Sci-fi vs Sci-fa

largh

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According to a common definition science fiction, or sci-fi for short, deals with any fiction having science and technology in it. That is, for example, IPs like Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy, Mass Effect, Space Odyssey, Interstellar, and the Martian are all clumped together even though their science base varies broadly. Using the same definition, one could perhaps even classify post-apocalyptic IPs such as Fallout and Mad Max under the same umbrella. Also cyberpunk games would be classified as sci-fi if we followed the classical definition about science and technology.

I think this umbrella is too wide. I'd rather think science fiction under one-dimensional continuum, a line segment. In one extreme, we would have science fiction relying purely/strongly on the contemporary understanding of science at that time. In the other extreme we would have fiction that is not loyal to science but takes inspiration from it. I call this science fantasy, sci-fa for short.

Using the examples above, the Martian would be closest to the sci-fi end, followed by the Space Odyssey and Interstellar (apart from the end which would be strong sci-fa). On the other hand, Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars would be closest to the sci-fa end and Mass Effect would get placed somewhere in the middle, progressively moving toward sci-fa from the first to the fourth entry.

That is not to say that my definition of the sci-fi extreme could not improvise on science, because the best sci-fi just does that. It plays on things deduced from science and often ends up predicting the future to some extent. It is thought provoking and fascinating rather than a fantasy story that could never happen in the world we live in.

Such a classification could also clarify the confusion and misunderstanding sci-fi creates for people who are not working with science.

What do you think about this?
 
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largh

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Some examples on science based topics for sci-fi and sci-fa:

Space communications

Faster than speed of light (FTL) travel and communications are often in the heart of space opera kind of sci-fi. We know almost certainly that it is not possible to exchange information though space faster than the speed of light. Yet, quantum entanglement allows two quanta to "know" about the state of each other instantaneously faster than light. If one bent the modern knowledge of physics a little bit one could create lore allowing instantaneous communication over long distances. This was done in Mass Effect, for example.

Travel

According to the relativity theory, it is theoretically possible to wrap spacetime using negative energy. This fact has been used for instance in Star Trek. As far as I have understood, however, wrapping spacetime would mean also wrapping time, meaning that one self would experience the travel shorter but for outsiders, as much or more time would have passed as light would have taken to travel to that location (does not apply in all interpretations). The point being that FTL travel and wormholes are not complete sci-fa end stuff if the lore is done right. It would be nice to see games playing with the idea of negative energy and negative matter.

The Fermi paradox

The Fermi paradox is among the biggest mismatches between science and reality at the moment. Given that there are 100-400 billion stars in our galaxy Milky Way, most of which have planets circling them, where are the other "intelligent" life forms? Mass Effect had a nice answer to this paradox until BioWare lost control of their story. While this is one of the cornerstones of sci-fi, still more IPs should play with the answer to this great question.

Dark matter

Talking about perhaps the biggest mismatch: according to our models of the universe, we do not understand what 95% of mass and energy of it are. While the dark energy seems to come from the expansion of the universe and be a part of the matrix of it, dark matter is almost certainly something "real" we still have not observed. Is it an unknown difficult to detect particle, ordinary matter, matter that we cannot detect for some reason, halo of an other dimension or universe or the best of all: a mistake in our theories. There is plenty of room here for IPs to explore without closing the sci-fa extreme. Even pretty wild ideas could work based on the current understanding of physics.

Communication with alien species and the looks of them

This is where English speaking sci-fa often deviate far from the real world. Most of Earth's population has never heard a word of English, let alone speak it. Why everyone in the universe speaks perfect English and most walk on two feet? Why can we have sex with an alien species when we find it disgusting to have sex with species from Earth such as dogs, goats and sheep? (I have heard that some like those, but anyway)…Babel fish explains it all, sure, but one could use social and language/communication scientists and biologists to make so much more fascinating scenarios and stories. Sky is a limit here, really…and no need to go sci-fa unless you want to (that's OK too, but still, sex with a species from Andromeda, that is a too far stretch to sci-fa if you ask me).

