When I was down in Los Angeles, with Dan O, staying with Todd and Tory, going to Sam and Kirsten’s wedding (namedrop c-c-c-combo!), we watched James Cameron’s Avatar.  On the car ride afterward, we started having a discussion about what the difference between fantasy and science fiction is.

For reference, here are the dictionary.com definitions:

  • fantasy (Literature): an imaginative or fanciful work, esp. one dealing with supernatural or unnatural events or characters
  • science fiction: a form of fiction that draws imaginatively on scientific knowledge and speculation in its plot, setting, theme, etc.

Interestingly, the most meaningful definition among us (and the other friends we asked) was descriptive; that is, fantasy is in a fantastical setting and science fiction is in a science-y fictional setting.  These definitions also follow that basic rubric.

However, I was interested in a definition that was more prescriptive and thus capable of determining what Avatar was: fantasy or science fiction.  For although Cameron’s epic takes place on another world and with futuristic spacecraft and society, it also deals with the mystical and, well, the fantastic.

(By the way, if to you the fantasy/science fiction distinction is purely setting or descriptive, feel free to use different demarcations.  I’m just looking for a way to consider, say, Star Wars and Star Trek from a different perspective, one that allows us to meaningful comparisons unrelated to setting.)

One thought I had was that in fantasy, there is some destiny or fate at work (someone is chosen) and in science fiction, the person or people to whom stuff is happening or with whom events are caught up could be anyone – even you!  This worked for me for a movie like Star Wars (which I consider to be in the “fantasy” camp) but unfortunately failed with Lord of the Rings from at least the hobbit side of things.

Another thought I had much more recently on my own (and which prompted me to write this blog!) was that maybe it goes:

  • science fiction: a logical extrapolation of starting conditions (either our world, or a parallel one)
  • fantasy: something in the setting or action defies logic, or breaks with the logical extrapolation above – usually this would be something supernatural (magic, God/gods) but wouldn’t (necessarily) have to be… I am having a hard time coming up with such an example, though!

I guess that is really just a restatement of the descriptive dictionary.com definitions above – but it seems more useful.  It is also more subjective, which is probably a bad thing.