Advice SectionScientific Magic:  What's the Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy?

by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Being an article originally written for the Del Rey Internet Newsletter in 1993 as part of the pre-publication publicity for Out of This World

Article copyright 1993 by Lawrence Watt Evans. Text last revised: March 22, 1999

Ellen [Key Harris, then editor of the DRIN] asked if I'd like to write something for the newsletter, and gave a few suggestions. One of them was "Since you write both, what do you see as the definitive differences between sf and fantasy?"

This is an especially interesting question coming from a Del Rey editor. When Del Rey was founded, it was the first major publisher to declare a sharp division between the SF and fantasy lines -- Judy-Lynn del Rey ran the SF, Lester ran the fantasy, and never the twain would meet. Fantasy editors did not buy SF; SF editors did not buy fantasy. No other house kept them so carefully segregated.

Judy-Lynn and Lester are both gone now, though, and the barriers are breaking down. So were they artificial? Or were they a good idea?

What do I see as the definitive difference?

The SF purists will want to lynch me for this, but the fact is, there is no definitive difference.

I have written both -- shucks, I've won awards for both. And I've written articles on the difference before -- "Watt-Evans' Laws of Fantasy" was published in Starlog years ago, and gave my definitions of the two genres.

Basically, the difference is that in fantasy, you write about things you believe to be impossible, while in SF you write about stuff that hasn't been disproved. Everything else is window-dressing.

Thing is, one person's SF is another person's fantasy. Is time travel possible? Faster-than-light travel? Parallel worlds? Psi powers? Nanotechnology?

(You may think you can give a simple yes or no answer to some of those, but I assure you, I can find people who will give the opposite answer just as confidently.)

Sometimes you have a story that's clearly one or the other -- nobody seriously contends that The Lord of the Rings is science fiction, or that A Fall of Moondust is fantasy. And maybe once upon a time, it was pretty easy to classify most stories.

But it's gotten harder and harder as it gets more difficult to define the limits of what's possible, and as they turn out to be in unexpected places. Fifty years ago, nanotechnology was fantasy, but the swamps of Venus were SF. The grey area between SF and fantasy has gotten larger and larger.

SF has managed to lay claim to large chunks of it, more out of tradition than anything else -- and because of the trappings, the window-dressing. In SF, if you present something that looks like magic, you have to give a rationale; in fantasy, you can just go ahead and call it magic.

Often the real difference between the two, whether the SF folks want to admit it or not, is whether the author bothers to make up a rationale.

You have a world dominated by wizards living in castles, who battle each other by casting lightnings about -- it's fantasy.

But say it's a planet of another star, and the lightnings are high-energy particle beams, and all of a sudden it's SF.

Your hero rides a dragon -- it's fantasy.

The dragon's the result of careful gene-splicing -- it's SF.

Me, I like to play in that gray area, and keep it at least slightly gray. I know enough science to write good hard SF -- I've been published in Analog -- but I don't insist on it; I'm perfectly willing to play around with myth and magic if it'll make a better story.

And I love writing science-fantasy.

In The Cyborg and the Sorcerers, the story's set on a colony planet bombed back to barbarism, where wizards have risen to power -- but is it magic, or psionic abilities caused by a radiation-induced mutation? I never said; I let the reader decide.

In "Windwagon Smith and the Martians," Thomas Smith is transported to Mars -- but by magic, or technology? I never said.

And in Out of This World and the rest of the Three Worlds trilogy, the characters find themselves involved with alternate universes where the laws of physics are different -- one a non-Einsteinian space where the speed of light is not a limit, but things are otherwise fairly similar, and the other where there's an omnipresent energy field that can be used to work "magic" -- magic that obeys very definite laws of its own.

Now, is that SF, or is it fantasy?

This time, I not only didn't say, I don't know myself.

Which doesn't bother me at all. Let the readers figure out whichever answer they like.

I originally sold it to Del Rey as science fiction -- but that was only because Lester was backlogged at the time, and I thought I'd get a faster reply from the SF side. I have no idea whether they're planning to put the circles or the cockatrice on it. Your guess is as good as mine.

Because what matters to me is whether it's a good story, with interesting characters and settings and situations -- one that will keep the reader turning pages, and leave him or her feeling satisfied at the end.

SF, fantasy -- who cares? I love 'em both.

SF vs. fantasy... SF vs. fantasy... SF vs. fantasy... SF vs. fantasy...

All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
Space elf art copyright 1985 by William Levy
All rights reserved
No reproduction permitted without permission of the author