How many of you have heard your geeky friends attempt to make the case that the true difference between Star Trek and Star Wars is that one is decidedly science fiction whereas the other is purely science fantasy? I know I’ve made the comparison before in the past, not quite knowing at all what I was trying to say other than wanting to sound informed about the subtle nuances of differing genres. This distinction has been a part of the age-old Trek v. Wars debate for years, and it got me thinking a bit. What does it really mean for a story to be science fantasy rather than science fiction?
To zoom out a little bit, the distinct genres of science fiction and fantasy have been lumped together more often than not (look no further than countless bookstores’ science fiction/fantasy – or sf/f – sections), so let’s take a look at how these two modes of storytelling are different. Isaac Asimov once famously distinguished the two by explaining that science fiction is grounded in reality and describes things that are possible, while fantasy does not have a sense of reality and is therefore not possible. To build on that, Twilight Zone creator, Rod Serling, once stated that, “It is said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things. Science fiction is the improbable made possible, and fantasy is the impossible made probable.” The commonality between Asimov’s and Serling’s definitions seems to the that science fiction contains an element of possibility whereas fantasy does not.
To many, when asked to describe what first comes to mind when thinking of the two genres, science fiction often conjures up images of space ships, futuristic tech, aliens, etc. While fantasy, on the other hand, will call to mind images of a Tolkien-esque setting featuring epic battles, inns, medieval garb, wizards, elves, dwarves and other strange creatures. Of course, both genres are made up of a much more diverse and complex array of storytelling that doesn’t necessarily fit into those simplistic molds, but the surface-level distinction is undoubtedly common.
Knowing how science fiction and fantasy differ from each other, what then gives us science fantasy?
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction defines science fantasy as a kind of bastardized hybrid of science fiction, fantasy, and some elements of horror that is “usually colorful and often bizarre.” Despite this definition, there is still a general lack of clarity of how exactly to describe the elusive subgenre, and lines are still often blurred. One of the few scholarly works on the concept comes from Dr. Carl Malmgren, a research professor out of the University of New Orleans. In his 1988 article, “Towards a Definition of Science Fantasy,” from the journal Science Fiction Studies, Dr. Malmgren writes, “Science fantasy, like Science Fiction, assumes an orderly universe with regular laws, but, like fantasy, contains at least one explicit reversal of current natural law.” Essentially, science fantasy adds one or more element of the impossible into a probable world.
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction also describes science fantasy as often featuring common themes such as, “parallel worlds, other dimensions, ESP, monsters, psi powers and supermen. One could consider the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (particularly his Barsoom series), Roger Zelazny, Anne McCaffrey, or Frank Herbert’s Dune saga to constitute examples of the genre. Science fiction, on the other hand, according to Ferenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles author, Ray Bradbury, can be described as “sociological studies of the future, things that the writer believes are going to happen by putting two and two together…Science fiction is a logical or mathematical projection of the future.” This definition then calls to mind works from Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, or in other words, what some might consider to be hard science fiction.
So, taking these definitions into account, would it be safe to say that Star Wars constitutes an example of science fantasy? I would argue that it does. The Star Wars saga exists in an “orderly universe” with probable science fiction elements such as alien races, starships and space travel, but also challenges natural law most explicitly with its concept of the force. While the prequel trilogy did attempt to reconcile this piece by grounding the force biologically through midi-chlorians, the saga as a whole also contains a more traditional fantasy structure in its exploration of destiny and the hero’s journey.
On the other side of this coin, does this then make Star Trek an example of science fiction? Malmgren further sub classifies science fantasy into four main types, including “the time-loop motif, the alternate-present world, the counter scientific world, and the hybridized world.” He goes on to state that, “as a subgenre, science fantasy tends to interrogate science by calling into question basic scientific assumptions about the physical world. At the same time it explores fantasy by questioning the unreality of the terrors and desires that haunt the value-laden world of dreams.” Looking at Star Trek, while it has put in a lot of effort into grounding its depiction of the future in hard science, the franchise is really no stranger to any of these four categories that make up science fantasy. And, I believe, a common and important aspect of Star Trek is to challenge and question scientific assumptions and norms that we currently have, pushing the franchise further under the umbrella of Malmgren’s definition of science fantasy. In this regard, maybe, despite a history of bickering fans, the two great franchises aren’t so different after all?