Novel Writing

What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy?

Science Fiction League (March 1958) ... The Re...
Is this science fiction or fantasy? Or perhaps it’s speculative fiction? | Science Fiction League (March 1958) … The Real You (July 6, 2011 / 4 Tammuz 5771) … (Photo credit: marsmet541)

My thesis* efforts this week, while I am awaiting feedback on my first draft, are focused on wrapping up all of the loose ends: annotated bibliography, synopsis, cover letter, etc., that must be included in my final portfolio. I finally completed my bibliography, but I am struggling a bit with my synopsis. One of the biggest problems I am having with my synopsis is deciding what genre my novel fits into.

*Thesis Countdown: The final draft of my creative master’s thesis is due in 11 days!

I’ve been referring to my WIP as a “fantasy novel” for a long time, but I’m not completely sure that’s where it fits. Is it fantasy, or is it science fiction? Or is it this other thing I’ve heard of, speculative fiction, which I have no clue exactly what it is but for some reason have an inkling that my novel may fit into it? So, this afternoon, I am on a quest to determine which pigeonhole I should attempt to stick my novel in.

One of the problems with pinning down the differences between science fiction and fantasy is that no two people seem to agree exactly on where to draw the line between the two. A quick Google search returns a plethora of results including discussion threads on websites from GoodReads to Yahoo Answers. The topic is also covered on websites like and many, many blogs, but is apparently covered by very few reputable sources, at least none that I could find.

Dictionary definitions, according to Merriam-Webster:

    • Science fiction: fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.
    • Fantasy: imaginative fiction featuring especially strange settings and grotesque characters —called also fantasy fiction.

According to the Oracle Thinkquest database, “Science fiction is a form of fantastical literature. Science fiction is possible because it is based on facts, even if it isn’t likely. For example, science fiction could be robots, fifth dimension or alien invasions. Fantasy is things that aren’t scientifically possible, like talking animals, or someone who is immortal.”

Of all of the sources I have reviewed, they all seem to agree that fantasy is not based in reality. But where do we draw the line between the two? In our world, many people both believe in and practice magic. Is magic real or do these people live in a fantasy world? If my novel includes magical elements, does that make it a fantasy novel?

What if these magical elements are based on oft-reported paranormal occurrences that have simply not been scientifically validated? What if I am operating on the premise that the human mind is capable of executing Jedi mind tricks that the average human in our world can’t achieve, but which the characters in my novel’s world are trained in much like my children are training to do math? (By the way, Wikipedia says paranormal abilities DO qualify as sci-fi.)

Amy Goldschlager of Avon Eos says speculative fiction is a “catchall term for science fiction and fantasy. It applies to work that answers the question “What if…?” Sometimes it is also applied to fiction considered more “literary” in nature that includes elements of SF or fantasy.”

If I can’t determine whether my novel fits into the fantasy or the sci-fi category, should I just say it’s speculative fiction? If I do that, will everyone understand what I am talking about? Or will people – my thesis advisor, second reader, thesis committee, future agent, and publishers – be looking for a narrower category in which to stick my work? Guide, Mark Wilson, says, “There is a fundamental difference  (between science fiction and fantasy) — one of aspiration. Humanity can look forward to the kinds of achievements postulated in science fiction, while with another part of our brain we can dream of the impossibilities conjured by fantasy. Science fiction expands our world; fantasy transcends it.”

What do you think? After all of the research I’ve done this afternoon (OK, yeah, so I only researched it for about an hour, I am a busy person,) I’m still not sure. What do you think is the difference between science fiction and fantasy? Please share your opinions in the comments below.

~Mandy Webster

2 thoughts on “What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy?”

  1. When it comes to books and films, the fantasy and science fiction genres stand side by side, sharing many attributes and a nearly unified fan-base. In fact, the two genres are so closely related that we might ask if they are really just one genre, a single category of books and film marked by shared subject matter and themes.

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