Fantasy: The Realm of Magic, Sci-Fi: The World of Science

Fantasy is not sci-fi, and it’s a hill I’m willing to die on. As an editor and reader of fantasy, I cringe when someone lumps them together. It’s something I understand from people who aren’t consumers of either genre. But it really irks me when people in publishing lump them together. I found this challenging when I was creating my Better Beta Reading mini course for fantasy readers because the only statistics that were from reliable sources lumped fantasy in with science fiction (sci-fi), which defeated the point.

Why is this a debate?

Fantasy started as a subgenre of science fiction because for a long time science fiction and speculative fiction were as fantastic as mainstream society got. Early fantasy was marketed toward children and seen as a subset of children’s lit or sci-fi. However, with the success of Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein in 1954, the market for fantasy books for authors took off. More and more people explored the world of the imagination, magic, and worlds that weren’t restricted by the physics we know.

What is Fantasy?

Fantasy has to contain elements that could no or do not exist in the real world. Most agree that there needs to be an element of magic or supernatural elements, though some subgenres use this to the lightest degree. Before I get the, “But, Brittany, sci-fi also has things that don’t exist in the real world.” I know, but the shift happens for fantasy when the element being brought in, or most of them, are not possibilities in the real world.

Sci-fi relies on pseudoscience, scientific exaggeration, or scientific conjecture to create out-of-this-world situations and stories. They reach to the edges of human possibilities to build their adventures. Fantasy operates fully outside of the things that are explainable or involved with science.

So it’s easier, right?

Spoiler alert: all fiction stories are made up. Authors create all of the events within fiction to move the plot and grow the characters.

If you write or read fantasy, you have almost definitely run into the fantasy haters. Haters frequently comment that writing fantasy is easy because if you’re stuck, you can just magic your characters out of it. Wrong. 

Fantasy books have to have magic systems and with that, rules for their magic systems. They need to follow their own physics and stay within defined boundaries. New magic popping up every time problems arise are a dead giveaway to readers that the story is underdeveloped. Therefore, this argument could be made of any fiction genre. 

For the purpose of this, sci-fi’s key elements are going to follow similar or the same science and physics were used to in our current world. Fantasy will follow their own rules that may or may not be similar to those we’re familiar with.

Then it’s a subgenre of sci-fi.

Nope. Fantasy started to deviate from sci-fi around the time The Lord of The Rings. But since then it’s developed into it’s own genre with it’s own rules and subgenres. As with all genres, subgenres are more specific areas of a genre that help authors and readers find their level of enjoyment.

Setting matters too

As with all genres there are exceptions, but fantasy novels tend to take place in the current world, a pseudo-medieval setting, or in a world entirely it’s own. This can vary depending on the subgenre (listed below), but these are frequent settings that most readers have come to expect or understand as part of fantasy. 

Whereas, with science fiction, we see more dystopian settings, space settings, or futuristic earth settings as the genre is heavily speculative and less fantastical. Science fiction explores the what-if scenarios that are less explored in fantasy. 

Subgenres of fantasy include:

Regardless of the setting, fantasy has developed subgenres, which further engrain it as a genre in its own right. In the standard categorization of genres there is genres, subgenres, tropes, and mini tropes, but since fantasy has it’s own sub genres it can’t really be lumped under sci-fi fairly without it being a sub genre to a sub genre. A sub sub genre? Nah… 

Some of the sub genres include:

High fantasy-Lots of magical elements and frequently marked by other worlds, magical creatures, and humanoid species like fae, witches, or dwarves.

Low fantasy– when magical events intrude on the typically normal world

Cozy fantasy– think low-stakes. These are fantasy novels, usually with magical creatures, that tell low stakes stories of those in fantasy worlds.

Fairy Tales– These range from kids fairy tales to twisted or grown-up versions of old tales told over hundreds of years.

Magical Realism-This is where there are magical elements or creatures fit into a mostly normal world. Think a world with unicorns or a marvel movie, where everything is the same except there are superheroes.

Who cares if we lump fantasy and sci-fi?

Everyone who reads or writes them. It’s about representation and ease of access. Humans love to put things into categories. And as we see through history, those categories grow and change with each generation. We also know that trying to fit people and things into categories they don’t belong in confuses outsiders and marginalizes those that work hard to create their art. 

Furthermore, it serves readers that are looking for particular books. In a world where people shop books by genre, subgenre, tropes, and even mini tropes, we owe it to authors and readers alike to stop putting them into categories that are overly broad and not reflective of the contents in most of the books.

Interested in more?

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2 responses to “Fantasy: The Realm of Magic, Sci-Fi: The World of Science”

  1. Oh wow!

    This was the read I didn’t know I needed this morning 🙂

    Thank you for explaining the differences between Fantasy and Sci-fi.

    As fan of both Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, I always knew there were distinct differences between them, but after reading this, I feel more confident in explaining why I like both forms of storytelling 🙂

    Again, great article!

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