more on science fantasy: language and vocabulary

Sorry that this is a day late! Instead of cleaning up the rough draft of this last night, I worked on my fiction. Which only goes to show that I have my priorities straight, right?

Last week’s post on defining science fantasy (and the subsequent discussion) had me pondering more on the differences between science fiction and fantasy. This week, I want to focus on one aspect of those differences–the language and vocabulary of the two genres.

Fantasy is rooted in the past, and often draws inspiration from historical Earth cultures and societies. The literary traditions in fantasy novels often take the form of mythology, religious and prophetic texts, epic poetry, and song.

The vocabulary of science fiction, on the other hand, is drawn from the modern age, reflecting the huge leaps in technological and scientific progress. It’s unlikely that you’ll find epic poetry in science fiction; instead, you’ll find lines of code, snippets from scientific lectures and academic texts, extracts from instruction manuals, and transcripts of video and audio recordings.

So, even if science fiction and fantasy concern themselves with the same themes, they’ll use different language to do so. Take, for example, encounters with non-human sentient races. Fantasy draws its races from mythology and folklore, populating the world with elves, dwarves, dragon and sea monsters. Their origins are explained through myth and folklore. Science fiction has its aliens, but these are described in terms of their evolution and adaptation to their natural habitats.

Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I’m currently reading Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future, and his predicted technology looks an awful lot like magic. While the effects of technology and magic might be similar, fantasy and science fiction employ different vocabulary to describe their use. Fantasy’s mages are science fiction’s genius physicists. Witches and wizards create portals between worlds, while space ships cross interstellar distances using FTL drives, hyperspace, and wormholes. The magically gifted might mind-speak to each other across fantasy continents; ordinary people take advantage of advanced communications to do the same in science fiction.

The processes of magic and technology also differ. A wizard’s workshop is often at the top of his lonely tower, and he makes magic by using arcane language and ritualistic gestures, maybe aided by mysterious bronze instruments and jars of dragon liver pickled at the dark of the moon. A scientist, though, is one cog in an industrial-military machine. Her lab is of steel and glass and plastic. Robotic arms and computer screens are the way she interacts with what she’s attempting to change. The end results may be the same–say, creating a whole new species–but the vocabulary used is not.

What happens when the terminology and processes of one genre creeps into the other? A mage might manipulate matter by knowing the True Names of objects or seeing a pattern of living energy. But when a mage manipulates matter by moving subatomic particles around with her mind, as in Jo Anderton’s Veiled Worlds trilogy, your fantasy just got a little bit more science-fictional.

Similarly, when you use a mystical, unmeasurable energy like the Force in your spaceships-and-guns science fiction universe (and follow that up with swords, robes, and prophecies) you’re dangling your feet in the shallows of fantasy.

This crossover of language between science fiction and fantasy is what leads me to characterize some of my work as science fantasy. I have no problem with science and magic running parallel through my worlds. Ward magic exists alongside reality-altering radioactive elements. New species are created through a hybrid process that uses magic and genetic engineering. And I like being able to use precise technical language even in my heavily fantasy-skewed worlds. I like calling an atom an atom.

Do you find the language of science fiction and fantasy to be different? What about sub-genres like steampunk and urban fantasy? Do they fit right into the middle of the spectrum where the lines between science fiction and fantasy blur?


  1. I tend to see fantasy fiction as touching on transcendence more directly and more consistently than sci-fi;mythological elements, for instance, play a more prominent role. i can’t remember the quote exactly, but I recall someone saying that “fantasy describes what we hope is true, while science fiction describes what we fear is true.”

    • That’s an interesting quote, Ryan. I don’t quite agree with it–for instance, even among the current crop of dystopian SF we can find more optimistic views of the future, and also there is plenty of dark, gritty fantasy out there. But the roots of fantasy, I agree, are in transcendence, no matter how far the genre has strayed.

  2. I think I mostly agree with you… although “psychic phenomena” has been part of science fiction for more decades than I’ve been around. I feel that it’s presence pushes a story into science fantasy, personally. {Smile}

    Oh, I just remembered… one author who really pushed the blurring of the border between science fiction and fantasy is Christopher Stasheff. He has witches, wizards, and spaceships sharing a whole series of novels. {Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

    • I would agree with you in the “psychic phenomena”. Unless telepathy and telekinesis is possible because of the use of implanted miniature superconductors and MRI machines within all objects and human brains, I don’t buy them as scientific phenomenon. And anytime precog comes up (Minority Report, Anne McCaffrey’s Talent series), it pushes a book right into science fantasy in my mind.

      Of course, this relegating psychic phenomena into science fantasy means pretty much all of Anne McCaffrey’s books could be classified at such. The Talent series, the Tower & Hive, the Crystal Singer books—all of them include them.

      Not that there’s anything wrong with science fantasy, of course!

      I feel like I’ve read Christopher Stasheff… is he the one who wrote about a man from our world going to a pseudo-medieval alternate reality where one uses poetry to do magic?

      • Yes, Anne McCaffrey’s Talents and Pernese dragons both push into science fantasy as far as I’m concerned, as does Star Wars’s Force. I think Andre Norton’s science fiction is mostly science fantasy, too. She loved to include psychic phenomena, too; Her Forerunner series was built on it particularly. {Smile}

        I haven’t actually read Stasheff; he’s one of many writers I keep noticing when I browse Mom’s shelves. (I’m a second generation science fiction and fantasy fan, since both Mom and Dad love it too. {Smile}) I’ll get around to him someday. But I’m pretty sure he wrote “A Wizard in Rhyme,” so I think you’re right about his magic being linked to poetry, at least in one wizard’s case. {Smile}

        Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  3. To me all thse things are part of a continuum; ultimately, representing aspects of an author’s imagination which in turn elicit responses in the imagination of a reader. In this case (and as opposed to any other sort of writing), an exploration in both cases of something that is not mundane. What Dunsany called ‘beyond the fields we know’. Still a very broad definition, true, but I think the old walls between genres have been blurred in recent years. I was brought up with ‘science fiction’ of the Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov variety and the ‘fantasy’ of the Tolkien variety. That’s changed in more recent writing – part of the inevitable exploration of the art of it, so I think it is appropriate to step back a little and look at those broader definitions.

    • I see all speculative fiction as a spectrum with a lot of exciting stuff happening the middle. Not to mention what happens when spec fic. reaches out and clasps hands with other genres like mystery and literary fiction. I do think the old definitions need to be revised to take into account the newer works. I entered the fray just because I wanted to pin down what in the world *I* was writing. *grin*

      Thanks for dropping by!

  4. This is a great clarification — thanks! And I love how you blend the two genres in your stories.

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