Science Fiction vs Fantasy

I don’t have review post for this week so I’m posting a quick poll instead. Actually, it is poll and a question rolled into one. I was wondering which do you guys prefer Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Which do you prefer?
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I know this is a loaded question, but hear me out. I tend to gravitate towards Science Fiction because fantasy authors have a tendency to get lazy at times. This is by no means a rule – I would say it is more of a noticeable pattern. Vast majority of Fantasy stories blindly ape one of the two main sources of inspiration for the genre: Tolkien’s Middle Earth trilogy or Conan the Barbarian. Of course these stories sort of defined the genre to begin with, so complaining about people imitating them is probably a little bit unfair. My point is this: it is easy to be a lazy Fantasy writer. The genre comes with built in set of races, character archetypes and even story templates.

Let’s do a little thought experiment here: please consider a typical Dwarf. What can you tell me about him? Just list bunch of things that first pop into your mind. You will probably have a list that goes a bit like this: short, wears a beard, proud, brave, greedy, probably agoraphobic, dislikes Elves, hates Orcs, loves to drink, wears a lot of armor, good in a fight, etc… Most of us have a lot of preconceived notions about Dwarfs, Elves, Orcs and other fictional races. Same goes for certain character classes – the barbarian, the wizard, the rogue. If you are lazy you just pick and choose from these pre-made templates and you have a fairly fleshed out company of walking stereotypes complete with their quirks, likes, dislikes and possible back stories (barbarian is an orphan, his village got raided when he was a kid, the rogue grew up on the streets, the wizard is a privileged noble, the elf is an elf, the dwarf is a dwarf, etc..). Then you send them on a contrived quest to retrieve the holly McGuffin of power to prevent a war and save the kingdom from an ancient and evil sorcerer and you are all set. You can even fall back on a somewhat standard set of locations: dwarf mine, elven forest, ancient tomb, necropolis, mountain pass, idyllic human village, wizard’s tower, etc… You set them up and check them off your list and everyone is more or less happy because that’s what everyone expects of Fantasy.

Science fiction for the most part does not have this built in set of cliches. There are some repeating themes – especially in the space-opera sub genre (which half the time is nothing more but space fantasy) – like the notorious single climate zone worlds (ice planet, desert planet, jungle planet, etc..), and the ever present space smuggler archetype. But hard SF authors are sort of expected to show at least a little bit of originality, and do at least a little bit research. For example, it is really hard for modern writers to get away with blatant violations to special relativity without some clever pseudo-scientific explanation like worm holes, hyperspace, quantum teleportation and etc.. Fantasy writers can get away with pretty much anything – you just say that “a wizard did it”. Magic is the be-all-end-all of lazy writing. It can be used to wrap all the lose ends, provide shitty deus ex machina when you wrote yourself into a corner, patch plot holes, smooth over inconsistencies and justify things that don’t even make sense.

Keep in mind that I’m just making broad generalizations here. There are many exceptions all across the board – starting with Middle Earth which is a great example of how Fantasy should be written. When you read Tolkien’s books the world he describes feels old and complex. It has rich history, mythology and culture we only get glimpses of. But it is there – Tolkien meticulously designed elven languages, wrote elven poems, legends and then built his stories on top of that incredibly rich background. He spent a life time building this environment and so far no other Fantasy author has accomplished anything even remotely as complex and impressive.

Then there is stuff like large dozens of episodes of Star Trek where all problems are solved by reversing the polarity of something or other which is essentially their way of saying “and then a wizard fixed everything”. Or Hamiltons’ Nights Dawn trilogy which is essentially Joshua Calvert fights the magical undead using nothing but his luck and smugness.

In fact, here is a challenge: prove me wrong. Post examples of Fantasy done right, and shitty cliche science fiction at it’s worst. Seriously, do it. You can use books, movies, TV shows and even video games (but keep in mind that shitty writing is sort of the norm for video games, so you have to find extra shitty examples).

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26 Responses to Science Fiction vs Fantasy

  1. Mats Rauhala FINLAND Google Chrome Linux says:

    Try reading Trudy Canavan’s Black mage trilogy. In my opinion it’s pretty far from the basic Tolkienism.

    The main protagonist is a slum dweller who has shown strength so strong that they manifest themselves without the aid of other magicians and the magic guild is forced to take some sort of action. To take the slum dweller as one of the mages which are consisted only of the upper class, or ditch her.

