At this year's ICFA (which I wrote about last week), one of the free goodies distributed at meals was a copy of the March/April 2020 ASIMOV'S magazine. It happened to include a provocative article by David D. Levine called "Thoughts on a Definition of Science Fiction." The author takes an approach to distinguishing science fiction from fantasy that never occurred to me before.
Of course, this perennial and never-settled question has many proposed answers. And many works cross genre boundaries; SF is a "fuzzy set." Anne McCaffrey's Pern and Marion Zimmer Bradley's pre-rediscovery Darkover, although science fiction, have a fantasy "feel." S. M. Stirling's Emberverse series, beginning with DIES THE FIRE, clearly near-future or alternate-history SF, also includes something like magic. Diane Duane's Young Wizards series focuses on the protagonists' learning and using magic—which they prefer to label "wizardry" to avoid the implication that it can do anything, unbounded by rules—yet they visit distant planets and make friends with extraterrestrials. Cases like these are part of why the term "speculative fiction" is so useful.
Levine suggests that the distinction between fantasy and science fiction rests on a fundamental difference between worldviews. Science fiction arises from an Enlightenment worldview and fantasy from a pre-Enlightenment worldview. In SF, "the universe is logical, predictable, and understandable, governed by rules that are impersonal and have no moral dimension." Fantasy, on the other hand, inhabits a universe that "has a moral compass, and is governed by rules that, though they may be understandable, are not necessarily always consistent, logical, or predictable in their application." For example, fantasy contains swords that can be drawn only by the "pure in heart" (a moral dimension). As an extension of this definition, Levine focuses on the central importance of "the means by which characters affect the world," whether by technology or by magic. Using this principle, he maintains that the later Star Wars films, after the original movie, slip further and further into fantasy territory because of the way the Force becomes more powerful and less scientifically plausible (e.g., action at a distance).
While I admire his theory, it doesn't align completely with my own concept of the SF-fantasy divide. I've always seen the distinction as—perhaps too simplistically—primarily a matter of authorial intent as it appears on the surface of the text. If the text claims a scientific rationale for its phenomena, it's science fiction. If not, it's fantasy. Edgar Rice Burroughs's interplanetary adventures count as science fiction, even if most of the science is obsolete. Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy mysteries, set in an alternate-history England in a world where magic plays a commonplace role in society, are fantasy even though the rules of magic are systematic and predictable. What about works such as Madeleine L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME and its sequels and spinoffs, invoking scientific principles, featuring visits to other worlds, and marketed as SF, but containing some elements of apparent magic as well as a religious worldview? Or C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, wherein the superhuman intelligences ruling the other planets are also identified as angels? The Wild Sorceress trilogy, co-written by my husband and me, starts as apparent fantasy, to be revealed as SF at the end of the third book. Well, that's where the flexible terms "science fantasy" and "speculative fiction" come in handy.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt