By Doc Honour
Every year since 1953, the members of the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) vote to award the Hugo Award to the best speculative novel of the year. For over twenty years, the awards were given to books that were clearly science fiction, such as Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Then it gradually changed, reflecting a change in reader perceptions, and some more recent awards were given to fantasy novels such as Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
So what is the difference?
The two genres share something very important: they are stories about people and their reactions to the highly unusual situations around them. An AI “person” faces the same dilemmas as any human when placed in an untenable situation. Harry Potter and Hermione Granger find love in the midst of world-threatening magic. Speculative fiction is first and foremost about people regardless of the science or magic elements in the story.
The genres also share something less laudable: they have often been labelled “escapist,” a pejorative term implying time spent on them is somehow not worthwhile. But then, the same term was used in the past for all fiction. Good writing is always good for the human soul, regardless of the genre, and I have sometimes been astonished at the quality of writing in both genres.
Fantasy is characterized by magical elements, often based on ancient oral traditions, placed within a self-consistent world. It’s been around for thousands of years, evidenced in very early works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, most of the religious myths of ancient Greece and Rome, and One Thousand and One Nights (also called Arabian Nights). In The Fifth Season (2016 Hugo award) and its sequels by N.K. Jemisin, a fractured and dystopic world (“The Stillness”) is shattered by a magical volcanic rift that threatens to end the world. One woman has secret magical abilities; working with a strange and feared rock-like being, she must find a way to heal the world. Jemison’s imagining is rich and complete, and the story hinges on the use of magic in a well-defined and limited way.
Science fiction, on the other hand, is characterized by a realistic extension of today’s world based on speculation about scientific principles. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often characterized as the first science fiction novel, with the 19th century works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells following close after. During the “Golden Age” of science fiction in the 1940s through 1960s, science advanced so fast that authors had a wealth of ideas on which to build. In a recent example, Martha Wells’ Network Effect (2021 Hugo award) and its associated “Murderbot” novels, the protagonist is a human-robot construct originally created as a ruthless security agent. Before the first novel, he manages to hack the control module that allows humans to shut him down. Wells explores the very human consequences of such a technology from within the point of view of that “person.”
“Better” is clearly in the perception of the reader. I’ve always preferred science fiction, so that’s what I write. I write about tomorrow to illuminate today. My two books (so far) are placed in a possibly realistic future 900 years away in which humanity has been destroying its worlds in technological wars nearly as fast as it colonizes them. Could mind technology provide a solution, changing the way people understand each other?
Yet the two genres also overlap significantly, which often creates confusion. The acclaimed movie Avatar is a great example of merged genre. The idea of implanting someone’s consciousness into a live avatar is very clearly science fiction and is surrounded by all sorts of technical paraphernalia to make it look real. Then, of course, the avatar lives and breathes in a fantasy world with strong magical elements based on the oral traditions of native American peoples. Or is it magic after all? Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law informs us that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So perhaps there is little difference between science fiction and fantasy after all.
Iconoclast, polymath, and author, Doc Honour has been a US Navy pilot, an international leader in systems engineering, and a successful entrepreneur. He holds a PhD from the University of South Australia in systems engineering. Doc has led teams of up to 50 people to build complex systems; the system integration problem sequences in his books reflect his real-life experience. He has taught nearly 500 short courses to help others learn to do what he has done. Doc Honour’s short story “Fishing Hands” won a top (Gold) award in the 2022 Royal Palm Literary Awards of the Florida Writers Association. Born on Guam, he’s lived in 34 different places. These days, he lives in Florida with his wife and a rather willful Australian Shepherd named Chip.