The simulation hypothesis

Given how exactly the laws of nature and parameters of the universe seem to be tuned for our existence, many serious physicists have suggested the possibility that we live in some sort of simulation. This theme has been frequently visited in sci-fi (e.g. the Matrix) for a good reason: it makes good and fascinating stories. Whether the simulation was created by machines, gods, or by an alien student of cosmology, one can get wild here without the need of stepping on the toes of current scientific understanding. Even better, one could explain away problems such as English as universal language or the Fermi paradox using the simulation hypothesis.

Gravity

The gravity is one of the most fascinating interactions in science. It is remarkable how beautifully gravity can be described using the general relativity theory. Yet, gravity is also the one that is most often modelled wrong in sci-fi and pulls most of the IPs strongly to the sci-fa territory (you cannot effortlessly stand on an asteroid breathing air without a space suit because the asteroid's gravitational pull cannot keep you or the air on the asteroid; the same applies to space ships unless they rotate creating acceleration). I wish the Bethesda's new game would attempt to respect gravity because this really is one of the greatest immersion breakers in sci-fi for anyone working with science. It works in sci-fa, such as the Star Wars, but there is no way one can explain it using science.
 
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vanedor

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I'm not sure to understand what's the problem with considering "Science-Fiction" as a very broad category that can include several subgenres such as those you suggest.
 
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largh

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I'm not sure to understand what's the problem with considering "Science-Fiction" as a very broad category that can include several subgenres such as those you suggest.

I would not call it a problem. Just that science-fantasy would be a more fitting name for most sci-fi IPs. Sure fantasy is fiction too. It's a broad definition. If one would want to find a problem that would be the use of "science" in the name. Most sci-fi IPs are not very scientific.
 
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duerer

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I'm not sure to understand what's the problem with considering "Science-Fiction" as a very broad category that can include several subgenres such as those you suggest.

I think I get the basic gist of the OP's rant.
Being an old fart born and raised on Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury and (my personal hero) Ellison, there is a huge gap between Sci-fi and Sci-fa.

On the one hand, Asimov and Clarke were scientists first and writers second, therefore their "what if" ideas are typical scientist dream: what if the laws of nature would go different here and there? What if these abominations could actually be scientifically "believable"? What if we could construct a theoretically sound machine that could do Weird Things? (time travel, etc)

On the other hand, Heinlein, and especially Bradbury, were writers first and scientists. . . not so much. Therefore their "what if"-scenarios are more outlandish, more surreal, and generally, they don't care if the idea is scientifically sound or not. The idea is just a playful concept to underline a certain writer's manifesto. Let's be critical on society, so invent a quirky society as a bad example (Heinlein). Let's be optimistic on human psyche, so wax lyrical on human behavior in surreal situations (Bradbury). Let's be pessimistic on humanism and . . . it's your turn, Mr Ellison (essential read for EVERYONE: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream).

Now then -- and here's my 2 cents on this debate:
I don't care if it is Sci-fi or Sci-fa, or even pure fantasy -- but there MUST be a meaning behind the razzmatazz.
If there is no meaning whatsoever, it's all just workmanlike cash-grab (A D Foster), or untalented show-off (Jeff Vandermeer) bad writing, and I'm too old to read that kind of sh*t.
 
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largh

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I think I get the basic gist of the OP's rant.
Being an old fart born and raised on Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury and (my personal hero) Ellison, there is a huge gap between Sci-fi and Sci-fa.

Ay, wanted to use Asimov as a (good) example, but it didn't fit in the original rant. He was great ;)

A good point about the meaning. It's purpose is to entertain after all.
 
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Alrik Fassbauer

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Star Wars had a big part of Fantasy in it, at least in its first two movies, and in the third one then as well.

This can often be seen via the very first novels, namely "Splinter Of The Mind's Eye", I personally believe.

And, of cours, by Knights having swords in the movies (or, rather, originally, sabres).

The Star Wars universe was then more and more pushed towards Sci-Fi by various authors. This got even so far that fans were actually worried quite a lot when someine tried to bring fantasy elements back into the setting again.
 
