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You know Superman, right? He's probably one of the most well-known forms of science fiction fantasy, but he's not the only one. All superheroes, in their own right, are more fantastical than they are scientific, which is the moral of this story. Most obvious of takeaways from this question of what is the difference between science fiction and science fantasy is the juxtaposition of fantasy tropes in line with those of the more science-oriented, however this concept (and overall query) goes far deeper into the contexts of a story, its characters, and the makeup of a plot as a whole. One can take, for instance, Star Wars as a valid example, for although it is highly science fiction-oriented, many consider it fantasy for a number of reasons.
The thing we must all understand in connotation with science fiction vs fantasy is how a story is ultimately structured, plus who wrote it. These two identifications can help us find out specifically what differences there are for these genres, but again it does't exactly qualify as an explicit understanding, since there are many varieties of genres and subgenres under sci-fi alone. This only makes it that much more difficult to both classify and ultimately determine the differences inherent with that of sci-fi and fantasy, when it has seemed for years that the two go hand in hand (which, they sort of do, but we'll get to this). That's the beauty of these two life-long genres of art; they have meshed and fused for so long they've become, in many ways, an organic representation of what is and what can be, engineering a beautiful interaction between two powerful forces to give us the purest form of imagination yet.
Possibility vs Impossibility
The easiest deduction to make of the difference between science fiction and science fantasy is this less-obvious caveat: possibility versus impossibility, where science and fantasy literally clash in the real world connotations. When we're talking about something that's science fiction-oriented, we mean to point out, whether this "thing" is improbable or not, that it is possible in some way (thanks, of course, to science).
On the other hand, fantasy is literally a world of endless possibility. This is where a lot of people get confused on the subject of science fiction versus fantasy. They are extremely similar in many capacities, but are highly differentiated simply by their allocated possibilities. Fantasy, as mentioned above, would deal in special abilities, like superpowers or the Force, hence why many consider Star Wars more fantasy then sci-fi.
Science fiction author Ray Bradbury, who wrote for both genres and created The Martian Chronicles and Fahnehrint 451, says this on the nature of sci-fi:
"Science fiction is really sociological studies of the future, things that the writer believes are going to happen by putting two and two together... Science fiction is a logical or mathematical projection of the future."
I don't think I could have said it any better, but he's not the only one to discern this layer of dubiousness when defining a difference between science fiction and science fantasy. Viewing authorship alone as a quality for making this distinction possible is not how one goes about answering the question.
J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was certainly fantasy, but not all of Tolkien's works dealt with fantasy, nor do all of Bradbury's deal in sci-fi. Given this, too, some authors even use this ideology to their advantage, as we see in the most recently-published Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab. As such, while some may still consider it fact, not every form of authorship can detail exactly what the difference between sci-fi and fantasy are, but often point out the ways it has evolved over time.
Over the Ages
Though fantasy might be the older of the two genres, more often than not referred to as the oldest of them all, science fiction still is considered the father of the two, since without both science or fiction, fantasy would be relatively obsolete in modern reality.
With that being said, science fiction's more recent addition to the fold of literature and art itself has given rise to the very concept of unearthing the difference between science fiction and science fantasy. Categorically, this sci-fi/fantasy author list and timeline expertly showcases the evolution of the two genres and their gradual blend over the ages. At their core, though, are what can and can't be, where the two ideals unfolded into a variation of branches concerning how one experiences art in the eyes of science, fantasy and both combined.
Place and Setting
When trying to understanding the difference between science fiction and science fantasy, the answer will not lie in the story's place-setting or time period. Whereas some may think that a story taking place on a futuristic space colony is easily sci-fi, we can take into account the observation of Superman as fantasy, which then will disapprove of the theory entirely.
So, relying on a story's setting or era is not how you differentiate these two genres. In fact, this is where many come into battle when considering the likes of Star Wars as a sci-fi, likewise given to embody Anne Mcaffrey's Pern series, which has dragons and other fantasy-esque tropes. A story set in space, or one that contains dragons and special abilities, are not condensed specifically under science fiction or fantasy, but will help to point out which one it more or less embodies.
