Not So Run of the Mill Science Fiction
Have a story that stretches the boundaries of current Science Fiction? Is it unpredictable and fresh? Do you shy from the neat happy endings that are commonplace in today's fiction? C'mon in, lets share some links and compare notes!
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Bruce Pendragon

One problem that a lot of authors (myself included) have in the modern writing world is that we don't know whether our story should fall under "Fantasy" or "Science Fiction." This isn't exactly new, and amateurs aren't the only ones dealing with it. George Lucas ran into this way back in '77 with Star Wars.

As an example, I'll use my most recent story that faced this question: O'er the Ramparts We Watched.

The story is a post-apocalyptic view of a world beset by the ravages of nuclear war, and uses real-world locations to keep itself grounded. the technology level is a little post-modern, a classic sci-fi trademark. Sounds like an easy answer so far, right? But let me continue. There is a demonic horde involved, called "the Lightbearers," and it is hinted at thus far that they may be behind the wars that have reduced Humanity to its present state. Opposite the Lightbearers, we have a group of Humans who have rediscovered the lost art of magic and are using it to fight the Lightbearers. These Humans have recieved the nickname "knights."

At this point, I've got it classified as "Fantasy" rather than "Sci-Fi," because there's no actual science involved. I mean, by the strictest definition, it seems to be classified Fantasy, what-with-all the magic and demons and such. But I can't help but thinking the target audience of my story is made up more of Sci-Fi fans than Fantasy fans. Should I reclassify it, or leave it where it is? And more importantly, for future reference (my own and everyone else's) where is the line between Sci-Fi and Fantasy?

If you have any thoughts on this subject, please share them, because I think this is a qusetion many authors could benefit from having an answer to.

9/11/2008 #1

Well, Hi the Mod of the forums (who has been severly neglecting her duties), I want to say HI and welcome...I'll do that more eloquently in other places.

Yours is actually a pretty common question. You could actually list it as either or both. How heavily does the story lean on the magic and the demonic/witches/ and other paranormal aspects of it? If you use the technology aspect more it would probably more a Science Fiction story. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with categorizing it as both. I would say personally, you should categorize it as whatever it leans on heaviest and then subcategorize it as the opposite so that it can be accessed by both target audiences!

I have a similar dillema with my Only Half Series. It ALSO is set post apocalyptic world and has post modern technology, but deals with vampires and dhampirs. So I consider mine a Supernatural/Science Fiction (it isn't quite horror - not that bloody or erotic to classify such).

If I ever work out my plot problems I actually have a Science Fiction/Fantasy story that uses both halves equally. All the races are derived from fantasy beings. Oonicorns, Dragons, Tauramins etc...There is a mix of fantasy aspects in a world that his technologically advanced.

10/26/2008 #2
Jave Harron

I would argue that the 'technology level' of a setting can be a rather moot point depending on the focus of the story. Something with a scientific (or pseudoscientific, like comic book 'science') focus that has some degree of plausibility would be more scifi. For instance, despite both being set in giant galaxies of alien races, the two space operas "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" both have a different focus. Star Wars is basically classical fantasy superimposed on a high tech space setting. Star Trek is more conventional scifi. Star Wars and Dune would be examples of "Science Fantasy."

Google the "Scale of Sci-fi Hardness" for more info. Generally speaking, the more violations of physics, the further it goes towards fantasy. Even technology can be made to seem like "magic" in certain settings. A scifi work would explain how all the 'magic' is actually 'advanced tech.' Fantasy would focus on the mystery and 'mystic' elements behind it. As AC Clarke said, "Any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Examples of "tech behind magic" are Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun" saga and Paul MacAuley's "Confluence" trilogy. Wolfe had a somewhat similar idea to your summary.

The line is often deliberately blurred sometimes. You might have heard of steampunk before. Steampunk is alternative technology derived from clockwork, steam, etc. rather than electronics. It's a type of alternative, if more fantastic, science. Some fantasy writers are including more steampunk elements in their works. A great example of this is China Mieville's "Bas-Lag" world. Mieville treats magic just as another field of scientific study, to be mass produced and applied to industry just like mechanics and steam power. This is more of a 'fantasy science.'

An example of a fantasy science on FP would be the stories of Crownbreaker (especially Gears of Deception and Eisengeist). Both were written to blur the line between scifi and fantasy, if not obliterate it. Not to plug too much, but I did a few works that were a combination of fantasy, scifi (of various sorts), alternative history, and historical fantasy, such as "The Father of Lights" and "Empires of the Sun." I call the resulting combination "bizarro history," since it defies any of the previous types of classification. I'm an engineer, and I enjoy making (literally) impossible machines and sciences. Don't be afraid to just label it whatever you feel like and post it wherever you want. We need more stuff outside the box.

