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Author Topic: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?  (Read 967 times)

Online Yora

SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« on: October 11, 2017, 04:56:19 PM »
A lot of people, particularly journalists, critics, and publishers, often seem to throw fantasy and science fiction into the same box, to the point that SFF is an established acronym.
But I regularly find that very strange. I love fantasy and can appreciate almost all types of it. I'm not an urban fantasy fan in general, but I loved watching Buffy. But when it comes to sci-fi I am very much limited to "noir with a few gadgets" and "Lovecraft in Space". And they never inspire me to create something of that type myself the way fantasy does. To me they really don't feel similar in meaninful ways.

What they clearly have in common is creatures that don't really exist and people doing things that are impossible with magic or fictional tehnology. Except for slasher movies, all horror falls in one of these two categories and you can say with certainty that this trait sets them both apart from all other fiction. But it seems to be a very low common denominator for me. Stylistically I don't really see any overlap between the two and they feel like very different beasts.

Is it exceedingly common for fans of one to be fans of the other so that it makes eonomical sense to distribute them through the same channels? Or are there other good reasons to lump them together?
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Offline Lanko

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Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #1 on: October 11, 2017, 06:46:44 PM »
Well, Star Wars is pretty much Fantasy in space. You have the gadgets, the spaceships, the laser swords and guns and... magic too, from people with telekinesis to shooting lightning from the fingers.

I think they are lumped together because they are the two genres that spins the "what if" question on a much larger scale than other genres.

It's simply that Fantasy usually does it using the past and Science Fiction the future.

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Online Yora

Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #2 on: October 11, 2017, 09:28:28 PM »
Star Wars is the story of a farm boy who has to deliver a magic item to heroic knights that can defeat the unstopable forces of a powerful warlock, and he rescues a princess from the warlocks fortress of evil along the way.

Also, Mass Effect is the story of stopping an evil warlock who has made a pact with an ancient sleeping demon to open a portal that will allow a demonic horde to consume the world. Who commands an army of inhuman servants and raises the dead in his path as zombies. And his ancient demonic masters cause insanity and delusions of worship in all that come close to their presence. And of course the demons can only be stopped by an alliance of elves, dwarves, and men and your most valuable aly is a century old elven sorceress who has studied ancient artifacts that hold the power to defeat the demons. And all great civilization is based on the magical artifacts of an ancient vanished civilization much more powerful than any of the races currently in existance.
Mass Effect has more techno babble than Star Wars (that as far as the plot is concerned is nothing more than that), but the narrative is still arrow straight traditional fantasy.
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Offline cupiscent

Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #3 on: October 11, 2017, 10:30:49 PM »
Nora Jemisin's recently concluded trilogy The Broken Earth blended fantasy and sci-fi in a way that's pretty familiar - the landscape is littered with remnants of the highly advanced but now fallen civilisation, and those become important to the plot because history is pretty inescapable. (In reading the third book, I kept thinking of that quote  about how sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic... in Jemisin's case, she extrapolated a civilisation that advanced to the point of being able to harness "magic".)

My feeling is that all speculative fiction is built around a similar fundamental premise. "Here is a world where [weird stuff] is reality; given that, what does it mean to be human?" Whether the weird stuff is magical or technological is really the only divide between fantasy and sci-fi. The genres have accumulated a whole lot of style and trope differences, but there's also always been a lot of work that plays with flipping and blending that stuff.

Offline WilliamRay

Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #4 on: October 11, 2017, 11:15:43 PM »
And it gets weirder when you delve into the official categorization system used by publishers, where 'steampunk' is technically part of sci-fi, despite being about fantasy worlds that often feature magic and elves and so forth.  It's especially awkward because neither sci-fi nor fantasy is really a 'genre' so much as a setting.  Fantasy usually follows the classic hero's journey, but it could just as easily be a crime story, or a mystery, or anything else.

Personally, my theory is that fantasy and sci-fi follow slightly different story rules based on how they relate to our world.

