There’s a long (but well-worth reading) post on the blog of sci-fi writer John C. Wright wherein Wright tackles the age-old question of what differentiates science fiction from fantasy. It’s a thorny question, and not as easy to answer as one might suppose.
Wright starts his blog post with, “Aliens are unique to science fiction;” later, he adds: “By definition, a story with a nonhuman extraterrestrial character is science fiction.” One might be tempted to read no further and just reply, “Well, that’s that: if it has aliens (or laser guns or spaceships), it must be sci-fi; if it has dragons (or wizards or magic), then it must be fantasy.”
But that isn’t that. Wright makes a convincing argument that stories which might appear, by their trappings, to be science fiction or fantasy might actually be the other upon closer inspection. Wright compares the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Watership Down. Surely, the story with Martians is science fiction, while the book with talking bunnies is fantasy, albeit modern-day?
Well, no, maybe Watership Down is also sci-fi. Wright says:
Why is imagining life from the point of view of Tars Tarkas of Mars argued to be unique or profound, when imagining life from the rabbit’s-eye view of Fiver of Watership Down requires a more sustained effort of imagination? The objection is even more biting when we consider that Tars Tarkas is something of a stock character, the noble savage from a warlike tribe, whereas Fiver is a three-dimensional person.
The difference here is partly definitional. A story which was a solid speculation on how a nonhuman intelligence like a rabbit would be shaped by the biology and psychology of a rabbit, its needs and way of life, if done as a scientific speculation, would indeed be science fiction.
Likewise a man who wrote a story about an angel but who paid careful attention to the particulars of how a purely intellectual being, each one unique to its own species, and wrote a solid and logical speculation about the powers and limitations of such a being, extrapolating from what we know to what we do not know, he would not be writing a story like MICHAEL or THE BISHOP’S WIFE or IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, which are fantasies. What he would be writing would be science fiction in all but name.
Wright then goes on to say:
But the difference, if I may be permitted an oversimplification, is that the bridge leading to the science fiction story is primarily intellectual, a matter of speculating from the known to the unknown. The mystic bark floating downstream to a story in elfland is primarily emotional, a matter of myths, images, remembered echoes of things once beloved, now lost.
Hence the real difference between a Dark Elf, or any denizen of a fantasy tale, and a Martian, or any citizen of science fiction, is whether an act of imagination is needed to understand, indeed, to sympathize with him.
Or, as fantasy writer Vox Day puts it, in his discussion of Wright’s post:
People often attempt to distinguish SF from F on the basis of one being a literature of technology and ideas versus the other being a literature of magic and people, but I think Wright’s point about the dividing line being the one between intellect and emotion is cogent and arguably the more convincing.
Vox Day adds:
The primary appeal of A Song of Ice and Fire, Arts of Dark and Light, and every fantasy since Narnia and Middle Earth is the emotional one of experiencing what it might be like to dwell in those imaginary lands. It is the appeal of the What and the Why.
A science fiction novel, on the other hand, concerns the intellectual appeal of posing and answering questions that do not involve feeling. It is the appeal of the Who, the When, and the How.
“The appeal of the What and they Why” of fantasy vis-a-vis the “the Who, the When, and the How” of sci-fi. Yes, that makes for a very good answer. However, I find the question itself irrelevant.
Like most people, I used to consider sci-fi distinct from fantasy, and never the twain should meet. My first exposure to the idea that sci-fi and fantasy could be intertwined was the wretched 1977 animated film Wizards.
Ten years later, I learned about a new miniatures game called Warhammer 40,000, which similarly mixed sci-fi and fantasy, as you can see by this ad from White Dwarf magazine (click on it for a full-sized view):
Orcs in space? With guns? Yes, and elves (“Eldar,” as 40K calls them) and dwarves (“Squats”–removed from the game in 1998), too, all with spaceships and high-tech weaponry. Having played 40K since 1987, I no longer think of fantasy and sci-fi being separate genres.
