Science fiction, fantasy and religion

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I recently saw an episode of the ABC’s book show which invited its guests to discuss the genre of fantasy. Having watched this show quite regularly, it is indeed an unusual occurrence for them do discuss anything outside the ‘mainstream’ genres of mysteries, biographies and classics. I have still yet to hear any discussion of science fiction, other than oblique references, and often in disparaging tones. So it was refreshing to hear something a bit different discussed.

Now, as you will see below, I’m not a huge fan of fantasy (no, really!), but they seemed to spend half the episode questioning the existence of fantasy as a literary form (well, at least the host, Jennifer Byrne, did), and wondering why it was so popular. The guests, all fantasy writers, bravely defended the genre. But I couldn’t help thinking that the genre had been singled out by the host. I bet she would never have raised the same line of discussion with Tim Winton or any of the other ‘mainstream’ writers: “Tell me Tim – are you surprised that people like to read historical dramas set in remote locations which tell the story of a family and their various dramas?”. Somehow, I just can’t see it.

Anyway, although my interjections during the show weren’t really appreciated by Mrs. Rationalbrain, a healthy discussion ensued between us regarding the differences between fantasy and science fiction.

To me, the difference is stark, but not immediately obvious to the casual observer. The best way to look it is using examples. Let’s take Star Wars. Fantasy or sci-fi? If you said sci-fi, you’re wrong. Chronicles of Narnia? Fantasy. Lord of the Rings? Fantasy. Star Trek? Ok, you got that one right, it’s sci-fi.

So, says Mrs rb, what’s the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek. Aarggh. There are about as far apart in genre as the universes in which they are set. And there’s the rub. I characterise fantasy as follows:

  • Involve the existence of other strange worlds, and what goes on in them
  • Strange beings exists and have adventures
  • Fantasy world tends to mirror our world but with different form of physics, so that beings can do amazing things (use the force, Luke).
  • Don’t really care how we got there or the worlds came to be (e.g. got there through the back of the wardrobe, I understand.)

Now, what about sci-fi? Why don’t the above points also apply to sci-fi? Where the genres diverge is in the last point. Let me spell it out: how and why the strange worlds got to be that way is CRITICAL. If we are entering a strange world through the back of the wardrobe, excellent; but I want to know what it is about the back of the wardrobe that allows this to happen. Is it a tear in the time/space continuum? Is it one end of a wormhole? Is it the entrance to a network of tunnels leading to a parallel dimension? Does reality finish there due to a flaw in the fabric of the cosmos? I don’t really care, as long as this how and/or why is explored.

If we are chasing a magic ring, or a holy grail, or trying to defeat ‘the darkness’, please tell me why. Who made the ring, and why? How does it work?

So, you get the idea. In the end, we all love a mystery, right? Well, sort of.

I think that the fantasy genre presents and plays with mysteries (like magic rings and leaky wardrobes), but that’s it. Sci-fi is about exploring those mysteries and trying to present a situation in which the mystery could have come about. Detractors might argue that some of the more way out sci-fi devices, like warp drives and matter transporters are just fantasy in that they are unlikely to ever be developed. That may be the case: sci-fi doesn’t preclude the use of unlikely or impossible elements, but at least it attempts to explain the origins and existence of them. In any case, they are typically just extensions of what we know today.

In thinking about this whole topic, it also strikes me that we can weave religion into this discussion. After all, it wouldn’t really be a rationalbrain article be without religion, right?

Let’s look at the characteristics of religion. Love mystery. No attempt to explain the mystery, just faith. Existence of strange worlds where physical laws don’t apply. Lot’s of description about what happens in those worlds. Strange beings get up to all sorts of hijinks. Where in space/time these worlds exist, and how we get to them is of no interest.

Wait a minute – that sounds just like fantasy! I think I’ve just proven that religion is nothing but fantasy. There must be a mathematical proof in this discussion somewhere. In another universe at another time, I could have worked it out, but for now, this will have to do.


6 thoughts on “Science fiction, fantasy and religion

    Blamer .. said:
    July 28, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Have you thought that sci-fi could be a subgenre of fantasy?

    To qualify as a sci-fi we might need only to introduce some “suffiently advanced technology [that is] indistinguishable from magic”. For example, weapons that fire lasers ;-P

      rationalbrain said:
      July 28, 2011 at 8:07 pm

      Provocative, Blamer.
      But no, that suggestion doesn’t fly with me. To accept sci-fi as a sub-genre of fantasy, I would need to agree that it inherits all the attributes of fantasy – including the disregard for the how and why of things. And clearly I wouldn’t.
      I think they are clearly parallel genres. Merely introducing magic or S.A.T. does not a sci-fi story make.

      But now that you’ve raised it, I think we could both agree that religion is a sub-genre of fantasy, couldn’t we? Another would be alternative medicine.
      There’s a classification scheme in there somewhere.

    Blamer .. said:
    July 28, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    *a modern subgenre

    MyBrainHurts said:
    August 2, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    RB, where would Dr Who sit? It is the longest running Sci-Fi TV program (thanks Wikipedia)
    but it covers all your fantasy dot points above?

      rationalbrain said:
      August 3, 2011 at 7:49 am

      I agree with Wikipedia – it’s sci-fi, but don’t agree with you that it covers all the fantasy points. It doesn’t satisfy the last one.
      The doctor never finds himself somewhere without caring why or how. There’s always a reason, a point. There are too many examples to go into, but I bet if you pick any episode you’ll find that’s the case.
      A typical scenario is that some weird thing is happening, like there is a crack in the wall in a little girl’s bedroom (yes, behind the wardrobe!). Eventually she and he are sucked into it and adventures ensue. BUT – as the show unfolds, so too does the explanation for the crack – how and why it’s there. It’s the point of the story, not just a sneaky way to introduce weird things. Make sense?

    Of Apes and Sci-fi « rationalbrain said:
    August 17, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    […] recently I held forth on sci-fi vs fantasy, I tried to enumerate the attributes of each, and identified a critical point […]

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