Sci-Fantasy & Sci-Fiction

What is Science Fantasy and What is Science Fiction?

One of the things I had to learn years ago if for no other reason than to save pointless arguing with friends, was the difference between Science Fantasy and Science Fiction. It's helpful to know if you're going to write it, and definitely helpful to know if you are the type, like me, whose opinion of a work sort of depends on what you were expecting when you went into the movie/started reading/etc.

Science Fantasy:

I define it as any story that takes place in a science-fiction type setting (space, advanced civilizations, etc) but whose central themes or technology deal with things that are thought to be scientifically improbable, if not impossible, by today's scientific understanding.

The most famous science fantasy story of all time is Star Wars.

(Trailer courtesy YouTube, LEGO, LucasFilm, and Disney)

Why is it science fantasy and not science fiction?

-Is it because it has faster-than-light travel?
No. There are FTL systems that are theoretically possible, like wormholes (e.g. Stargate SG-1 and possibly Battlestar Galactica depending on how "jump drive" actually works), and even warp drive (see Alcubierre Drive a version of which was recently taken up by NASA as a realistic means of reaching another star within one's lifetime.) Even Star Wars' own version of FTL transportation, "Hyperdrive" may be theoretically possible. (If you're a big nerd like me, you've read the additional materials that explain "hyperspace" in the SW universe is an alternate dimension that ships jump into to travel faster than light. Some versions of String Theory predict multiple dimensions, so I'm gonna say we can't rule this one out).

-Is it because there are cyborgs (Darth Vader)?
No. Cybernetics is a growing reality. (See my previous posts on this topic)

What makes Star Wars Science Fantasy? Here's a short list:

>The Force: "The Force is an energy field created by all living things, it surrounds us, penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together" -Obi'Wan Kenobi  (No such energy field has been proven to exist)
>Space ships that fly through space as though it's air (again, if you're a mega-nerd you know this is because they use "dimensional rudders" that somehow enable this... Still, that's fantasy by our current understanding).
>Lightsabers (much to my sadness)

You get the picture, right?

Other examples of Science Fantasy include:

>Doctor Who (backward time travel seems improbable unless the theory about wormholes stretching through time turns out to be correct -doesn't look like it will-, but also there is a lot of silliness when it comes to scientific plausibility in the series; but who cares? It's fun!)

>Star Trek (although many real world ideas for actual tech have come from ST cough: Cell phones! :cough! a lot of it is just fantastical imaginings based on science. I draw your attention to the original series... Pretty much pick an episode, any episode...)

>Farscape (one of my favorites, but don't get me started... There's just so much not right about it- but in a good way)

So what is Science Fiction?

Science Fiction, or sci-fi, is fiction set in the plausible future. Be it post-apocalyptic, high tech, or near-future, a piece of speculative fiction is sci-fi if things go a certain way in the real world, the setting and/or events could actually occur. The category also includes things like alternate futures/time-lines and alternate Earths as long as the "rules" (laws of physics) are obeyed according to what science things is possible (but not necessarily what exists now. I refer you to the aforementioned Alcubierre Drive).

A special note has to be placed here, since there are a few things considered non-plausible that are included in this category anyway for reasons of tradition. Mainly, telepathy/psychic powers, which although science holds that there is no widely accepted evidence for, are included anyway because, well, they've just always been in the genre.

So, what qualifies as "Science Fiction"?

In my opinion, one of the best works that defines sci-fi is Babylon 5.

(Trailer Courtesy YouTube)

Why do I think it exemplifies the genre? Here's another short list:

>The space ships appear to follow the laws of physics- mostly (e.g. the fighters use strategically placed thrusters to turn around)
>Takes place in a high-tech, far future setting which is meant to be our own future
>FTL system is a wormhole drive variant (possible!)
>Largely sticks to what is plausible (with the aforementioned special exception of psychic powers)

It's also a damn good story (at least Seasons 1-4, I highly recommend it if you haven't seen it yet) which isn't necessary to be sci-fi, but I really just had to mention it. Seriously, go watch it!

Other examples include:

>Battlestar Galactica (the 2004 version, also be sure to check out the 2012 "Blood and Chrome" story)

>Stargate SG-1 (as far as I can tell, it stays within the plausible, or mostly within it but I haven't seen every episode) & spin-offs (SGU, Atlantis)

>Continuum (a recent favorite- but wait! It has time travel which you said is improbable, right? Well, maybe. Watch the series, they do it in a more plausible way than straight-out backward time travel).

So that's it for this week.

Did I miss something you really think belongs in this discussion? Let me know in the comments!


