The central distinction explored in this series — science fiction as inhabiting a naturalistic universe, and fantasy as inhabiting a non-naturalistic universe — allows us to create a taxonomy of sorts by which we can label and classify various kinds of speculative fiction. By exploring examples in this taxonomy, we can illustrate the central distinction of this series in action. The chart below illustrates this taxonomy. Note, we do not claim that this is exhaustive or comprehensive.
Examples of Science Fiction
Hard science fiction: The Martian. The Martian takes place in a wholly naturalistic universe, and in fact, takes place entirely within the naturalistic universe we are familiar with. The author went to significant lengths to ensure that no known naturalistic laws were violated in the story, which is what gives it its grounded, realistic feel.
Soft science fiction: Star Trek. The universe of Star Trek is a thoroughly naturalistic universe. This is, in fact, the strongest recurring theme of the entire franchise: Anything bizarre, mysterious, phenomenal, or extraordinary can be explained in terms of universal law interacting with otherwise inert matter or energy. Over and over, characters in the franchise are called upon to debunk non-naturalistic myths, unmask gods and demons, etc., and reveal the naturalistic workings underneath. However, the naturalism of Star Trek does not always track known or even plausible scientific laws and principles, and so it is soft science fiction instead of hard science fiction.
Alt-universe science fiction: Steampunk. At least some steampunk falls under this category (though we have no specific examples at this time). Steampunk sometimes takes the discredited scientific notions that informed the science fiction aesthetic of Jules Verne and his contemporaries, and speculatively treats those notions as if they were real. One example might be the improbable extrapolations of Babbage’s analytical engine (as presented in The Difference Engine, generally considered the work that spawned steampunk). Another might be airships that operate on principles that don’t function in our world. To qualify here, a work of fiction must deliberately posit rules different from the known rules of our universe, but which comply with all the characteristics of naturalism. We suspect that most examples in this category will be alt-history; if a science fiction story takes place in the future, then we generally assume that counterfactual rules are of a kind with the “soft” science fiction that takes shortcuts to tell interesting stories (faster-than-light travel) and reduce the costs of filming (like transporters).
Alt-history: The Man in the High Castle. Alternative history posits a counterfactual world — one in which key historical events turned out differently — which is also fundamentally naturalistic. It is therefore science fiction, even if it does not involve any science or technology beyond what we already know or have. This is why The Man in the High Castle, a story that posits a different ending to World War II, is widely considered science fiction, even though it does not involve any of the traditional aesthetics of science fiction.
Examples of Fantasy
Traditional fantasy: Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, Chronicles of Narnia, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Stormlight Archives. Each of these works of fiction build a decidedly non-naturalistic universe, and involve the traditional aesthetics of fantasy. This category probably has some useful subdivisions (low-magic, high-magic, high fantasy, etc.), but they are all of a kind and distinct from other forms of fantasy, such as science fantasy, religious fiction, and metaphysical fiction.
Science fantasy: Wrinkle in Time. The story includes animistic elements — even the stars themselves have joined the fight against evil — that demonstrate that the universe is active and morally inflected in a way that a naturalistic universe is not. Good and evil were baked into the fabric of the events and operations of the universe. A Wrinkle in Time is unique in that it showcases how characters can value reason and systematic observation even in a world that is fundamentally non-naturalistic.
Religious fiction: Kings. Kings posits a world in which the biblical story of David takes place in the fictional modern kingdom of Gilboa. It is non-naturalistic because it adopts a theistic worldview in which the Abrahamic God is a character in the story. Kings would likely be considered fantasy because its premise (modern day retelling of a biblical story) is definitionally counterfactual.
Metaphysical fiction: Xenocide & Children of the Mind. When we asked Orson Scott Card, he agreed that Xenocide and Children of the Mind stepped outside the bounds of science fiction, and referred to them as “metaphysical fiction.” Metaphysical fiction is a subset of fantasy that explores non-naturalistic philosophical constructs, but doesn’t resemble fantasy in any of its aesthetics. In Xenocide and Children of the Mind, Card posits a universe in which human beings have souls/intelligences that come from something resembling Plato’s world of forms. It’s non-naturalistic because it assumes that something more than inert matter or energy can be found at the substrate of the universe. The fact that most people treat Xenocide and Children of the Mind as science fiction is simply a rare example where the aesthetics of an author’s worldbuilding (science fiction) overwhelms the substance of its universe (fantasy/metaphysical fiction) — and it doesn’t help that the prior novels were thoroughly within the realm of science fiction. Other examples of metaphysical fiction might be Sophie’s World or Flatland.
Paranormal fiction can be either fantasy or science fiction, depending on how the paranormal elements are signposted. We will talk about signposting in a future article, but it refers to the genre signals that writers bake into the story (purposefully or inadvertently). The X-Files, for example, is almost certainly science fiction; something like The Ring is almost certainly fantasy. The writers and characters of the former assume that the universe is naturalistic; the writers of the latter do not. If we honestly cannot tell whether the universe of a paranormal story is a naturalistic universe, then its genre might be genuinely ambiguous.
Examples of Border Cases
Star Wars. In the original trilogy, the fundamental powers of the universe seemed morally inflected in ways that went beyond the conventions and preferences of the characters. “The Force is strong with this one” was largely interpreted to mean that the Force was active rather than passive. It could endow characters with power and destiny through no merits of their own, the Force (e.g., not impartial). When we learned about midichlorians, however, the Force became instead impartial and passive; it worked differently for different people because of biological reasons, not because of any animism on the part of the universe. With a single line of dialogue, the entire franchise pivoted away from fantasy towards science fiction. Whether Star Wars is science fiction or science fantasy is influenced greatly by how much weight fans give to midichlorians.
“Seventy-two Letters.” This is a short story written by Ted Chiang, author of Arrival. The fundamental premise of the story is that physical objects — like a lump of clay — can be animated by impressing them with names, using the Hebrew alphabet. The idea of animating matter using language is about as non-naturalistic as you can get. However, Chiang’s characters live and think as scientists in a lab, and even call themselves naturalists. They discover the grammar and syntax required to create more and more complex golems through systematic observation and rational analysis. Once the story establishes that things can take form based on names impressed upon them, those rules are treated as universal, passive, unchangeable laws.
Battlestar Galactica. The rebooted Battlestar Galactica series has a grounded sci-fi aesthetic, coupled with soft-science fiction contrivances (faster-than-light travel, artificial gravity, etc.). However, a strong theme of fate flavors the plot of the show, especially in later seasons. There were occasional plot developments that hinted that the universe itself was intervening to bring about desired ends, and that specific characters were chosen by the universe to play specific roles in that ongoing story. This is another example of how perception sometimes matters more than substance: the show has such a compelling science fiction aesthetic that few question its science fiction credentials. However, the non-naturalistic elements (fate, space angels, destiny, prophecy, etc.) are still glaring enough that many feel the need to call it “science fiction with fantasy elements,” or in the words of one colleague, “science fiction with BS elements.”
In upcoming articles, we will explore how authors signpost a work of fiction as science fiction or fantasy, and also explore (briefly) the history of this distinction.