SCI-FI OR FANTASY?
by Dennis Green
Miriam Allen deFord, an American writer of mysteries and science fiction in the early 1900’s, is credited with saying “Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities.” The line is sometimes attributed to Rod Sterling, the screenwriter, producer, and narrator of The Twilight Zone. He may have been the first to recite it on TV, but I’m guessing he stole it from Miriam. Lots of other well-respected writers–including Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and H. G. Wells–have tried to distinguish science fiction from fantasy, but none of their efforts have been fully successful. Therefore, the characterization of any given work is not clear cut.
The reason it is so difficult to distinguish among the genre of “speculative fiction” ( the term now used to include science fiction, fantasy, sword and sorcery and horror), is because they have many “tropes” in common. Tropes like space travel, time travel, alternate universes, alternate history, new worlds, aliens, epic scientific or social changes, telepathy, telekinesis, resurrection, artificial intelligence, artificial life, and human evolution are just a few that come to mind. The effort to distinguish between science fiction and fantasy goes on, causing much confusion and discussion, though I don’t understand why anyone cares. Maybe it serves some marketing purpose. If a work of fiction is entertaining, engrossing, and stimulating, people will tend to read and enjoy it no matter how it is labeled. Is Harry Potter science fiction or fantasy? How about Game of Thrones? Or A Princess of Mars? Let’s try to label some well-known examples.’
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The central trope of Twain’s novel is time travel, and astronomy is also important. The protagonist is placed in an alternate world similar to mythical medieval England. Though it might certainly be classified as science fiction, it rarely is thought of as such.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings certainly involves an alternate world with its own plausible geography, environment, political history, and characters, but since it also involves magic, elves, and imaginary beasts, it most probably should be classified as fantasy.
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth is an alternate history story, but it doesn’t occur to most readers that they are reading science fiction.
Dune involves space travel, imaginary worlds, terraformIng, genetics, futuristic weapons, and many other science fiction tropes. The story is grounded in science, and the advances are plausible. I would classify it as science fiction, though there are strong threads of sword and sorcery appearing throughout.
Kurt Vonnegut’s books Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five contain sci-fi tropes such as time travel, aliens, and space travel, but many readers who deny reading or liking science fiction, admittedly read and enjoy these novels.
Frankenstein is well known as classic literature and is even included in many high school curricula without a science fiction label. But in science fiction circles, it is often identified as the first science fiction novel. Certainly the story’s central theme, the reanimation of life based on Galvin’s electricity experiments, clearly fits the definition of science fiction.
The list could go on, but it’s not worth the effort. If the description of a work is intriguing, or the author is someone you enjoy, or a literate friend suggests a book, read it and decide for yourself if it is entertaining. Don’t worry about how it is classified.
Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer–and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie. He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.