  1. "Why is it science fantasy and not science fiction?"

    Because it is science fiction! Science fantasy is a subgenre of science fiction, but also a blended genre - science fiction + fantasy. Just as you can have "supernatural romance" or "historical thriller" and they would still belong within the confines of the genres they name check.

    If we're going to get into the "science fiction has to be scientifically accurate/plausible" argument, I will just point out we have a term for that - it's called hard science fiction. Star Trek and Farscape are what we would call "soft sci-fi" (possibly to the point of not even being solid and slipping through the fingers of reality like mercury).

    Too often do proponents of hard science fiction use the term "science fantasy" to discredit and distance themselves further from all that icky soft sci-fi. Which is fine on one hand because genres are slippery and hard to define (especially before of the aforementioned crossover), but on the other hand, Ray Bradbury, an acknowledged "master of science fiction," wrote science fantasy. A lot of it.

    1. Calling something Science Fantasy does not in any way discredit it. However, though one can have plausible science fiction in a work of science fantasy (as I point out with Star Wars above), the moment you involve something without believable explanation or that violates the rules of our current world, you're in fantasy-land by definition.

      I happen to like science fantasy a great deal as entertainment, BUT as far as definitions go, I feel there does have to be a line drawn. For someone like me, if I go into something expecting hard sci-fi and I get sci-fantasy, I usually wind up pretty disappointed. If a work is marketed correctly, though, I go into it with the right mindset and I can enjoy it.

      That raises the question, what is the true core of sci-fi? Why do we call one thing sci-fi and another fantasy at all?

      I know a lot of people put "soft" sci-fi down, though honestly I don't really understand that. I guess it depends on what you're watching/reading/etc. the media for. If you want to see what a creative person can do with our current understanding, that's one thing, but if you just happen to like fun stories involving space, that's a totally different mindset—though both perspectives are valid in their own right.

      Also, when Ray Bradbury did most of his work, we didn't understand nearly as much as we do now, and the realm of the plausible has shrunk (or expanded, as perspective allows). Star Trek was considered hard sci-fi in its day, though now the perspective we have is quite different. The same can be said of Heinlein, by the way if he and Bradbury had started their careers today they probably would have been categorized differently. Clarke and Asimov are definitely more on the "hard" side of the genre, though.

    2. Ray Bradbury was soft even for the 1950s. If you compare say, Asimov and Bradbury, you see that Asimov takes more of a stab at serious science using the available scientific knowledge of the day... which is wrong, or dated, but he tried. Bradbury was a little less technical, more humanist. Personally I find that made his work age a little better, but it does mean he falls into the "soft sci-fi" category. Which is not a bad thing, at all - what we laud Ray Bradbury for are his lessons and morals, what we can learn about the human condition using the metaphors in his stories.

  2. Agree wholeheartedly with your take on Star Wars and Dr Who - and really, most 'time travel' stories. As soon as you go into 'magical' powers (eg the Force) you're into fantasy. I'm not thrilled about how often mental telepathy/empathy powers get a place in SF, but then recent experiments with rats have shown something like this is possible. I'm not a great movie watcher, but in the current book field, McDevitt is a stand-out for plausible science fiction.

    1. Truth be told, I actually do think some level of telepathy/psychic abilities may be true—mainly because of the brain having a magnetic field, and things like magnetic resonance—I just don't think such phenomena are usually believable. You won't catch me on line at a palm reader anytime soon.

      I heard about this experiment while in school, where a mouse was under one jar, and a plant under another. And shocking the mouse seemed to correlate with the plant releasing alarm chemicals, though nothing was being done with the plant. If anyone knows a link to this experiment please post it here (I've been looking for years, starting to wonder if I made it up in my head).

  3. (As requested...)

    Science fiction posits a world that makes sense; fantasy is a world where things don't have to make sense. People call Star Trek science fiction because even though the science may be "bad", it still functions according to some rules that are grounded in real-world concepts. I think your definitions focus on the technology too much, and forget that science fiction in its way is also about the social sciences as well. Where are we going? Who will we be when we get there? This is Star Trek at its core - using the concept of the future to explore who we are today. This is why so many scientists were inspired by science fiction to become scientists. Fantasy can never really do that (though it has its own uses).

    But because these are genres, a work can exist in both. Genres are for the most part, not exclusionary.
    Though, if something is called "hard sci-fi" you can generally assume it will not have fantasy elements. But as I said in a previous comment, there are blended genres, and science fantasy is one of them. It can belong to both; no need to make it a red-headed stepchild. Mixing genres can enrich a story by taking the best conventions of each and creating something nuanced and complex.


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