The SFF Divide: On the Assumed Validity of Science Fiction Over Fantasy

Listening to other people talk can teach you a lot.

Not only lately, I’ve been hearing more people talk about women in SFF, examining their role and place, the biases against them, the opinions of them, and so on. My reaction to this varies between, “Nothing new here,” and, “It’s about time more people talked about this,” depending on my mood, but something was recently brought up that tangentially made me think about the views of sci-fi and fantasy as genres themselves, and the perceptions thereof.

In Bronwyn Lovell’s article, Science Fiction’s Women Problem, she says the following:

There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.

In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction.

Which is absolutely worth paying attention to for the issues it brings up about gender, and I in no way want to sideline that conversation. I mention it as context for my thought process, the jumping-off point from which my brain went, “Hang on a second, there’s something else here that I want to think about too.”

It relates back to something an old friend of mine once said. She strongly disliked fantasy as a genre, because, in her mind, there were no rules. In fantasy, magic could just do anything. No rules, no consequences. No realism. It didn’t make sense. So she didn’t like it, because fantasy, by its very nature, was not grounded in reality.

And sure, some fantasy is like that. But in fairness, it tends to be poorly-written fantasy that falls into the category of, “Screw the rules, I have magic.” Not all fantasy even has magic: I’ve read more than a few novels that may as well been classed as historical fiction for all they involved magic and monsters (that is to say, not at all), and all that really placed them in the fantasy genre was that they take place in a secondary-world.

But Lovell does have a point that science fiction tends to viewed as superior because it’s supposedly grounded in fact, whereas fantasy can just spring from the fevered imagination of some nobody who doesn’t have to know anything about how things work because magic can take care of all that. Fantasy is seen as softer. Science fiction? Well, that involves science, which involves intelligence and understanding and curiosity, not just making things up at random.

Only that’s a huge problem of assumption. And not just because some fantasy novels don’t employ Magical McGuffins.

The way I see it, it boils down to the preconception that science fiction is more intelligent and thus superior because it involves science. Even if it involves science that doesn’t make sense. The assumption that most readers make, even unconsciously, is that if there’s technology involved that works even when our current understanding says it shouldn’t, that in the future we just figure out new ways of making it work. We bridge the mental gap because we assume that technology = science = always correct according to the laws of the universe.

We don’t give magic the same benefit. Even if it accomplishes the same thing. A teleportation spell will always be less realistic than a Star Trek-esque teleporter, because the world we know doesn’t have that kind of magic in it and probably never will. It may eventually have that kind of technology, and so that possibility makes it, to the minds of many, more grounded in reality.

But none of that erases the way fantasy is devalued. All that does is point out our flaws of assumption when it comes to science fiction. What about the science of fantasy?

First, we’re going to have to look at the definition of science:

a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general law; systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation; skill, especially reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency; knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

That’s according to, which works as well as any dead-tree dictionary I could pull from my bookshelf.

So what prevents that definition from being applied to fantasy?

Absolutely nothing.

As many fantasy writers have demonstrated.

Again, it comes back to assumptions. Science is organized, and magic (and therefore all of fantasy) is chaotic. Uncontrolled, random, imprecise, because it’s nothing we can measure and confirm. But we can’t confirm and measure that future-tech teleporter, either, so that bias must get thrown out the window or else we must admit hypocrisy.

Let’s say you have a secondary world where people can do magic and accomplish great feats such as healing the sick or making rocks float or conjure invisible protective shields to save them from an assassin’s thrown dagger. Throw in a unicorn or two, for good measure, and a dragon, because everybody loves dragons. Typical fantasy fare.

Now let’s say that magic has been used on this world for the whole of recorded history, and people past and present have devoted time and effort to figuring out how it all works. They know magic’s limitations, they know its side-effects, they know what it can and can’t do.

Is that unscientific just because they don’t know that magic can light a candle by agitating the molecules in a certain area to create heat, thus igniting the candle’s wick?

Looking at our own scientific history, it’s easy to think, without really thinking, that anyone who hasn’t reached the conclusions we reached is ignorant, or undeveloped. But by the definition of science, it’s still scientific in nature for monkeys to know what plants make them sick after seeing other monkeys get sick from eating them. Observation and experimentation.

