Fantasy and science fiction are usually categorized together. After all, both are set in imaginary worlds. Some books, like Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, sit between the two.
But the aesthetic is very different. Fantasy often is set in an imaginary past–it’s low-tech, which means both more nature descriptions and more hacking people to bits with swords. The result is often a greater focus on description and emotion than the average science fiction.
Growing up, my brother liked science fiction better and I liked fantasy–though we both read a great deal of both. It fit with our personas of Data and Lore–one of us interested in science and facts, the other in poetry and nature.
I’m finding lately, though, that I’m starting to get more into science fiction. A big part of it is that I’m finding better stuff: the best science fiction authors don’t rely only on cool tech and plot twists, but also consider culture, setting, and character development. It’s not all Arthur C. Clarke, especially not any more.
Another part of it may be that I’ve stopped romanticizing the past. You want an imaginary Middle Ages? Well, hope you like the imaginary patriarchy! And imaginary infant mortality and plague! I kid, but I think people look to science fiction when they feel more hopeful about the future than the past. Personally I think the future could go either way–things could get better or worse, and it’s up to us. But that’s part of what makes science fiction so entrancing; it brings that potential conflict into an actual story.
I think perhaps the best science fiction takes something from the best fantasy. Instead of simply plopping the story in space, good SF authors create a whole world, complete with beautiful new planets for their heroes to explore. They give characters full development and emotional range: square-jawed, stoic space soldiers get old fast.
Likewise, good fantasy avoids the pitfalls of groundless magic which simply works with the wave of a wand. The best magic is as thoroughly thought out, explained, and limited as the best tech. It also deals with cultures that are significantly different from our own, instead of the same old fake-medieval thing every time.
In short, you don’t have to pick. Yet people do. It seems fantasy is a lot more popular than scifi, and I’m not sure why. Is it the dragons? The low-tech aesthetic? Or is it just that less scifi is written in the first place?
All my most promising ideas right now are scifi. But I’m a little daunted by its lower popularity. Plus, my oldest son–the one who actually appreciates my work–doesn’t like it. There must be swords and magic, and preferably dragons, or he’s not interested. The trouble is, there is so much out there I feel like I’ll never have an original fantasy idea. So, for now, science fiction it is!