Walk into a bookstore, any bookstore. In the fiction section, Sci-Fi and Fantasy are on the same shelf. Neil Gaiman sits next to Neal Asher. A daring space adventure set in the year 3461 AD sits next to a trilogy about an ancient sword powered by dragons. So, you might find yourself asking, why are these two genres lumped together so easily? What is the difference between the two?
Does it matter?
The short answer? Yes. Especially if you are writing to fit one of those genres. A disclaimer that is important to note is that genre is subjective, and what you read here might not be the case for all genres everywhere in the world.
Genre is mostly defined as the category of story-telling conventions, usually decided upon by what tropes are present. Let’s break down a more stand-alone genre as an example. The Western can usually be identified by the setting; a small town in the middle of nowhere, corrupted by some kind of force or ideology, until a rogue man or group arrive to disrupt the evil-goers. It usually ends in a showdown between the good guy and the bad guy, often in a shoot-out.
Does this make the action-comedy, buddy-cop movie Hot Fuzz by Edgar Wright a western?
Notice the descriptors there. I could say Hot Fuzz is an action movie, and it would work. I could have described it as a comedy movie, or described the key trope “buddy-cop” noticeable across both genres, and it still would have fit. This is where genre is objective. We can discuss the movie this way because it can be interpreted as such by anyone who watches it. If you sent in a manuscript under the description “sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, thriller, drama,” it could work. Many stories can borrow tropes from each of these genres. But the publisher might think you’re lacking in direction.
Whether you’re self-publishing, trad-publishing, or something in between, you need to be able to describe what category your story falls under, because it will mean everything when it comes down to marketing it.
So, let’s get back to the central question. How can one identify whether a story is one or the other?
Robots vs. Fairies
This is a book dedicated to a love of science fiction and fantasy, told in a literal war between the two, but also a good representation of how broad– and how connected– both genres can be. It’s something to remember going forward.
A basic breakdown could work like this: science fiction is explained, fantasy is not. In science-fiction, it’s global warming that caused the dinosaur-monster-kaiju to rise from the ocean and flatten Hollywood, or a new genetic technological advancement that altered Kevin’s DNA to give him superpowers. In fantasy, a dragon has risen from the oceans, because someone went and woke him up to repeat the destruction that leveled the castle when castles existed. Kevin has some sweet superpowers because his father was actually a wizard working for an evil vampire society. These are facts present in the story that you have to accept in order to proceed.
This is a very basic definition, so let’s break it down further.
In the Distant Year of 2003
Science Fiction is explained in some sense of the definition. It can rely heavily on suspension of disbelief, but is also a genre too complex to break down here. Usually, it is something possible in the future - near or far - that can be created with today's knowledge and technology. If you search through the genre, you’ll find a lot of stories set in space, or in the future, or are about something dark and spooky in the ocean. This is the common imagery that comes with science fiction; laser guns and high-tech holograms and spaceships.
This is because sci-fi taps into what is unknown. Unless you are a PhD Mechanical Engineer or have a shiny degree in software development, you have to take the authors word for it that the robots are taking over. What humans know about space is only a fraction of what is actually out there, so you can’t prove there is not a planet made of cotton candy inhabited by flying puppies. It is a common fact that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do our own ocean. The possibility is in the unknown.
One of the biggest unknowns – and the most exploited – is the future. The suspension of disbelief is it’s strongest in the representation of this. Event Horizon believed that humanity had colonised the moon by 2015. Any movie or book, or even some songs, were convinced that the world would have ended before the turn of the century. We know now, living in the 2020’s that this didn’t happen, and it almost seems laughable.
This is because it’s about possibility. Jules Verne wrote of a series of tunnels going straight into the core of the earth being cold and dark, yet survivable. Margaret Atwood wrote of a future where women are used for breeding purposes and nothing else. Teri Terry wrote of a society existing purely in a virtual reality.
Let’s talk more about Jules Verne, and another early science fiction icon, Mary Shelley. Verne did not set out to describe the details of the deepest parts of the ocean, but to consider the idea of exploration in a post-colonised world. Frankenstein displays a fear of moving away from religion as a central ideology to science during the Enlightenment. This is not to say that science fiction automatically becomes a genre of high-school book reports, but that the ideas can be as strong as the tropes.
