The Fake Split of Scifi and Fantasy

I was all set to fire up this post with a little research on the question of why so many modern readers and writers seem to separate scifi and fantasy into two distinct genres. I began to type my query, and things got a little…turned around.



Well, here’s the question posed on Reddit, on the “Explain Like I’m 5” subreddit. I braced myself for the comments, but actually…a pretty good exchange right near the top of the thread:


I don’t know about that “reasonably plausible” undergrad lit. stuff (just seems like noise to me), but the point about Star Wars is a good one – change the setting, make Han a thief instead of a space rogue, and Obi-wan and Darth Vader wizards, and you’ve got…still Star Wars, in essence. This is why many of us refer to it as “scifi” only as a matter of expedience. Really it’s science fantasy.

The last comment hits upon our important key word – “speculative fiction.” Scifi and fantasy are types of speculative fiction. And it’s only in more recent decades that they’ve diverged so much into their own distinct flavors.

Look back at A Princess of Mars (1912), by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Barsoom stories take place on Mars, and of course there are elements of scientifiction (as it used to be called). There are spacecraft and disintegration rays, and a gigantic air station that pumps out oxygen to render the planet habitable. But there are also sword fights and telepathy and the slaying of giant beasts. Science fantasy.

Poul Anderson, another forgotten grandmaster of SF/F, wrote The High Crusade in 1960. It’s about a failed alien scouting mission to medieval Earth. A gaggle of knights and peasants capture the alien spacecraft and wind up unwittingly blasting off to a faraway world, where they must quickly adapt or perish. Masterful, and it combines elements traditionally associated with both scifi and fantasy.

Jack Vance’s Gray Prince (1975), which some have pointed to as an inspiration for the popular PC game The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, provides yet another excellent example – a story about the struggles of between different classes and races on the world of Koryphon, in the far future. There are space travel, firearms, and aircraft. There’s also magic.

Frank Herbert’s Dune, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy,  Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories, various tales by Leigh Brackett, and many other works both notable and lesser-known have seamlessly interwoven scifi and fantasy over the years, without regard for artificially erected genre barriers.

Hell, how many of Lovecraft’s weird tales begin with an archaeologist or some other man of science mucking around with his instruments and unwittingly stumbling upon some cult to an alien god or the resting place of an indescribable monstrosity? Imagine if he had wrung his hands and scratched his chin and decided that his brand of fiction was perhaps too ambiguous in its position on the scifi/fantasy spectrum.

What of Mark Twain’s 1889 story A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? Fantastical elements for sure, but much like L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall (1939), the story primarily deals with a modern man bringing modern knowledge and technology to the past. Scifi? Perhaps.

It’s been pointed before out that the distinction between science fiction and fantasy was not always an issue.

In my discussions about genre on Twitter, one commonly espoused opinion is that genre is a poor construct for writers, as it boxes them in and limits creativity; yet genre is useful for concise description (e.g. “I read this cool scifi book a guy who goes back in time and brings a bunch of advanced technology to change history”) and for marketers and booksellers.

Most bookstores are arranged by genre (and sometimes then subgenre) and then by author. Apparently it’s easier to sell the Wheel of Time books if they’re on a different shelf than Starship Troopers.

There could very well be other reasons for the alienation of science fiction and fantasy, such as the “Golden Age”‘s focus on pushing hard science fiction at the expense of softer, more science fantastical stories.

Assuredly not the case is this ridiculous explanation once offered by David Brin (author of the Postman), who asserts fantasy to be the crude playground of old farts who crave rule by king and cling to the old ways, to be held apart from the enlightened realm of science fiction, a medium for those exulting in the glories of Change and Progress. Utter nonsense when you consider how much of an overlap there is and how many people love both.

Edit: I noticed that I neglected to include a link or screencap of said rambling. Here is a piece of it:


Whatever the cause for the split, it’s a trend I lament, and I hope that as the indie publishing scene continues to grow we will see a reversal. A revitalization of science fantasy and a reblurring of modern genre lines is overdo.




  1. It occurred to me, reading this, that in all my decades of book shopping, I have never once seen “Fantasy” separated “Science Fiction” in a book store. It’s always been “Fantasy & Science Fiction.”

    But bookstores (except for chains like, say, Half-Price Books) are pretty much a thing of the past so Amazon’s genre marketing divisions have become the hurdles on the track for the would-be book browser.

    Seems to me the only solution is to add more genres so each book can be tagged by as many as seem applicable. I’d rather see Vance’s “Dying Earth” show up in 15 categories than just 1, for example.

    • It’s been a while since I perused a big chain bookstore, so I could be mistaken. My memory was of seeing “Science Fiction and Fantasy” as a section, but then different shelves or sections of subgenres within that, including fantasy separate from scifi.

      • I may have lucked out. At least in my part of the world it was all a big gumbo. Keep in mind my memory of things gets fuzzier the further back I go, so maybe my imagination is filling in some gaps. I just don’t recall a split.

        Anyhoo, it’s a moot point for book stores. It’s the on-line categorization thing that really needs some figuring out because without the Tradpub gatekeeping, chronic readers are going to be swimming in an ocean almost completely without shores.

  2. In my mind, I’ve always separated sci-fi as something that could potentially happen with future technology versus fantasy as magical things that couldn’t. Of course, that’s not a useful distinction when talking to other people, because it depends on one’s level of scientific knowledge and ability to imagine.

    Now, as I look at the traditionally-published books being offered, I’m starting to define fantasy as something I won’t like because it’s too long, with too many characters and too much description, and sci-fi as something I won’t like because it’s about gender-neutral characters fighting climate change for the glory of socialism.

    • I think a lot of people make that distinction – i.e. magic and “unrealistic” = fantasy and advanced technology = scifi. Problem is, as Clarke’s Third Law stated, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

      Is Star Wars then fantasy because there is no Force, and flaming explosions in space are impossible? Is Star Trek fantasy if velocities beyond the speed of light are actually impossible? As technology advances, our understanding of what is possible can change.

  3. Much of what Brin spouts is utter nonsense. I got into a shouting match with him years ago at a con over how education works. I was training elementary teachers to teach science. He had no idea what he what he was talking about.

  4. Hear hear, Bushi! Genres are best for bookstores and in trying to sell stories in general. Otherwise, combine all you want.

    Science-fantasy is fantastic and fun.

    Also, this Brin guy sounds very angry about something, for no good reason whatsoever.

  5. I do recommend the Postman, as a book. It’s pretty good. But the rest of Brin’s stuff? He was an SJW’er before that became a thing. He’s pretty much a high priest of climate change, scienceism and “all humans are bad and the universe would be better without them”. So his quote above didn’t surprise me at all.

    I think of Space Opera as the grey line between fantasy and science fiction. Fantasy is magic and science fiction is science, or future science extrapolated. When science is just “made up”, it goes in space opera for me.

    But while I’ll lump it all together to an uninitiated ignorant outsider, I definitely call them apart talking to other readers.

    And still waiting for the “notify me of follow up comments by email” to work.

    • Yeah, I want to read the Postman, regardless of Brin’s crazy political views.

      I guess we differ on the boundaries between scifi and fantasy. I mean I get it – humans love to classify and put stuff into boxes. And sometimes you’re just into a good military sf story and random magic showing up would ruin it. But by the same token, I’ve read so many stories now that blend the two skillfully, and it used to be such a common thing. The differentiation has come to feel kind of artificially imposed to me.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Genre Wars: SF & F and Magic - Bushi SF/F
  2. Rudyard Kipling Does Scifi: The Secret of the Machines - Bushi SF/F

Leave a Reply