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JFarrell71

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A lot of science fiction is neither. Work by writers like George Orwell and Thomas M. Disch, for example. Both write about the future, neither write fantasy or are particularly interested in technology. If you want to come up with meaningful categorizations, maybe start there (I've heard "social science fiction" used to describe such work, though I have long since forgotten where I heard it)
 
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JDR13

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"Science-fantasy" is a term that's already been used. It describes settings that blend sci-fi with classic fantasy. Not the same as something like Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy.
 
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largh

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"Science-fantasy" is a term that's already been used. It describes settings that blend sci-fi with classic fantasy. Not the same as something like Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy.

Does it have to have elves and orcs to be called fantasy (Warhammer 40k style)? Star Wars already has magic…So did Guardians of the Galaxy as far as I remember (might mix it with the following Marvel movies, though).
 
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JDR13

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Does it have to have elves and orcs to be called fantasy (Warhammer 40k style)? Star Wars already has magic…So did Guardians of the Galaxy as far as I remember (might mix it with the following Marvel movies, though).

No, but I don't think The Force or superhero powers are fantasy elements. Just my opinion, but those fit more into sci-fi. Guardians of the Galaxy in particular is definitely more sci-fi.
 
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Arhu

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I had a look at my Calibre reading list, which I loosely group by category and subcategory or umbrella.
Some I'd simply categorize as "Sci-Fi" with no bells or whistles, like most of Asimov, Clarke, Baxter, Herbert. Future stuff, technological.

Star Trek and Dune got their own subgenre, just because there are so many of them. I don't read Star Wars. Then there's regular subcategories like Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Alternate History, Dystopia, Horror, Space Opera (Sci-Fi version of "Epic Fantasy") and Superhero.

Science Fantasy got its own category.
- Gen Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.
- Ursula K. le Guin's Hainish Cycle.
- Octavia E. Butler's Lilith's Brood trilogy.
- N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy.
- Michael R. Hicks' In Her Name series.

I haven't read all of them, but they seem to have distinct elements of both, or maybe tell a fantasy story in a sci-fi setting or with sci-fi themes.

In regard to the original post, isn't that simply the difference between "hard science fiction", which is rooted in real, actual science and adheres to themes like the scientific method (no FTL but relativistic speeds of starships, for example) and "soft science fiction", like Star Wars?

Those are not usually distinguished as separate genres. The problem is probably that "Sci-Fi" is used to describe both.

In Japanese culture, I believe, there never was much of a distinction between Sci-Fi and Fantasy like in the West.
 
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largh

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In regard to the original post, isn't that simply the difference between "hard science fiction", which is rooted in real, actual science and adheres to themes like the scientific method (no FTL but relativistic speeds of starships, for example) and "soft science fiction", like Star Wars?

Yes, I also realized after I had posted that I am essentially analysing the "realism" in sci-fi. Perhaps this is just a non-native speaker problem as "fantasy" feels more coined up than "fiction" to me but actually "fantasy" *is* "fiction". Perhaps the issue is that the word "science" is used in the name.

In Japanese culture, I believe, there never was much of a distinction between Sci-Fi and Fantasy like in the West.

I think this is how it should be. Sci-fi and fantasy are essentially same type of literature. One often takes place in the future, while the other often in the middle ages.
 
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duerer

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Star Wars had a big part of Fantasy in it [. . . ]

Does it have to have elves and orcs to be called fantasy (Warhammer 40k style)? Star Wars already has magic. . . So did Guardians of the Galaxy as far as I remember (might mix it with the following Marvel movies, though).

Hmmm, methinks these examples are not sci-fi, neither sci-fa per se -- these are good ol' adventure stories in an exotic setting.
These are modernized boyscout adventures designed primarily for entertainment. The exotic elements (light sabers, creatures, etc) are just novelty glitz, nothing more.

Note, there is actually nothing wrong with that -- pulp literature can be good, and should not be ashamed if done right. What I'm against is trash pulp.

