Monday, September 10, 2007

Why Fantasy and Science Fiction Are Not the Same Thing

If you’re a fantasy fan, you’ve probably noticed how often fantasy and science fiction are lumped together and presented as the same thing. Libraries and bookstores are confused: I can’t count how many times I’ve found a “science fiction” section full of books by Tolkien, Eddings, and Brooks. Fans are confused, too—fantasy authors are routinely voted in for sci-fi awards like the Hugo. Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, and The Princess Bride are all past winners.

I remember reading an article in the National Review Online back when the first Lord of the Rings movie came out. I can’t find the link anymore, but the article was about the type of people who tend to like these movies. Obviously the author wasn’t one of them; she said that “Tolkien's trilogy has traditionally been the exclusive cultural province of the sort of pimple-ridden, Hot Pockets-eating boys who go on to make millions as software developers.” Even this author was confused: she couldn’t tell the difference between science fiction fans and fantasy fans. But there’s a big difference, both between the genres and between the people who love them.

Along with horror, science fiction and fantasy both belong to the meta-genre of “speculative fiction” that deals with alternate realities. But the difference is that most science fiction alternative worlds are extensions of ours in one way or another—Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, take place in our future, and Star Wars takes place somewhat vaguely in our past—“long ago, in a galaxy far, far away”—but still can be logically placed in our universe. In science fiction, the world the story inhabits may be very different from ours, but it is always an extension of it. The natural laws are the same as those in the real world.

In fantasy, however, the writer builds an entirely new world—including its natural laws—from scratch. In general, Middle Earth and Narnia take place in completely separate universes that allow for magical forces. But even if the setting of a fantasy novel is technically on earth, it’s a different earth—with different natural laws. The America of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the Oxford of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series are parallel to our own, but they operate under very different rules than you’ll find in the real world.

There are many people who love both fantasy and science fiction. But most lean more toward one side or the other, and some love one genre but can’t stand the other. This is because science fiction and fantasy appeal to two different kinds of people.

The quote from NRO demonstrates a typical misunderstanding of fantasy as a genre and the people who love it. It refers to the stock nerdly character—the skinny social misfit stereotype much more gifted in math and science than his peers—who, if you'll forgive my similarly unforgivable stereotyping, typically fall in love with science fiction sagas, like Star Trek and Star Wars. Their talent for science and math, as people who “go on to make millions as software developers,” makes them likely to have an interest in the futuristic technologies and ethical dilemmas that are hallmarks of sci-fi. People who love technology fall in love with Star Wars.

But Lord of the Rings is steeped not in technology but in magic. Passionate fans, I admit, can be no less geeky. But they are the kind of people who are gifted with perhaps more imagination than their peers—not more logical ability. People who love Tolkien are the kind of geeks who spend more time reading than watching television, who would rather work on a novel than a computer program. The Tolkien fan’s love of elves and wizards and hobbits is basically an attraction to a world more full of flat-out wonders than ours, less full of the crushing banality of ordinary life.

While science fiction contains wonders as well, they are technological wonders of a kind that becomes banal when the mystery of it is stripped away. Warp drive and teleporters and wormholes are wonders to the audience but ordinary within the context of the story's world much the way television and electric toothbrushes and lightbulbs would be wonders for people a thousand years ago, but ordinary to people today. In fantasy, however, that sense of wonder permeates the whole world of the story, which is perhaps why fantasy fans prefer to take Earth out of the equation altogether and make up something entirely more interesting.

So yes, there is a difference between science fiction and fantasy. A big one. It’s becoming fashionable to blur the lines a bit; Anne McCaffrey and the Dune series does this, to an extent. In general, I’d rather have my science and my fantasy on separate plates, but if the book tells a good story, I’ll overlook a little blending.

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