Fantasy usually features a world where the people of the past were mightier and more virtuous than the people of the present.  Usually those virtuous past people fought of legendary evil, and either defeated it or at least imprisoned it, but now the less virtuous people of the story's present must somehow cope with the lesser version that is somehow escaped/revived/returned (usually due to their failing of virtue).  Such stories are often depicting eternal struggles of good and evil writ in larger, more basic terms that can usually be stabbed or magic'd into submission.

Sci-fi, on the other hand, usually features a world that has moved beyond our own meager abilities and accomplished more.  Usually sci-fi stories focus on how certain universal problems persist despite those advancements... highlighting very human moral quandaries that we face in our own lives by divorcing those problems from our mundane existence, and allowing us to examine them at a remove.

Those are typical frameworks, but as someone else mentioned, Star Wars is often classified as sci-fi because it has spaceships, but it is clearly a fantasy tale.  By contrast, Star Trek is also replete with space-wizards and planets ruled by Greek gods and so forth, but it's clearly more sci-fi than fantasy.  I think that structure of past vs. present is really the stronger determinative factor.

Even when the future is dystopian, you seldom see a sci-fi story where the people of the primitive past were really hailed as more virtuous; usually because we're the morons that dys'd up the -topia to begin with.  Idiocracy played with that idea though, which makes me wonder if it could be considered a sci-fi future setting but with a fantasy storyline (Joe Bowers was full of ancient knowledge that seemed magical to people in the future, after all!).  Something like Dune though, which is unpleasant, but post-dystopian, not really the fault of modern people, nor related to us really, but features various forms of space magic... it could be anything!

They're definitely a messy pair of classifications.  My own books are set in a fantasy world with Elves and magic and so-forth, but the past is less virtuous, so they often feel like they have more in common with classic sci-fi... but that would be confusing, so I just call them fantasy and sometimes 'steam punk' (despite not being very punk).  Unless you're serving just straight-up Tolkien fanfic, it's tough to perfectly fit into those classes.

Offline Lady Ty

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Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #5 on: October 11, 2017, 11:18:39 PM »
Nora Jemisin's recently concluded trilogy The Broken Earth blended fantasy and sci-fi in a way that's pretty familiar - the landscape is littered with remnants of the highly advanced but now fallen civilisation, and those become important to the plot because history is pretty inescapable. (In reading the third book, I kept thinking of that quote  about how sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic... in Jemisin's case, she extrapolated a civilisation that advanced to the point of being able to harness "magic".)

Whether the weird stuff is magical or technological is really the only divide between fantasy and sci-fi.


This example also applies to Mark Lawrences's Broken Kingdom and Red Queen's War.  What is technology to us could easily be magic to an earlier or later civilisation. I enjoy the combination of SFF and see it as a fairly recent and welcome progression in modern writing.
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Offline Peat

Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #6 on: October 12, 2017, 04:59:05 AM »
Lanko & Cupiscent did a good job of hitting up how they are in the same genre - how they're both speculative - but I have to admit that after thirty seconds of thought about this question while scanning through the thread, my main answer was that, yeah, its all about the benjamins. Marketing together is easier.

Or maybe less about the benjamins and more about lazy ass executives who can't handle more than one category of reality breaking stories.

I have no real proof for either mind - but they sure do sound right. And they certainly wouldn't be together if it made bad economic sense.

Offline Elfy

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Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #7 on: October 12, 2017, 05:35:47 AM »
I've been rereading Julian May's Saga of the Exiles and while that's mostly science fictional, parts of it can be very closely related to fantasy, in fact the Tanu and the Firvulag are what gave our civilisation their mythology and legends.
I will expand your TBR pile.

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Offline Jmack

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Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #8 on: October 12, 2017, 11:38:07 AM »
For me, there are several things going on here. I’ll put them out as genre, setting, and theme.

SF and F, I will argue here, are frameworks for telling a wide, wide range of stories. Basically, you can run any genre through SF or F: romance, adventure, suspense, mystery, horror, spy, you name it. (I suspect there may be some types of stories that really are unique to SF and/or F, but that would undermine my current argument, so  :P.)

What sets SF and F apart are the setting, and to some degree, the common themes. For SF, the setting is a world in which certain scientific and/or social concepts are explored in terms of their impact on the world, story, and characters. SF most often occurs in our future. For Fantasy, science is replaced by magic and social concepts are often replaced by new races/types of beings. F most often takes place in some version of our past.

