It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Toward working definitions of science fiction and fantasy


I’ve mentioned these thoughts in passing in other posts, but I decided it was time to put them together and see what happens. I have said in the past that science fiction makes explicit the wonder in the physical universe – see here; yes, with an equation too – but perhaps that’s also true of fantasy. Maybe instead of the horrible “speculative fiction”, or the equally awful “strange fiction”, we should use the term “wondrous fiction”. Though I believe Yes beat me to it.

Unfortunately, “wf” is a pretty naff acronym, especially if you use it as one and not an initialism. Would it be “wif” or “wuf”? “I am a wuf writer.” Ugh. Would bad wondrous fiction be known as “wiffy”? Um, and “wifi” has already been taken. Ah well, perhaps not.

However, it strikes me there are two defining loci for science fiction and fantasy. One is wonder, the other is agency. And while wonder identifies both genres, agency differentiates them:-

fantasy – stories in which agency, or power over the natural world, is given by authorial fiat to things, including human beings, which in the real world do not have such agency or power, or do not exist.

science fiction – stories in which agency, or power over the physical universe, is given by human beings – systematically – to things, including human beings, which in the real world do not have such agency or power, or do not exist.

No doubt everyone will now immediately think of exceptions which disprove these definitions. That seems to be the way this sort of thing works…


33 thoughts on “Toward working definitions of science fiction and fantasy

  1. The sci fi definition seems to leave out aliens and other forms of intelligence. Malevolent IA, charming robots learning to cry – taste aside, they are hallmarks of the genre, and not completely out of the realm of possibility.

  2. I see your point, though I actually think it is a short-coming of science fiction when non-human’s are ascribed human motivations. Lem, Calvino, Clark – I like when aliens act alien. Maybe I don’t fully understand what you mean by ‘agency’ and how it is award by humans.

  3. >No doubt everyone will now immediately think of exceptions
    >which disprove these definitions.

    So The Stars My Destination is fantasy, then?

    Your definition seems to be designed to include only Mundane SF as SF and to call everything else, including quite a lot of nominally ‘hard’ SF, fantasy.

    You have to bear in mind that everything in a SF story that doesn’t have experimental evidence to back it up, works by authorial fiat. I understand your desire to have something better than ‘what I point at’ for a definition, although I’m not clear on why you feel the need to define a strict separation between fantasy and SF. I’m actually not convinced that there is one.

    Take the Silence Leigh stories by Melissa Scott – they have spaceships in, and the world operates according to a systematic scheme in which consistent inputs generate consistent results. So far so scientific, and by a more generous interpretation of your definition, they are SF. But the scheme is based on alchemy, the ships are piloted according to the music of the spheres and only certain people can make the world do things. They are known as Mages, and deny in the text that what they do is magic, but what’s in a label?

    Also, if we are being generous about your definition and positing anything with a systematic explanation as being SF, then every story published as fantasy that includes a ‘magic system’, is SF. I would include alternate-world stories such as Game of Thrones in that. Yes it has dragons, and dragons don’t exist, but neither do aliens (that we know of). I didn’t read it far enough to see any mention of magicians.

    My working definitions are:

    Fantasy – things happen by magic (the will or whim of a character in the story – magician, fairy, god, whatever – produces results with no intermediary, or results follow in a moral rather than an empirical way from causes)

    SF – things happen by an empirical, explainable and consistent cause (machines, Science!, superhuman mental powers, the dialectic of history, whatever; the point is the consistency of cause leading to effect and – most importantly – the possibility of performing thought experiments on it)

    Weird, slipstream, all those other good things – things happen

    Note that functionally the first two are exactly the same as yours. In trying to set out a strict taxonomy, you raise more exceptions and beg more questions than if you hadn’t bothered.

    • I don’t think fantasy and science fiction are the same. They only exist side by side because marketing has placed them there.

      In fantasy, the world is ineffable, and so when the author gives agency to something which does not normally have it, no explanation is given or required. (Magic systems are systems applied by the author, without explanation. This is not the same as a system imposed by the physical world – such as gravity.)

      Science fiction is predicated on the potential for explanation. Not everything in a science fiction has to be explained, but it must be capable of being explained – ie, the scientific worldview.

      Since the two genres are fundamentally and philosophically different, they need to be separated in order to usefully discuss them. This doesn’t mean the border is not porous, nor does it mean that one genre can’t take on the appearance of the other, and vice versa. People repeatedly complain that Star Wars, for example is not sf, and use the term “science fantasy”, which is an oxymoron. True, not everything in Star Wars fits with our model of the physical universe, but when you strip out the cinematic conventions what’s left at least fits the definition in my post.

