Science Fiction versus Fantasy – what’s the difference?


The difference between the fantasy and science fiction genres hasn’t always been an issue, as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America points out.

However, there are a few key differences in the genres that can help us to separate one type of book from the other in the ‘science fiction vs fantasy’ debate.

Robot, Planet, Moon, Space, Forward

One of the most important reasons to understand the difference and know what type of story you’re writing is for marketing purposes.  Agents and publishers will want you to succinctly describe the genre your book fits into.  Additionally, you will likely find that the overall direction of your plot will vary based on whether you are using classic fantasy or science fiction themes and tropes.

photo of Hobbit house

Identifying factors to consider:

  •  Science fiction deals with scenarios and technology that are possible or may be possible based on science. Some science fiction such as far-future space opera or time travel stories may seem implausible, but they are still not beyond the realm of scientific theory.  On the other hand, fantasy general deals with supernatural and magical occurrences that have no basis in science.
  • Fantasy is an older genre of literature than science fiction; in fact, fantasy is arguably the oldest genre.  If we look back at the earliest surviving stories from human civilization (such as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh or the ancient Greek myths), we find stories of gods, monsters, and magic.  Science fiction is a relatively recent genre of the last century or so with origins going back only a few hundred years before that.
  • Both science fiction and fantasy require rules. Just because fantasy is not based on scientific facts or speculation doesn’t mean that anything can go in fantasy. Certain laws must govern a fantasy world as well; the difference is that in fantasy, the author makes up the rules.

It’s easy to argue that science fiction and fantasy can be distinguished by settings or other elements, but that isn’t always the case.  Many would argue that Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series is science fiction despite the existence of dragons while others say the Star Wars films are clearly fantasy despite the space setting.

Interesting fact:  Did you know that eight out of the top 10 grossing films of all time are science fiction and fantasy?  It’s true.

So if these are the genres you like to work in, you’re in excellent company!

Book MarksGenre Clarification

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