10/30/2008 #3
Yuli Ban

Where have I seen the name "Bruce Pendragon" before.....

Oh, and fantasy. Magic is a sure sign of fantasy. If "magic" can be explained because it's caused by advanced technology or is mostly explained, then it's sci-fi.

7/30/2010 #4

I have begun posting a novel on this website titled "A Gatored Community". The theme concerns global warming, which has raised the sea level 30 feet. People live in floating communities that rise and fall with the tides. The novel's designation is "Science Fiction", but there is nothing "Science Fictional" about it. When it comes to the floating communities, there was no need for me to create any new or fanciful technology. All the necessary technology already exists, and has existed for thousands of years. This technology was already ancient when Homer composed the "Oddessy".

This leads me to think that the novel should be designated as "Speculative Fiction" instead of "Science Fiction"; but I didn't see that category included among the genre designations.

11/30/2010 #5
rikki tikki

Though i love fantasy I believe that sci fi is both a more difficult and higher art form. For me the distinction resides in the presence of magic. If there is magic it is automatically fantasy for me. Magic, of any variety means it just ain't sci fi.

10/6/2011 #6
Complex Variable

Okay, so, first: I'm a fantasy writer—but, before you shoot me out an ejector pod toward the event horizon of a black hole, just hear me out!

I absolutely agree that Science-Fiction—hard Sci-fi most of all—is definitely a "more difficult and higher art form" than fantasy. The way I see it, the real weakness of fantasy—one that I am very keen to avoid—is that it is, essentially, an unlimited literary medium.

For me, Asimov and Clarke are the apex of "literary" Science Fiction; science is not only a background topic of their stories—it is, quite often, an integral part of the theme/plot/meaning of the story as well. I remembered how dumbstruck I was when I first read Asimov's I, Robot; the idea of constructing short-story plots from applications of the Three Laws of Robotics was utter GENUIS. In that way, science served as a central gasket of the stories themselves, not merely as a decorative element.

On the other hand, in Fantasy fiction—those with magic most of all—the ability to have anything happen for any reason, without having to ground it in any logic other than the author's sense of plot... well, I think that that is what trips up most good fantasy works, preventing them from being truly "literary" in the way that much of Sci-fi has become. The power (and beauty) of Science-fiction is that it allows the storyteller to dispense with the dressings of realistic/real-world/historical fiction and to create "fantastic" scenarios. At the same time, just as real-world/historical fiction is "bound" by the constraints of reality or the time period, Sci-fi is bound (to one degree or another) by the constraints of Science. In my opinion, sci-fi stories that allow themselves to lose track of their scientific "roots" are the ones most likely to fall into the juvenile daydreaming that is so common in contemporary fantasy literature.

At the same time as all of this, though, as a literary genre, Fantasy has its own—albeit rarely-exploited—merits. Used properly, Fantasy can be an ideal vehicle for allegory and symbolism; indeed, for a genre limited only by the limitations of it's author's dreams, it is perfectly matched to carry all sorts of complex symbols. Despite the fact that they are so irritatingly and unreadably Christian, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia do manage to illustrate how effective Fantasy can be at translating thematic/philosophical arguments into living symbols. In my opinion, as long as Fantasy authors can prevent themselves from being enslaved by their own imaginations, the genre still has the potential to create literary masterpieces.

As an interesting aside, I feel that fantasy would be far more interesting—and less clichéd—as a literary genre if more fantasy authors actually sat down and spent the time to illuminate their magic-systems in terms of known physical principles (thermodynamics, chemistry, nuclear chemistry, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, newtonian mechanics, and so on)—something that I, myself, have endeavored to do with my magic-system, rather than by using hand-waving caveats like "the four elements". In my opinion, doing so would not only make fantasy seem more "grounded", but, it would allow for magic to function for fantasy in a capacity analogous to the way that science functions for science-fiction. Basically, just like you can distinguish bad sci-fi from good sci-fi by looking at whether the story just has a futuristic setting (bad sci-fi) or whether science and its principles are actually relevant to the plot (good sci-fi), you would be able to pick out the good fantasy literature by looking for those stories which actively utilize elements like magic, social realism, geopolitics, history, and so on in their plots, rather than just as elements of the background.

