What is the difference between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Lord of the Rings?
It’s a common enough question (among a few folks, anyway) with a common enough set of answers. To some, there is no difference: both are speculative fiction (i. e. deal with made-up worlds and situations). To other, more devout followers of these genres, the differences are as clear as day. Whatever the level of discussion is, the fact remains that while they do often end up lumped together by fans and publishers alike, there is nevertheless that / separating science fiction from fantasy, suggesting that there are indeed distinctions to be drawn between the two. Hopefully this post will help clarify, if not completely solve, this issue.
To me (admittedly more into fantasy than sci-fi), the differences have always been clear. At the most basic level, science fiction is something that has some kind of grounding in scientific fact, however weak, and could therefore possibly (if not probably) actually happen. Fantasy takes the speculative aspect a step farther by creating a world, characters, and/or events that are entirely impossible as far as we know. To use the above examples, TMNT is based on the premise that some chemical ooze exists that can transform four turtles and a rat into creatures with more human-like forms, attitudes and feelings. LOTR offers no such explanation, but essentially has the reader accept the world as it is unconditionally.
Beyond this superficial distinction, there are several technical differences that stand out to me as well. In science fiction, the unreal element usually (but not always) has to do with technology. People are able to do amazing things or travel to distant worlds due to their advanced tech and knowledge of how to use it. One of the exceptions to this rule is alternative history stories, which are essentially ‘what if’ scenarios based on past rather than future events. In these it’s not so much technology that matters as a thorough understanding of history, particularly of the period or event in question. Still, while it is possible to make educated guesses about alternative outcomes, it is impossible to pinpoint every little factor that would be changed due to those outcomes. For this reason, alternative history might be considered a middle ground between sci-fi and fantasy–or else a subset of historical fiction largely unrelated to either.
In fantasy, there are often (but again, not always) systems of magic or other supernatural occurrences that govern the way the world works. Because fantasy worlds and creatures are not necessarily bound by natural laws as we know them, authors are free to make up the rules from scratch. Whereas they are sometimes based on reality, often they are not. It is for this reason that I would guess there are probably slightly more fantasy stories out there than science fiction, though I could be wrong.
Whether the system is technological, magical, or otherwise; one commonality of both genres is that the rules laid down by the author must be adhered to. I’ve stressed consistency in a couple of previous posts, and the same applies here. The system of magic in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle has a very thorough set of guidelines as laid out in the four books, and is adhered to strictly throughout. The same is true of Harry Potter. In science fiction, it is scientific principles that are the guidelines: in fantasy, whatever the author decides. That’s not to say doing one is easier than the other. In fact, one might say of fantasy, as of many things, that with greater freedom comes greater responsibility (that is to say, you may make up the rules, but you’ve got to follow them to a tee).
And the debate goes on. Personally, I tend to go for the middle ground here: they are different genres, but rarely inseparable. At any rate, many Venn diagrams will no doubt continue to spring up on the subject for a long time yet. Questions of classification in literature, as in science, have frequently produced magnificent results in the form of completely new, possibly undeveloped genres just waiting to be explored, and hopefully they will continue to do so well into the future.