Thought Candy: Just What IS Sci-Fi?

This letter brings up an interesting
question: just how do you define SF and fantasy? Is “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”
fantasy or SF? What about “Frankenstein?” Heck, what about
“The Smurfs?” For the love of God, please, post your thoughts!

7 replies on “Thought Candy: Just What IS Sci-Fi?”

  1. My preferred definition of sci-fi

    I prefer to define science fiction as fiction involving
    the extrapolation of “present” (at the time of the
    writing) science and its effects on society. If the work
    is an extrapolation of valid science (such as “Island of
    Dr. Moreau” when it was written) I call it hard science
    fiction. If the writer(s) is clueless of the science and
    makes stuff up to fit the drama (like Star Trek and Star
    Wars), I call it soft science fiction.

  2. Electricity
    If there’s running water and electrical outlets, it’s science fiction. Otherwise Fantasy.

    I’d say final fantasy was a sci-fi pic. I think the distinction is mostly about the setting, though. I mean, you can replace everything in star wars with a fantasy setting and you’d have a fantasy movie.

    I will say that there seems to be more of a “dork moniker” on Fantasy than Sci-Fi. Probably due to most sci-fi involving blowing things up with advanced weaponry, while fantasy involves bows and arrows.

  3. Star Wars is not sci-fi.
    The heart of good sci-fi is definitely ethics. If there is no ethical considerations underlying the whizbang techie junk or the alternative history or the gruesome monster, than it just doesn’t cut the mustard.

    Star Wars is fantasy: it’s a space opera.

    X-Files is sci-fi usually; it covers the ramifications of gov’t conspiracies, fiddling with genes, etc etc.

    Final Fantasy… damn, I really hadn’t thought about it. It tackles the hard, cold, reap the benefits quick *good* (shoot the monsters with the big gun == dig for oil now in the USA to satisfy immediate energy needs) versus the ideal *good* (complete the waveform to save gaia and release the ghosts == zero emmissions car engine). But the world and all the tech and magic are complete fantasy. …

    I think for something to be sci-fi, it has to address an ethical question raised by some possible future (or past) version of our world. And I include past because learning about what COULD have happened is definitely relevant to the present and future (the old history repeating itself bit).

    I’m making this up off the top of my head at work, so please feel free to tear it apart; I’m sure I’ve missed something (besides spelling and puncuation).

    • Re: Star Wars is not sci-fi.
      I’ve been told here that what i was trying to define was *hard* science fiction.

  4. My take on the issue…

    I like to look at them as two ends of a spectrum instead of seperate genres. See fig 1.

    Fig 1: fantasysci-fi

    I tend to see sci-fi as anything where technology is either a) the main plot mover or b) an essencial (sp?) element to the rest of the story. (eg a) Frankenstein, any of the plauge stories like “The White Plauge,” etc. b) Independace Day (You can’t fight invading aliens unless they have advanced tech right?), etc.)

    OTOH, I see fantasy having more to do with nature (dragons, dwarves, sacred pools, etc.) and natural abilies (magic, psionics, and such) that are beyond the norm.

    Anything that can be classified as either sci-fi or fantasy can be placed somewhere on this spectrum. These definitions lead some overlap such as the Jedi in Star Wars or Spiderman. (Spidy has special powers but they were caused by an accident with technology.)

    I don’t think a story has to have major ethical problems caused by science to be considered sci-fi. (Though sometimes those stories are the better (or at least more enduring) ones.) A classification of a story as sci-fi, fantasy or something else depends primarily on the setting of the story. eg. I don’t consider a story about the use (or not) of nuclear weapons to be sci-fi. However, a story about the aftermath of such use might be. (Damnation Alley fits this, again it’s the setting that defines it.)


  5. SF is not just the environment
    SF is differentiated from Fantasy by the state and prevalence of technology. Aside from that they are more alike than different.

    Both include “fantastic” abilities, the nature of them is magical in fantasy or technological in SF.

    So, a story set in classical times where the main character builds the first boat that can navigate the mediterranean and his adventures. That is SF, it examines the impact of technology on society. You an of course tell the same story in a traditional SF setting, call it the first warp drive, and this can amplify the effect of the story. It is the same tale though.

    Clearly, in this environment we have a traditional fantasy setting, but have created an SF story.

    Fantasy tends to be more mythical. Look at The Matrix. Sure the setting is in the distant future…a traditional SF setting, but the main event,Neo’s realization of special powers, is a fantastic, mythical event. This is fundamentally a fantasy story.

    Finally, how about a first contact story. I expect most readers are probably thinking of the first time Humans met Klingons or some such. Then again, Marco Polo is also a first contact story in many ways. The heart of the story is a human drama of understanding, of the other and the self.

    So, I would say that while the environment is certainly part of the story, what has to be examined is what the story is REALLY about. Where is the core of it ? Now what is driving those changes ?

    If it is the supernatural or mythology, that is Fantasy.

    If it is technology, that is SF.

    If it is people that is drama, comedy, romance or the other traditional stories. It may be in a future setting, but it is the traditional story first.

    The first two are actually rare stories. Final Fantasy is a case in point. Spiritual revelation, and technology aside…the main action is a conflict between the mad general and the reasoning scientist, adn a romance. The rest is a backdrop. (Of course IMNSHO the backdrop proved far more interesting than the story, probably because that is where the effort was spent.)

    Hence the warning to make sure you write a human story first. Too many obsess over the technology and lose the real story.

    Of course if you have a true SF story, write about that. Niven’s Neutron Star is a good example…the story is a mystery, and about survival…but at its core the motivator is science. In this case gravitational tidal forces around a neutron star.

    True Fantasy is even harder to find. It is more often about a heroic journey. Star Wars has such a journey, as does the Odyssey and many mythological stories and fairy tales. Here the magical environs are more crucial. The Force, the Gods, the Matrix… all of these are “magical” environments that drive the central story

    SF is hard to characterize, especially considering the easy confusion with drama or adventure in a future setting. Fantasy is hard to characterize as well.

    There is definitely a spectrum. Stories like Star Wars and The Matrix have elements that fall in several points on the spectrum. Find the core…where does that fall ? That is what it is.

    Well, I am rambling by now. Enjoy.

    • Re: SF is not just the environment

      The first two are actually rare stories. Final Fantasy is a case in point. Spiritual revelation, and technology aside…the main action is a conflict between the mad general and the reasoning scientist, adn a romance. The rest is a backdrop. (Of course IMNSHO the backdrop proved far more interesting than the story, probably because that is where the effort was spent.)

      Gotta Disagree Here. There Was Also A Conflict Between The Humans And The “Phantoms”. The Phantoms Were A New Element, Soemthing They Hadn’t Dealt With Before, And Forced Them TO Learn More And More About Their Nature, As Well AS The Nature Of Their Energies. This Would Make It Sci-Fi By Your Definition, Since They Are Dealing With New Sciences And It’s Impact On Society.

      Personally, I Think If It’s Set In An Advanced Technological World, It’s Sci-Fi (It Can Easily Be Bad Sci-Fi, Like Anyplace Where The Differences Have No Effect On The Characters), And It’s Fantasy When It Takes Place In The Time Of Dragons, Hobbits, Magic, Griffins, And The Like. If It’s Set In A Modern Setting, but Explores Some New Technology, That Would Also Be Sci-Fi, But If It’s Exploring Magic, That’s Fantasy (For Example, Lain Would Be Fantasy, Since It’s A Magical Bridge Between ‘The Wired’ And ‘Reality’, And Flight Of The Navigator Would Be Sci-Fi, Since It’s A Space Ship That Makes The Story)

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