A Question of Timelessness: Writing Science Fiction vs Writing Fantasy

It’s no secret that the subjects I tend to write about are fantasy, science fiction, and Gothic. In this post, I won’t be mentioning Gothic, but I will be focusing on science fiction and fantasy. Which genre of these two do I prefer as a reader and a writer, and why?

First off, it would be foolish to state for a fact that one genre is inherently superior than the other. Both science fiction and fantasy have their own unique flavors as well as their masterpieces and their own flops. There is both good fantasy and good science fiction, as well as what I term the MST3K books (yes, after the popular cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 show)  from grade B writers for both. But what are the differences between the two genres? We can’t blame some people for being confused when libraries and bookstores often shelve the two together.

For starters, fantasy appeals to our childlike mindset of our primitive ancestors, in which magic andfantasy monsters lurk all around us. Many of us dream of flying with dragons over snowy white, cloud covered mountains, of casting spells to change the fabric of nature, of having a picnic ], under the moonlight with fairies and wood nymphs, or of going on an epic quest in which one fights goblins and trolls, explores castles, and defeats a great evil to become a champion. Fantasy has the markings of a mythology that refuses to die.

Science fiction appeals to what could be. The dreamer wonders what it would be like to live in a world in which we have robots as companions  or to step into hologram chambers to play virtual games, or to be the first to set foot on Mars, or to blast off into the coldest reaches of space and explore new galaxies while trying to survive in such a cold vacuum.  It could be said that science fiction looks to the future, whereas fantasy looks to a mythic past.

I have enjoyed the science fiction writings of Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, Orson Scott Card, and Isaac Asimov, as well as the fantasy writings of Terry Brooks, Robin Hobb, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Brandon Sanderson. However, while both have provided me with out of enjoyment, I would have to say that out of the two genres, as a reader and an author, I prefer fantasy.

To begin with, fantasy is easier to write on many levels. It doesn’t require the same rules science fiction does. Make no mistake. I’m not advocating for sloppily written fantasy in which everything can just change on the whim. Good fantasy has established rules for races, lands, history, and magic systems. Even fantasy has to have elements that make sense, lest it just turn to nonsense (Unless the premise is based on nonsense like Alice in Wonderland, but that’s a whole different story). Books such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth series, the Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter, all have rules. But they aren’t realistic rules. Contrast that to science fiction. In order to be good science fiction, the stories have to have harder rules that show a potential reality. Reality is an essential key ingredient for good science fiction because they are stories about what could potentially happen. Some may protest over such a generalization and bring up such movies as Star Wars. That being the case, let’s remove the quest for scientific accuracy from the equation. Such stories of outer space adventures don’t rely on hard scientific facts. As such they are termed soft science fiction.

Yet, it would be better to do away with the term soft science fiction. Once a story becomes like Star Wars, it’s no longer science fiction, but an outer space fantasy, or, in some cases, a fantasy on earth with robots and other strange creatures. To elucidate the matter, compare Star Wars to Star Trek. Star Trek throughout the years has tried to show what could happen, and many inventions from that show or now in use. In terms of even harder science fiction, one only need look at movies like Interstellar, which dives incredibly into the waters of science, combing the bottom for what could be and what is. Star Wars in comparison has lots of myth and magic, such as the Force, making it fit fit better into the classification of fantasy than science fiction.

When it comes to writing good science fiction, which actually incorporates scientific concepts instead of turning it into an outer space fantasy fiction, is tricky enough. But that’s not the only problem that science fiction runs into. Science fiction can easily turn into science fact, or, in other terms, it doesn’t take long for science fiction to become reality in which the stories become dated. Star Trek is somewhat illustrative of this point, even though people aren’t exploring the galaxies with warp drive. One only needs to google inventions since Star Trek to see how much of Star Trek has come true. Computers with monitors, as well as Skype (though it was never called that in the show), communicators (cell phones), automatic doors, tablet computers, and even tricorders are all a part of our modern society. While all of these are amazing feats of human engineering, it also kills a little bit of the reverence we had for the gadgets in Star Trek.

Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 also has turned into science fact in many science fictionways. We don’t have firemen burning houses full of books, despite censorship being alive and well, but society now has many of the inventions the book spoke about. Inventions such as Bluetooths and headphones (shells in the book), flatscreen TVs, talking to friends over screens, are no longer confined to the pages of a 1950s dystopian novel. Take 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. It’s still a beautiful book, but it has inevitably lost it’s wonder over the ages now that we have submarines like the book talks about. How long until my own science fiction novels and short stories all become science fact? The list could go on and on, but many writers have accurately predicated, or influenced, the future. Issac Asimov, Larry Niven, Arthur C. Clark, and Orson Scott Card have all tried to go for a more realistic type of science fiction, doing their best to see what could be.

Just as many of these aforementioned ideas of these shows, books, and writers have come to pass, as a writer, I struggle to keep my science fiction stories fresh and relevant. Years ago, I had the idea for a science fiction dystopian novel, which I am currently working on, in which man gets bombarded by too much technology – not very original I know. Only recently have I started working on this novel. Imagine my surprise when I found out that some of my ideas are already coming to pass, such ideas as sex robots, self driving cars, and robots working in fast food, just to name a few. Years ago these concepts were fresh in my mind, but I had no idea that they would be invented so fast. Because of this, I have often asked myself if it’s even worth pursuing writing this novel. What’s the point of writing a book warning society of the dangers of being saturated with too much technology when the story is already coming to pass before my eyes? Should I even write a book about people on Mars, or people exploring the moons of Jupiter? How timeless will these books be in the future?

To be perfectly frank, I am somewhat of a Luddite, and I’m a Luddite over the silliest of reasons. I hate the idea of science fiction, something that has given us great stories throughout the years, becoming dated. Science fiction has done much to enlighten our minds of what humanity is capable of. It has inspired scientists, engineers, and inventors throughout history to look at the world in new ways, to see all sorts of possibilities, helping us advance. In numerous ways, science fiction has been a blessing. Yet, the positive generally collaborates and corroborates with the negative, and in this case the yin working with and against the yang has been the realism. Realism is simultaneously good science fictions strength and it’s ultimate killer.

Fantasy on the other hand will always be mythopoeic, appealing to the more primitive man in many respects. I’m not so worried about my fantasy writings becoming dated, as fantasy is far more flexible with the passage of time than science fiction could ever hope to be. Dragons, wizards, banshees, oni, vampires, rusalka, magic talismans and oracles, will always spark a sense of wonder in people. One doesn’t need to have any concern over the fantasy works of Frank Oz, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Terry Brooks, Robin Hobb, Terry Pratchet, Lewis Carroll, Ursala K LeGuin, or Lloyd Alexander ever becoming dated. There will never be magic wardrobes that take us to lands full of anthropomorphic animals, dwarfs and rings of power, schools for witches and wizards, flat worlds atop a turtle, or magical lands of whimsy and nonsense, too name a few. Spaceships, androids, holograms, and ray guns will inevitably lose some of their wonder as society moves towards the future at a rapid pace.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like science fiction. I like science fiction almost as much as fantasy. But fantasy still wins out just a little more when it comes to old books being timeless and when it comes to writing.


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