The question is whether it is possible to distinguish between fantasy and true science fiction. I am reminded of the analogy, attributable I believe, to Theodore Sturgeon, of the elf ascending vertically the side of a brick wall.
In a science fiction story the knees of the elf would be bent, his center of gravity thrown forward, his stocking cap hanging down his neck, with his feet quite possibly equipped with some form of suction cups. In a fantasy, on the other hand, the elf would simply stride up the wall in a normal walking posture, with his stocking cap standing straight out from his brow. What is the difference between these scenarios? The typical answer is that the science fiction story must play by the implicit rules of the universe; in this instance, gravitation.
Fantasy, however, need not “tip its hat” to the Law of Universal Gravitation the story can bend the rules in which gives it the fantasy genre. But what if, for some specified reason, in the local vicinity of the elf on the wall, the vector of gravitational force just happens to be perpendicular to the side of the wall rather than parallel to it? In this case the behavior of the elf in the fantasy would be in perfect accord with physical law. One might then say that the fantasy is actually science fiction since we have posited a “scientific” explanation for the behavior of the elf. Both science fiction and mainstream fiction explore the political and social implications of religion. The chief difference is one of setting. Science fiction considers what religion may become under vastly altered circumstances.
Leigh Brackett The Long Tomorrow (1955) suggests the possibility that one religion might better prepare its followers for post-holocaust existence than others do. Kate Wilhelm Let the Fire Fall (1969) takes place in a future United States swept by millennial fanaticism. Frank Herbert Dune stories examine in some depth the effects of political rule by characters that are regarded as divine (Martin 1981). Certainly this is not a complete list of the ways science fiction writers treat the theme of religion.
But it is suggestive of a much deeper and wider interest in the theme than many has been willing to recognize. So far, literary criticism has not adequately dealt with this fact. In light of the cultural influences already mentioned, these essays, by and large, take a generally Christian and theological approach to the topic. This is by no means the only possibility, but it is a good beginning, especially as numbers of works recognized as outstanding science fiction have overtly Christian content the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, for instance. In many books intended to introduce science fiction and/or fantasy to those who are not familiar with the field, there is a curious shilly-shallying about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. Typically the author starts off by stating confidently that the difference consists of the fact that science fiction deals with what is scientifically possible, whereas fantasy deals with what is not scientifically possible. Then the author loses his or her nerve a bit, because, after all, faster than-light travel is, so far as we know, scientifically impossible, and much modern science fiction could not do without it; the solar system is now too small for science fiction. And then there is that good old science fiction theme, time travel, which may be not only scientifically impossible, but somehow logically impossible.
So, the grand generalization dies away in a flurry of qualifications, and the subject is tactfully changed. It was J. R. R. Tolkien who put it all together, who produced adult fantasy that has invention and vision that is more memorable as itself than as the vehicle for any system of beliefs.
He began with The Hobbit in 1937, of which he wrote to W. H. Auden, “It was unhappily really meant, as far as I was concerned, as a ‘children’s story,’ and as I had not learned sense, then . .
. it has some of the silliness of manner caught unthinkingly from the kind of stuff I had had served to me . . . I deeply regret them. So do intelligent children” (Paul 1972). It is Tolkien, in his superb essay “On Fairy-Stories,” who claims the name Fantasy for the genre in which he himself aspired to work. He knew exactly what he was doing and knew what it should be called.
The Lord of the Rings is the paradigm of fantasy in our time. If there is such a thing as science fantasy, we will be able to locate it by its resemblance to and difference from Tolkien’s great work. I observed earlier that the genre we have learned to call science fiction has been entangled with its other, its antigenre, fantasy, from the beginning, as Herbert Read noted in his usual blundering but perceptive manner, saying of H. G. Wells that he “comes as near as any modern writer to a sense of pure fantasy.
He errs, as in The Time Machine, by imparting to his fantasies a pseudo-scientific logicality; it is as though having conceived one arbitrary fantasy he were compelled by the habits of his scientific training to work out the consequences of this fantasy” (Brian 1973). Here Read stumbled upon one of the better definitions of science fiction, but treated the whole enterprise simply as fantasy gone wrong. Read himself has gone wrong here, of course, by following the pseudoscientific logicality of his own definitions, but I want to suggest that he is also, at a very profound level, right. He is right in seeing science fiction as a branch of fantasy. All in all, it appears that there is a difference between fantasy and true science fiction. That difference is perhaps most evident in the parallel universe genre, a genre which, although appearing to have solid roots in the science fiction camp, nonetheless demarcates the border between fantasy and science fiction.
When the anomalies of a parallel universe are explained and rationalized in some detail, we have science fiction. Otherwise, we have fantasy. A corollary here is that it cannot suffice to treat fantasy as science fiction transpiring in a parallel universe. Rather, fantasy is distinguished from science fiction on the basis of the author’s willingness or unwillingness to ground plot elements in some simulacrum of physical law. Even the distinction of fantasy from other sorts of narrative is not ancient.
Although “fantasy” was used to mean some sort of fiction as early as the fourteenth century, the word more often denominated a mental activity of faculty. The appearance of “fantasist” and, with it, the clear sense of fantasies as intentional products of craft or art is recent; the earliest citation of “fantasist” in the Oxford English Dictionary supplement it does not appear in the dictionary proper is from 1923, when it was used of Oscar Wilde. The term “science fiction,” of course, appeared six years later and became widely current during the 1930s. Some scholars, especially several who labored as apologists for science fiction in the years when it was necessary to make a case for paying attention to these works, took pains to distinguish science fiction from fantasy.