Science of Sci-Fi
The definition of science fiction is broad and contains a lot of varied elements that weave together the fabric of what can be scientifically true, yet isn't. To make sense of this, let's take a look at these two concepts individually:
Science, defined by Webster's, is "systemized knowledge derived from observation, study, etc." On the other hand, fiction is defined by Webster's as "any literary work with imaginary characters and events." By these two standards, we can then define what is the difference between science fiction and science fantasy; the former is an imaginary story based around observable possibilities derived from study and fact. To dig deeper, let's see these layers in action...
The Levels of Science Fiction
As if the genre were a bunch of dreams from Inception, science fiction is made up of various levels, sometimes constituted as 6, but more often than not now simplified to just 3:
- Hard Science Fiction
- Soft Science Fiction
- Science Fantasy
Let's not confuse those with the actual subgenres, like the ones mentioned below, but abide by the understanding that these levels are real world concepts; discussion and understanding of the mass variety inherent within sci-fi. To then realize the difference between science fiction and science fantasy, one must accept the fact that the ladder is embodied by the former. We can witness this in the very fact that many subgenres exist, in addition to how they all work in bringing to life similar, if not identical elements housed under one system of understanding: scientific hypothesis.
To be clear, science fiction is the forefather of science fantasy, however fantastical elements do exist in a variety of capacities across the board. So, when one says science fantasy, one literally means Star Wars. But, then again, there's also the space opera, speculative fiction, and the like...
A Variety of Genres
While science fiction and science fantasy both pertain to the science of something, in actuality they deal with two varied ideologies that have somewhat similar concepts within them. To be completely honest, science fiction literally rules over science fantasy, since it objectively birthed the ladder, which is probably why we always desire to know more when writing sci-fi; there's an endlessness to take away from it.
The SF Site wrangles into one page-full of entires all of the various combinations and connotations to the overall science fiction fold. Some of these include Space Opera, as one can easily discern from the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek, Cyberpunk, Hard SF, Urban Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, and many more. By this site's understanding, it appears as though fantasy is upheld by sci-fi, which makes the difference between science fiction and science fantasy one of overruling by the likes of the former, but as is the case with many of these types of stories, things aren't always what they may seem...
Obviously—or, at least, something that should be made more obvious—fantasy often concerns elements of the supernatural and will portray magical occurrences in place of sci-fi's more scientific tropes. Many seem to believe that "anything goes" in fantasy, but this is not the case. You see, whereas anything may be possible in science fiction if, of course, it consists of actual scientific backing, in fantasy certain laws and normalities are constrained by the author. Literally, fantasy is the author's own fantasizing of reality, which means he or she makes up the law governing that world.
First of it kind, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which if you didn't know is one of the very first pieces of written literature that we have, proves to be one of absolute fantasy. The same can be said of ancient Greek mythologies and other old stories based on both theological and supernatural tendencies: ie, the difference between science fiction and science fantasy lies in the core principles of their genre. For instance, an individual's ability to time travel is one example of fantasy, because that's literally not scientifically possible.
Many may have heard the term science fiction fantasy. This is the outlier of all, the bread and butter of what many seem to think is sci-fi or fantasy, when in fact it is it's own element of artistic perplexity. Then drawing upon this fact when uncovering the difference between science fiction and science fantasy, one would assume that sci-fi and science fantasy are simply two different ways of seeing science fiction fantasy, but this is not the case.
Like the true facts about space that movies get wrong all the time, trying to come up with discernible identities for these two genres is often misconstrued, if not dumbly proliferated. Simply put, science fiction is the embodiment of science fantasy. Science fantasy is, then, a combination of science fiction with fantastic elements. Science fiction and fantasy are simply two varied ways in telling a story, used both interchangeably and blended for profound effects both revolutionary and ever-evolving.
The Combined Tincture
One of the easiest examples of a science fiction story with elements of fantasy is the conspiracy we might actually live in a simulation. Since we have no scientific proof to back this claim up, and given the fact that the laws of the universe would then be changed dramatically to suit whoever is in front of the canvas, then proves that the combined tincture of science fiction and fantasy is one full of epic possibility.
The difference between science fiction and science fantasy lies at the heart of what an author is capable of imagining and then putting that imagination on paper, since anything technically is possible as long as it deals with technology, science, or future aspects on society, then made the more unbelievable with fantastic qualities of abnormality upheld by a wonderfully-built fantasy world.