The difference between fantasy and science fiction

Last Tuesday, I gave a lecture to the Wyoming Catholic College community about “the Christian dignity of story.” In the Q&A session, a young man asked my opinion about the difference between fantasy and science fiction: after all, they both make up not only plots and characters but even universes, so they seem to operate at a similar level of abstraction from reality.

At the time, I had to confess that I didn’t have an answer. But later, with some help from Joseph Susanka, I reached a point of clarity worth sharing.

Old-style fairy stories, as Tolkien points out in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” have to do with the Other, a realm that above us and apart from us. When we encounter the simply Other, it is frightening, but not the way that a roller coaster is frightening: the roller coaster is from within our realm, and it is dangerous to us in the way that things are dangerous in our realm.

A character like Merlin in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength is frightening because he is so apart from us. He is hard to describe as good or bad; he just is, and yet he is personal at the same time. Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is described as frightening, but not because he is evil. We encounter in such characters something of the numinous, the Beyond.

The realm of fairy is like that in the old tales: it is “the Perilous Realm,” a world where things are more densely real than our experience and yet not from our order of things. The best fantasy, I would argue, still manages to convey that sense.

Science fiction is based on an entirely different and opposed thesis. The imaginative wellspring of the sci-fi genre is the mythology of man’s conquest over nature, the way we threw off superstitions by discovering that, in fact, there is no realm other than our own. The most mysterious and seemingly “other” things are in fact woven of the same threads that make up our cosmos. If we project the story far enough into the future, all mysteries eventually give way—or at least, could in principle give way—to scientific explanation.

As a result, even though sci-fi novels often invent crazy things that don’t really exist in our world, what they ask the reader to imagine is precisely that such things could exist in our world. They ask the reader to suppose that nothing, no matter how crazy, is truly Other.

So the dangers in a sci-fi novel are, at the end of the day, all roller coasters. One may work up a bit of otherness by throwing in a truly strange alien, or a civilization so far ahead of us that we can’t understand them, but always behind the strangeness is the central claim of science mythology: “But not finally strange.”

The division between sci-fi and fantasy breaks down to some degree, I think, because magic and wizards and such are often scientificated, rationalized. The magic works because somebody knows a secret about the universe that others don’t and can manipulate that secret in ways that appear mysterious to the uninitiated—it’s science. Dragons do this or that because of their genetic make-up or because of the chemical balance in their organs. The early days of science, when scientists were alchemists and regarded as quasi-magicians, continue with the fantasy wizard who is a biologist and a quasi-scientist.

Both fantasy and sci-fi create counter-factual universes. Sci-fi speaks powerfully to what is modern in all of us, and most powerfully to those most complacent in their modernity. Fantasy appeals in part to our dissatisfaction, our restlessness, with being merely modern.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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