Sci-fi vs Fantasy: Future vs. Past

OR:  Why Science Fiction is given more social significance(not popularity) than Fantasy.

To clear the air, growing up I read mostly Fantasy and Fiction novels.  It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I took a Science Fiction as Literature class at a community college, which really got me started on reading Science Fiction.  Ever since I have happily been a huge fan of both genres, reading classics and new pieces alike for each.

Over the years of not only reading both genres, but also writing in each, I’ve had several thoughts on the differences between the two.

You start each with the same basic core, a world rooted in either scientific advancements beyond our achievements or a world full of magic and fantastical things that don’t exist in our world(Arguably. The child in me will forever be a believer!).  There are exceptions, but they mostly prove the rule with these genres.

Since both genres are filled to the brim with imaginative creations and surreal circumstances, they should be considered practically the same, right?

Well, no.  In fact, in my eyes they couldn’t be more different in how they read, how they’re written, and how the modern world interprets them. But then, what distinguishes them as so different?  In my opinion it’s the way we interpret their relative time period.

Despite the obvious that each genre sets ups alternate or fictional worlds, people have a tendency to relate those worlds to the one we know.  Our minds relate Science Fiction mostly to a future world, somewhere we could see humans ending up.  On the other hand, we associate Fantasy with a past world(generally medieval, but not always), a history that could have been.  Of course, as I mentioned above there are exceptions, such as Harry Potter being set in a modern world, and the entire Steampunk sub-genre of Sci-fi which is generally set in a Victorian-era alternate history.  However, exceptions aside I know I don’t need to elaborate for everyone to agree on the general view of each genre.

So what does this have to do with the importance we put on each genre?

It’s like this:  Would it be easier to plainly convey a message about modern society in an alternate/futuristic universe, or in a past/magical world?   If you answered in a past/magical world, then I am really interested in reading a sample of your writing!

I think we try to generalize Fantasy as right vs. wrong, good vs. evil.  Science Fiction on the other hand, we observe as cause and effect, and overcoming previous decisions.  And here’s the whole point of this blog:  Society puts more importance on Science Fiction because it’s thought provoking and deals with “what if this actually happened”, while we use Fantasy as a great escape from the world we deal with daily. 

I know I see a change in my own writing when tackling the different genres, specifically with themes that I choose to convey.

What about all of you?  Do you approach each genre differently while reading or writing?  If not, do you think my theory should be revised?  I’d love to hear everyone else’s opinion on this!


About Aly Hughes
Unprofessional, unedited, unpublished. Aly is out to make a name for herself by blogging, twittering, facebooking, and general internet-ing. Be warned: She may not know what she's talking about.

6 Responses to Sci-fi vs Fantasy: Future vs. Past

  1. oveeja says:

    I agree with you, especially since science fiction has already proven useful not only in theorizing but in creating new technology. I would like to read a fantasy novel set in the future just to see how it reads.
    Let me add.
    I think fantasy deals with emotional and moral issues, such as honor, friendship, responsibility, loyalty, duty, etc. While science fiction deals with philosophical issues (and sometimes moral ones too but always with a darker undertone).
    It’s just a thought.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      That’s a great addition, you put it more clearly than I did in my post about morality vs. philosophy in the genres. I think the biggest reason we view it as morality vs. philosophy is because we tend to look at Fantasy as examining humanity on individual levels while we think of Science Fiction as focusing on humanity through societies and corrupt governments. While Fantasy does have corrupt governments, we distance ourselves from that aspect because they’re generally dealing with monarchies as opposed to republics and democracies.

      Also, on the subject of fantasy set in the future; My friends finally convinced me to read The Hunger Games. I’ve only read the first one so far, but it definitely stood out to me that although it technically is science fiction it does read like a fantasy novel. It’s set in very unsettling future with advanced technology, but the author hardly goes into detail about any of the technology or how things work, making me chalk up the advancements to magic. Instead she focuses on pretty much everything you listed on emotional and moral issues. I would consider it a cross-over of the genres.

  2. Luarien says:

    I think that’s generally true but fantasy is capable of being sci-fiesque with its messages and motives (and Star Wars is a clear answer to the same question reversed – it’s a classic fantasy story in space). I think the real problem is presumptions about proper fantasy rather than a limitation of the genre. Similarly, there’s a supposed primevalism to fantasy, as if the less technologically advanced then the less civilized the characters and society are supposed to be (and this leads to a kind of quaint Third Worlding of some characters and conventions in pop-fantasy. It’s weird to read a bit of civilization condescension in RA Salvatore, for example).

    All it takes is a little genre bending and a message. I really enjoy a good opinionated fantasy, myself.

  3. Aly Hughes says:

    haha, I do love being caught by a good genre-bending novel!

    I like your thoughts on a third worlding of sorts in Fantasy. Perhaps it stems from the fact that, in our minds, if there’s magic to do all sorts of fantastical things, then why must they even strive to build/create a society with new technologies? They can just as easily bombard a castle with spells instead of trebuchets in most magical worlds. Even in the Harry Potter series the magical world is far behind in technology even though it takes place in the 1990’s, and only makes up for it in magic. I feel like most authors tend to have a “one or the other” idea about magic vs. technology. It tends to make people imagine fantastical worlds as archaic, and therefore the characters/society/government must be so as well.

    I personally would love to see a well written Fantasy series set in the future with technology present and accounted for! Or maybe I should just write one myself! 😉

  4. rmridley says:

    Quite true – even in Urban Fantasy which skips the whole ‘in the past’ and thus simple lives, simple means, the issue is always good vs. evil. I’m going to have to question myself now as I write my own UF and see why that seems to happen naturally as soon as you place the world with magic instead of tech.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I myself haven’t read many urban fantasy novels, and despite my post I enjoy reading about archaic fantasy worlds more. That’s even what I usually tend to write! But you are right, as writers I think it’s important for us to question our own stories and motivations. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it, we just need to be aware of why we write a certain way, as well as how that affects the message-if any- that we’re trying to send to readers.

      Thanks for the input! 🙂

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