Of course, sci-fi does not always fall into the same category as Margaret Atwood critiquing anti-feminism. A good example is A Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. There’s no denying it’s sci-fi label, but it is as much about escapism and friendships as a standard fantasy. This is where fantasy and sci-fi begin to blur, as they have a way of adapting into other genres. Adventure, drama, thriller, horror.
It’s Dangerous Out There, Take this!
Fantasy comes with an opposite imagery, of dragons and medieval castles and knights and swords and magic. Most assume that to write fantasy, you have to create a sweeping world in a book big enough to serve as the foundations of a house. Tolkien certainly made it work, as did Tad Williams, Brandon Sanderson, and George RR Martin. But we all know that fantasy is about much more than that.
Where sci-fi takes its main points from possibility, fantasy comes into escapism. Whether a Masquerade of Vampires in Santa Monica or a doorway into another world you stumble upon in your wardrobe, it’s a step away from the world you experience in your day to day life, and a dive into something new. Something epic, or secret, or dangerous. Fantasy has no rules in possibility, only the rules the author lays down to create a lore and setting unique to the imagination.
This is not to say that the themes can’t be strong. Coraline offers a commentary on how wanting for things is not the same as having them handed to you. Neal Shusterman’s Shattered Sky dives into the moral questions of whether having ultimate power strong enough to reverse the Holocaust is a good thing or not.
Folding Ideas put it best: escapism offers a chance to experience things you couldn’t otherwise do, with the safety to stop or leave at any time. (Trigger content warning: the linked video discusses things of a sexual nature). This is fantasy’s biggest strength. It’s also a weakness in how broad it can be. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life is categorised as a comedy romance, yet features doorways through the mind and ex-boyfriends with telekinetic powers? This depends completely on the definition of fantasy. Every form of fiction could, technically, be described as fantasy because it is the imaginings of an unreal situation. Are the powers the chosen one suddenly discovers a possibility, or wish fulfillment? In this sense, Star Wars is a fantasy because it features mystical telekinetic powers and knights fighting evil empires with swords and divine choosing, yet it is more commonly referred to as science fiction.
So, let’s put these things together, and talk about Lovecraft.
A Giant Sky Monster, or really in-depth Symbolism?
Lovecraft is known for cosmic horror, large monsters, driving people insane, and being horribly, unbelievably racist. His stories draw the line between the two genres in a very grey shade. His focus on creatures of the ocean, of space, or hallucinations in deserted places, speaks very much of science fiction and the unknown. Yet, the madness, the step from one place into another and the monstrous nature of Leviathan or Cthulhu or the fish-people of Innsmouth suggest something horrifying but fantastical.
Le Horla by Guy de Maupassant plays into a similar aesthetic, the horrifying impact of the unknown and the shadows that lurk there, but is labelled primarily as a fantasy. Yet, the human psyche is not a form of fiction, but a strange and bizarre concept with very few laws as to how it is understood, unless you are a psychology professional.
Lovecraft has discussed this line in his commentary of The Colour Out of Space. He stated that aliens aren’t what we expect them to be - little green men with laser guns - but are probably an entity we can’t completely comprehend. So for this author, where does the line between the possibility representative of sci-fi and the escapist horror of fantasy exist? What makes the psychological breakdown of Lovecraft’s characters so blurred between the two, when Maupassant is defined as Fantasy so openly? This is a deeper breakdown for another time.
So. What does all this mean?
Perhaps nothing. Perhaps this has done nothing but confuse you. The key difference I hope you take away from this, is that it comes down to tropes. Genres are formed by their tropes, and mixing them up and blurring the lines is not at all a bad thing. Stories of any genre are about invention and worlds and characters, and no defining traits are going to stop anyone from breaking them down and doing something new. It’s what makes one work stand out from the others.
So, are you writing a science-fiction, or a fantasy? Perhaps a bit of both. At the end of the day, you have to pick one to market towards. Every story has an audience. So, take those tropes. Analyse them, figure out which ones you fall into, and break them down. Once the story is out there, people can discuss whether the clan of wizards are actually symbolic of a future where technology has made us something less than human, or more. Take the basic points I’ve given you, and let your story fall into a broad category. If it’s a future where vampires have taken over and forced humans to live on the moon to develop elemental powers, it’s sci-fi. If it’s a deep underwater exploration where Atlantis was actually the home of a civilization of talking cats who studied necromancy and angered an old god, throw it in fantasy.
There is no clear definition of what fits where. All of this categorising and trope-talk is for marketing, to let people know your story exists. Once it is out there, the words will speak for themselves.