Longing for Magic and Miracle (Is Science Fiction Simply Fantasy?)

A question to which I keep returning is whether science fiction is fundamentally different than fantasy. Both have worlds very different than our own, battles between good and evil, monsters, heroes, and usually even energy weapons of some sort.

Obviously the difference is that there is at least a pretense of scientific basis in science fiction. But if we are honest, is there anything obviously more scientific about Rose’s raising of Jack Harkness than Jesus’ raising of Lazarus? Is there anything fundamentally different between Harry Potter’s magic wand and the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver? Do the references in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope to Darth Vader’s “sorcerer’s ways” and Ben Kenobi as a “wizard” in fact tell us something significant?

It is possible to view sci-fi as simply a way of enjoying fantasy, classic stories of the miraculous and the supernatural, while claiming that one is wedded to a scientific, naturalistic worldview. But if we think about it, in actual fact many of the things that transpire even in the rather secular and humanistic world of Star Trek involve souls and psi and other things that are scarcely scientific. If Doctor Who were to be changed to a story about a wizard who lives in a magical box that is bigger on the inside than the outside, and can travel in it through space and time, would much have to change in the show’s details?

What does this tell us about the desire even of those who adhere to a scientific view of the world for stories that feature the fantastic? And what does the persistence of the desire for such stories tell us about ourselves?

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.w.morehead John W. Morehead

    I think you’re on to something here. In my view science fiction provides a scientific framework that enables the magical to be construed as more acceptable to the modern mind. Rather than teleportation by magic we prefer molecular disassembly and reassembly by transporters. So as much as we hear complaints about “too much religion” in contemporary science fiction, and that science fiction must include science fact thus distinguishing it from fantasy, in my view science fiction baptizes religion, the supernatural/transcendent and the magical so as to be acceptable to secular modernists. Is it any wonder that many times science fiction functions as a new sacred mythology?

  • Just Sayin’

    Fantasy, IMO, is harder to write, which is why, again IMO, 95% of contemporary fantasy is boring, repetitive swords and fairies and wizards padded-out rubbish. 

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  • Ken Brown

    What, no Arthur C. Clark: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”? ;) 

    I’ve long thought there was no fundamental difference between a sonic screwdriver and a magic wand, but I like the point you come to at the end: this isn’t just two parallel ways of storytelling, but rather two reflections of humanity’s mythological impulse. 

  • Matthew Marcus Luke Johnstone

    Your point made for you in visual format:

    http://penny-arcade.com/comic/2011/10/17

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  • Vogelz

    I’ve always preferred fantasy as their worlds can operate under different laws. Stephen Brust is a good example of this as there is 1) sorcery, 2) eastern magic, 3) psychics, 4) different levels of gods, 5) different races with myths how they came to be. Yes scifi can be creative; I just think fantasy can be _more_ creative.

    I suppose a lot of it boils down to the technology level you enjoy the most.

  • Anonymous

    I believe Asimov drew the line between fiction and science fiction thus:  Science Fiction deals with the human reaction to technological and scientific changes.  So Gattaca explores how society deals with genetic engineering while Buck Rogers is an adventure story set in space.

    I have not spent as much attention to fereting out the essentials of fantasy since I, like Just Sayin’, think it jumped the shark far earlier than SF.

  • Anonymous

    To answer James’ queation more directly: there is a huge muddling of SF and Fantasy in the culture -especially TV and movies where executives don’t give a rats a** what the difference is.

  • Anonymous

    “Fantasy has its attractions. Something about feudalism resonates, deep
    inside us. We fantacize about being the king or wizard. Heck it’s in our
    genes. We are all descended from the harems of the guys who succeeded
    at that goal. The core thing about fantasy tales is that, after the
    adventure is done and the bad guys are defeated… the social order stays
    the same.”

    An interesting essay by David Brin taps into my sense that SF deals with humanity being faced with change while fantasy is about restoration (if temporary) to the past: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/brin20110410


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