      • I agree with you that SF and fantasy are not the same, but I disagree with your reasons as to why. I think you are focused too much on what tropes are used, and not on how they are used, and you make a distinction between the world as set up by the author in fantasy and the world as based on science in SF, which I disagree with completely. SF worlds are also set up by author fiat; the distinction to me is how the rules apply, not what they are.

        You come closer to a definition that I would agree with in, “Science fiction is predicated on the potential for explanation.” In fact let’s leave it at that. This means that the author’s fiat has stated that the world operates according to a set of rules that are empirical, repeatable and consistent for all the characters in the world, and then the author has got on with the political allegory or adventure yarn or whatever is the actual point of the novel.

        This leaves room in a SF story for Gully Foyle and everyone in his world to be able to teleport, and to be able to trigger nuclear explosives with a thought. Alfred Bester has said, ‘let’s say this is so,’ and gone on to re-tell The Count of Monte Cristo using it as his background and to shape the story. In the same way, FTL travel is used as a part of the background to allow certain kinds of story to be told, and the reasoning is ‘in this universe, a workaround to relativity has been found,’ and left at that. But it is a reason and we can get on with the story knowing that it is set in an empirical world, effects follow causes, and we can rely on the author to tell us, if they put in something that is outside the mundane, what it is and what it does. As you say, the scientific worldview applies.

        In fantasy, I disagree with you that the world is ineffable and I utterly disagree that no explanation is given or required. The world in fantasy operates on a metaphoric level; the One Ring is the embodiment of power that corrupts, for example. In a fairy tale, the hero gets assistance because good deeds are rewarded. The screaming skull haunts its murderer to death. It is wrong to expect that an empirical explanation will be given for the talking fox, but it is just as wrong to say that because there is a talking fox, anything can happen. The rules of the world are explicitly stated, as in the many talking shops in LotR, or implicit in the cultural background of myth, legend and fairy tale that the author is drawing on, and they are moral or metaphorical rules, not empirical ones.

        However, setting up a fantasy world with explicit magic rules, power levels and so forth, is to me exactly the same as setting up a SFnal world with hand-wavy explanations. It is turning the world into an empirical one with a scientific worldview, missing the point of the metaphor and, to me, draining away all of the magic. This, for example, is why Metropolitan reads to me like SF, no matter how much Walter Jon Williams may claim that he wrote a fantasy. “Sufficiently analysed magic is indistinguishable from science.”

        But Star Wars is quite definitely a fairy tale. Farmboy goes to save princess from dark castle with mystical mentor in tow, and saves the day with the power of his belief? Please.

        • # But Star Wars is quite definitely a
          # fairy tale. Farmboy goes to save
          # princess from dark castle with
          # mystical mentor in tow, and saves
          # the day with the power of his belief?
          # Please.

          Totally agree, ‘Star Wars’ is not science fiction on any level, it’s space fantasy.

    • “But the scheme is based on alchemy, the ships are piloted according to the music of the spheres and only certain people can make the world do things. They are known as Mages, and deny in the text that what they do is magic, but what’s in a label?”

      I’ve always thought Clarke’s dictum can be stood on its head.
      Hence: “Any sufficiently effective magic is indistinguishable from advanced technology.”

  4. I am not comfortable with the definition of SF. I feel that at least a nod should be given to a hope of scientific plausibility. (Magic in space suits is not sf) and as has been mentioned above it leaves no room for alien planets and their residents.

    • I didn’t want to say “using technology or science” because I felt that did limit it too much to hard sf or mundane sf.

      It does allow for aliens if you accept that in a science fiction any relationship with them is granted by the human characters. This doesn’t explain sf stories in which the entire cast are alien, but some exceptions are going to happen…

      • I do see your point about a tech reference tending to limit sf to hard science, & yet its absence tends to render sf as a subset of fantasy. Maybe we’re in a box we need to get out of. As for the aliens, maybe we need to make it mortal, material sentient beings instead of humans. That might go into the fantasy definition also, as there are numerous non-human entities in fantasy.

        • Science fiction implies a scientific worldview, which means it can never be fantasy, or a subset of fantasy. And you can still make use of a scientific worldview in a story without overt use of science or technology.

          “Things” can include non-human races or invented creatures – from aliens to dragons – and appears in both definitions. The more precise the definitions become, the more they start to exclude…

          • I don’t think you can say anything is ‘implied” when you are trying to establish a definition. If we could coast on the implications, we wouldn’t need to be discussing definitions at all. But I think that Ms. Gallegher above (in her reply to Mr. Sales) is on-point. Except that I would not agree that the magic with rules is too sfnal. The magic in my books is always very rule-bound, so much so that you almost think it could work–which to me is essential in fantasy, what makes me able to suspend disbelief.

