Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Defining Fantasy and Science Fiction

Fantasy and Science Fiction are distinct-but-related genres of fictitious literature, both belonging to the larger category of speculative fiction.  Fantasy is a modern term for fictional literature set in worlds wherein magic works and where there are often supernatural beings (e.g., djinn or genii, ghosts, demons, vampires, nymphs, dryads, goddesses and/or gods, etc.) or creatures from mythology (e.g., elves, dwarves, giants, dragons, etc.).  Major characters often have supernatural abilities or magical devices (e.g., rings, swords, harps, lamps, flying carpets, etc.).  Fantasy draws from many ancient mythologies, texts from extinct religions (and sometimes from living religions), fairy tales, medieval  romances and legends, but, unlike these earlier works (which often serve as source material), modern fantasy is deliberately composed by one or more authors not as history, but as entertainment–the fantastic elements are not expected to be believed by either the author(s) or readers.  Although people often refer to “sexual fantasies,” fantasy literature is not usually a written form of pornography; the term for that “literature” is erotic fiction.  (This is not to say that fantasy literature aimed at adult readers may not entail elements of romance or even of the erotic–but this is not the focus and because of the wide age range of readers, love scenes seldom become overly graphic.)

What distinguishes fantasy from science fiction is that the latter attempts to base all fantastic elements on principles from known science or to give a plausible scientific explanation for the fantastic elements.  Usually, the laws of the universe in science fiction either function in ways known to contemporary science or the changes are cautious and a scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation is attempted.  (For this reason, despite the genetically altered indigenous lizards of Pern, that the colonists from earth named “dragons,” Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” books are science fiction and not fantasy, as McCaffrey herself would argue.) 

The two literary genres do sometimes overlap and, when this happens, the result is often called science fantasy.  The currently most famous example of science fantasy are the films in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga which include science fiction elements (starships, laser weapons, advanced technology, robots/droids, holograms, alien races, etc.) but also elements of fantasy (e.g., the powers of the Jedi Knights and the Sith Lords; a “quest” structure and a cosmic battle between good and evil, etc.).  Other major examples  of science fantasy include Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” novels in which the “Mars” to which Captain John Carter of Virginia is transported bears little resemblance to the Mars known by astronomers; C.S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy,” Lin Carter’s “Callisto” books, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover stories and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.  The great pioneer of modern science fiction was 19th C. French author, Jules Verne (e. g., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; The Mysterious Island; From Earth to Moon; Around the World in 20 Days, etc.)

In later posts, I will outliine the major sources of modern fantasy, an overview of the history of the genre (especially the pioneers of the 19th and early 20th centuries), and outline some of the sub-genres within fantasy literature (e.g., “heroic, high, or epic ” fantasy; historical fantasy; alternate timeline fantasies; gothic and horror stories; sword and sorcery tales; “dark” fantasy; contemporary fantasy; humorous fantasy;  urban fantasy.  I may also compose a post outlining a brief history of science fiction and some of its sub-genres.

Since I believe imagination is crucial to both religious faith and moral discernment, I encourage wide reading in this literature, regardless of the particular religious commitments (or lack thereof) of the author(s).  I am also convinced that both fantasy and science fiction are excellent vehicles for exploring moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions, although this should never be so heavy-handed as to dominate the narrative structure.  The story must first work AS literature.  Far too many Christian apologists with no real literary ability and boringly dogmatic outlooks have wasted trees in attempts as “Christian fantasy,” believing falsely that they are the next C.S. Lewis. (Left Behind and all its sequels should be LEFT OUT. Ugh!)

June 15, 2009 - Posted by | arts, books, fantasy fiction, science-fiction


  1. I was wondering when I read you last post on this if the Left Behind series or the Christ Clone trilogy qualified as science fiction or fantasy. The thing about the Christ Clone trilogy is that it has people doing ESP (as in L’Engle, only here, they’re deemed negative), and it’s set in the future. But it doesn’t have elves, or robots, etc.

    Comment by James Pate | June 15, 2009

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  3. Since I haven’t read (or even heard of) the “Christ Clone Trilogy,” James, I have no idea whether to classify it as fantasy or science fiction. It sounds like the latter, though, with talk of cloning. Extra-Sensory Perception is one of those borderline areas that is either defined as magic (e.g., in Kurtz’s Deryni stories or Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books) or given a scientific basis (e.g., in Anne McAffrey’s novels of the “Talented”).

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 16, 2009

  4. Yeah, it’s not the most well-known series. I think I heard about it when I was reading a bad review of the Left Behind series: it said the Christ Clones trilogy was better. It has stuff you’d dislike–like the usual anti-UN bit. But it was intriguing because the anti-Christ is actually a clone of Jesus (from the shroud), and he seems genuinely well-meaning.

    Comment by James Pate | June 16, 2009

  5. Fantasy is Laura Ingraham and Rachel Maddow getting up close and personal – in a political sense. Science fiction doesn’t really move me. Reality is enough to deal with most of the time. I do like Ray Bradbury though.

    Comment by Paul | June 16, 2009

  6. Excellent post explaining the differences.

    Comment by Molly Diamond | March 27, 2010

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