The Geek Debate: Sci Fi or Fantasy?

It’s that age-old question; the one that’s bothered Geeks and Nerds since the genres became established. But I’m not talking about the films; I’m talking about books. Most fans of either camp seem to be able to dip into films about their literary nemesis with no problem at all. But, chuck a sci fi book at a swords and sorcery head or a fantasy novel at a ray-guns and gadgets geek, then you’ve got problems.

I know which camp I sit in: I’ll take a wizard over a robot, any day of the week. So, I suppose this post is less about sci fi versus fantasy and why I’ll cheerfully talk Tolkien, but I’ve had enough of Asimov.

Probabilities and Improbabilities

There’s been a lot of conjecture over what separates what, on the surface, appear to be two forms of escapism. One of the most-widely quoted definitions belongs to Miriam Allen deFord. DeFord was an American journalist-turned-writer, who was the author of a good few sci-fi books. Her thought was that “science fiction consists of improbable possibilities, fantasy of implausible possibilities.” It’s not an easy one to argue with but, for me, it doesn’t tick all the boxes.

I’ve done my time on sci fi; I’ve read Scott Card, Asimov, M Banks and others but – and I don’t mean any disrespect to their word – I’ve never come away feeling as satisfied as I have when I’ve read Tolkien, Donaldson, Stroud or anything that’s got a wizard and some swords in it. And preferably a shadowy bad buy with more powers up his sleeve than you could shake a staff at. But why should that be any different to reading about something futuristic? It’s all escapism, isn’t it?


I suppose, for me, the difference lies in how the characters get to interact with the worlds they exist in. In the wacky world of fantasy, there are usually a few life-restoring berries to fall back on or some magical elixir to pull you out of trouble – just as in sci fi, you get genetically-engineered cures and rare-but-accessible antidotes. On a first view, there are some similarities, albeit in different guises.


But the real difference – and, again, it’s only how I perceive it – is the stuff that defines each genre: magic and science – and that has to have an effect on how we see the characters. When a character uses magic, it usually involves them having to reach deep down inside them and connect with some hidden aspect of their being; their strength, their courage or maybe their love for the world around them. In the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the lead character – possibly one of the most miserable, self-pitying characters you’re ever likely to come across – has to learn to control his magical abilities, which are almost an analogy for his self-loathing. As his anger dissipates and his recognition of The Land as a place for healing takes its place, his powers become easier to master. I loved those books.

In sci fi, the leads tend to have to use solutions outside of themselves in order to solve the problem at hand. Sure, they might have to think of it, write the formula or whatever, but the ultimate solution to their situation will be technological or algorithmic. In Neuromancer, Henry Case has to ascend through various levels of cyberspace in order to reclaim his status as the ‘console cowboy’. The central problem is the revelation of a password but, once Chase gets it, you know that all will be well. I admired the writing, but the environment just left me feeling like I’d absorbed too much data.

Within and Without

So, I think that’s why I like fantasy more than sci fi; fantasy seems to me to be about the power within while sci fi seems to be about the power without. And I guess I’m one of those people who’d like a bit more inner power.

Let the shooting begin; I’m off to watch Star Trek. Whilst reading a bit of Lord of the Rings on the sly.

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10 thoughts on “The Geek Debate: Sci Fi or Fantasy?

  1. I take your point, mate. But, personally, I’d settle for bad fantasy than bad sci-fi. Funny, innit?

  2. Oh MAN. Hard question. Well, not very hard, but conflicting inside me… Ultimately, Science Fiction, but I *love* Fantasy. I just find that bad Fantasy is REALLY bad, lame, over the top, cliché, etc. I find Science Fiction much more plausible, & as a huge science nerd, I love the speculative ideas, glimpsing into the future of mankind… Whereas I find SOME Fantasy tends to just be really outlandish. For example, I grew up on a steady stream of R.A. Salvatore’s books, the tales of Drizzt Do’Urden, & they remain some of the best Fantasy books I’ve ever read… BUT after a while, it became predictable, & dull… Characters would die, only to be magicked back to life in the next book, with no consequences at all in the universe. I think, because I’ve always been a daydreaming star gazer, the idea of Space Travel & Alien Races has always appealed to me more. Plus a healthy diet of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I do still love Fantasy though, it just has to be very good Fantasy… Whereas with Sci-Fi, I’ll read pretty much any old junk!