            Of course, one could argue that we don’t really need to draw a rigid line between SF and fantasy. Even if we succeed, somebody will immediately attempt a crossover.

  5. Whilst I agree that SF and Fantasy are different genre, I actually do believe they sit well together. At their heart both require suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. In fantasy you might have to suspend your disbelief in magic for the story to make sense, in SF you might have to suspend your disbelief in faster than light travel or (reading 20 years ago) that you could have cameras fitted into small devices you can communicate over vast distances with.
    In both cases the reader need to suspend their disbelief and imagine. When you’re reading historical fiction, or crime fiction or (some) horror fiction that suspension of disbelief isn’t (OK shouldn’t be!) required.

    I think largely the difference between Fantasy and SF is that in Fantasy you have to suspend your disbelieve over things that appear to be impossible, in SF you should be suspending your disbelief over things that could be possible if only we knew how.
    As such, as the decade’s role on and present day fiction becomes historical fiction so too some fantasy work will become SF and some SF Fantasy. Every year that passes our understanding of the world and therefore our understanding of ‘impossible’ and ‘could be possible’ will change.

    I think trying to find a definitive marker of SF and Fantasy is to chase an every moving goal post.


    • A reader has to suspend disbelief for any work of fiction. The task for the writer is not to break that implicit compact.

      • Surely that’s not true Jack? I should be able to read a contemporary love story or historical fiction without needing to know if the piece is fiction or a telling of an actual event? As a reader I’m not required to do anything other than enjoy the story. In a piece of Fantasy or SF I have to knowingly accept things that I believe are impossible.

        • No offense meant, Ian, but I am completely with Jack on this one. Fiction is NOT like fact. It has been organized to play up the drama, point up a meaning and create a purposeful track from beginning to end. It should feel lifelike–in every art, the trick is to make it look easy–but all the loose ends, red herrings, tons of extraneous detail and just-plain-wrong answers have been deleted, or at least reduced to decorative trivia. Yes, the reader does help by suspending disbelief (we seem to have an instinctive fondness for storytelling, for trying to reorganize the world more to our liking, not just physically but by internal perception) but suspended disbelief is not the same as belief. Review your own reading and reflect: do you routinely confuse the stories with the non-fiction? Barring the occasional oddity, most people can sense the difference immediately and I suspect you do, too. You just don’t bother to remark on it.

          • Hmm, perhaps I’m not using my words very well. If read a historical novel I expect the author to have done enough research to mean I can believe that this event, this story could have taken place. There will be things I have to take at face value – because I don’t know, but I shouldn’t have to suspend any disbelief (as opposed to assuming something I don’t know is true). If I read a historical novel that suddenly has an Ork pop up, suddenly it’s fantasy, I know Orks didn’t exist, to enjoy the story I have to suspend my disbelief and pretend they did. If I’m reading a story set on a human colony on Mars I have to suspend my disbelief because I know there isn’t a colony on Mars, but because I can understand in theory there could be it becomes SF.
            For me to enjoy a historical novel I shouldn’t have to suspend my disbelief, I might have to take things at face value, but I shouldn’t have to pretend that things I know aren’t true, are. When I do that it becomes fantasy. If I’m reading something that I know isn’t true, but I can believe could be true, if I can see the extrapolation from here to there, then it becomes SF.
            For me that’s why defining a story as SF or fantasy is always a moving target. A story of a human colony on Mars set 100 years in the future is SF, one set in 2013 would be Fantasy.


            • I’m really starting to wonder about the utility of a definition that takes 120,000 words and five days to get across. Not that I’m disparaging the effort – I love this thread – but its has become Jello-nailing. Science – as we currently understand it – is the benchmark. I think we have to accept that fact that it will forever be in motion.

              • But Jello-nailing is fun! If the definition could be nailed, it would have been so long ago, and we’d all be sitting around bored.

                I also think that, even if we can never get to a good definition, it always helps to try, because it makes us think about something, and on the way we may get some ‘spin off’ realizations, even if we don’t reach our specified goal.

            • A story set in an alternate 2013 in which Nasa got to Mars and set up a colony would still be sf. On the other hand, we may never beat the lightspeed barrier, which means that a lot of sf is just as fantastical as any story with dragons in it. And there are, I believe, stories in which mad biochemists have genetically-engineered dragons and released them into the wild – and those stories are sf…

              The problem with identifying the tropes and then neatly sorting them into boxes is that those tropes can be subverted or recast. If sf is just spaceships, robots and aliens, then how is that different from a fantasy with æther-sailing ships, clockwork men and elves?