    At the same time there are trouble brewing on neighboring countries and their “rules” of magic are explained in detail bit by bit.

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  2. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    Not only they have less “templates”, but many times the SF environments are more close to reality; they assume some technological feat. would be accomplished, and then they have to draw a plausible explanation on how it would affect the current society.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ IceBrain:

    Yep. And Fantasy worlds tend to be these anachronistic universes where people tend to have modern sensibilities and values despite living in a medieval society. Fantasy writers also love to describe sword fights without actually even bothering to read up on fencing techniques, or write epic battle scenes without actually bothering to research period appropriate tactics and battle formations and weapons/armors that ought to be used.

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  4. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I haven’t read fantasy in a long time, but as a teenager I thought both The High King series and The Dark is Rising series were pretty inventive for their time. I like the Chronicles of Narnia, especially the Magician’s Nephew. Certainly His Dark Materials had some pretty innovative stuff going on. The Redwall series (at least the first one) was really unusual.

    Wheel of Time series dragged on too long to be interesting. Harry Potter is cliche (enders game or star wars set in a fantasy world), but not too bad. I didn’t like Nightwatch much, and anything with Dragonlance in the title is utter dreck. And I guess Twilight counts as fantasy, though it pains me to say so.

    For bad sci fi, just look at any Star Wars or Star Trek book. They’re as bad as Dragonlance, and far more exist. Plus you’ve got all that bad 50s sci fi about body snatchers and invading bigheaded aliens, and all the L. Ron Hubbard stuff. Then there is stuff like Dragonstar (dinosaurs in space, I kid you not).

    That said, I’ve never read a fantasy book that changed the way I think. I’ve read several/many sci fi books that have – Vonnegut, Philip Dick, Asimov, Heinlein, etc. And you can’t really do research for fantasy, so nothing like the Mars Series can exist. I think sci fi just has more variance – it can be better than the best fantasy, and worse than the worst fantasy.

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  5. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I was really into both SF and Fantasy – until I read The Legacy of Heorot by Nivens, Pournelle, and Barnes. The book was utter tripe and inexplicably considered some sort of classic.

    Strike 1: the main character was actually called Cadmann! Cadmann! Why not Dirk and Lance? Jesus.
    Strike 2: here is this colony ship that takes 100 years to travel to a new planet. The ship is jammed full of things the colonists might/will need, including livestock and plants (seeds). And they bring tobacco. A 100 year trip in a ship where every gram is counted and important, and they bring fucking tobacco.
    Strike 3: they actually make cigarettes.

    I mean, sweet zombie jesus, I couldn’t get through this one and it turned me off many SF books for fear of reading another ridiculous anachronism.

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    jambarama wrote:

    And you can’t really do research for fantasy, so nothing like the Mars Series can exist

    You can in a way – look at Tolkien. He was a linguist and he put a lot of thought in constructing quenya in a way that makes sense. He based it on existing languages. He researched myths, legends and etc. Dwarves, Elves and Orcs were actually based on existing mythologies. Sadly, very few people write fantasy this way.

    @ Steve:

    Yeah, I had similar reaction to the uplift books:

    – humans are superior at everything
    – one guy goes on a solo mission and kills few dozen of alien squads with his bare hands, then sets of a nuke, fights more aliens and survives
    – the traitor is pretty much telegraphs is intentions
    – the talking dolphin thing did not work out well…. I had flashbacks to Sea Quest episodes – ugh…

    But if you pass up reputedly good novels out of fear they are crappy you can miss out on some gems. That’s what I keep in mind when I shop for books.

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  7. Victoria UKRAINE Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I’m kinda tired of both Fantasy and SF at the moment, too many books read – I’ve started seeing patterns where maybe there aren’t any. But my book of books in Fantasy is Song of Ice and Fire. Damn thing is long, far from being finished and blew my mind away for the whole week – I couldn’t think about anything else while I was reading the first trilogy. It also contains one of the most gruesome chapters I ever read – I cried for 20 minutes non-stop after reading it. My only concern is that the author might grow tired of the world and basically start sucking. That would be dreadful.

    But ASOIAF is not your typical Fantasy (thank God!) – no dwarfs, no elves (I hate elves!), and even dragons are extinct and mostly dinosaur-like. Intrigues and conspiracies are brilliant as are the characters. It has one of the most believable transitions of a really loathsome character into much more decent guy (when we get a chance to know him).

