Science-fiction and fantasy…the two genres of geek culture. Sometimes it’s hard to separate where science-fiction begins and fantasy ends. The two are often stuck together like a pair of Twizzlers (did I seriously just make that analogy…yep……there’s no going back from this ladies and gentlemen).
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the ways these two genres are different, yet similar.
The primary difference between the two genres is the type of stories they generally tell. When you think of fantasy, most likely one of the first things to pop into your head is Lord of the Rings, if only because of the Peter Jackson movies. The story is pretty recognizable: young, reluctant hero is sent out on epic quest to defeat great, returning evil. Along the way he meets a large cast of heroic figures and friends. The hero faces extreme challenges, often questions the purpose of his quest, but ultimately rises above it all to reveal the courage he has locked away inside of him.
Fantasy stories are often built around a kind of quest, some long-term end goal that drives the heroes forward. In Lord of the Rings, the end goal is to throw the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, thus destroying it and Sauron once and for all.
Science-fiction stories are often based around a kind of idea, a theme. George Orwell’s 1984 was built around the idea of government power and the loss of privacy. Instead of taking the hero on a quest to destroy some great evil, 1984 takes its main character (Winston Smith) on a journey through the dystopian world he lives in. Ultimately, the book serves as a cautionary tale about giving the government too much power.
But this is not to say that there can’t be overlap. Take for example, the Mass Effect trilogy of games. While generally considered science-fiction, the story revolves around an ancient race of machines returning to destroy all life in the galaxy. So much like a fantasy story, Mass Effect has a quest to destroy an on-rushing force of evil bent on annihilating all in its path. Even the movie Interstellar could be said to have a quest of sorts, one to ensure the survival of the human race.
Genres are not set in stone. Often, they mix and mingle with each other, freely exchanging tropes and ideas.
When I was still in college back in White Bear Lake (I went to Century College for my first two years before moving to Duluth), I took a class called “Science-Fiction and Fantasy”, which me and a friend later joked should have been called “Science-Fiction and The Hobbit”, because that was the only book we read in the fantasy genre for that class. But there was a very simple reason for it.
Our teacher explained that many fantasy stories are part of a saga, or a series of stories told over multiple books. She said that it was too difficult to talk about fantasy as a genre without forcing people to read more books than the class had time for, so she chose The Hobbit because it was essentially a self-contained story within the fantasy universe of Lord of the Rings. The events of The Hobbit lead into the main trilogy, but the book itself begins and ends a story within its pages.
The simple way to put it is this: fantasy stories are generally told over multiple books where as sci-fi stories are usually not.
Most science-fiction stories are self-contained. They can take place in the same universe, but the stories themselves often stand on their own. Take Star Trek as an example. Star Trek has a massive universe filled with different ships, crews, and alien races, but for the most part the stories told don’t interact. Sometimes you will see characters from other Trek shows pop up (such as characters from The Next Generation guest starring on episodes of Voyager), but it is not necessary to have an intimate background knowledge of them. You don’t have to watch the original Star Trek show to enjoy The Next Generation, and so on. Fantasy is often dependent on the audience following the story from beginning to end, from first to last. Science-fiction often tells one-off stories in a universe that is never revisited again.
And that’s probably a good thing. I doubt 1985 would have been a good book. Although…
This time, Winston Smith is back, and he’s out for REVENGE.
Okay I’ll stop.
Good vs. Evil
Often when you think of a story you tend to think of characters in terms of good and evil. The main character is the good guy, and the people trying to stop him are the bad guys. Fantasy stories are often set up like this. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo and the fellowship that gathers around him are the good guys. Sauron and his band of orcs are the bad guys. It’s simple. Good goes up against evil. This is pretty much classic fantasy.
Science-fiction is a bit different. There are often good characters and bad characters, but whereas in fantasy the evil part is usually an outside force, in sci-fi the “evil” or antagonistic force can be internal. Take Phillip K. Dick’s short story The Frozen Journey, also known as I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon. In this story, a man named Victor Kemmings is in cryostasis when something goes wrong and he is partially woken up. Due to how long their journey is to take, the AI of the ship keeps replaying memories for him in an attempt to keep him asleep and sane. But Kemmings’ guilt over past actions keeps spoiling the memories, forcing reality back in. Eventually the AI gets desperate and puts Kemmings through a loop of himself arriving at his destination so many times that when he finally gets there, he can’t convince himself that it’s real. In this story, there is no outside evil force.
But fantasy is also allowed a little bit of leeway with this as well. In general, fantasy often has the sides set in stone, as in this side is good, this side is evil. But in the Song of Ice and Fire books (otherwise known as the Game of Thrones series), pretty much everyone is a self-serving jerk. Those people who actually have a good nature are usually killed off fairly quickly. And then there’s also the Drizzt series of books, focusing on a dark elf main character who is not exactly the epitome of niceness.
So while each genre has a set of tropes or standards that they usually draw from, there is a lot of wiggle room for them to expand and try new ideas.
While fantasy and science-fiction are considered separate genres, in reality the two mix together a lot more than most people realize. It’s not a cut and dry “this is fantasy this is science-fiction” type of world. There are stories that can be classified as science-fiction that have fantasy elements to them, and vice versa. And the three criteria I used today are by no means the only ones. There is so much more that goes into both of these genres, so many different worlds they can create. And all it takes is a little imagination.
Imagination is at the root of all storytelling.
Well that’s all I have for you this time. Check back next Wednesday for another post and as always, have a wonderful week!