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Science Fiction vs. Fantasy: How Are Science Fiction and Fantasy Distinct?

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

What is the difference between fantasy and science fiction? At first glance, it can seem like a simple question. Science fiction often takes place in a dystopian society sometime in the future and contains elements of advanced technology. A fantasy story, on the other hand, is usually set in the fantasy realm and includes mythical creatures and supernatural powers. Though the similarities between these two genres are readily apparent, there are more similarities and crossovers between the two genres than first meets the eye.



What Are the Elements of the Science Fiction Genre?

Science fiction is a broad genre that encompasses many different styles and subgenres. Famous authors of the genre include Ray Bradbury (author of Fahrenheit 451), Anne McCaffrey (author of the Dragonriders of Pern series), and Isaac Asimov (author of I, Robot). Famous sci-fi movies include Star Wars, Dune, and Star Trek. Here is a list of elements that are found in many science fiction stories:

  • Science: As its name implies, science fiction uses elements of science. The way that science is incorporated can vary greatly from one science fiction story to another. Elements of science often inform the visual aesthetic or science fiction. The sci-fi subgenre steampunk has a very distinct aesthetic that is generally defined by technology from the pre-industrialized world. The use of science takes many different shapes in the more realistic subgenre of hard science fiction, but it is almost always present in some way shape or form.
  • Technology: Science fiction often explores advanced technologies like time travel and space travel. Stories often unfold on other planets or onboard futuristic spaceships. Even when sci-fi stories take place in recognizable real world settings, the worldbuilding often layers in new technologies that pose obstacles and existential questions for the characters and society at large.
  • A dystopian setting: Whether a sci-fi story is a space opera that takes place on a steampunk starship or a gritty neo noir that takes place in a sprawling metropolis, sci-fi writers generally set their stories in dystopian societies. Science fiction often explores dystopian themes in far-flung worlds that ultimately bear striking similarities to the philosophical questions and moral quandaries that we deal with in the real world. The point is often to raise the question of how different the sci-fi world is from our own.

What Are the Elements of the Fantasy Genre?

The fantasy genre is sometimes referred to as the first narrative style. Humans have been incorporating mythical creatures and other elements of fantasy into their stories for millennia. The genre has obviously changed and developed, and fantasy books now account for some of the most popular and successful books on the market. Famous authors include J.R.R. Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit) and J.K. Rowling (author of Harry Potter). Books in the fantasy genre typically include:

  • Mythical creatures: A typical fantasy world is often populated by mythical creatures that can’t be found in the real world. Supernatural creatures and other fantastical elements are often understood to be normal everyday parts of the world of the story.
  • Supernatural powers: Fantasy characters oftentimes possess magical or supernatural powers with no scientific or rational explanation. While they are often capable of accomplishing similar feats as characters in sci-fi, the explanation for these powers is generally magical or supernatural, rather than technological.
  • Robust worldbuilding: One of the most impressive aspects of many fantasy novels is the complex histories, languages, and family trees that their authors chart out. Fantasy writers go to great lengths to construct an entire new world with a detailed history and complex culture.

2 Differences Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

As should be obvious by now, science fiction and fantasy overlap quite a bit. There are even subgenres like science fantasy that explicitly blend the two:

  1. Plausibility: A science fiction story generally extrapolates elements of the modern world and attempts to predict how they could possibly develop. Fantasy, on the other hand, uses supernatural elements that have no link to our contemporary world. A useful way of thinking about the differences between the genres is that the fantasy genre traffics in the impossible, whereas science fiction can be thought of as speculative fiction that draws its internal logic from the real world.
  2. Setting: Generally speaking, science fiction stories often take place in a dystopian, hyper-technological future. Fantasy stories are traditionally set in worlds populated by mythical creatures and supernatural events. The world itself can look quite similar to our own, but it has fantastical elements.

Are Superhero Stories Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Sometimes it can be hard to classify a book or novella as strictly a science fiction story or a fantasy story. For instance, where does your typical superhero story fit into the dichotomy? Superheroes generally live in a world that looks very similar to our own, but their powers are sometimes supernatural with no logical, scientific explanation. Though you could make the case for superhero stories fitting into either genre, they’re perhaps best categorized as a genre of their own.

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