This makes no sense…

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?


About Thomas Weaver

For several years, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (editor). I'm physically disabled, and I currently live with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have eight cats. I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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9 Responses to This makes no sense…

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    Michael Crichton’s “Timeline” was marketed as science fiction.


    • Perhaps the time-travel story example wasn’t the best one, because this isn’t actually about time travel, specifically, but about why stories with generally low-tech settings are considered fantasy rather than science fiction, even if everything in the story would otherwise make it unquestionably sci-fi.

      Are you familiar with Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels? A high percentage of people who have read them say that they are fantasy (even thought they, too, are marketed as science fiction), because at the beginning of the series, the technology level on that planet is about equivalent to what we had during the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, and thus “fantasy” in many people’s eyes. Never mind that the people living on Pern are the descendants of colonists who arrived there in starships, and that the dragons were originally genetically engineered from a native life form. Nope — no electricity equals fantasy. And that makes no sense to me, which is why I was hoping someone could explain WHY low tech equals fantasy but fantasy does not equal low tech.


  2. Alex Hurst says:

    I imagine that, unless the traveler will alter the historical events in someway, it would be fantasy. Part of that is science fiction looks at what is “yet to be”, but traveling into the past is playing around with what already exists, thus fantasy, or if you want to split hairs in this case, speculative fiction.


    • Yeah, because all those wizards and dragons running around London in the 1500s would negate the SF-ness of the time machine that made the whole story happen in the first place. 🙂

      If the time traveler in question were to go instead to a future in which there had been some global disaster or whatever and everyone was living at a much lower tech level — pseudo-medieval, even — would the story still be fantasy?


  3. Personally I always think of Science Fiction as revolving around an imaginary piece of science. Fantasy on the other hand tends to revolve around fantastical beings / magic etc rather than science.

    So for me if a character goes back in time, and the bulk of the story isn’t about the science of time travel, if it’s just a gadget to get the character where she needs to be, then I’d call that Fantasy. Likewise if the character goes to the future but they are living in a much lower tech level, and the bulk of the story is focused on what happens when he arrives, then it would be Fantasy.

    However, if the technology of Time Travel is a major part of the story and not just a way for a character to get to the setting of the story, then I’d call that Science Fiction. And of course said time travel does need to take place because of a development in ‘science’, if there’s magic about it, then it’s probably more Fantasy.

    That’s only my definition, though. I get the feeling that most people use Science Fiction for anything in a futuristic setting, and Fantasy for anything in a setting based on the past.
    And actually I tend to be pedantic about that sort of thing, and think that Fantasy encompasses all things fantastical, which includes Science Fiction – for me Science Fiction is just one kind of fantasy, one that includes stories based on fantastical developments in science / technology Although when it comes down to it, I don’t mind what a story comes under, as long as it’s good! 🙂

    Phew! that was a long comment!


  4. Mark says:

    I reckon you need to look at it like a football game. Whichever side has the most possession: it’s their game. Like, when the network uses percentages to describe who had the ball most, for instance, the part about building a time machine and travelling back (or forward) in time takes up 20% of the book, whereas the parts with dragons, unicorns, jaberwockys or flying puffballs take 80% of the book, then it’s fantasy.

    Also, to look at it from another angle, when there’s no magic, dudes and dudettes with swords in a made-up land – fantasy. Dudes and dudettes with light-sabers in an unknown land – science fiction. Swords are past, light-sabers are future. Past = fantasy because past is already written, so anything fictional about the past must be fantasy. Whereas future = science fiction because, science willing, it could still come to pass.

    Either way, great post 🙂


    • Forget the time for the setting; the question is about TECH LEVEL, not what year the story happens in. (I thought I’d made that clear in my “clarification” addition to the original post, but apparently not.)

      Here’s another hypothetical example for you: In a story set in the far future, characters travel in a starship to another planet. The locals are descended from colonists who have, over several centuries, lost/forgotten the technology that their culture had when the colony was first established. Now they don’t even have electricity or the printing press. However, the characters who arrive in that starship DO have a high level of technology, and no one uses magic. Is it still a fantasy novel since the planet where most of the action takes placed is a low-tech setting?


      • Mark says:

        No, you did make it very clear. It’s my point that wasn’t clear. What I suppose I’m trying to say is it’s really up to you and how you look at a story, whether it is sci-fi or fantasy. My personal opinion is: it’s fantasy when it can’t possibly happen and it’s science fiction when it can. Dragons are fantasy because tradition dictates it so. Your hypothetical above is science fiction, not because of tech level but because of possibility. Is it possible that dragons exist somewhere? Sure, anything is possible in an unfathomable universe[s].
        It’s also possible that publishers are going to categorize a science fiction novel as fantasy, and vice-versa, they just want to sell it.


        • That is my own (rather loose) definition of the difference between sci-fi and fantasy, as well: if it CAN happen, it’s science fiction, and if it CAN’T, it’s fantasy. (Funny how no one uses the argument that ‘The Pern novels are fantasy and not sci-fi because telepathy isn’t real.’ I’d have expected that, actually. No, they say those novels are fantasy because the Holds don’t have electricity — and because dragons are imaginary magical creatures even if they were created in a geneticist’s lab.)

          If the publisher says a novel is science fiction, and the author says it’s science fiction, and there are no impossible (fantasy) things in the story or the setting, what makes READERS almost unanimously say the story is fantasy? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.

          Thank you for clarifying your previous comment, and for being so helpful.


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