Fantasy versus Science Fiction

There are some excellent pieces available this week on the distinction between fantasy and science fiction…or rather on how vainglorious attempting to make that distinction is particularly when aimed at proving that science fiction is intrinsically better.

James Davis Nicoll has this delightfully sarcastic essay at

“Science fiction provides its readers with iron-hard, fact-based possibility. For example, Frank Herbert’s Dune played with the possibility that the right combination of eugenics and hallucinogenic drugs (taken from enormous alien worms) might allow messianic figures to draw on the memories of their ancestors. Well, how else would it work?”

And it just gets better from there!

Meanwhile, one of my favourite writers/commentators on a whole range of things, Alexandra Erin has an equally good essay at Uncanny.

“It’s been said that whoever writes in the field of science fiction stands on the shoulders of giants, the towering titans of yesteryear. Their hard work built the playground; we just play in it.  At the risk of thoroughly mixing those two metaphors, it occurs to me that even if we allow for the existence of giants, a playground in which we have to stand on top of each other can’t be very large, can it? And even the best playground could use some new equipment from time to time.”

Apparently she wrote the essay awhile ago but by the time it was published it was once again extra-topical because of the recent essay by Norman Spinrad (the most recent news of which is here )

Personally I love attempting to make distinction between the two genres precisely because it is so futile. So here is another distinction of great superficiality. Two (badly flawed) lists from Forbes. The first “The Best Fantasy Novels of All time” and the second “The Best Science Fiction Novels of All Time

Now if I was an AI* and I was trying training to spot the distinction between books in the two genres I think I’d go off one almost key feature based on that list:

Is the title in a serif font or a sans-serif font?

How well does it work based on those lists?

  • Lord of the Rings: Great epic serifs.
  • The Lies of Lock Lamora: Excellent serifs on all of those L’s.
  • The Last Unicorn: Some of the serifs are sprouting flowers.
  • Mistborn: More moderate serifs and Brandon Sanderson’s author name doesn’t get them.
  • Tigana: neatly serifed.
  • The Name of the Wind: Understated serifs but still very much there.
  • A Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones: Serifs adapted for prestige TV.
  • Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell: That ampersand is sprouting a giant serif.
  • The Darkness that Comes Before: Modest serifs but still there.
  • The First Law Trilogy: Damn you Joe Abercrombie! You’ve ruined my theory! OK exactly one of the example covers was sans-serif for fantasy
  • Ender’s Game: Sans.
  • Neuromancer: Sans.
  • Hyperion: Sans
  • Snow Crash: a fancy display font but…still sans.
  • Dune: Art deco sans.
  • The Fifth Season: lots of geologically unstable serifs! Ok but N.K.Jemisin says the book is fantasy, so…edge case.
  • The Expanse: sans.

Now before you all say it there are actually many, many counter-examples to sans=SF and serif=fantasy. All of the books cited have many covers and while I don’t think I can find a Lord of the Rings editions with a sans-serif cover, I can find past covers of Ender’s Game with serif font choices for the title. Also, book covers are as prone to fashion as shoes** and what we are seeing are some specific font choices by publishers currently.

Even so, the choices are illuminating. A search on Baen book covers (because they are publisher with bold covers ) shows I think more-or-less-with-exceptions-and-edge-cases the rule of thumb sort of works in as superficial a way as possible.

No but really there is a serious point! Honest! I am actually still talking about bicycles in fantasy.

Sans-serif fonts date at least as far back as the 18th century but they are visually and semioticaly associated with the idea of modern and modernity. Serif fonts can be modern looking or evoke the past but in general a sans-serif font suggests something connected with more modern times and, also, the future. Historical science fiction (i.e. either recent books set in the past or older books) are more likely to also have serifed fonts. This list of best SF from Penguin has many more exceptions to the rule ( ) but one obvious example is Connie Willis’s Doomsday book***.

The rule then is more that a sans-serif font implies a modern aspect to the book. That makes the choice for the Joe Abercrombie cover a bit more interesting – The Blade Itself has a classic fantasy setting but characters that are a lot more modern in style and motivation and moral ambiguity. Of course, the specific example is also somewhat atypical compared with other editions.

So here is yet a different way of attempting to draw a line in a futile exercise to divide the genre of the fantastical:

  • Books about the nature of the modern.
  • Books about the nature of the pre-modern.

The distinction is a terrible one as it packs even more concepts into the words “modern” and “pre-modern” and it also implies just as many edge cases as already exist just with our intuitive distinction between fantasy and science-fiction.

