Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good fantasy novel as much as the next Tolkien or Neil Gaiman fan, but it seems as if the genres of sci-fi and fantasy are being merged together. Fan websites, book shops and review sites more often than not have sci-fi and fantasy packaged up together. ‘Why is this a problem?’ you may ask. It is because the genres of fantasy and sci-fi are becoming lost within one another. Both are distinct fascinating genres which should not be disregarded.
After all genre directs readers to particular elements of a text, genre is a way to read, when reading science fiction the reader knows not to be preoccupied with the relationships between characters because the focus is intended to be on the portrayal of society. It is a promise from the author to the reader.
In sci-fi a novum (‘new thing’) forms the premise of the narrative and creates a previously unknown conception of the universe, which is explained in terms of science and logic. The ‘Overlords’ in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End are beings from another planet whose existence is supported with extrapolation of space science. Novums such as this require a suspension of belief while still holding onto logic and science. So the role of the sci-fi writer is not to mask reality; rather the writer invents a reality to act out their response to technology and science as they see fit. Although, if the reader does not recognise the science that makes the novum plausible, they are more likely to interpret the narrative as fantasy. Elves and Orcs and other such novums, however, cannot be explained with any form of science or logic. When this is the case then the narrative is more likely to belong to fantasy. Therefore the sci-fi world is recognisable via science because this makes the novum based world conceivable. This is sometimes referred to as the cognitive aspect of sci-fi. Do you think this entails that reading sci-fi is brain exercise?
Parallel to the sci-fi and fantasy novum is the aspect of estrangement which is often felt by sci-fi and fantasy readers. Once again in sci-fi this is always based on science in an alternative reality, which the mainstream reader may not be aware of. In fantasy the estrangement comes from entering the new dimension/realm given by the writer where possibilities are infinite without any constraints, whereas the estrangement in sci-fi is constrained by logic. A relevant example is that sci-fi is inherently incompatible with the supernatural mode due to its scientific premise, since there is no way of applying logic to these broken laws of physics.
Unlike fantasy literature sci-fi is a promise to respond to science, technology and society. Therefore it is a prerequisite for the author that there is a market interested in the human condition, its relationship with science and the alternative portrayals that the author has to offer. As long as this remains true the genre of sci-fi will live. Likewise as long as readers are enthralled and captivated with alternative realities that are completely removed from this world then the genre of fantasy will live.