Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #29:

Exploring Genres: Science Fiction vs. Science Fantasy

by Travis S. Casey
March 15, 2002

Back in the second part of this series, I briefly mentioned the mixing of science fiction and fantasy. The borderline between these two genres is very hazy — indeed, there are some who say that there's no point in even trying to establish a borderline, and lump the two together as a single genre under the name "speculative fiction".

Let's start from that point of view. Last time, I said that I consider both science fiction and fantasy to be "what if?" genres — they deal with things that aren't real (or at least, aren't real yet), telling stories about what might happen if those things were real. "Speculative fiction", while a bit dry, definitely describes the territory.

I said there that what distinguishes science fiction is the use of the scientific method and/or strict logic. Well... that's one way to define the difference, but it's definitely not the only way. There's an old joke:

"What's the difference between fantasy and SF?"

"Well, in fantasy, you have horses, magic wands, flying carpets, and so on. In SF, you have the same things, but they're all electric."

It's a joke, but it's getting at what most people think of as distinguishing science fiction — that it looks "scientific". It's got gadgets and theories instead of relics and incantations.

That leads directly to one of the definitions of science fantasy: using the trappings of science fiction to tell a fantasy story. Star Wars is loaded with spaceships, blasters, and the like, but George Lucas isn't worried about whether the technology shown is possible — that's not the point of the Star Wars movies. They're classic pulp fantasy, cast into a science fiction mold.

Gadgets and theories are one thing that makes a story or film feel "science-fictiony". What are some others? Well, being set in the future is one. Having a "real world" setting is another (even if the "real world" in question is an alternate history). On the reverse side, a lack of technology, explaining things through "mystical" explanations rather than scientific-sounding theories, being set in the past (or something like it), and having a "made up world" for a setting are all things that say "fantasy" to the man or woman-on-the-street.

"Pure" science fiction is a relatively small genre, with a relatively small audience. John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding and Analog , once noted that while reader surveys indicated that most of the readers preferred science fiction, sales figures and letters to the editor seemed to indicate that most of them actually preferred fantasy, by his definitions.

Several of the subgenres mentioned in the last column would be considered "science fantasy" rather than "science fiction" by many purists — space opera, time travel, alternate history/universe stories, for example. Whether or not these are "science fiction" or "fantasy" to our man or woman-on-the-street depends mainly on the trappings that they're given.

Science fiction and fantasy fans can (and will) argue forever about things like "Is Star Trek really science fiction?" but the simple truth is that no one outside the dedicated fans of the two genres really cares that much. Bookstores generally just lump the two together as one section. Video stores do the same, and often throw in horror with them. If you're trying to appeal to existing science fiction and fantasy fans, then, being careful in how or if you mix the two can help you. If you're looking for a more general audience, though, it doesn't really matter.

Ultimately, I think that both genres are about one thing — the sense of wonder. Maybe a better, if somewhat old-fashioned, way to put it is the sense of awe. SF and fantasy often take different ways to get there. Some of those ways don't work for some people. But, to me, that's what both are ultimately about. I feel that sense in all the best SF and fantasy, from The Lord of the Rings to Howard's Conan stories, from Flowers for Algernon to Blade Runner. It's not an easy thing to trigger that sense — but if you can do it, you can be sure that people will come for it.

Where Do We Go From Here — or, SF in Muds

The subgenre that's most strongly associated with science fiction in the popular imagination is space opera. Buck Rogers, Star Wars, even much of Star Trek all tread in that area. Unfortunately, that's also one of the hardest subgenres for an online game to cover. It's a difficult task to build a city in an online game — building dozens or hundreds of worlds is impossible, when you get right down to it.

Because of this, I think that the best opportunities for science fiction in online multiplayer RPGs are in other subgenres. A cyberpunk setting can be limited to a single city while still staying well within the genre. Alternate history settings can be set in lower technological levels, thereby limiting mobility in much the same way that it's limited in a typical fantasy game. Some stories even cry out for a limited setting — e.g., Golding's Lord of the Flies. Near future space colonization stories are another example, as in Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Depending on the subgenre, these may be better suited to being time-limited stages than to being ongoing games.

Another way around the need to create a huge setting is to abstract it. There have been many successful multiplayer science-fiction based trading games — adding roleplaying elements to such a setup could be very interesting. Skotos' own Galactic Emperor does this to some extent.

Back in the third column on fantasy, I talked about D&D-style "shoot-and-loot" being the classic setup for multiplayer online games. This can be done in science fiction games as well, but it's really not a very good fit for most subgenres. It can be adapted to settings that feature a war going on, but even there, a mission-based setup makes a good deal more sense. The discussion of problems with mission-based setups there apply to science fiction games as well.

One advantage to science fiction is that there's much less of an emphasis on the archetype of "the hero"; this makes the handling of multiple players easier, since there's no drive to make everyone be "the hero". What can be a problem is too many people wanting to fit into one character type, but this problem comes up in fantasy games as well.

Going through the subgenres mentioned last time (or at least, the first group of them):

  • "If this goes on" stories have good possibilities. The tendency here is for a near-future setting, and a limited setting will often work well. There's plenty of opportunities for players to form resistance or revolutionary movements. The biggest problem is change — such stories often deal with a revolt or a change in the situation. If there is no change (or no convincing illusion of the possibility of change), the setting can become wearing.
  • Utopian stories aren't that interesting, from my point of view... although I'd love to be proven wrong. Dystopian stories are much like the previous category of "if this goes on" stories, for practical purposes.
  • New invention stories are almost intrinsically time-limited — a new invention will only be new for so long. Such a story, then, is probably best suited either to a stage, or to be a plot arc in a setting which has something else underlying it. One big problem here is the creativity of players — if a "new invention" in a game really does do something new to the game, you can count on players finding unexpected ways to use it.
  • Sociological speculation seems rich in possibilities, but it's likely to require dedicated roleplayers — by its nature, it's going to require players to act in ways very different from how they do in real life.
  • Alternate history seems to me to be perhaps the most promising subgenre. As mentioned above, it can be more easily limited than many of the other subgenres. The most interesting alternate histories often overlap into the other subgenres, especially sociological speculation and dystopian stories, so the comments on those may apply as well.
  • And lastly, alternate universe stories bring us nearly into the realm of fantasy. Unfortunately, since the "ground rules" of the alternate universe are the real variable, there's not much that can be said, except to think carefully about what you're doing.

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