I’m having a stupid day (or week) or something, because I just don’t understand…
Compare and contrast: You have a science fiction story in which the protagonist builds a time machine and travels a few centuries into the future, where stuff happens. Or you have a science fiction story in which the protagonist builds a time machine and travels a few centuries into the past, where stuff happens, but this story has changed genres due to the era traveled to — it’s now a fantasy story, because Medieval Times.
That’s the part I don’t get. What is it about any low-tech setting that automatically makes the story fantasy rather than science fiction — or at least, what is it about such a setting that makes the vast majority of readers interpret a story with an overall low-tech setting as fantasy rather than science fiction even if there is a smattering of higher-tech stuff (and a character who is familiar with that higher tech) here and there, and no magic…?
I’ve said plenty of times on this blog that I don’t believe in a sharp division between science fiction and fantasy. However, I do think that if a work of fiction is one genre or the other, it is whatever genre it is, and it makes no sense to me how a mere change of location can shift it from one genre to the other. For one thing, this doesn’t happen in the other direction: no one says that a high-tech setting automatically makes a story science fiction instead of fantasy. We just call it urban fantasy (some of which is contemporary, and some of which is set in the future), and everyone seems to be okay with it.
Anyway. If someone could explain to me why low-tech settings always equals fantasy instead of sci-fi, whereas fantasy fiction can have high tech, low tech, or anything in between, I’d be grateful. I hate not understanding things.
EDIT FOR CLARIFICATION: Forget the time travel thing. Bad example — sorry I brought it up. The question I’m trying to as is, Why does lower tech equal fantasy even when there is no magic in the setting? (I tend to think that, if there has to be a dividing line between the genres, it’s whether or not there is any magic in the story. Obviously I’m wrong, but I’m trying to understand where the correct interpretation comes from.) Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels would be an example of this. Most people I know say these novels are fantasy, not science fiction, despite the time they’re set in, and despite them taking place on a planet that was colonized by people from Earth (and a couple of its early colonies) and the dragons being originally genetically engineered from a local life-form… because at the point where the series starts, the people of Pern have lost their former high tech level and are living at what would be the equivalent of the late Middle Ages, mostly. Lots of sci-fi stuff in those novels, and no magic, but they’re still fantasy (although marketed as science fiction) according to most readers. What makes them fantasy? What would make any other science fiction story with an overall “primitive”/low-tech setting (even if there is also high tech in the story — the proverbial rockets and robots and ray guns) also fantasy in disguise? Is it that everything in a story must be what we usually think of as futuristic for that story to be science fiction? (Hmm. The earliest part of Doc Smith’s Lensmen series is set in the far past, even though the bulk of the story is in the future. Does that make Triplanetary a fantasy novel but the rest of the series science fiction? How does that even work, jumping genres within a series?) How does this relate to urban fantasy (fantasy with a contemporary or even futuristic setting — I’m thinking of Jane Lindskold’s Brother to Dragons as an example of the latter), or science fiction with a more-or-less contemporary setting (just about anything by Michael Crichton). What about Wells’ War of the Worlds? It’s set in the late 1800s. Since the setting for that is now over a century in our past and the tech level of England at that time looks pretty darn primitive from our perspective, has the story shifted from science fiction to fantasy?