If you are reading this site, and I’m pretty sure you are, it is safe to assume that sci-fi and fantasy are among your two favorite genres. Often lumped together, the genres have become blurred into an amalgam of pop culture–but as geeks, we know there is an important distinction between the super intelligent, pointy-eared elf and the super intelligent, pointy-eared Vulcan.
Science fiction (adj): : fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.
Fantasy (adj): imaginative fiction featuring especially strange settings and grotesque characters
Thanks, Merriam-Webster, that helps. I think of science fiction as the opposite of historical fiction–instead of taking place in a world we knew, it takes place in a world we might know. It is fantastical, but grounded. It is plausible even when it is impossible, because it offers an explanation.
Merriam and/or Webster defines science as “the state of knowing.” In true sci-fi, we are not injected into a world where dragons appear among us, rather we learn how dinosaurs were cloned from DNA preserved inside a fossilized mosquito. Impossible, yet plausible. An other worldly creature is never written off as magic, it is literally from another world.
In an attempt the set the record straight, lets categorize some geek mainstays as either sci-fi or fantasy. This is in my subjective order from most sci-fi to least.
Star Trek. It takes place in the future. It takes place in space. It used many sci-fi tropes and invented many others. The inclusion of Scotty to clear up how warp speed and teleportation works, however vague helps the cause. And if TOS is sci-fi, the Next Generation is super sci-fi. They packed more jargon in that show than my college engineering class. Even characters that, for all intents and purposes, performed magic, like Q, were acceptable as aliens from another dimension.
Spiderman. A kid is bit by a radioactive spider and can climb up walls. It’s a stretch, and radiation is given way too many liberties in Marvel Comics, but with further exploration of genetic experiments among Spidey villains, it allows for the suspension of disbelief. Best of all, Peter Parker actually knows and likes science. It’s always good to have a narrator who knows what the hell is going on.
X-Files. The Mulder/Scully dynamic allowed for an exploration of the plausibility of every paranormal critter they encountered. Mulder was always right, which made for better TV but worse science. The recurring alien story line was complete sci-fi, the rest was a fictional miscellany.
Star Wars. It takes place
in the future a long time ago. It takes place in space. The politics, creatures, and blasters all scream sci-fi, but the central plot point makes the films largely fantasy for me. The Force is part religion part magic, the closest it ever came to science fiction is the universally hated scene when midi-chlorians were brought up. True sci-fi requires a plausible explanation…and at least that was an explanation.
Superman. Although he began his run as a solid sci-fi character, he has since contributed to the genre blurring mentioned earlier. Action Comics #1 established him as an alien who could “leap tall buildings in a single bound” and equated his strength to earthly marvels like an ant that can lift twenty times its own weight. However, as his powers grew there was no further explanation. Flight? Heat vision? Arctic breath? I know Captain Marvel is branded as the magical Superman, but the lack of plausibility makes Supes himself almost as much a fantasy. That said, much of his rogues gallery used science brilliantly as a basis for super-villainy.
LOST. The symbolism of Jack’s “man of science” and Locke’s “man of faith” is the perfect parallel to how the show toed the line between sci-fi and fantasy. Jack desperately wanted to make sense of the island, he wanted this to be a sci-fi show, but Locke knew better. For every reference to time travel and electromagnetism, there was a smoke monster and ghost. The show’s final season is notorious for introducing a lot and explaining little. Until Faraday’s notebook makes sense of it all, this show is mostly fantasy.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clark brings us home. Science fiction and fantasy are two extremes on a spectrum of technology vs. magic. Knowledge vs. imagination. Science vs. faith. You can prefer one, the other, or embrace the spectrum and celebrate sci-fantasy.