Fantasy to Science Fiction: the Speculative Spectrum

DaveK's picture

As usual I'm reading some forum soemwhere on the web and I come across an argument about what is science fiction and what is fantasy and hard vs. soft SF. This brings up Clarke's third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. My tastes tend to be on the harder side but I did enjoy Lord of the Rings way back when and I do follow Butcher's Dresden Files series so I'm not 100% hard core. I have also written a few fantasy stories myself.

What distinguished SF from fantasy? Some has to do with the presentation. If Harry Dresen waves his wand and opens a portal to another world that is fantasy. If Col. O'Neill dials the StarGate and opens a portal that is SF. There is not too much different in the result but a lot in the method.

There is also a dividing line (more on lines later) on weather the action is known to be impossible vs. not know to be impossible. If it is known to be impossible it should be classed as fantasy. If not known to be impossible and that includes the engineeringly difficult, then it is SF.

There is one more axis to the space. Is the speculative element necessary to the story? Another one of my favorites, Firefly/Serenity, is not really SF. Well, maybe a little. It could easily be done in a contemporary or historical setting with cars or boats instead of a space ship.

Back to the lines. People like to draw lines because it is easier to see when a line is crossed. The ball or foot was on the line so the call is easy. But most things in life aren't demarcated by lines. The boundaries are fuzzy and peoples vision sees things differently. Below is my attempt to analogize the speculative story space. It goes from a 1 of pure fantasy to a 10 of hard as diamond SF.

At a 1 anything is possible whereas at 10 we'll throw in technology too. So what we'll left with is an adventure story set in the very near future and nothing new. Timing rears its head too. One hundred years ago artificial intelligence was thought impossible. Fifty years ago it was thought just around the corner. Here is an idea of how things can be ordered. I haven't thought this out in great detail (because I'm not an expert in all things so I don't know the status of all the sciences) but where do you draw the line? Is the line at 2.5 or maybe 3.5?


1 - elves/orcs/vampires, magic by hand waving

2 - time travel

3 - tractor/presser beams

4 - telepathy/telekinesis, downloading/uploading humans

5 - teleportation/gateways

6 - gravity control, FTL, alternative universes,

7 - Bussard ram rockets

8 - antimatter engines/bombs, nanotech,

9 - Intelligent AI, genetic engineering, augmented humans

10 - aliens, Popular Science article on how we'll live on the moon


Don't forget the bigger issue (another post maybe) that the world isn't black and white. The lines are fuzzy and not everyone sees them in the same place.


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