Science Fiction and Fantasy:
Where’s the line?

Sorting out “science fiction” from “fantasy” is not easy, a point recognized by Arthur C. Clarke’s famous observation:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Clearly, most SF is based on the assumption of such technology; the difference appears to be the notion that it can be understood, to the extent that it becomes (for characters in the story) distinguishable from magic. This is an awfully weak distinction, and many writers known primarily for SF have crossed the line. (And why not?)

Fantasy, on the other hand, generally just lets the magic happen. This does not imply anything is lacking: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld® novels, for example, start with a world based on magic and explore the consequences more rigorously than most SF.

I generally regard works of speculative fiction – an old phrase someone coined to dodge around the problem – as SF if some rational explanation is offered for the gee-whiz stuff, other than an appeal to “magic,” or if it is implied that with sufficient education such an explanation might be accessible.

That’s mostly a rationalization of my choices. Having treated Robert A. Heinlein’s Glory Road and Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions as science fiction, but Roger Zelazny’s Amber series as fantasy, I could spend forever arguing (with myself, if no one else was interested) about it. (In fact, I started doing so as soon as I wrote that last sentence.) As a practical matter, I list authors, not specific works, under these categories, and list quite a few under both. In some cases, where a writer is better known for work outside these genres (e.g., C. S. Lewis or Rudyard Kipling), the link in the category index connects to a particular work rather than the full listing for the author.

Anyone curious about my reasons for double listing is invited to consider these possible examples of departure from the writer’s best-known category of work.

Isaac Asimov“What If . . .”
Alfred Bester“Disappearing Act”
Robert A. Heinlein“The Man Who Traveled in Elephants”
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