The Fantasy and Science Fiction have an interesting relationship. Very often they are grouped together, by bookstores, fans, and writers alike (often abbreviated as SF/F). It’s particularly interesting because it’s not something really seen elsewhere. Yes, other genres can be grouped together, and when you factor in subgenres or books that specifically combine one or more genres together with sci-fi or fantasy (horror being one such example), but nothing to the extent that science fiction and fantasy are linked.
Why is this the case? Why these two genres in particular? And what do the fans of both genres have to say about it?
It’s my understanding (and I may or may not be correct in this) that science fiction and fantasy are grouped together because the two genres share a great many things, whether or not people want to admit it. In both science fiction and fantasy, the settings are generally either a fictional world or an alternate version of our world. Differences are present, however; sci-fi settings often deal with multiple worlds, such as in Star Trek and Star Wars, while fantasy, due to the technological level, typically is set on a single world. And when the stories are set on our world, sci-fi stories tend to be set in the future as opposed to fantasy, which holds a broader range of time periods.
Other things link the two genres together. In both sci-fi and fantasy, we can have non-human characters, something that distinguishes them from other genres. Additionally, both have aspects to the world that don’t exist in the real world, be it magic or advanced technology (in fact, some writers have referred to technology in sci-fi to be the equivalent of magic in fantasy).
But this still doesn’t explain why the two are so closely linked by both fans and the publishing industry. I have a few thoughts on that. The first possibility is a perhaps cynical view of the larger literary world; that fantasy and science fiction were, at least at one point, regarded as similarly lowbrow, fanciful and childish literature. And despite the distinctions between the two, they were lumped together. Another possibility is that before both genres became as mainstream and ‘safe’ as they are today, fans of both tended to group together, which led to them being seen as a single combined group to market to.
But enough conjecture about the larger question on the connection between the genres. What I find more fascinating is when the two genres consciously mix.
Some people might have an issue with that idea; the people who like their magic mysterious and unexplained, and the people who like their science to be as realistic as possible. This is where arguments can come up between fans of Star Trek and Star Wars. The Star Wars fans see it as being sci-fi–it’s set in space, on alien worlds, and people fly around in advanced ships, after all. Star Trek fans (well, some Star Trek fans at least–it’s fully possible to like both as sci-fi) will say that Star Wars is fantasy that happens to be set in space. Science Fantasy, if you will.
I think both sides in that argument have valid points (and not just so I don’t have to take sides.) On the one hand, Star Wars is clearly seen as a work of science fiction, however ‘unscientific’ aspects of it might be. It is also largely responsible for the massive growth of the genre. And yes, it is set in space. On the other hand, however, if you look closely at Star Wars, it really is a fantasy story. The Force is magic, plain and simple (even if we accept the existence of midichlorians it’s still magic), and the story itself, particularly the original trilogy, takes heavy influence from the classic hero’s journey, something commonly found in fantasy. This is why I like the term science fantasy. It acknowledges the sci-fi setting, while admitting that the story and some elements of the setting are fantasy.
To extrapolate on the term science fantasy, I think it can also be applied to fantasy. What would you call a story set in a fantasy world, but it had advanced aliens as a major plot element? Or interplanetary travel by means of magic? Or if the magic was explained in detail so that you understood how it worked, like a piece of technology?
These kinds of things are what I find interesting. Both because they aren’t being done much at all (Brandon Sanderson has, in his stories, explained magic in a scientific manner and he has world-hopping, and it has been argued that Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books had sci-fi elements–but these are the only examples I can think of quickly where the story seems mostly fantasy but has elements of sci-fi) and because I see the potential for very interesting stories in mixing the genres.
What would happen if an advanced alien race discovered magic on a less advanced fantasy world? How would things play out if two fantasy-style worlds became aware of each other, and had means to travel from one to the other? How would an alien invasion of a fantasy world go?
These are reasons I write what I do. A large aspect of the universe my stories will be set in is based around that idea. The first novel I’ve completed is very much in a sci-fi setting, but the story is more akin to a fantasy story and there is magic (though it’s not referred to as such). And the novel I’m working on now, an epic fantasy, will have a character alien to that world, and I will begin to explore the impact of advanced races interfering in those less advanced.
As with non-human characters, this is something I feel should be explored more in sci-fi and fantasy, and I intend to explore these areas.
So if I ever hear someone complain that there’s fantasy in their sci-fi or too much science fiction in their fantasy, my response will be simple: Good! Let the two genres that have a natural connection mix. Tell new and interesting stories using tools from both great genres. Besides, I’m sure most people at some point imagined what would happen if Gandalf met Obi-Wan Kenobi, or if Captain Kirk met Aragorn… or if Harry Dresden met, well, anyone…
And I think this is a good place to stop, before I really start rambling and listing off all the possible awesome crossovers (that have probably already happened in fanfiction).
So until next time, keep writing, and mix some genres together!