Well... that's what I have to say about that, for now.

Whether or not you launch me into that singularity now is, as it always was, entirely up to you, the Sci-fi community.


9/3/2012 . Edited 10/1/2012 #7

Bravo Complex Variable. I think you pretty much nailed it. There is a scale for Science Fiction "hardness" on TVtropes which gives you a pretty good idea of what is Science fiction and what is science fantasy. Link to it here:


My personal pet-peeve is that true science fiction should stay true to modern physics with one or two pieces of "fantasy tech" thrown in. Take Niven & Pournelle's "The Mote in God's Eye", for example. The story feature two pieces of magic-tech: the Langston Field (energy shield which absorbs radiation/kinetic energy) and the Alderson Drive, which allows for FTL. While neither has any real scientific basis the authors made very stringent rules and limits on the technology so they could fit in with the otherwise realistic physics featured. The Alderson Drive, for example, would only "teleport" the starships to very specific points, forcing the ships to make long, interplanet journeys using plasma drives once they leap across starsystems. The "energy shield" circumvents the issue of momentum conservation by transforming the kinetic energy imparted to the field into light, which is released via radiation. By following such rules Niven & Pournelle made sure that the world they created is believable.

9/12/2012 #8
I write both genres and here's how I tend to figure out which is which. Does it take place in the future? This can be sci-fi or fantasy. Does it hve a base in science or technology( real or invented)? Sci-fi. Now throw in creatures and you have a lot to determine. How were the creatures created? Nature? Science? Just here? Take the Maximum Ride novel ke instance. The entire book is about fictional "animals" but they were created using science which makes it science fiction. Hope I helpef
1/1/2013 #9

I recently read Ray Bradbury's definition of Science Fiction and Fantasy. I'm paraphrasing here, but essentially he said if it could be possible then it was science fiction, if it could never be possible, then it was fantasy.

3/23/2013 #10

At Darwin: Great way to explain it. That is a really good way to determine it. One problem, magic.

Using the possibility factor is hard because people believe in magic and some don't.

I am a firm believer in magic so that would make things like Harry Potter science fiction using that specific reasoning.

3/24/2013 #11

In short, impossible made probable versus improbable made possible. However, the line could blur from time to time. Once again quoting A. C. Clarke in a quote flaunted by many "techies" who never so much read a single word of Clarke - "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

A skillful author could pull this off well. Zelazny comes to mind whenever I think of Science Fantasy and Unicorn Variations is perhaps one of the best stories in the genre that I've ever read.

4/4/2013 #12
Okay. I haven't heard that before but now I'm confused. I just go with my gut instinct sometimes and if someone corrects me I agree with them. My instincts aren't always correct, they rarely ever are.
4/11/2013 #13

I have encountered the same problem in my writing and tend to draw the line where you have, though I have noticed what differentiates between Sci-Fi and Fantasy is not always subject matter but tone and writing style.

The Twilight Zone is a good example of this. While several episodes are in fact future set and have technologies more advanced than the time of it's creation there are themes and ideas that are very Fantasy-esc (living dolls, giant yeti-like monsters, giants, to name a few) though the tone is defiantly more sci-fi than fantasy and meant to be so. It is more of a fundamental structure that creates the feeling of sci-fi weather or not the subjects fit within the usual classifications.

6/9/2013 #14
Yeah. Like Danny Phantom. A ghost of a yeti. What the heck is it? The show definite falls under both categories and even throws in certain elements of everyday life.
6/9/2013 #15

It is a common phenomenon, yes. We are after all within a generation of deconstructing barriers. Music classifications are another form of media experiencing this transition, with genres like 'Alternate' and bands that cannot be simply classified. It is an interesting time to be alive.

6/9/2013 #16
I have no idea what you meant by half of that. It's definite a common occurance. Not really. More like torturous. Seriously anyone else been stuck listening to a teenage girl squal in hysteria because of a not band? I'm pretty sure by the end of the whole boy band craze my eardrums will be nonfunctional
6/9/2013 #17

That's not quite what I meant.

6/9/2013 #18
What's you mean?
6/9/2013 #19

Genres are becoming less cut and dry. They aren't as within the box as they once were. It's more difficult to label a song as 'rock', or 'jazz' or otherwise.

6/9/2013 #20

i recently picked up anna mccaffey, changlings. great book. it felt to me very sci fi and fantasy, more fantasy tho. but i do have to wonder, why must it be one of the other?

todays science was last centurys fantasy.

just my .02!

3/7/2015 #21
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