This attitude has transferred over to my writing. Dragontamer’s Daughters is, I believe, primarily a fantasy novel: it has dragons, creatures from the “myths” that Wright mentions as belonging to fantasy, as well as the Old West setting, the “remembered echoes of things once beloved, now lost.” It has a subtle form of magic (the sandpainting ceremony in Chapter 18), mentions of and appearances by monsters, spirits, and “witch people.” Reviewers on Amazon have described their enjoyment of it in emotional terms, which, to me, tends to support the assertions of Wright and Day that fantasy appeals to the emotions.
Though I set out to write an emotional “fantasy” story, I attempted to inject some “science-fiction” intellect into it as well. I gave a great deal of thought as to the physical characteristics of dragons: how many and what sort of species there were, what they looked like, how they moved around, what they ate, how they reproduced, how many could live in a certain area without straining the natural resources, what environments they preferred, how they would react if put in unfamiliar environments.
For example, despite Pearl not having wings, she is able to fly by using wind currents that carry her using the membrane that stretches between her front and rear legs, much like a real-life flying squirrel. That, and she has hollow bones, like a bird. She summons wind using psionics (which, admittedly, is pretty much sci-fi for “frickin’ magic”). She normally lives on an island, therefore, she favors eating fish, marine invertebrates, and seabird eggs. And so on.
I also gave a great deal of thought to the mental characteristics of dragons: how smart they were, what they could remember, what emotions they had, what they liked, what they didn’t, what goals they had, what plans they could make. When writing scenes with Pearl, I thought of her not as a “dragon”–with all that archetypal baggage–but as an “alien” (which is not to say that Pearl is from outer space), an outsider to the society she finds herself in.
For most of the novel, the other characters think of Pearl as “an animal,” but actually, she’s more intelligent than humans, able to learn the Ysparrian language in several weeks of listening to the girls and their parents. She is driven by an instinctive urge to travel east to “Become,” but she is willing and able to suppress that urge if she chooses. She does not like people (and later in the book, she remembers why), but she develops feelings for Alijandra (especially) and, to a lesser extent, for Isabella and the parents.
Those “science-fiction” elements might not be obvious (I didn’t go too much into them, because the book is long enough already at 150,000 words), and they might not work for you (“Controlling the weather by psionics?–is this a Storm / Lockheed mash-up?”), but they’re there.
I call Lost Dogs a “science-fiction” novel, and it certainly seems to be: in the first chapter, aliens (or are they aliens? heh heh heh) attack Earth, creating an apocalypse where a number of dogs attempt to survive without their former owners. I put a lot of research and thought into how dogs sense the world (smell, primarily, but hearing and sight are also important); how those senses are different from humans (dogs actually do see colors, just not red or green); how dogs interact with the world that humans have created (go to your kitchen, crawl around on all fours, and see what it looks like–and what you can reach–from down there. Then try to open the fridge using just your teeth); how dogs communicate; how they view themselves and their owners and other animals (all other dogs are “Friends,” all people are “Belongings,” all cats are “Others”).
Yet, I am injecting “fantasy” (and its emotions) into the book as well, starting with dogs that “speak” in the equivalent of human sentences. In addition, things happen in the story which cannot be explained by science (perhaps a supernatural aspect?). And the real story of the novel is not how the dogs survive, or what they encounter, on this apocalyptic Earth: rather, it is how being without humans emotionally affects the dogs, who have, for the most part, lived with people since they were puppies. In Lost Dogs, Wright’s “remembered echoes of things once beloved, now lost,” are the homes and the loved ones the dogs used to have.
This blending of both genres is one of the reasons why, at the top of my webpage and blog, I make the audacious claim to be “re-inventing fantasy and sci-fi.” I do not pretend that mixing sci-fi and fantasy is original–there are few wholly original ideas in literature. But I’ve grown accustomed to it, and see the possiblities it offers. I agree with John C. Wright’s and Vox Day’s definition of what makes “science fiction” and what makes “fantasy”–but that’s the answer to a question I wasn’t asking.
The question I am asking, is, “What can sci-fi + fantasy together, in the same story, do?” That’s what I’m trying to find out.