In terms of themes, some books/movies are heavily speculative (1984, The Arrival, Andromeda Strain, The Martian, Ex Machina) while others have speculative elements that are really setting more than theme. WilliamRay’s notion about an idyllic past vs. a progressing future is interesting, but I don’t find it persuasive as the defining thematic difference. Especially since most speculative SF speculates that this shit will go very wrong.

So, my argument? F and SF are not set in today’s reality, but in an imagined reality. F is about magical new realities; SF is about science-based realities. Both can run any story genre through these settings.
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Offline RobertS

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Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #9 on: October 12, 2017, 01:23:14 PM »
SF and F, I will argue here, are frameworks for telling a wide, wide range of stories. Basically, you can run any genre through SF or F: romance, adventure, suspense, mystery, horror, spy, you name it. (I suspect there may be some types of stories that really are unique to SF and/or F, but that would undermine my current argument, so  :P.)

I totally agree. Science fiction opens the writing to what is possible. Fantasy does not have those restrictions.

Real events blur the lines. I had a small row of books that all became alternate history the day man walked on the moon. As technology and science have progressed many good science fiction books have become alternative physics.

In my series, "Headgames," I have blurred the line to the point where technology and magic are points of view.
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Offline tebakutis

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Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #10 on: October 12, 2017, 07:04:05 PM »
Interesting question. I'm with Peat here, I think. Marketers just did the research and said "Hmm, people who like fantasy often like sci-fi" and vice versa. They saw how tiny the market was for both (in comparison to, say, mystery or romance) and, because of limited space in book stores (back in the brick and mortar days) both stores and marketers decided "SFF" would group fantasy and sci-fi together. No more complex than that.

If we'd never had brick and mortar stores and had Amazon from the beginning, we likely would never have had "SFF" as a category, and instead had Fantasy (and its subsets) and SF (and its subsets) listed independently, as they are on modern day Amazon. So, blame ideas entrenched in the early days of publishing, I guess!
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Offline Peat

Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #11 on: October 12, 2017, 08:12:02 PM »
Echoing others - well, pretty much everyone here - there is a fair amount of fiction in both that really straddles the two genres. Star Wars is the obvious, but there's a ton of fantasy that's built on the aftermath of a sci-fi world and advances a bit back during the story, and there's a few other Sci-Fis out there borrow heavily from fantasy or are just Fantasy in Space. Or at least, people perceive that they do. See all the Vulcans = Elves stuff out there.

But then, there's plenty of Fantasy that shares its aesthetics with Noir, and no one thinks they're the same genre. Or all that Fantasy that's borrowing heavily off of History. There's a lot of Horror aesthetics, and sometimes people drop Horror in as part of Spec Fiction, but not always, and a lot of people refer to Sci Fi & Fantasy. Shared links, a shared subgenre in common, those things don't usually post you into the same genre.

Although I have realised that we need to diffrentiate between aesthetic genre and story genre - Jmack is right that you can tell a wide range of stories through Fantasy and Sci Fi, and I think drawing a line between the aesthetics and the story would allow us to communicate more clearly.
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Offline Lanko

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Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #12 on: October 12, 2017, 08:26:52 PM »
As tebakutis pointed, the market for them, probably even combined, is a niche one compared to others, so another thing to consider is that readers of one of those genres has a pretty high chance to read the other.
At least much more chance than assiduous or even just casual readers of other genres.

Books with knights and spaceships are usually separated and not mixed, but usually they tend to be neighbors.


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Offline cupiscent

Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #13 on: October 12, 2017, 11:13:10 PM »
Where are those genre-straddling books "shelved" digitally, though? Or... wait, is it even an issue? Are books on Amazon still "shelved" under one tag? Or can they have multiple tags? (I don't spend any time on Amazon. :D)

Offline Lady Ty

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Re: SFF? What does Science-Fiction have to do with Fantasy?
« Reply #14 on: October 12, 2017, 11:18:37 PM »
Would be interested to know how bookshops decide and if for example Waterstones have set rules or guidance for specific genre shelving. Please can our resident shelving experts help? Calling @Nestat and @Nora.
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