Wibbly-Wobbly Degrees of Separation

You’d think fantasy and science fiction would be the two most widely different genres on the planet, but weirdly enough you’d be wrong. They kind of have a Tiger and Dragon thing going on, like those two characters that bicker all the time but everyone knows it’s really because they’re secretly uncomfortable with how similar they are beneath the surface (and someone somewhere is utterly convinced that it’s just repressed sexual tension).

Riddle me this: one of the great staples of fantasy is dragons, right? You can’t have an epic fantasy without them. Not even if you’re a hardcore deconstruction like A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, because even then they appear sitting on naked people.

Baby dragons from Game of Thrones

How cute…?

So you have dragons moseying around your fictional world, breathing fire and stealing maidens or providing cryptic wisdom, or whatever you wish, and so it is definitely a fantasy. But what if it turns out that dragons are aliens, or the highly evolved, mutated form of the common iguana?

Then it would be science fiction.

Brain hurt yet? Mine certainly did.

Or your story can feature time travel. That’s a science fiction thing, surely. Well, yes, if it’s done using a scientific invention. If it’s done using magic, then it’s fantasy.

Which, incidentally, is why Doctor Who confuses me so much. It’s always hailed as a science fiction series, yet if you look at the core of it, all of its main operations (the travel of the TARDIS, Timelord regeneration, etc.) are basically magic explained with loose scientific terminology. So in some terms, Doctor Who is a fantasy in space… and then there’s Madoka Magica, in which aliens come to earth and give people magic powers…

As you can see, the definition can get rather wibbly-wobbly.

Which is weird, since science fiction and fantasy, you’d think, would be the two most different genres on the spectrum.  Yet they have so much in common. What it comes down to, in the end, is the mechanics. As I understand it, basically:

Science Fiction:

  • Is plausible with advanced technology

Fantasy:

  • Is impossible by any standards of reality

That sounds simple enough, but it still leaves some things hanging in the balance, caught on the fence between the two. What say space explorers find a new element on a distant planet with extraordinary powers? Is that sci-fi, because it’s entirely plausible that there could be unknown substances in the colossal question mark that is the unexplored universe, or is it fantasy because the stuff and its powers have been totally made up?

Captain Jack Harkness: "You people with your quaint little categories"

Wise words from Captain Jack

In the same pickle are superheroes and all their collective hoo-ha. They’re often placed as science fiction, but many of them contain fantasy elements. At what point do the powers of an alien or superhero become fantastical? Wherein lies the threshold of possibility, and when is it crossed? It’s all very well to say that unbelievable things are entirely plausible because they come from another planet where things are different, but when does that stretch suspension of disbelief too far and it would be easier to just have the planet be a fantasy realm?

Audiences can get muddled when it comes to the explanation of impossible things—some writers demand credibility and patch together complex scientific explanations, but this can often be fumbled. Such is the case with the Twilight saga (yes, I know I’m talking about that again) wherein Stephanie Meyer felt the need to explain the workings of her vampires with ~*biology*~. She muddled it spectacularly, of course, trying to explain how Edward and Bella’s magical low-maintenance hybrid baby does actually make sense (pro tip: it doesn’t), but in doing so turned the series from urban fantasy into science fiction. Now that hurts my head.

The same concept was used (albeit handled with much more forethought) in Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps, a novel that takes vampires and explains them as a scientific concept. Vampirism is in fact a parasite that, much like rabies, demands to be spread from body to body, so it fills its host with the desire to bite people. Also sleep with everyone, as the protagonist discovers, seeing as the parasite is simply borne on bodily fluids and doesn’t really discriminate. There you have it, a fantastical concept turned into sci-fi.

Steampunk is a popular niche genre at the moment, and I’ve seen it stacked in the science fiction and the fantasy section. This is because the nature of the genre is such that it could belong to either one, depending on the individual story. A short story in a steampunk themed anthology involved a device that could pause time, a crystal-like thing embedded in a watch-like gizmo. Is that fantasy or science fiction? Is it magic explained using technology, or technology explained using magic?

Steampunk ships

Or is it just better to not be explained since it looks so cool?

Steampunk could simply be set in an alternate universe where technology advanced much faster during the Industrial Revolution, and so in the Victorian period we have flying machines and ray guns and cool junk like that, as in The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, where the computer is invented in the Victorian era using steam and clockwork technology (this is said to be one the first novels that spawned the concept of steampunk). Or, it could be of a similar aesthetic but powered by magic, making it Gaslamp Fantasy. The two can often overlap in their content, including great adventures, gothic themes, cool outfits and spiffy, clockwork gadgets.  However, even if it is an alternate history or alternate universe, does the fact that these alternate timelines exist indicate a fantastical element? Or is the possibility of multiple universes one for science?

And is there even so much of a difference between magic and science? If magic were real, in our world, then we would no doubt analyse and study it and consider it a science of its own. Is magic, then, defined as something we don’t understand and can’t rationalise? Does that make atomic physics magic, since we don’t know all there is to know about it yet?

So, in conclusion, science fiction is fantasy and fantasy is science fiction, they are perfectly capable of being exactly the same thing, magic could be a science and science is pretty damn magical. And the Twilight vampires will never make any sense no matter what method you use to explain them. I have a headache.

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9 Comments

Filed under Archetypes and Genre

9 responses to “Wibbly-Wobbly Degrees of Separation

  1. Ruby

    hahaha, this is what i was thinking all through my HSC extension english course where our genre study was SF. Throughout it, i could just hear little screams from the texts: ‘DON’T CLASSIFY ME MAN!’

  2. I’ve been trying to figure out if steampunk is fantasy or science fiction… I mean, one of my favorite steampunk books involves biology (science fiction) but it can be used to bring dead animals/people back to life (which seems more like fantasy).

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