Where does science fiction stop and fantasy begin? Years of the two genres being paired together have produced such cross-breeding that it's become difficult to tell the two apart, according to the National Post's Philip Marchand.

Marchand - and author Robert Sawyer, whom he talks to for the piece - argue that SF has accidentally based two of its more famous staples on ideas that more properly belong in fantasy:

Two well known "celestial hieroglyphs," or semi-magical, semi-scientific mainstays of science fiction, are time travel and travel that exceeds the speed of light. The latter is considered a sheer impossibility by physicists, the former a hopeless paradox by philosophers. But no telling what those black holes will do! "Science fiction writers don't admit magic, they don't admit UFOs even, but they accept as given these two magical properties, so that, in a sense, even their science fiction is built on fantasy," Sawyer comments. The recent movie Star Trek is a case in point... "In every previous Star Trek film, the time travel that had been done had been done with some sort of machine or device that we could understand," Sawyer points out. "In this one, they just threw out something called ‘red matter.' It literally was a magic substance. It was pixie dust. There was no rationale or explanation given it. It was just magic they pulled out of the air - or, to phrase it less politely - out of the writer's butt."

But does science fiction really cease to be science fiction if you can't understand the science? I'm reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's famous quote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The idea that science fiction has to be based on concepts that are explainable from today's viewpoint of science (or philosophy, to use Sawyer's argument against time travel) seems, to me, to be an argument against imagination and - to be both both and perhaps slightly ridiculous - the human spirit. Surely, one of the whole points of science fiction is to be forward looking and considering that which we do not already possess, in terms of technology, or knowledge, or society (And just by saying that, I'm sure that I've opened myself up to all manner of potential attacks; feel free to tell me why I'm wrong in the comments) and, from that, it's not unrealistic to expect/create technology that doesn't run on today's scientific rules?


I understand that some will always cry foul when a completely impossible, or non-scientific, concept is introduced as science fiction (Any godlike being with unlimited powers, for example), but for things like time travel or even Star Trek's McGuffin red matter, I think there's definitely an argument to be made for it being more - or more SF, at least - than just plain "fantasy." Part of this may be because of my own personal aversion to fantasy; I have this issue wherein I'm convinced that fantasy is always one step away from a Deus Ex Machina, no matter what the rules and internal logic of the particular story may be. Dumbledore dying in Harry Potter? Convinced he'll be back before too long. Things looking grim for Frodo in Lord Of The Rings? Firm in my belief that there's some get out of Mordor free card just over the next page. Fantasy, to me, exists in worlds where the rules can be entirely different, and be that way without any explanation other than "It's magic!" but science fiction has to at least try and make sense in the world we know of. To me, at least.

No matter how much bleed there is between SF and fantasy - and, to an extent, I agree with Marchand that there's becoming an increasing amount of bleed, especially as geek culture feeds into the mainstream, where such divisions go unnoticed and, in some ways, are unnecessary - science fiction remains, to me, a place where things are grounded in a factual representation of our universe, or else makes note of and tries to explain the differences. Star Trek may have time travel and red matter, but both are concepts that they approach in a way that is more than just pulling out of their ass, and which have consequences that feel more... real, to me, than the weightlessness of fantasy thinking.

More to the point, perhaps: if you're willing to throw out Star Trek based on red matter, where does that leave writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick? Are they really fantasy writers who ended up with the wrong team by mistake?


Philip Marchand on how fantasy took over science fiction [Afterword/National Post]