What does science fiction imply?: Science Fiction vs. Science Fantasy

This is a post that I have literally started a year ago. According to my WordPress revisions widget, I first started working on this  post April 22nd 2012. Well it is April 2013, and I can tell you I have still been thinking about this. Although the quality of this post may not show it..Science fiction, or as we have so affectionately nicknamed it scifi, is often used as an umbrella term for the genre that includes science fiction (both hard and soft) steampunk, superheros, etc. — sometimes even fantasy is lumped in with them even though there are fundamental differences between the two. But science fiction isn’t really accurate in that context. Steampunk doesn’t really seem to fit completely under said umbrella and neither does the superhero genre, but they doesn’t really belong outside of it with fantasy. This is where “science fantasy” makes its grand appearance.

If you are using the term science fiction I believe there are certain standards, well no – expectations, that need to be met. Science fantasy on the other hand allows a little more freedom in the expectations of the technology and themes. While science fiction isn’t exactly known for being completely accurate, sometimes not even logically consistent or sound, there is still an expectation that it should work on some level. Even in soft science fiction there is some level of technological progress that keeps it identified as sci-fi. The “fiction” component of science fiction for me does not excuse faulty tech. Science fantasy though can have faulty tech. It is a universe that allows tech that appear to have no basis in current scientific knowledge, but can essentially function as a ‘scientific’ form of magic. And yes, I am aware of Clarke’s laws.

As Rod Serling has said “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.” Science fiction requires some level of probability. The theories might be incredibly improbable, but something about it could happen. Whereas science fantasy merely provides a scientific veneer to an otherwise impossible story. Even when you consider Clarke’s third law I think there is a distinction between advanced technologies that appear to be magic but are explained, and those that are actually just magic presented as technology. And as I can never resist quoting Heinlein, his definition of science fiction is, “It may be far-fetched, it may seem fantastic, but it must not be at variance with observed facts, i.e., if you are going to assume that the human race descended from Martians, then you’ve got to explain our apparent close relationship to terrestrial anthropoid apes as well.” In science fiction, the theories must hold water.  Similarly John W Campbell sums up this argument, “To be science fiction, not fantasy, an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation from the known must be made.”

This is why I believe that science fantasy is a better umbrella term for the various subgenres of science fiction etc. It does not demand as much from its theories. Thus space operas, steampunk, speculative fiction (another proposed umbrella term), time travel and other space narratives which are not grounded in scientific fact are able to fit more comfortably under the umbrella.

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3 responses to “What does science fiction imply?: Science Fiction vs. Science Fantasy”

  1. MatthewGraybosch says :

    This was a good post, Claudia. I prefer to use science fantasy to describe my own work for similar reasons.

    • claudiaeberger says :

      Thank you! I really like the term science fantasy, but I have noticed I find it awkward to actually use most of the time because most people don’t know it. I am glad there are others.

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