The siblings of literature: fantasy and science fiction

June 19, 2016

One thing I have often considered is the relationship between fantasy and science fiction. They are usually lumped together. If you go to the bookstore, you will see fantasy and science fiction next to each other on the shelf. Presumably, this is because people who read one genre will typically also enjoy reading the other. In a sense, they are considered siblings. However, they are very different and only connected in one sense; they both require the reader to possess great imagination. Beyond that, they operate in vastly different ways. In this post, I want to discuss the differences in genre between fantasy and science fiction.

 

Fantasy concerns itself with primarily its protagonist, its hero. There is a narrative pattern present, which has been described e.g. by Joseph Campbell in his book "The Hero with a Thousand Faces", which will be familiar to many. In his book, Campbell describes the typical hero's journey, which can be found not only in mythology, but also in many modern works of fantasy. Obvious example would be Frodo from Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter from the series of that name. They are at the centre of their stories, carrying out the vital effort to defeat an inhuman enemy.

 

This does not mean all fantasy reads the same. Think of this narrative pattern as the skeleton on which fantasy is built around. The actual characters and specific events, the world setting, etc. are all the meat and muscle added to the skeleton. All humans will look similar on an X-ray, but there is still a great deal of variety in how we appear on the outside.

 

Another distinct feature of fantasy is its relation to time. In fantasy, the older something is, the more powerful. Heirloom swords, artefacts, wizards, dwarves and elves, all increase in power the older they are. This, just like the narrative pattern, has a correlation with mythology in our world. They often describe a golden age that went before our current state. Think of Adam and Eve in Paradise or the age of titans in Greek mythology.

 

Fantasy has the same mechanism of a lost age, where knowledge and skills were far greater. Examples would be the swords of Gondolin in Middle-earth or Valyrian steel in A Song of Ice and Fire. Fantasy is often entwined with a concept of decline, and it is common the heroes' strength is derived from or augmented by some link to this lost age; Aragorn is of the blood of Numenór, possessing the reforged blade of his ancestors, Frodo is protected by a mithril shirt etc.

 

Science fiction operate in a much different manner. It is first and foremost characterized by exploring how humanity and civilization changes throughout time, usually propelled by new technology. This can be twenty minutes or two thousand years into the future. What matters to science fiction is imagining how our society and species evolve due to changing technology and circumstances. What defines science fiction above all is thus the setting.

 

An obvious example would be the Star Trek series, where every episode can be used to examine some kind of aspect of humanity. In the end, this is always the purpose of science fiction: To explore what truly makes us human, whether it is through examining artificial intelligence, clones, alien. By looking closely at what is not human, we also define what is human; by blurring the lines (if a clone has sentience, emotions and feels pain, is it less of a human being than the original person?), science fiction forces us to evaluate what we judge to be human and by what criteria. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (or Blade Runner as the movie) is an excellent example of what science fiction can do.

 

Science fiction has the inverse relationship with time as fantasy. The further away remove from present day, the more pronounced the changes to humanity and society. I think of this relationship with time as an hourglass. Present day is the very middle where the hourglass is smallest. In fantasy we move downwards, back in time, whereas in science fiction we moved upwards forward in time. The further we move away from the middle, the more pronounced are the differences in power, skill, knowledge, and what is recognisable to the reader.

 

We can deduce a few interesting conclusions from this. For instance, this explains why fantasy has had such wide appeal ever since it truly began with the Lord of the Rings, an almost unparalleled success that has been continued with other franchises such as Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire. Compared to this, science fiction does not have franchises with such ubiquitous presence in pop culture. This is because fantasy builds on a recognizable pattern that is at the very core of our culture, and which resonates with most of us. In comparison, science fiction by its very nature must always be innovative, changing, challenging, and thus has a much harder time finding its audience; any genuine work of science fiction will always have a narrow appeal, because it must by necessity be an experiment.

 

Some might argue against this by mentioning Star Wars, arguably the most successful franchise of our time. However, I think Star Wars is further proof of my argument, because I consider Star Wars to be fantasy. This may seem counterintuitive to many people. It takes place in space, has planet and aliens, spaceship battles, and even the title suggests science fiction.

 

But let us consider the first movie, episode IV. Our young protagonist meets a knight of an old order, who gives him an heirloom sword and teaches him about the mystical powers inherent in him. Our hero uses his powers to fight and defeat the evil empire. All of this suggest the traits of fantasy. There is a clear movement backwards in time for our protagonist to obtain his powers. The Jedi are an ancient order, they are styled as knights and fight with swords, and their enemy is an emperor. The fall of the republic and the rise of the empire is even reminiscent of Caesar, Augustus and the fall of the Roman republic; a classic(al) story rather than an experimental one. Even the very first words of the film reveal this: "A long, long time ago..." Luke Skywalker is a classic hero straight from Campbell's "Hero's Journey", which explains why Star Wars has become so deeply ingrained in our culture.

 

Of course, much more can be said about either genre, and both are much more complex than suggested in this post. But I find this a useful approach to understanding works of fantasy and science fiction and seeing how they fall into these patterns; I hope reading my thoughts has been interesting for you as well.

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