18 November 2017

Sci-Fi vs Fantasy

One thing I've always wondered is why science fiction and fantasy are lumped together as a genre. When I go into a bookstore, the two types of books take up a single section, apart from 'romance,' 'comedy,' and general 'fiction.' Even though the general fiction section doesn't always confine itself to a specific setting (books in that area can be found taking place at any point in history – from prehistoric ages as in The Clan of the Cave Bear to modern day novels, which are legion).

More interestingly, the 'sci-fi/fantasy' section of a bookstore is often seen as the realm of nerds and geeks by many shoppers. Although it is true that non-nerds are less likely to peruse that section, it's not fair to say any of the following:
  • Nerds won't go to any other fiction section.
  • Non-nerds won't go into that section.
  • Nerds will indiscriminately read anything in that section.
But even more interesting is the idea that the two genres are inseparable. The tendency to lump sci-fi and fantasy into a single section is nearly universal, even amongst nerds themselves. Even the cable channel Syfy (formerly the Sci-Fi channel) broadcast fantasy shows with great frequency. This question is relevant now with the release of the new Starfinder roleplaying game. It basically takes the Pathfinder system and uses it for science fiction gaming (though it still contains magic and other fantasy elements).

But there are some distinct differences between the two, which I would like to discuss today. For one thing, there is the fact that 'fantasy' has been pigeonholed as being based primarily on the works of Tolkein, with minor variation. This is a topic I have discussed before, so I will not revisit it today. The important point is that fantasy, as a general rule, does not allow the breadth of creativity that can be found in science fiction.

There are exceptions, of course. There exists the sub-genre of 'modern fantasy,' which includes most of the works of Neil Gaiman as well as many other prominent authors. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There are considered by some to count as modern fantasy (a point I will argue, but not here). For the most part, modern fantasy allows for more creative exploits than traditional fantasy. But in my experience, still not as much as sci-fi.

In Science Fiction, you can find all manner of innovative creation. Sci-fi works occupy a spectrum from 'humans only' (Dune, Firefly) to 'humanoid aliens only' (Babylon 5, Alien Nation) to 'most aliens are humanoid' (Star Trek, Star Wars) to 'non-humanoid aliens' (Orson Scott Card's Ender series). The sheer possibility of non-human creatures in science fiction is a point of great possible creativity.

Of course, using magic in a world allows for an even greater level of creativity; when I run Changeling: the Dreaming, I can cause nearly anything to happen as a result of the chimerical reality that exists in that game. There was one session in which the players travelled through 'outer space' by traversing the right part of the Dreaming, and interacted with 'aliens' who were really just chimerical beings. In a later session of that same game, they encountered a Tinkerbell-like pixie who gave them an egg timer and told them that they could keep it, as long as they showed it to her werewolf friend who lived in a pyramid made of ice located in the Wailing Tundra; after they found him and showed him the egg timer, he gave them a gift of a portable hole, which they used to travel to an underwater domed city populated by, amongst other things, a teenage white dragon.

And then there's always the option to combine sci-fi and fantasy. In gaming, the most obvious example is Shadowrun, which in a very literal sense is Dungeons and Dragons meets cyberpunk. Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Green Sky trilogy is an example of this science fantasy genre blending, as it is revealed that the fantasy world in which the story takes place was originally colonised by people who travelled there from a planet being ravaged by war and famine. And as much as many people may not realise it (or perhaps may resist the classification), Star Wars is most definitely science fantasy (let's be honest, The Force is just a kind of magic).

Obviously, there is a lot of crossover between the two. Both types of setting deal with impossible (or, at the very least, improbable) elements, including magic, faster-than-light travel and communication, fictional creatures, and non-terrestrial locations. The blurring of lines between sci-fi and fantasy can sometimes be great indeed, as detailed in this excellent essay on TV Tropes. In particular, Orson Scott Card has been quoted as saying, 'Fantasy has trees, sci-fi has rivets.' 

This issue is complicated by the inclusion of other genres. Many horror tales can be considered a subgenre of fantasy; the works of H. P. Lovecraft in particular firmly straddles the line between the two categories. Alternate History is neither sci-fi nor fantasy, but deals with impossible or improbable elements (specifically, a change in the timeline of history as we know it). This gives it some level of common ground with them. It is for this reason that the term 'speculative fiction' has come into being (both Harlan Ellison and Robert A. Heinlein have been credited with creating this alternative title). 

Perhaps Sci-Fi and Fantasy aren't so different after all.

In fact, the current game that I am running is a FATE Core game set in World War I. The lack of advanced technology or magic has been the greatest obstacle I've faced as a GM in devising stories to tell my players. There are so many scenarios that I have devised, only to realise I can't do them, because they aren't historically accurate. I guess the sci-fi/fantasy section of the bookstore really is primarily for nerds.

Seriously, though. It is, in my opinion at least, an interesting topic. Certainly, I know that there are some people who strongly prefer one over the other. The Dork Spouse, in particular, has a marked preference for fantasy; she doesn't care so much for starships and aliens. Although there are plenty of fantasy works that I greatly enjoy (The Dark Crystal and the works of Neil Gaiman in particular), I find that I'm more drawn to the more open-ended possibilities of exploring the galaxy, at least for stories I consume.

But that's enough for one day. Give some thought to this issue as you go about your weekly gaming. I will see you back here next time after another week in which you all continue to

Game on!

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