We too often conflate science with technology. Advanced technology, at that; looms used to weave cloth are technology, machines based upon scientific principles. Hell, Jacquard looms are basically some of the first computers, using punchcards to create patterns on a power loom (yes, the same kind of punchcard that used to be used in computer programming even in the 1980s). Jacquard looms were invented in 1801, back when science still considered disease to be caused by “bad air.” But often when we think of computer science, we don’t start that far back, and especially with textiles now being considered a typically “womanly” think to be concerned with, it seems almost uncomfortable to think that early computer technology was just being used to quickly weave the cloth for pretty clothes.

But science is so much more than calculators and rocket ships. Look at Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which deals with the biology of dragons. And I’ve read hard scifi that involves vampires who react badly to crosses. Having vampires in it didn’t make it less science fiction, nor any of the science it used less credible, but if we’re judging based solely on common content

Sometimes it’s the exceptions that prove the bias.

I’ve noticed increasingly that “speculative fiction” is coming into its own as a category that seems in many ways to blend the two aspects of science and magic (or the supernatural, as we define it). If a book takes place in the future of this world, for instance, and involves magic or something similar to it, then it’s often classed as speculative fiction, that umbrella term for “what if” stories that don’t seem to fit into either science fiction or fantasy. It’s not science fiction, even if there’s technology more advanced than what we have now, because it doesn’t fit some classic sci-fi tropes, but neither is it fantasy, because it takes place in this world and doesn’t deal with either the present or the past.

(Which is another indicator I’ve noticed, actually. Sci-fi almost exclusively deals with the future, whereas something under the fantasy umbrella, if it occurs in this world, takes place either very recently or else in the past. There’s almost no historical sci-fi. There’s very little post-apocalyptic fantasy unless the technological advances in history were made by some very-long-ago civilization and nobody understand anything about it anymore. When something crosses those lines, it tends to be notable.)

But speculative fiction as a genre name sounds far more credible than fantasy. It sounds like somebody’s asking hard questions about what is, or what could be, in a way that we assume fantasy never even contemplates. It sounds more intellectual, and is more likely to be taken seriously. Not quite as seriously as science fiction, because it’s softer and more human and less sterile, but definitely more serious than fantasy.

But we might not even need such a category if we didn’t tend to dismiss the importance of fantasy as a genre quite so much. Fantasy might not have robots in it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t tackle difficult topics. Is deconstructing racism more hard-hitting if it involves lizard-like people from another planet instead of lizard-like people from an island 200 miles off the south coast of Fantasia?

If life lessons are only worth learning now when robots are involved, then we have a serious problem on our hands.

Magic can have clear rules and definitions. It is not by default some unscientific thing, so long as it’s approached scientifically. The technology in science fiction can come as much from a writer’s desire for convenience as any enchanted amulet. Science fiction and fantasy both have a number of interesting things to say, wonderful stories to tell; the same faults can be found spanning both. And it’s entirely unfair to dismiss one genre as superior to the other because of our strange assumptions about what science actually is.

6 comments on “The SFF Divide: On the Assumed Validity of Science Fiction Over Fantasy

  1. Great thoughts! I’ve definitely read some fantasies where magic has as many rules or is studied in much the same way as science. I like that” Speculative Fiction” is being used more often because there are some books that I just can’t categorize one way or the other.

  2. Hello, I just discovered your blog and I read it with interest. I completely agree with you that fantasy is not inferior to SF or any other genre. The very idea that some genres are “superior” to others seems illogical. Fantasy books can be thought-provoking. Besides, fantasy IS grounded in reality as much as any other genre. Urban fantasy is a good example of that. I wrote on my blog that fantasy took inspiration from some of the greatest literary works in history: the Epic of Gilgamesh, Metamorphoses by Ovid, Beowulf, Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes, Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, and other classics. On a deeper level, we can say that urban fantasy is a genre that connects us to our distant past. By opening the doors of our cities to the magical and the fantastical, urban fantasy helps us to discover the cultures of our ancestors, makes them more understandable and appealing to modern readers.
    All the best

  3. Pingback: September 2016 in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

  4. Pingback: Fantasy & Sci-Fi: Highlights of the Week #4 - J.A. Alexsoo

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