Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

By McNamee, Gregory | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy


McNamee, Gregory, The Virginia Quarterly Review


IT IS A STRANGE THING THAT CALIFORNIA, THE land of sunshine, oranges, the Beach Boys, and other signs and portents of optimism, should also have bred some of the darkest visions of the future known to fiction. Or science fiction, more specifically. Or, better, "sci-fi"-a term coined by California editor and novelist Forrest J Ackerman in the 1950s. The Golden State's contributions to science fiction are many, and they are relentlessly gloomy, from the dystopian visions of Philip K. Dick to the dyspeptic scenarios of Harlan Ellison, the cryptofascist man-versus-insect dreams of Robert Heinlein, and the authoritarian shoot-'em-ups of Jerry Pournelle. Even the comparatively kindhearted Ray Bradbury had his doubts about earthlings-as one might, caught in traffic with so many of them.

Whereas the proto-science fiction of a century past (H. G. Wells, Octavia E. Butler, Edgar Rice Burroughs) looked to a bright if complex future, we can now scarcely imagine one that's not irredeemably awful. Not so in the sunnier realm of fantasy, a genre that is a cuddly Ewok crammed up next to the Darth Vader of sci-fi. (California creations again.) The two literary lineages share distant ancestors but only a few common practitioners. They're really quite different-though it doesn't help us forge a distinction that writers in both genres share an umbrella organization, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

One difference, as bi-genre writer Matthew Dickerson notes, is that science fiction is based on science, "or, more accurately, on the assumption that everything is explainable by science." Science, of course, is naturalistic: It is replicable, depends on material laws, follows a rigorous logic. Fantasy, conversely, looks to the fairy tale for inspiration: It hinges on magic. …

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