In case you haven’t noticed, I like science fiction and fantasy. (If you hadn’t, allow me to point you to the rest of my blog.) Now, for the longest time, I thought the two were roughly the same thing, just in different settings. And to some extent, that’s probably true. There’s certainly a reason they often get lumped together on bookstore shelves and are usually said together in the same breath. Yet as I’ve thought more about why I like both so much, and as I’ve had more time to focus on the worldbuilding side of my own various projects, I’ve come to the conclusion that the two really do have different strengths and are certainly different enough to warrant the distinction.
First, fantasy. My first love, mostly thanks to the fact that such stories can and often do involve things like dragons, unicorns, and grumpy wizards. Growing up, that usually meant that I was giddily excited by anything that fell under the swords and sorcery category. Lord of the Rings? Loved it. Anything to do with King Arthur? Sign me up. Wanna watch Dragonheart? I’ll be right there.
These days, while I still have a fond appreciation for all the stories mentioned above, I’ve also found myself branching out a bit. For instance, anything that involves magic in what might otherwise look like our world today tends to at least pique my interest. For instance, I really enjoyed watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And playing Shadowrun.
And for all the differences between these various stories, there are also a lot of similarities. For one thing, ancient evils crop up with a worrisome consistency. Magic is old. Our heroes find themselves caught up in traditions that have existed for ages. As a gross generalization, fantasy stories are full of wonder at the old, whether that looks like a medieval fantasy or a modern one that finds itself uncovering those things that happened long, long ago. There’s a reason fairy tales start with the words “once upon a time”.
For me, when I find that some story idea or another seems to want to turn itself into a fantasy story, that usually means that it has something to do with the past, at least in my head. Maybe it’s just a chance to re-imagine the parts of history that are so much fun to romanticize, or to interact with a so-called simpler world. Or maybe it’s a way to come to terms with the past.
Either way, it boils down to a focus on what once was, with perhaps a nod to how that affects things today.
Science fiction, on the other hand, looks to the future. Maybe these stories are just ways to imagine what we might be able to figure out someday. Or maybe they act as a warning for what might happen if we don’t mend our ways. Or maybe they give us something to strive for. But whatever way you look at it, the science fiction genre is as much about the future as fantasy is about the past.
Are there exception to this? Oh, absolutely. But Star Trek (all of them) is very purposely imagining what humanity might be able to do in a utopian setting (whether you agree with them or not on the methods chosen to get there). Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series takes place in a solar system that is nearly unrecognizable after the advancements humanity has made, and while not all of the advancements are good, it’s hard to deny that they’ve got some really, really cool things going on. Science fiction stories have a remarkable ability to provide a space to imagine what might be, and so to imagine some of the things we’ll have to think about if and when we get there.
Of course, it’s not all black and white. Of the top of my head I can name off several fictional worlds that have some distinct elements that I’ve argued belonged to either science fiction or fantasy. For example, Star Wars. The fact that it both involves spaceships and is set “a long time ago” with a bunch of knights running around is evidence enough of that. And then you’ve got Stargate, which has the humans of Earth finding ways to make these fantastic technological leaps… in order to fight old false gods. Or you’ve got J.S. Morin’s Black Ocean books that just say to heck with it and do both. Because they can.
In other words, like I said before, there’s definitely a reason they get pushed together so often. And there’s certainly nothing that says a story can’t look both to the future and the past at the same time. In fact, I think a lot of good ones do just that. But if you’re looking to imagine something about the future, that’s what science fiction is meant to do. And if you’re looking to engage with the past, fantasy stories have all sorts of things to say about that.