    What I dislike about modern Fantasy books (I’m talking about better ones, with not too many anachronisms) is how the author comes up with an interesting magic system (e.g. Brandon Sanderson – Allomancy cycle) and then gives it so much writing space describing even the smallest details that the book becomes a drag. It feels like a computer game where you pump your character up and face bigger bosses. Hate this feeling in a book.

    As for SF – I much more prefer old stuff – Heinlein, Shekly, even Harrison.

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  8. Sameer Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Shitty Sci-Fi example? No problem sir. This one is hands down the worst to boot; the final chapter of “Sandworms of Dune”. The final book in the Dune series supposedly based on Frank Herbert’s outline found after his death. After reading this drivel I can safely say that this outline does not exist. It was completely made up by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert.
    I had written something extremely long but I’ll just keep it short: These two humongous hacks made Leto II’s Golden Path, The 4 books leading up to it’s conception and the 2 dealing with it’s aftermath completely obsolete by doing the exact opposite of what Leto II had spent 3500 + years to achieve. Instead of humanity being saved from extinction through The Golden Path. These hacks start it all over again with the worst cop-out, deus ex-machina plot devices (yes, multiple) ever, and put humanity under the rule of a single godlike entity again. Well done, really good job…douchebags…

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  9. JKjoker ARGENTINA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    i voted Sci Fi mainly because im sick of fantasy everything is fantasy these days, you can only swing that sword so many different ways before it gets BORING

    about the “a wizard did it” factor, you get an equivalent “a forgotten alien race did it” just look at Mass Effect that basically put a coat of paint over a cliched fantasy story about “zombiephilic forgotten evil gods” and the chosen one

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  10. Ben UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    For Sci-Fi pretty much the only thing I’ve read are some of the Star Wars books and wasn’t impressed. I did however think that Dune (the first one) was great.

    For great Fantasy series try King Slayer Chronicles, the main character has the cliched orphan makes arch-nemesis backdrop, but it is told insanely well, and actually has some realistic stuff, like different money systems. ASOIAF was already mentioned. And then the Book of the Malazan Fallen is incredibly rich in detail, nothing is black and white (only subtle shades of grey), and while it is a magic rich setting it has depth to make it to make it interesting.

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  11. Dileep INDIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Thief (the video game series) I think is fantasy done right. Its presentation is some of the most atmospheric I’ve ever seen.

    I tend to define sci-fi as a plot that emerges and resolves itself within well-defined “world constraints”. So bad sci-fi is essentially bad or ill-defined constraints. Going by this definition, the sci-fi novels I liked best are the ones that don’t extrapolate too far into the future, but instead cash-in on existing tech-knowledge in its more erudite readers (read: Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon).
    So clearly, I don’t think Star Wars should even be considered Sci-fi. Its a western with laser-guns and metal horses. Thief did have a steampunk setting and some constraints on everything that affected gameplay, but it can safely be filed under fantasy.

    As for Tolkien, I’ve only read the Silmarillion compilation, so I don’t know his best work. I hope it explores the conflict between free-will and pre-determined destiny, just as we hope modern Vampire stories explore the immortality and social implications more. Because chapter one (Ainulindale) really put me off, though literary-wise it was a well told creation myth.

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  12. Al Harron UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Back when I was younger, I was totally into science fiction. Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, Bester, Haldeman, Stapledon, Star Trek, all that sort of stuff. Then when I was a teenager, I “switched over” into fantasy. I don’t fully understand it myself. Nowadays, I appreciate both equally.

    However, I can’t agree that the best SF can necessarily be better than the best fantasy: that’s like saying any one book can be considered “the greatest book every written.” There are too many apples-to-oranges factors to consider.

    It’s easy to say that fantasy is more limited than science fiction if all you know of fantasy is the shelves upon shelves of Dungeons & Dragons derivatives, but I’d say it’s just as simple to say SF is limited when considering the Star Trek/Star Wars tie-ins that litter bookstores. I’d even say fantasy is less limited: with science fiction you have to have certain considerations for scientific applicability, but with fantasy your imagination is entirely unlimited. A shame that so many authors are so conservative in fantasy fiction, sticking to the “elves, dwarves, dark lords, wise old wizards and dragons” archetypes, whereas science fiction, a genre practically marked by its adherence to “rules,” is much more imaginative.

