Let’s Start a Fight: Are Science Fiction and Fantasy the Same?

The other day, my dad texted me a link to this John Hodgman piece weighing in—or I guess I should say “adjudicating”—on whether the Star Wars series is really sci-fi or fantasy. This was apropos of an argument we (dad and I; Hodgman was not yet involved) had over the holidays about the delineations between those two genres. I proposed that the delineations between science fiction and fantasy can be more aesthetic than substantive; he maintained that there are more fundamental differences. He prosecuted his case with a lot of references to Star Trek, a childhood favorite of his which he introduced to us, his own children, in turn. I, like an egghead, countered with many “yes, but” theoretical arguments. I love to play the egghead. My brother even-handedly tried to parse out the merits of both sides while dad and I continued to lob differently-worded versions of the same point back and forth across the dinner table. Mom and grandpa did not engage. The tone was occasionally pretty strident for such a goofy topic. You know, the way you argue with your family?

And now dad’s fired another shot across my bow, courtesy of a cultural commentator with real-fake authority and fake-fake judge’s attire. Well, fetch my red shirt! Time to relitigate this argument in public, for if Star Wars has taught me one thing, it’s that throwing yourself in the path of a more powerful man in a dowdy black robe is a great strategy for winning a fight with your father.

May it please the court:

The Honorable John Hodgman, we should note, begins his short piece by noting that he also finds genre distinctions, or arguments about said, to be questionable or tiresome. Nonetheless, he delivers a verdict, finding that Star Wars is a narrative fueled by nostalgia rather than futuristic speculations, landing it much closer to Tolkien than Trek. This is a common enough differentiation between sci-fi and fantasy: that they look towards different horizons, the latter retro-gazing, the former speculating on what could be. Construed in this way, the two genres are not just different but full opposites.

And that is indeed a perfectly workable measure for explaining how sci-fi and fantasy stories have been traditionally classified. What bothers me, however, is the sense I get that assigning Star Wars the label of fantasy is a kind of relegation. That is, it’s not just that the fantasy label is a better fit, but that Star Wars is too unserious to deserve to be classified as sci-fi. Fantasy is fuzzy and frivolous, sci-fi is sophisticated and cerebral. (Plenty of people, I’m given to understand, think all genre fiction is fuzzy and frivolous, but that’s another matter.)

The emblematic example of Star Wars’ conceptual squishiness is that it misuses the metric of the parsec, referencing it as a measure of time rather than distance. Someone has likely explained this factoid to you before, probably one of those early figures in your life who tried to convert you to pedantry. We all had them. Mine were well meaning, good humored, and delightful. But we likely also overlook the parsec error, because we recognize that the real central concept of Star Wars is “the Force,” which has nothing to do with science and everything to do with feelings. Frivolous. Fuzzy.

Star Trek, by comparison, has very serious and grounded mechanisms like warp cores and transporters and dilithium crystals, which are also made up but could be totally scientifically plausible. Except that the scientific plausibility of dilithium-based technology, much like the parsec error, doesn’t matter. In fact, you could say it anti-matters (yuck yuck). 

What is important about the starship Enterprise is not how it goes but where it goes. Star Trek may feature many, many episodes that revolve around fixing the warp core, but for the most part the concepts Trek wants to explore are really political and sociological, about interactions between the diverse crew and encounters with alien life. How many of these civilizations’ representatives are eager to sleep with Commander Riker? Better make a tally. For science. But specifically for the “soft” science of sociology.

To be sure, the sociological premises of Trek interact with its technological ones. For instance, the technology of the replicator helps to explain how the Federation’s egalitarian, moneyless society operates. But how does a replicator convert energy to matter? And why can’t it successfully replicate dilithium of sufficient quality to serve in a ship’s matter-antimatter reactor? Maybe it has something to do with how dilithium is also an energy source, and therefore the replicator’s process of converting energy to matter saps the dilithium of its potential energy? Or maybe it’s about dilithium possibly being a four-dimensional substance in a way that replicator technology can’t yet reproduce? To both the physicists and Trekkies out there, does any of that… make sense?

This kind of explanation, whenever sci-fi properties even bother to engage in it, substantively amounts to what is commonly called technobabble—or as I think of it, Ruddigore-ing! Meaning: this particularly rapid, unintelligible patter isn’t generally heard, and if it is, it doesn’t matter (matter matter matter matter). My eyes are fully open.