It does answer my question about bicycles though. Bicycles are symbolically modern and despite the many ways we could imagine them fitting into a fantasy setting they feel out of place as a consequence. Only in the edge-cases where fantasy worlds work in with industrial (and hence modern in one sense) do bicycles not feel out of place.

*[Which I might be.]

**[even my shoes because Doc Martins go in and out of fashion]

***[two interesting counterexamples are SF novels by Tad Williams and Stephen Donaldson – both more famous for their fantasy works]


20 responses to “Fantasy versus Science Fiction”

    • With apologies to the Doors

      Tavern in the snow
      Tavern in the snow
      Like a game without a throne
      Or a sword without a stone
      Tavern in the snow

      Tavern in the snow
      Tavern in the snow
      Like a return without a king
      Or a lord without a ring
      Tavern in the snow

      Liked by 2 people

    • It’s been refined since: if the tavern’s name is in serifs, it’s Fantasy, if the tavern’s name is sans serif, it’s Science Fiction.

      (A small but significant point Camestros neglected to include.)

      Liked by 5 people

  1. On the serious side of this question: I was recently on a panel with Rich Horton about this, and he had the excellent idea that fantasy vs. SF is about whether the fundamental laws of the universe are invariant or responsive to human will – a distinction which can also be described as atheist vs. theist.

    (My own take is more that these are not two distinct clusters – there are at least three separable axes on which something can be more fantasy-like or science-fictionlike.)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Three axes maybe:

    – more like people think the past was (or think people thought the world was in the past) = fantasy, more like people think the future will be (or think people in the future will think of the world) = science fiction

    – the world is more invariant and shapes people’s beliefs = science fiction, the world is more subjective and shaped by people’s beliefs = fantasy

    – the speculative elements affect society as a whole and have a ripple effect = science fiction, the speculative elements affect individuals primarily and and when they affect society as a whole the changes are discrete and limited to direct effects = fantasy

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Now if I was an AI*

    If I were an AI,
    Daidle deedle daidle
    Daidle daidle deedle daidle dumb

    All day long I’d biddy-biddy-bum
    If I were an ersatz brain

    I wouldn’t have to work hard,
    Daidle deedle daidle
    Daidle daidle deedle daidle dumb
    If I were a biddy-biddy fake,
    Daidle deedle daidle daidle brain

    I’d have a big computer with disks by the dozen
    Right in the middle of the lab,
    A pentium with real mother board below.
    There would be one large disk drive just spinning up
    And one even larger slowing down,
    And one more going nowhere, just for show.

    Liked by 9 people

  4. I often look at Amazon book lists on my phone, where I see can the book cover more prominently than the tiny title and author name. And I’ve found I can identify which books are scifi and fantasy from the glance at the cover with a high rate of accuracy. I can’t describe what the difference is, but you’ve made me wonder if I’m going off the font?

    Liked by 3 people

  5. First Law used up it’s serif allowance with the original covers! But those books are very much about turning fantasy tropes on their heads…so why not fonts too. (Also they switched publishers in the US so Orbit wants you to buy their versions to go with Abercrombies’s more recent books.)


  6. So obviously you need to examine the covers of books by authors who’ve written books in both genres and for the same publisher. To remove cover quality as a variable, you should only look at Baen authors.

    (I tried it, but it burns! It burns!)

    Liked by 3 people

  7. So following on from the recent bicycle series and this post, the conclusion is that someone needs to write post-apocalyptic SF where the petrol has run out and so everyone travels by bicycle?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Again, the distinction is very simple and we’ve used it for decades: Science fiction and fantasy are two types of stories that include unreal elements (speculative) that do not exist in our current world or its history. Science fiction gives a natural, scientific rationale for those unreal elements’ existence — alien life forms, time travel machines, genetically engineered telepathy, etc. Fantasy gives a supernatural/unnatural rationale — beyond the natural world — for those unreal elements’ existence — magical creatures, magical time travel stones, supernatural psychic powers, etc. It does not depend on time periods and modernity. There are contemporary and futuristic fantasy stories and there are time travel SF stories (Doomsday Book,) and steampunk SF stories. It does not depend on the science in science fiction being GOOD science, just that it’s there, that there is a natural explanation given to the readers for why the weird, unreal things exist in the story, whereas fantasy uses the unnatural and says that it exists, even if it also uses unreal scientific (SF) elements too.