            • I think you and I may be using different definitions of suspension of disbelief, Ian. When I read any fiction I know it’s just that, fiction, and I have to suspend my disbelief of it in order to read it. Or as my son said when young, when saying he didn’t like fiction, “It’s all lies.” (He still doesn’t read fiction.) Any reading experience is interpretative; even a contemporary or historical novel, even non-fiction.
              What you seem to me to be talking about is when something breaks our willing suspension and we have to make an extra effort to re-see the fictional world as “real.”
              (Then again, nothing is “real” – we all invent the world, we all only know of it what enters our brains as electrochemical signals.)

              • Er, um…I’m not quite sure I understand why you think we are using different definitions. What you just said sounds very similar to what I said. Fiction is not true. We all know that sitting down to it. But, presumably, we all see some value in it (if only entertainment) that justifies the falseness. So we flip a little mental switch enabling us to pretend we don’t know it isn’t true, and enter a state of acceptance. There’s a lot of individual variation. For some people this state of acceptance is almost trancelike. They are virtually hypnotized as soon as they hear “once upon a time”. Others surrender their incredulity a bit more grudgingly, requiring the author to demonstrate up front that the story will be “worth” it. Most individuals will occasionally encounter something they can’t accept; to others it happens often. Some like your son (bless him–what a deliciously Puritan viewpoint!) never lose their plain knowledge that this is just a bunch of lies. Some can’t believe any story that involves magic. Some draw the line at FTL drive. Some drop out as soon as the main character does something stupid. Some will try again, consciously making the effort to get back into the story. Others won’t bother–just shrug and go do something else. But the details of what triggers this reader or that reader to withhold that acceptance, that suspension of disbelief, are personal, and so do not genuinely reflect on the subject matter of a given work. John will believe the story because he hates magic, and loves space ships but Bob will not believe the same story because FTL is impossible & why would anybody colonize a planet that nasty anyway. So John’s interpretation of “believable” cannot be the basis of a general definition.

            • You always suspend disbelief in a story because it IS a story. Even set in the present day, where most of the setting is obviously authentic (or obviously not so) you are still suspending your disbelief that these people exist, that these events occurred to them. You don’t ask yourself, “Is there really a Maple Street in north Minneapolis?” or “Could you really walk away from that car crash?”. Just the opposite, you simply accept these things as part of the story. We have a long history going back to the Neolithic of transmitting culture via stories. The ability to surrender uncritically to a story may be instinctive by now, and is certainly a commonplace. This process is so complete that if some detail, even a comparatively trivial one, proves irrevocably wrong, it will snap you right out of the story. Example: A friend of mine was reading a novel set in current day Cincinnati. The author had done the research to find out that there was a branch of the library in Hyde Park. He set a scene of his novel in the Hyde Park library, with his character sitting at the table in front of the big front window. Completely unimportant detail, nothing to do with the nature of the character or the unfolding of the plot. But. . . The Hyde Park library does not keep books or tables in the front room, and has no large windows anywhere, as my friend–who goes there often–knows perfectly well. This silly incorrect detail blew him out of his suspension of disbelief and, sadly, ended up ruining the book for him. The process doesn’t really have anything to do with whether the novel is set in current day, a historical period or the far future. The only difference is that stories set elsewhere than the reader’s here and now are less likely to trip up the reader with such an error. (I often have trouble with Victorian era stories, because I know the period well enough to catch the mistakes.) You speak of accepting the history without question, but you appear to be speaking of historical fiction–still a story. The process changes radically when studying actual history (or other non-fiction) where the serious student is expected to question the reliability of the facts.

  6. Generally my definitions are:

    Fantasy, circa ~1000 years ago.
    SF, from tomorrow until eternity.

    These are meant to be guidelines. Many old SF stories take place in the 2000s (and there’s always 1984) but the idea is more specifically that they take place tomorrow, whereas fantasy took place yesterday.

    • Except my Adrift on the Sea of Rains – in fact, all four books of the Apollo Quartet – take place in alternate 1980s. And they’re very much science fiction.

      • Haha touche! There’s always an exception.

        Even in that sense, it’s a kind of alternative tomorrow. Like, where would one classify steampunk? It definitively takes place in the past and nothing is really futuristic about it, but we mostly still call it SF because it’s proposing that our past is different and thus so is our tomorrow.

        That’s not the strongest of arguments…Friday afternoon, I tell you what.

  7. Curious about your dislike for the term “strange fiction”, but then I have never seen it used to apply as a general umbrella term for SF & F. I have only seen it context of the weird sub-genre of horror, particularly authors such as Robert Aickman (who used this term to describe his own work), but I digress…

  8. I’ve been trying to work my way away from definitions. Started to rate novels on how far they stray from reality, rather than whether they fit an ever-changing guideline.

  9. Pingback: Defining SF & Fantasy - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

  10. Pingback: The Limits of Wonder and Defining Speculative Fiction | The King of Elfland's Second Cousin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.