    Anyway, for good fantasy that doesn’t ape Middle-earth, I suggest going pre-Tolkien to avoid it. Try Dunsany, George MacDonald, E.R. Eddison, Mervyn Peake, Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Clark Ashton Smith, A. Merritt. Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories are also a far cry from the brainless Sword-and-Sorcery barbarian fests which sought to emulate the Hyborian Age.

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  13. Eric UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    I really like both. If I was going to write one or the other It would probably be fantasy though. With that I don’t have to figure out why things work quite as much as I would with science fiction.

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  14. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I know countless of very badly written Science Fiction and some very good Fantasy stuff comes to mind. This said, the atheist materialist secularist in me has a sweet spot for Sci Fi, so that’s what I voted. But to give a couple of counter-examples of great Fantasy settings: Legends of the Five Rings (games and fictions) and Trudy Canavan’s Black mage trilogy (as Matt’s said). While the second is just a solid example of very well written, tightly knitted story and universe, it also departs from the usual clichés of Fantasy. The first is simply my favorite setting in general. While the stories are sometimes very badly written (by amateurs), some of them are truly of epic quality. And because there is a team of fans behind the setting and because it changes every week or so, based on the game, there is a sense of belonging for fans which goes way beyond the simple attraction of a fantasy universe.

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  15. Stuart B UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    Star Wars is fantasy. I took a course at community college in Fantasy Lit, and the professor was the sister in law of Kristine Kathryn Rusch, wife of Dean Wesley Smith, two prolific Star Trek and Star Wars authors. One of the stories she told us was how Rusch would call Lucasfilm (or whatever literary group they have) and ask “How long does it take to travel from Tattooine to Corusant?”, and the answer the editors would give her is “who cares?”. In fantasy, the details matter but don’t have to be grounded in any objectable reality. Star Trek is probably “soft sci-fi”, in that it’s grounded in some science, but all theoretical. And on the deep end, there is “hard sci-fi” where everything has to have some understandable scientific or technical explanation…and that’s just plain boring to me.

    I recently started reading Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels, and it’s been some of the most refreshing fantasy I’ve ever read. Things happen I can’t predict. Same with The MisEnchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans (a recommendation from Jospesh Mallozzi’s scifi/fantasy book club (Mallozi is executive producer on Stargate:Universe)).

    What I really want to read sometime is THE myth of King Arthur. It seems every Arthur book I read is trying to get back to the “real” Arthur, deemphasizing any myth at all. It’s like there is some classic book or series I’ve never heard of, where everything is UBER fantastic, Merlin is throwing lightning bolts like candy, swords are flashing, dragons are flying…etc. I want to read THAT series!

    What ever happened to fantasy that is not Tolkien but is not rooted in some form of harsh reality? I want the high fantastic that’s not cheesy.

    Guess I want what everyone else doesn’t want.

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  16. Stefan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    If you would like to read some high quality fantasy, I would really recommend the (so far) 9 “Malazan Books of the Fallen” (already mentioned by Ben) by Steven Erikson. Not only do they have complex characters, a huge world and lots of different plots, that are taking place in different times, but all belong together in one or the other way. He never really goes a straight line and sometimes kills characters you really wanted to keep on reading about. Maybe to get them back at a later stage or not at all, but since he has yet to publish the 10th and last book of this series, the hopes are still high, that some of them will come back.

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  17. MrPete GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I’m definitely a SF-fan but since a friend of mine is far more into Fantasy than me we keep a lively share-n-trade going…
    Now he presented me with a book written by Alexey Pehov – Shadow Prowler.
    It appears to be the first part of a series but so far I’ve had fun with it.
    There are mages (they messed the world up with their magic which creates the background) and elves (they aren’t pretty, they are ugly as the night and close relatives to Orcs!) and dwarves and gnomes (they hate each other. The ones produce swords and armor, the others build cannons which make swords and armor… kinda useless).
    Up till now it seems to be a refreshing take on Fantasy that avoids many of the cliches. Which leads me believe that russian authors do better…

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  18. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I prefer fantasy – the heroes tend to be more hands-on, and assistance tends to be further away. Sci-fi is more inventive, but I find fantasy more flavoursome. Possibly because all the details are kinda filled in, whereas with space stuff you get yet another weird alien race with apostrophes in their name that fill in whatever stock role is required. And as someone else said, Sci-fi’s version of “a wizard did it” is the “precursors”.

