Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Distinguishing Fantasy from Science Fiction

Fantasy and Science Fiction are distinct-but-related genres of fictitious literature, both belonging to the larger category of speculative fiction.  Fantasy is a modern term for fictional literature set in worlds wherein magic works and where there are often supernatural beings (e.g., djinn or genii, ghosts, demons, vampires, nymphs, dryads, goddesses and/or gods, etc.) or creatures from mythology (e.g., elves, dwarves, giants, dragons, etc.).  Major characters often have supernatural abilities or magical devices (e.g., rings, swords, harps, lamps, flying carpets, etc.).  Fantasy draws from many ancient mythologies, texts from extinct religions (and sometimes from living religions), fairy tales, medieval  romances and legends, but, unlike these earlier works (which often serve as source material or taproot texts), modern fantasy is deliberately composed by one or more authors not as history, but as entertainment–-the fantastic elements are not expected to be believed by either the author(s) or readers.  Although people often refer to “sexual fantasies,” fantasy literature is not usually a written form of pornography; the term for that “literature” is erotic fiction.  (This is not to say that fantasy literature aimed at adult readers may not entail elements of romance or even of the erotic–-but this is not the focus and because of the wide age range of readers, love scenes in fantasy works  seldom become overly graphic.)

What distinguishes fantasy from science fiction is that the latter attempts to base all fantastic elements on principles from known science or to give a plausible scientific explanation for the fantastic elements.  Usually, the laws of the universe in science fiction either function in ways known to contemporary science or the changes are cautious and a scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation is attempted.  (For this reason, despite the genetically altered indigenous lizards of Pern, that the colonists from earth named “dragons,” Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” books are science fiction and not fantasy, as McCaffrey herself would argue.) 

The two literary genres do sometimes overlap and, when this happens, the result is often called science fantasy.  The currently most famous example of science fantasy are the films and books in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga which include science fiction elements (starships, laser weapons, advanced technology, robots/droids, holograms, alien races, etc.) but also elements of fantasy (e.g., the powers of the Jedi Knights and the Sith Lords; a “quest” structure and a cosmic battle between good and evil, etc.).  Other major examples  of science fantasy include Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” novels in which the “Mars” to which Captain John Carter of Virginia is transported bears little resemblance to the Mars known by astronomers; C.S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy,” Lin Carter’s “Callisto” books, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover stories and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.  The great pioneer of modern science fiction was 19th C. French author, Jules Verne (e. g., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; The Mysterious Island; From Earth to the  Moon; Around the World in 20 Days, etc.)

Since I believe imagination is crucial to both religious faith and moral discernment, I encourage wide reading in this literature, regardless of the particular religious commitments (or lack thereof) of the author(s).  I am also convinced that both fantasy and science fiction are excellent vehicles for exploring moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions, although this should never be so heavy-handed as to dominate the narrative structure.  The story must first work AS literature.  Far too many Christian apologists with no real literary ability and boringly dogmatic outlooks have wasted trees in attempts as “Christian fantasy,” believing falsely that they are the next C.S. Lewis. (Left Behind and all its sequels should be LEFT OUT. Ugh!)

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January 24, 2011 - Posted by | blog series, book reviews, books, fantasy literature, science fiction

6 Comments »

  1. What do you The City and The City is?

    Comment by sonia | January 24, 2011 | Reply

    • Since I’m unfamiliar with the work, I can’t classify it for you, Sonia. Could you describe the work?

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 24, 2011 | Reply

  2. The City and the City would be fantasy (likely urban, but subgenres are hard to pin down).

    Comment by SMD | January 25, 2011 | Reply

    • Yes, I might write another post on sub-genres and the difficulty of classification.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 25, 2011 | Reply

  3. Since I believe imagination is crucial to both religious faith and moral discernment, “I encourage wide reading in this literature, regardless of the particular religious commitments (or lack thereof) of the author(s). I am also convinced that both fantasy and science fiction are excellent vehicles for exploring moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions, although this should never be so heavy-handed as to dominate the narrative structure.”

    I have always thought this way about science fiction, especially since I’m trying to work on my own sf novels that weave issues of religion, peace, and justice within the overall story. Thanks for your affirmation of this idea!

    Comment by Jake | January 26, 2011 | Reply

    • You’re welcome, Jake.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 26, 2011 | Reply


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