    Why things exist is the dividing line and it has always been the dividing line. Dr. Frankenstein uses science to make a man made of corpses come to life. He does not cast a magic spell to do so, like a golem, as in the legends that Shelley drew from. So even though it is a monster horror story, it is a science fiction story because the monster exists by natural, scientific means, not supernatural, magical ones. And that’s how people mostly divide them.

    But Spinrad’s battle isn’t really about what is fantasy and what is SF or even which one is “better” as if it was a sports event. Spinrad’s battle is that he’s worried that he is falling into obsolescence, as an old white guy who used to rule, and that science fiction is falling into obsolescence because fantasy fiction is popular. Science fiction authors and fans are for some reason always worried that science fiction will fall into obsolescence from one threat or another, including from scientific progress in the real world. I don’t know why — maybe it’s easy to imagine a future but not easy to imagine that you’ll make it into a future that no longer centers on you and what is familiar to you.

    But in this particular case, the boogey-monster is fantasy fiction’s popularity. Fantasy fiction is our oldest form of fiction and modern fantasy fiction has always been popular for the last few centuries. It’s what we all grow up on, which is why it’s the most popular genre in children’s fiction. And it’s always been a popular and useful genre for magazine and book publishers, including the mass market paperback publishers who along with magazines helped form the early category genre markets. Fantasy fiction has never threatened other genres nor wiped them out (and indeed can use all the others as it is versatile and primarily suspense based.) Because the fiction market is symbiotic and no genre can wipe other genres out. But once the category publishers launched a distinct category market for fantasy along with science fiction instead of under it in the 1960’s, fantasy fiction was declared a continual threat to science fiction, even though many authors did both. It was regularly assumed, even though it never actually happened, that the SFF publishers would abandon science fiction to publish only fantasy. I was dealing with people arguing that as recently as 2008.

    That was Spinrad’s heyday, the 1960’s and 1970’s in category fantasy fiction’s first expansion, and he’s watched fantasy fiction continue to be popular. He’s watched the SFWA specify fantasy authors in their organization’s name in the 1990’s, during category fantasy fiction’s third expansion. He’s been waiting for fantasy fiction to kill off and take over science fiction for nearly sixty years, and now, now, he’s sure it finally is going to happen, especially as he’s out of touch and doesn’t know who these new authors are. Which, you know, aside from his bigoted view of Chinese people as inferior, is a pretty normal, ridiculous belief for an old SF fan to have.

    The problem wasn’t Spinrad’s rant. It was that Asimov’s decided it deserved to be published and heard on their platforms. No one thinks Asimov’s agrees editorially with Spinrad’s views, which were tired in the 1990’s. It’s that they thought his rant would be of interest and value to their readers as a book review of the Nebula showcase, as opposed to nearly anyone else’s review of it. That they thought batshit myopic and terrified whining about the Nebulas by someone clueless about the current field equaled provocative debate.

    And that’s the divide in SFF — those, old or not, who keep whining that their imaginary view of the 1960’s and 1970’s SFF must be preserved today, including the discrimination part, and those who believe in reality, opportunity and concentrating on making stuff, both in SF and fantasy and horror — which can be SF, fantasy or neither. Why do publications like Asimov’s keep inflicting these diatribes on us that embarrass both them and the writers who make them? There are so many writers who have written insightful and historically accurate analyses of the past history of the field. Why do they keep picking incoherent fear instead? And that speaks to the wider problems we have in current society.

    There is no side to pick because there is no battle between fantasy and science fiction beyond the fears in a guy’s head because he’s no longer a main focus of the field. It’s never been fantasy versus science fiction and it never will be. They are highly compatible snuggle buddies.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think most people given a sample of say 1,000 stories from SF/F magazines to read and evaluate, would confidently classify all but maybe 50 as either SF or fantasy. Only a few percent would get listed as “mixed genre.” They wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell you what rules they used to make that classification, but that’s true of nearly all non-trivial classification problems.

    The bigger question is how much overlap there might be between different people’s classification schemes. I don’t think there’s any way to know this without actually conducting the experiment.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. In the very brief amount of formal training I did on web design, one of the things I learnt was that serifed fonts are generally better for reading on paper, while san-serif is better for reading on a screen (I suspect that this has changed some, as resolutions got higher)
    so possibly
    scifi==has computers==sans-serif titles
    fantasy==on paper, or parchment or whatever == serifed titels

    Liked by 2 people

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