    Truly the worst of either genre I’ve read is EE Doc Smith’s The Galaxy Primes. Page 1, first interstellar rocket blasts off, the crew are all sexy prime cuts of humanity. Page 2, they’ve found humans on another planet and land to talk to them. This astounding event happens – ‘omg! humanity elsewhere!’ – and what is on the chief’s mind as they land? “Don’t have sex with the natives – if they’re not as powerful as us we don’t want to risk them getting a leg up to our level”. Page 2. Small pages, at that.

    Interestingly I’ve just been playing Space Siege, the dungeon-crawl-in-space sequel to Dungeon Siege (neither involve sieging). It’s very similar in playstyle to Dungeon Siege, but… it’s crap. Fucking awful. It’s interesting as to why the same gameplay with a different setting suffers, and I think it’s because we expect more story with sci-fi. In the fantasy one, kill bad guys, get gold for upgrades, rinse repeat. In the space one, your ship has been taken over by aliens and you’re one of the few survivors. Instead of money, you pick up salvage parts… which can come from the organic aliens… or computer terminals and furniture of your own ship that you blow up. WTF?

    Similarly in the fantasy edition, a winding cave is plausible with a bit of suspension of disbelief, but with the spaceship you’re constantly thinking “what kind of nuff-nuff would design a ship this way?” Space Siege also suffers from very bland characterisation and character development (oo! 30-point ability = 5% more damage with some weapons! hold me back!), so if it were skinned for fantasy it’d be slightly worse than the original, but it’s interesting to see that so much of the Diablo-style ‘dungeon crawl’ feel just doesn’t work on a spaceship (blowing up your own computer terminals for ‘money’, eesh)

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  20. X CANADA Internet Explorer Windows says:

    I agree that alot of fantasy is unimaginative (ironically) but as for ‘magic did it’, fantasy readers are looking for an emotional response, not a physics lesson. How the impossible is possible in fantasy is secondary to the fun that comes with imagining what it would be like to live in such a world.

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  21. X CANADA Internet Explorer Windows says:

    I voted fantasy, by the way, because in theory, fantasy is more imaginative. It takes more imagination to create a world where the laws of that universe are fundamentally different from the laws of our own. Besides, if you’re going to write about something that’s as unlikely as time travel or shapeshifting aliens, what’s the point in coming up with a pseudo scientific explanation? I’ve more sf and the sf authors tend to be more creative and original but fantasy is unretrained by scientific rules, like someone else said, it means unlimited imagination. I’m a strict materialist/atheist but I truly believe that imagination is more important than knowledge.

    Also, Star Wars is both science fiction (because of the advanced technology, androids etc. ) and fantasy (the ‘force’, prophecies of a chosen one, seeing Anakin, Yoda and Obi Wan as ghosts at the end etc. ).

    I’ve always read sci-fi but I’m coming around to fantasy, the world’s oldest genre of story telling.

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  22. Y UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Many, many months after the comments above were written, I find myself contemplating the question at the heart of this article.

    I voted for Sci-Fi – and I base my decision on the merits of both genres.

    Certainly, in the inception of both genres, they were interchangeable. Today, they have evolved more recognizable characteristics: swords and dragons (and maybe elves and goblins) for fantasy; spaceships and lasers (and maybe scientists and space armor) for sci-fi.

    However, as most comments here have stated, good sci-fi requires forethought: it is subject to almost as thorough a review as scientific papers are. Fantasy can get by with less thought, and still be considerably good. (Again, I speak as someone who has enjoyed works from both genres).

    For others, it is the swelling emotional scenery of fantasy that draws them. But for me, it is the thought that makes sci-fi more appealing. I don’t want to daydream about distant heroes, or accept that magic – which is almost godlike – is an acceptable explanation for some things, and not others. I want to think about causal relationships, and fit that in the context of where humans will be, sometime in the future.

    In conclusion, both genres have their place. As they deal with different things, it is really unfair to compare them. And while both are entertaining, only one of them is relevant to me today.

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  23. Vero SLOVAKIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    For original, easy to read, and brilliant fantasy you should try any book by Diana Wynne Jones.
    She uses lot of different mythology as an inspiration sometimes, or just her imagination and all of her books are different. She does not use stereotypes, even if she happens to write about wizards, they are different and great.
    Some of her books are more for children but still nice to read for adults.
    She wrote the book Howl’s Moving Castle—it’s quite different from Miyazaki’s adaptation—and it’s really fun to read.

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