A good point about the meaning. It's purpose is to entertain after all.
Yes, this is the requirement of good pulp stuff.
If the "entertainment value" is simply just hopping the bandwagon (countless Tolkien-ripoffs), or tasteless exploitation (countless sex-fantasy novels like Gor), or (this is the worst) talentless, pompous show-off (you know who you are), then I have no sympathy for the "writer" of this rubbish.

IMHO the best sci-fi stuff is more than just entertainment though: it is clearly designed to make you think (either analytically: sci-fi, or emotionally: sci-fa). Yes, you had a great time reading that book, but the ideas therein will linger long afterwards in your subconsciousness -- usually in some form of regret.
 
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JDR13

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I think this is how it should be. Sci-fi and fantasy are essentially same type of literature. One often takes place in the future, while the other often in the middle ages.

Strongly disagree here. They're very different settings, and most people have a preference for one or the other. If they were labeled the same, it would make it more difficult for people to know when a new game/book/movie might be something they like.
 
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To me, these categories are as different as light and day, for the most part. True, you do have some series that encompass both fantasy and sci-fi, yet for the most part it's one or the other, or one is rather dominant. Even such universes like Black Company, Star Wars, some Heinlein books and many others make a clear distinction with certain weapons or technologies. Keep in mind this isn't even taking magic into account, or psi-abilities.
 
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largh

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To me, these categories are as different as light and day, for the most part. True, you do have some series that encompass both fantasy and sci-fi, yet for the most part it's one or the other, or one is rather dominant. Even such universes like Black Company, Star Wars, some Heinlein books and many others make a clear distinction with certain weapons or technologies. Keep in mind this isn't even taking magic into account, or psi-abilities.

I don't think I understand your post. You mean that fantasy and sci-fi are different because one contains "fantasy" and other "sci-fi"? For that we would need to define what we mean with those definitions.

Let's take Star Wars as an example to illustrate how I see it: there are different species as the Fermi Paradox would state, but all of them are basically humans in costumes with some cute pet races blended in. Sure, our imagination is limited, the IP is a story for humans, not meant to be realistic, and we do not even know what is "realistic". Yet, I put these species in the same category than elves, halflings, orcs and dwarfs in fantasy: They are a result of our imagination. Further, if one understands magic as some supernatural power as it is often portrayed in fantasy, Star Wars has magic, the force, and it was even called magick in the Fallen Order by some species. The technology is mostly unbelievable with laser beams not travelling the speed of light, the incredible cutting machines called laser sabres with seemingly unlimited energy, the incorrect modeling of gravity, jump into the hyperspace, and so on. Therefore, I see Star Wars as technologically inspired fantasy. I am not upset if people want to call it science inspired fiction either but there is not much science in it.

I did not mean that one should call it all fantasy, but perhaps "fantasy" as a genre for the middle age stuff and "science-fantasy" as a genre for the technology stuff could do.
 
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duerer

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Hmmm, to avoid further confusion, how about changing from sci-fi / sci-fa, to sci-fi / fa-fi?
That is:
Science-fiction: any speculative literature that treats science seriously (Asimov, Clarke, etc)
Fantasy-fiction: any speculative literature where true science is absent, emphasis is on purely fabricated internal logic (Tolkien, Phil Dick, Le Guin, Star Wars, etc)
 
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That leaves Douglas Adams out - he wasn't treating science seriously and sure wasn't interested in internal logic. ;)

I remember he also complained that, for any novel you write of whatever genre, as soon as you pop a spaceship into it, it's whisked off into the SF section of the book store. Got a haunted house thriller with a scary monster roaming around, killing people? You go over,,, in the SF section because the "house" is a spaceship. Got a murder mystery to solve? Great, let's put it over here with the other myster,,, woops! The murderer may be a robot? That's SF.

So, is the SF genre too broad? Yeah. Because it's ALL genres!

P.S. I'm pretty sure fantasy books were mixed in with SF in my local bookstores. Unfortunately, it's been a very long time since I've been in one.
 
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