There was a recent discussion at File770 on the distinction between science-fiction and fantasy. It was interesting and inconclusive as always and I only had silly things to contribute. However, there was something that I wanted to say but couldn’t formulate. Interestingly Hampus brought the idea back into focus in a recent comment here about blowing up the Death Star.
Star Wars has clones. It has a whole film with “clones” in the title. Huge numbers of people seen on screen in the 10 canonical Star Wars movies are supposed to be clones. Yet, there’s almost zero ramification in Star Wars aside from the one plot point that the Republic built an army from clones of Jango Fett. Clones are a fantastical/speculative element that is very tightly limited in its impact on the wider world-building.
In the Harry Potter books and films there was a similar issue with Hermione Granger having access to a ‘time turner’: a magical device that offered some limited but still powerful control over time. The device serves a limited plot purpose but goes no further. It could hardly be otherwise because time-travel notoriously disrupts narrative fiction and is not something you can integrate into wider world building without turning your whole story into time-travel fiction.
Likewise, we can take a step back from Star Wars and see that cloning technology only appears because “clone wars” was a cool bit of science dialogue thrown into A New Hope that only later needed an explanation. The actual Star Wars universe is not a set of narratives about clones & cloning any more than Harry Potter is a time-travel narrative.
Science Fiction and Fantasy are similar and different in multiple ways: settings, language, styles of story arcs, tropes and book covers. However one similarity/distinction we can make is to point at speculative/fantastical elements in the setting. The presence of such things as faster than light drives or magical swords mark out SFF from other genres even though they can appear in other genres (such as in high-tech spy thrillers or horror).
The argument about what is SF versus F can often rest on the ambiguity of those elements. Is ESP speculative or magical? How about superpowers? It’s a fun debate but not where I’m going right now.
I’m more interested in the difference between where that speculative/fantastical element has broad ramifications and where it has tightly circumscribed ramifications. For example the orogene’s powers in NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy are bake deep into everything. The societal impact of those powers is explored throughout the books. The power of invisibility in The Lord of the Rings has very limited ramifications. Sure, the one ring itself and its whole history is a big deal but the actual power of being invisible is fairly limited. We can’t say The Lord of the Rings as a set of books explores what a world would be like where some people could be invisible but we can say it is a set of books where the question of the corrupting nature of massive power is explored.
The ramifications of speculative/fantastical elements is another aspect of the genres that needs to be considered. There isn’t a helpful dividing line here between the two, notable works of both SF and F have some elements with broad ramifications and some elements which are more circumscribed. What I would suggest though, is that when a science fiction story introduces an element that should have broad ramifications but then doesn’t, it is more harmful to the story than with fantasy.
Why? Well quite simply it is easier to believe that a magical element may be local and arbitrary than a science or technological element. Further, drawing on existing traditions from folklore and mythology, there is an expectation of magic and the fantastical as an intrusion into a more mundane world and hence being essentially limited in its broader impact.
One of the things I liked about the two Avatar cartoons (Ang’s and Korra’s) was the way the magical elements have that social ramification aspect. In the Legend of Korra it is taken further, showing the elemental powers as shaping historical trends and technological development. I’m not saying that these aren’t examples of fantasy but I see that broad ramification aspect as being more of a science fictional sensibility. Specifically, where the ramifications go beyond the base world building established and begin to show social, political or technological change and/or show how that change occurred in the past.
But wait…Star Trek really doesn’t show any social or historical change at all. Sure stuff happens and there are technological advances between different iterations but it is basically a static society we are presented with. All true if we take the perspective of characters within the show but it is also explicitly presented as a society that is within our (the viewers) future. The promise is that technological change in our world will bring a better future and even when that technology is purely fanciful the promise is still that a better world is there if only we can invent it.
Conversely Babylon 5 often dealt in fantasy elements or tropes (telepathy, quasi-magical beings, rangers!) but was quite deeply committed to such elements creating broader changes. That following through of consequences in terms of things other than characters and character choices again is closer to science fiction than what we often see in fantasy. I’d argue that when fantasy stories attempt to explore these ramifications further they begin to feel more science-fictional (yes, even Harry Potter).