If Gene Roddenberry and his ilk really had a feasible and fully mapped-out mechanism for how their tech worked, they would have been on their way to the U.S. Patent Office, not NBC. But again, it doesn’t matter that the science is hokum, because what’s important is that said hokum permits us to engage in generative imagining. What would it be like to live in a society empowered by this kind of technology? How much would that change, and how could it change one’s relationship to their own identity and to others? That sort of thing.

I don’t wish to be too dismissive here and give the impression that all the science in sci-fi media is technobabble. Sci-fi writers show, rather splendidly, out how incredibly fruitful it is to engage with actual principles of physics and biology and programming. Heaven knows, Asimov got a lot of mileage out of simple conflicting booleans. Only, the “fi” half of the sci-fi requires audiences and writers to lean in to unproven, speculative territory.

The exact same sort of sociological speculation can and does occur in stories that are premised around the lack of common post-industrial technologies or around the existence of some magical force that has shaped society in much the same way that a microchips-and-circuitry technology would. A Song of Ice and Fire, when you get down to it, is the tale of a world whose dynastic politics were heavily shaped by the “technology” of dragons, and their subsequent, erm, obsolescence. Ditto pretty much every dragon-riding story, Eragon, Temeraire, The Dragonriders of Pern (which already casually straddles the border between sci-fi and fantasy in its premise), etc.

So: if we dispense with the technobabble and just say our space machine or what have you is powered by magic, what exactly do we lose? Just the flashing lights on the dashboard? I am willing to concede that we do lose slightly more than just that. 

Because it’s often futuristic and therefore less likely to hold itself constrained by historical precedent, science fiction may, generally, be more inclined or more free to imagine radical ideas. The aforementioned moneyless society of Star Trek, for instance. But that is just a tendency and not a strict constraint. Fantasy stories set in alternate worlds are just as free to imagine strange, unprecedented societies as sci-fi set on alien worlds.

While a considerable bulk of traditional fantasy takes inspiration from medieval Europe, it’s disingenuous to say that worldbuilding that deviates from either European or other historical models is therefore “unrealistic,” as author and medievalist Shiloh Carroll points out in a critique of how the House of the Dragon showrunners have discussed the inclusion of elements like sexual violence in their show as necessary toward the interest of historical accuracy. Phillip Maciak had the same note for House of the Dragon’s parent series, Game of Thrones, in a review from back in 2011. We’re all, evidently, still waiting for someone to hear it…

Regardless, while they might trend in different directions, both fantasy and sci-fi are equally free to imagine whatever they will, empowered by the license of otherworldliness and the equally potent forces of either magic or super-advanced technology.

This is not an original argument, of course. J.R.R. Tolkien made this observation in his magisterial essay “On Fairy-Stories,” at one point in which he proposes that H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine better meets the criteria for what counts as a fairy story than some other tales that have traditionally made the cut. In justifying this claim, he argues:

“The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavour of fairy-story.”

To paraphrase that, Tolkien identifies the fact that sci-fi and fantasy fulfill a common wanderlust; to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; one could even say, to boldly go where no man has gone before! (How do you like them apples, Dad?)

We should not fail either to mention Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws, the third of which is the most famous: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” There are a few ways to interpret that statement’s meaning, either as about the gullibility of rubes who mistake tech for magic, or as about the wonder of tech so powerful and with workings so obscure that it seems magical to everyone. I lean toward the latter camp, and reading Clarke’s third law in the context of the first two, oft elided, supports my inclination. Those read as follows:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Collectively, the three laws read as a commentary on the relationship between imagination and possibility, with Clarke arguing that imagination consistently expands our ambition about what could be possible, even to the point of achieving something that felt so impossible it was labeled as magical. 

Clarke’s laws, then, muddle the idea that we can divide science fiction from fantasy on the grounds that sci-fi deals with the plausible while fantasy peddles the implausible. Both genres invite their audiences to flirt with unreality, they just use different pretexts to do it. For a more contemporary version of this same take, see China Miéville:

“[T]he boundaries between the impossible of the fantastic and Gothic on the one hand, and the impossible of science fiction on the other, are simply too fuzzy to be systematically maintained. What they share is as important as what distinguishes them. What they share is the starting point that something impossible is true.”

To go along with Tolkien, Clarke, and Miéville, we ought to put sci-fi and fantasy together in the same Wittgensteinian family of resemblances. Almost all members share the aquiline nose of fancifulness. The square jaw of obeying the laws of thermodynamics? Less prevalent.

