A conversation I have had way too many times is this one: is [title] really science fiction, or is it just fantasy? [Title] could be Star Wars, or Doctor Who, or any ostensibly science fiction work where the science isn’t spelled out very much and looks suspiciously made up.
The reason the question infuriates me is in the last two words: just fantasy. Which reveals the whole question to be a fake, a pretend genre debate when what it actually is is gatekeeping.
Why do people care so much whether Star Wars is science fiction or fantasy? Because if it’s fantasy, they can relegate it to the huge pile behind them of stuff they don’t have to read, or like, or take seriously. Only the hardest scifi gets to be taken seriously. It has to be so hard you can literally cut yourself on it. If there’s a faint squish in the descriptions anywhere, if there’s a little wiggle somewhere where a technology is mentioned but not justified–YEET! out it goes with Dragonlance and Wheel of Time, into the dustbin of fake authors, probably girls, who don’t take the time to learn anything so made it up instead.
Has nobody ever told them that being able to understand Isaac Asimov is not actually a Mensa qualification and earns you, in fact, zero points? That you don’t have to pick the hardest, brainiest book you can find and then carry it around everywhere so people can see you are smart enough to read it? For instance, you could read a book because you like it. And you could like a thing without it being your entire personality, by which everyone can and should judge you forever.
The fact is that no science fiction is perfectly hard, because it is fiction. Nobody picks it up to hear described the world we actually live in, where no technology is used other than the things that have already been proven possible. Lots of the books revered as diamond-grade scifi do in fact have errors in them: some, because the author didn’t do their research, and some because they were written before we had good pictures of Mars. And, if my experience is any measure, because they just finished writing the whole scene with the sad, weak space tea before they realized there is in fact a perfectly reasonable way to make tea in space, and they didn’t want to cut out what they already wrote. Andy Weir will admit openly that he totally fudged the strength of a storm on Mars, but you know what? It’s fine! It’s still a good book!
So, if we acknowledge that both science fiction and fantasy exist in a universe which is like, but not identical to, ours; that they include both things that exist in our world and things that never could (like transporters, time travel, and aliens you could have sex with); that they have some magic so carefully explained it feels like tech and some tech so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic–well, what’s the dad-blasted difference?
A E S T H E T I C
That’s it. That’s all it is. Scifi has the pew pew and fantasy has the abracadabra. In scifi the difference in the world is driven by something that is described as a technology and dealt with in technological terms; in fantasy, it’s called magic or essence or spirit or some such. Subgenres exist which break down those aesthetics more finely; therefore steampunk is often shelved with fantasy even though it runs on tech.
These genres, having existed for a while, come with conventions and expectations. Fantasy tends to be allowed to move a little slower; to focus intensely on culture and history; to have elegant, archaic prose; to end in an emotional showdown where facing your feelings makes the magic work. Science fiction has a sparer, quicker, easier-to-read style (yeah, I said it, Mensa man) but makes up the difference on complicated worldbuilding which touts itself as practical and possible. (At least half the time, it’s not.)
A lot of work treads the line and that’s a wonderful thing. It means that readers of the one genre get surprised out of their genre expectations by a tidbit from another. For instance, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series is often described as “technically science fiction” but let’s get real–it’s pretty much fantasy; it has a fantasy aesthetic with feudalism and dragons and everything. That makes the genetic engineering and space missions so much more interesting when they show up–they’re no longer standard. Likewise, her Rowan series does the opposite–it’s a futuristic, science-fictiony universe but the force they use to move stuff around with, telekenesis, does not actually exist. Who cares? It’s something new, which feels very cool.
Easier to categorize are science fiction books that throw in a little feudalism (like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series) or fantasy books where the magic is so quantified it really seems like tech (N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series). You can have a science fiction book but throw in a regency aesthetic. You can have dragons and put them in the Napoleonic Wars. You could have a world where the science people fight against the magic people with their different weapons. All this stuff has been done! Much of it successfully!
And if it makes people throw the book in the trash, because “I only like [genre] and this is only worthless [similar genre],” I guess that’s their loss. Me, I love a good crossover.