Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature

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How does the science fiction genre distinguish itself from fantasy?

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As a literary genre, Science Fiction distinguishes itself from Fantasy in the elements of technology and science as opposed to magic and the supernatural. Most of both genres have similar patterns with a human component, different worlds, creatures or aliens and a quest.

With Fantasy, supernatural forces, divine intervention and/or magic are major elements that make up the genre. They are linked to the realm of that particular story line.

Science Fiction removes the magic and the supernatural with science and technology. Whereas a wizard may heal the sick through touch and a chant, in science fiction, a scientist will find a cure for an illness through research and a quest for an elusive agent.

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In my opinion, this distinction is increasingly becoming blurred. In the 1980s, Gene Wolfe began his Solar Cycle novels which at first feel like a fantasy novel and then we realize that they are set in a future with robots and space travel. China Mieville's Bas Lag novels are more recent examples that attempt to bridge the gap between fantasy and science fiction to create something new. At best, when distinguishing between these two genres, we can speak to tendencies. However, at the book store, you'll find fantasy and sci-fi shelved together, to the point that many fans refer to them both under the broad acronym, SFF (or science fiction / fantasy).

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Science Fiction is usually about the future. The stories and novels usually involve space ships, future technology and futuristic concepts.  I have found that "fantasy" is more about faeries, witches, wizards, Fae, and goblins.  In the Fantasy genre the stories usually are epic, often covering several volumes and a great deal of time.  This of course is not always true, but generally speaking fantasy is about the past cultures.  Many of my students love fantasy, and stories about dragons, wizards etc., but will not even pick up a Sci-fi book.  I think Orson Scott Card said that SciFi is based on real world laws (i.e. physics), where Fantasy the writer can create their own law in their own universe. It doesn't preclude mixing, but one will have to be the dominate rule. A lot of fantasy does seem to also focus on magic or powers, where SciFi has a lot of technology, especially space travel.

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