What Makes Fantasy Different from Sci-fi

by Andy Peloquin

Fantasy and science fiction are both members of the “speculative fiction” genre (and my personal favorites). On the face of it, there couldn’t be two more different genres. One is all about space battles and aliens and futuristic technology, while the other is about medieval battles and mythical creatures and magic. But, if you look closely, you’ll see that the main differences between fantasy and sci-fi are what make them two sides of the same coin:

Past vs. future — Fantasy is typically set in a medieval-era world, though you’ll find fantasy that ranges from Prehistoric Era (Jean Auel’s Earth Children Series) to more modern series set in the equivalent of a 17th or 18th-century world. Science fiction is typically set in a futuristic world, anywhere from 5–10 years from our current date to THOUSANDS of years in the future. (Though, in the case of Star Wars, it was “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”.)

Nostalgia vs. hope for the future — Fantasy looks at the way life was in the past, a simpler time, often with archaic rules and regulations. It’s a look backward, going back to a time before technology changed the world. There are brave knights, good kings, beautiful heroines, evil villains, and everything in between.

Science fiction, on the other hand, looks at the future. It looks at how far mankind could go with its spirit of ingenuity and creativity. Everything from futuristic ways to live life to interstellar travel to mind-boggling technology is built on the belief that humans will one day unlock the secrets of the universe.

Magic vs. technology — Fantasy relies heavily on magic, mythology, lore, and fairy tales for its unique “powers”. There is technology involved, but it’s often medieval-era or steampunk-era technology. Not all fantasy books involve magic, but it is a very common theme in fantasy novels.

Science fiction, on the other hand, uses technology for its uniqueness. Grand spaceships that can destroy planets, technology that can turn uninhabitable worlds into planets that can sustain life, light sabers, laser guns, and the list goes on. Futuristic technology can range from simple to universe-shattering.

Lessons learned vs. warnings of what could be — Fantasy takes a look back and examines the way the world once was as a sort of lesson to modern mankind. Antiquated beliefs in religion, gender roles, government, and behavior play a central role in the fantasy worlds that are created. Often, the situations fantasy characters are put in would no longer be real in a modern society, and this is done to showcase how society has progressed since “ancient times”.

Science fiction is often used as a warning of what the future could hold. Interstellar corporations destroying planets with their greed, artificial intelligences seeking to destroy the world, weapons that rip a hole in the fabric of time and space, war and its consequences. It’s a “look forward” that shows how humankind can advance, but how, in many cases, the darker sides of human nature are still prevalent no matter how much technology grows.

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