My post for "L" in the April A-Z Challenge is another one that is pulling double-duty: it started out life as a reply to a blog post at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, here. I found this post while I was loitering over here at Porky's Expanse!, one of my favorite internet places.
For those of you who didn't read the IEET article linked above, I'll summarize, admittedly very roughly: David Brin says that the main difference between Fantasy and SF is that fantasy is about resigning yourself to your fate and SF is about having the power to change it through scientific progress. I've included almost all of my response to his article below:
For starters, I don't believe that Fantasy teaches us to be resigned to Fate. Fate and Prophecy appear frequently in Fantasy stories, but often more in the role of a challenge to be met by the heroes than of a foregone conclusion. In LoTR, Gandalf says "Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies just because you had a hand in bringing them about!", yet the reader in LoTR, and in most fantasy, has the definite sense that the outcome could have been far different, if any of the characters had chosen differently, had not shown courage and determination, had not persevered through daunting and seemingly hopeless situations, and had not acted from positions of high moral and ethical standards. On one level then, prophecy or fate in the fantasy story is the yardstick against which we can measure our hero - did he or she fulfill the prophecy? Was he or she found worthy in spirit and deed? If so, then his or her behavior is a worthy guide to how we should conduct ourselves when faced with similar, if less potentially Earth-shattering, situations. If not, then his or her behavior is still a worthy guide, but a guide of how not to behave.
Far from teaching resignation to injustice and social inequity, many fantasy stories are explicitly about the weak or the disregarded finding the courage, the skill, and the ingenuity to defeat the established power structure when it has become corrupted or destructive, and establishing or re-establishing a more just and equitable system with the formerly-powerless taking control.
Fantasy uses archetypal settings and elements, many of which derive in part from feudal systems and mythos - kings and peasants, damsels and monsters, swords and shields, magic and witches, and dungeons and riddles - not because feudalism mixed with superstition is or was such a great form of government and social structure, or even because readers want them to, but because fantasy deals with archetypal themes where the details of the setting are not the important issues, where, instead, the questions are of the relationship of the powerful to the weak, of what constitutes the nature of good and the nature of evil, of the right relationship of the individual to the society, and of the society to the individual, questions and answers that are intended to be universal, or at least culture-wide, and that are primarily directed at issues of human relationship and moral behavior. For these types of stories, being able to access the rich history of previous experiences and literary references that most readers already have around these types of characters allows much more freedom to spend time and text on the interesting and meaty part of the story rather than spending a great deal of time developing the reader’s understanding of what a “king” or a “wizard” is. There is plenty of this type of archetypal fantasy that gets shelved under SF, in my opinion, and these science fantasies are littered with similarly readily-recognizable archetypes, just decidedly non-feudal ones: "The Mad Scientist", "The Flawed Creation", and "The Unsuspecting (member of the ) Public”, as well as “The Scientist-Messiah”, “The Greedy Competitor”, “The Miraculous Creation”, and “The Unappreciative (or Idiotic or Interfering) Public”.
"Hard" SF, which is comparatively rare these days, is concerned entirely with the permutations of the realm of the possible, the answer to the question "What if...?" constrained firmly within the boundaries of the Real. Science or scientists or technology or even the scientific method may play either heroic or villainous parts in such tales - but the stories are located in physical frameworks outside the realm of the fantastic: they follow from what we know (or currently believe) to be true. In SF, the questions the writer and the reader wish to explore often reside firmly in the details – “What kind of life could develop on the surface of a neutron star? What would a society made up of such organisms look like? Could we detect it, or recognize it as life? Could it detect us, or recognize us as life?“ or “What would happen if we had a genetically-engineered plague that only killed fertile women of childbearing age?”
From my perspective, then, the core difference between the two genres is that fantasy is almost always about the big picture of what should be, and SF is much more about the details of what could be and what is.
I'm a huge fan and voracious reader of both genres, and I think that they both have a lot to offer people who are concerned with ethics and how to apply them to emerging technologies, and even to people who couldn't care less about how to apply ethics to emerging technologies, although I confess I have a hard time imagining that you could spend much time reading F & SF and not be concerned with that.
I'd love to hear what the rest of you think.