The question often arises among fans of genre fiction; what should be classified as science fiction, and what is fantasy? Some people will cop out and say certain stories are both, or that all fiction is fantasy, but for those who want the real answer, read on:
Some will propose that what sets science fiction apart from fantasy is where it is set in time. Fantasy takes place in the past, or something resembling the past, where swords and sandals and no electricity are the order of the day, while sci-fi takes place in the future, with space travel and worlds that have become utopian paradises or dystopian nightmares. But what about this?
A long time ago? Star Wars is clearly science fiction, if you have to choose one, and you do. Similarly, I think almost everyone will agree that Steampunk is science fiction, even though it typically takes place in some version of the 19th century.
Monsters vs. Aliens:
Okay, well, fantasy has gods and monsters, a la Greek and Roman mythology, while sci-fi has tyrannical empires and hostile alien races, right? Again, this is often the case, but not always. Dune has sandworms, Star Trek TOS has all sorts of monsters, like the Mugato and the salt vampire, and Dr. Who had a variety of nasty creatures like Monoids and Drashigs as well. As far as Gods, the original Battlestar Galactica had the Lords of Kobol and Count Iblis and Star Trek TNG had the Q.
While fantasy realms have plenty of empires and would be empires (consider the warring factions of Game of Thrones), they’re fairly light on aliens. However, you do get some. The main problem with aliens in fantasy is how they get to the fantasy world, since presumably spaceships are in short supply. That being said, in works like Robert Aspirin’s MythAdventures series, creatures can travel through dimensions, and although they are given traditionally fantasy names: Trolls, Devils, Imps, etc., they can reasonably be called aliens.
What Is Possible vs. What Isn’t:
Some will argue that fantasy deals with the fantastic, things that cannot be real, things that you can only imagine, while sci-fi deals with what could reasonably be. Space travel and flying cars are things we could envision actually happening with enough technological advancement, while dragons and magic spells could never exist.
But is a dragon impossible, with enough genetic manipulation? And while time travel may seem like it could be real, are we able to envision how any better than we are able to imagine the formula behind a wizard summoning a silver stag from thin air to defend him?
Tech vs. Magic:
There it is. It’s that simple. If your main bit of phlebotinum in your story is advanced technology, you have sci-fi. If it’s magic, it’s fantasy. And I would assert that you have to have magic for fantasy. If Game of Thrones didn’t have red witches and dragon babies, it would just be historical alternative fiction. And sci-fi can have magic, but the technology has to be more crucial to the story. Going back to Star Wars: Could you have a religious order of knights defending the galaxy against an equally powerful, but evil, alternative order, without the Force? Absolutely (although it would be a lot less interesting). But could you have Star Wars without space ships, cloning, laser pistols or robots? I highly doubt it would be recognizable as Star Wars.
Now, Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. There’s no doubt about that. Frankly, I find the fact that a full length movie can pass invisibly from a box in the corner of my apartment into another box so I can watch it, to be indistinguishable from magic. How come I can’t see those pictures floating through my living room??
So, there’s a little bit of truth to the “what is possible vs. what can only be imagined” approach. However, I think that’s just another way of saying “technology vs. magic.” Yes, sci-fi technology is pretty much just magic that we can explain (even if the explanation is just so much mumbo-jumbo), but more to the point, technology is something we can build. Sure, a Hogsmeade craftsman can make a magic wand, but it works because of the magic that flows through it, and through the spell caster. A laser blaster or a time machine requires electricity, but it works primarily because of the way someone put it together. Fantasy phlebotinum is much more faith based.
So, in sum, if you build it, they will come, and you are probably in a sci-fi universe. If you’ve gotta have faith, you’re likely in a fantasy world.
If you don’t agree with these definitions, or you feel that there’s more of a spectrum that genre fiction like this falls upon, the good news is, it doesn’t matter! They’re all just stories, so just enjoy them for what they are without the worrying about the labels.