  3. So…your bed is sci fi around the edges and swords and sorcery where the springs have gone…

  4. Abso-bloomin-lutely to everything you’ve said, Andy.

    Like the middle of the mattress, fantasy has probably become the comfy bit in the middle. If sci-fi is the harder bit around the edge, we may hook a foot around it (what’s that about?), but sleep in the middle. The main reason for having a hook in traditional sci-fi, but spending most of our time in fantasy is probably because the middle is where inner space is waiting to be explored. Inner space is a VERY comfy place to be for writers as we have to spend most of our time there, writing books?

    It’s not as if we even have to keep a foot hooked over traditional sci-fi – we’re rolling into the middle and nobody’s doing anything more than label the trend sci-fi fantasy. I’d say we need the SFF label but that may be because what drove me as a reader was sci-fi, and what drives me as a writer is fantasy. I probably have an atavistic need to know which part of the bed I’m sleeping in. And if anyone can enlighten me on the whole foot-hooked-over-the-edge thing, I’m sure there’s been RESEARCH.

  5. Of course it’s Star Wars! How dense am I? Haven’t read Snowcrash. Will give it a go.

  6. The popular sci-fi story? Star Wars! The Force, lightsabers, (star)ships…

    I can understand the within/without argument entirely. Most fantasy universes use magic (or equivalent) as a way of using inner strength, and the turmoil that goes with. Sci-fi needs to show that in different ways, rather than the struggle to become powerful enough to use the magic coming from within, the struggle needs to come from somewhere else; the emotion of a loved one being killed, the choice of losing your honor by surrendering and saving hundreds of lives or fighting to the death with honor. The struggle still remains internal, but with a different external result. Push a button…

    To be honest, it’s been a long time since I read Gibson’s Neuromancer, but I preferred Stephenson’s Snowcrash. It had an interesting mix of mythology (Babel) and technology where Neuromancer seemed a bit forced at times (possibly being one of, if not the first, in its genre).

  7. Might have to have a look at those. The Warhammer 40K universe does something similar with the use of the Warp as a source of mysterous abilities. Wargame, I know…

  8. Ooh, forgot to mention, there are a couple of RPG universes that I enjoy that cross the streams – Palladium’s Rifts (where big robots and magic users fight with demons and aliens from alternate universe created by by the opening of rifts in lay lines – mecha crossed with fantasy) and (originally) FASA’s Shadowrun (where the “end of the world” event let magic and strange creatures back into the world – cyberpunk crossed with fantasy).

  9. Nicely put, sir! But what about the notion that fantasy reaches inwards, while sci-fi reaches outwards? I agree that magic and technology can be interchangeable, but the processes through which characters go to get to use them seem different to me – and fantasy seems to require a bit more soul-searching, as the power is often an extension of themselves. Kirk didn’t have to rustle up any inner conflict to work a transporter, but magic takes its toll on the user in some personal way. But gizza clue about your favourite sci-fi novel; go on! Andy

  10. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – admittedly from a sci-fi author (Arthur C. Clarke), it holds true from certain points of view. A transporter (Star Trek) is no different from orbing (Charmed) or a teleport spell (Dungeons and Dragons, for example). It’s all about perception.

    I find it is the characters who make a story, and their journey from start to finish; how they grow, how they deal with the challenges placed in front of them, how they interact with one another. That is what makes Tolkien’s stories great, more than the “sword and sorcery” setting (that I couldn’t read the books from start to finish originally is neither here nor there – I have since grown older and will try again!) in my opinion. Most recently, the stories that have made me connect strongest with the characters are those of David Weber’s Honor Harrington universe – every death or injury has made me feel loss or sadness. With it being a space opera, and a military one at that, and no character being sacred (the main character has been maimed and tortured, with the initial plan to have her killed off at one point), it’s been a tough slog to get to this point in the series.

    Unfortunately there is a tendency for writers (both sci-fi and fantasy) to use deus ex machina to rescue our heroes, but without the struggle to grow or defeat a challenge placed in front of them, you end up with two dimensional characters who do not stick in your mind. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve forgotten due to this phenomenon, but would be happy to re-read those books that leave me wanting more.

    Essentially, a well written story could be placed in either a sci-fi or a fantasy universe (apart from one or two small items). In fact, one of the most popular sci-fi stories of all time could be considered to be a fantasy story with a sci-fi veneer. I’ll leave you to guess which one!

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