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Why I Prefer Science Fiction to Fantasy

by Graham Storrs

I write science fiction. I read science fiction. I love science fiction.

But why?

Today I read two highly-aclaimed short stories by fantasy writers. Both recently won awards. Both were well-written. Both were well-constructed stories. Both were really, really boring.

Which is a puzzle. Why shouldn’t I like fantasy when I like sci-fi so much? Both genres take the reader on journeys into worlds invented and strange, fabulous and wonderful. Just because some worlds contain soul-stealing demons, why should they be less interesting than ones containing mind-stealing aliens? Both genres utilise inventiveness and novelty, and both explore the consequences for their characters of the new ideas they introduce. So why does fantasy leave me cold?

Well, I think I know the answer. The ennui that crept over me as I read these two stories today (rushed over me in one case) showed me just where the fault lay with each piece.

Firstly, they were not real. The novelty, the ideas, the situations, were all just completely made up. Souls, demons, dragons, magic, witches, gods, and all the other paraphernalia of fantasy worlds, are completely and utterly fictional. They bear no relation to the real world whatsoever — except as issues in the psychology of people who actually believe in such things. If you put characters — however realistic — in worlds of magic swords and dreaming gods, my reaction is ‘So what?’ because such worlds do not and never could exist. It’s irrelevant what people would do when confronted by a binding spell because such a situation will never, ever arise.

Secondly, the characters weren’t real either. Yes, alright, some of the characters were real enough — ordinary people with ordinary personalities, but there were also purely evil creatures — or creatures inhabited by pure evil, evil spirits, etc.. Sometimes (sadly, not infrequently) you find purely good ones as well. Even if such characters have only minor roles, it spoils the whole story. Like gods and goblins, such creatures do not happen in the world, or in any conceivable real world.

OK. I can hear you clamouring to come back at me on that. Lots of people believe in fairies and angels and such. What’s so awful about having them in a story? Nothing, I say, as long as you don’t mind me not reading it.

Alright, you ask, why are aliens and cosmic minds and transhumans so much better than elves and magicians? What makes faster-than-light travel and phasers and teleports better than bracelets of power and ley lines and magic pyramids? Well, on the one hand you have things which could exist, are extrapolations of what we already know, or are justifiable leaps of imagination based on actual reality, on the other hand you have things for which there is no plausible way for them ever to exist and which often, quite explicitly, exclude themselves from possibility by being ostentatiously supernatural (as in ‘not natural’).

Of course, some science fiction (some of the most famous and most popular) also relies on magic. Dune, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 (to name the tiniest few) use ideas like telepathy and telekinesis, Star Wars has The Force — ideas that are clearly in the realms of the supernatural rather than the scientific. For me, such lapses into fantasy spoil a good sci-fi story. By all means confront your characters with superhuman robots and hand-held beam weapons, uploaded brains and wars in space — these are things we might all have to deal with one day soon. But don’t make them have to worry about telepathic aliens because (unless they’re using wireless networks to connect their brain implants) that just ain’t gonna happen.

That’s why I consider science fiction a completely different genre to fantasy: it is reality-based, fantasy is not. That’s why I only like sci-fi and not fantasy: I like to imagine and play with what really could happen, not with absurd impossibilities. That’s why I had to force myself to get to the end of these two award-winning stories rather than dump them after the first mention of dark forces: because it seems childish to read stories about things that cannot ever possibly exist.

Copyright © 2009 by Graham Storrs

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