But I promised that we would actually concede one major difference between the sci-fi and fantasy genres. And we will. Is everybody ready? Here it goes: people don’t relate to them in the same way.

I know: groundbreaking. But really. Technobabble may be, for all intents and purposes, the same excuse as “it’s magic,” performed with slightly more elaborate hand-waving, but science-y explanations flatter the sensibilities of some readers who may otherwise have a more difficult time getting on board with a premise that isn’t legitimized by a rational explanation. (As evidence of this dynamic, I submit the classic Dropout, née College Humor, sketch “Why Can’t You Use Phones on Planes?”) We live in fairly rationalist societies—and we should keenly note here the difference between “rationalist” and “rational”—so we like to be reassured that we are not engaging with bald-faced flimflam. The rationalist, scientif-ish explanation places its impossibilities on a continuum with the scientific and technological advances of the modern era. Sure, it’s not possible now, but it could be in the future! This concern has even bled over into fantasy and its sweatily rationalized and rule-bounded “Hard Magics,” whence the Larry Niven corollary “any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science”  

The reverse also applies, with the fantasy genre’s monarchs who are destined to reign over all appealing to a human liking for neat and “natural” hierarchy. Even Ursula K. Le Guin, who consistently problematizes hierarchy across her work, indulges some in this trope with the character Lebannen from the Earthsea series, whose ascension to the throne parallels a cosmic return to natural order at the conclusion of The Farthest Shore.

Both of these gestures are different sorts of appeal to legitimacy, the legitimacy of scientific rationality on one hand, and the legitimacy of tradition and historicity on the other. Both have the effect of offering their audience some form of comfort to counterbalance any ensuing strangeness. But people do relate differently enough to these forms of legitimacy that it would be disingenuous to write them off the same thing. As with many labels, the distinction being made is not so much to do with the qualities or inner workings of the things described; rather, they evoke the different ways we feel about the things described. And feelings matter, since they inflect the way that we read—or write.

Because its genre boundaries are defined by the somewhat persnickety standard of rationality, sci-fi has to be a little more choosey about what it will admit to its club. Hence, when Star Wars flubs the definition of a “parsec,” science fiction apologists must rush to disavow it as mere fantasy.

At least, that’s the way it is for now.

Look, can’t we all agree to believe that the whole parsec thing, spoken as it is by gorgeous idiot Han Solo, is just a bit of fast-talk aimed at some desert yokels?

Moreover, can we agree that the Star Wars universe, with its light-speed spaceships, laser-based weaponry, and beep-booping droids, all equally dubious and equally science-y, is as much science fiction as any other good old space opera? Yes, it also has “the Force,” which just goes to show that magic-y concepts, like the Vulcan mind meld or “the Voice” from Dune, fit perfectly comfortably alongside technological ones is speculative fiction. They are all pulling together, doing the same work of making the impossible possible.

There’s a line in the denouement of the musical My Fair Lady where Eliza, a lower-class girl who has been trained in upper-class affectations, explains what she has realized about class distinctions. “You see, Mrs. Higgins,” Eliza tells her erstwhile tutor’s mother, “apart from the things one can pick up, the difference between a lady and flower girl is not how she behaves but how she is treated.”

We can and should apply Eliza’s epiphany to a liberal swath of topics, including the matter at hand. Star Wars is as much science fiction as John Hodgman is a judge. They’re both wearing the right pajamas. The rest is all about how they are treated. As for the treatment of fantasy, or of fantasy elements in whatever genre they might lie, we might do ourselves some good by treating them less literally—they are impossible!—and permit ourselves thereby to take them more seriously. It would be a mistake to take Le Guin’s Lebannen as a literal pro-monarchy gesture, and as much a mistake as to overlook that Darth Vader isn’t just powerful because he wields the Force. His literal, “magical” Jedi powers to move objects with his mind and terrorize the cream of the British Actors’ Guild is less significant than the symbolic, thematic power he is revealed to occupy in the narrative. He’s powerful because he’s a father.

My own dad is also a father, and as such is unlikely to cry uncle anytime soon. That’s alright, though. If he did, it would only mean an end to the fun. He’s the reason I was introduced to Star Trek and Star Wars, and hopped from there to other genre fiction. His influence is probably also to blame for so much of my logic being grounded in references to musical theater. The Force is strong with that one. Dad, argue again soon? icon-paragraph-end

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