as provide some good starting points to dive into each of those subgenres.

David Wiley David Wiley is an author of science fiction and fantasy stories, choosing to write the stories that he would love to read. His short fiction has previously been published in Sci Phi Journal, Firewords Quarterly, Mystic Signals and a King Arthur anthology by Uffda Press. David resides in central Iowa with his wife and their cats and spends his time reading, writing, and playing board games.
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  1. one Comment

    Stephanie Ayers

    This is a fantastic breakdown of the two genres. I know they get mixed together a bit sometimes, and some writers try to blur the lines, so this, to me, is a great guide.


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