May 20

Science Fiction Vs. Fantasy or The One Change Rule

Usually this blog is reserved for little newsy updates about my life, but I’d like to take a moment to address a topic that I’ve been semi-scholarly thinking about for many years now.

Science fiction and fantasy are the Siamese twins of literature.  Sometimes people mention other major genres together, such as romance, suspense, and mystery, but this has more to do with describing the bookstore than the books themselves.  No, the two genres that I will collectively pool together under “speculative fiction” are almost always thought of in concert because so many of their tropes and literary devices blend together.

So what’s the point of comparing the two?

While there ARE a lot of great similarities between science fiction and fantasy, there are also some distinct differences.  In the past, people tended to focus on defining science fiction so that everything else can be tossed into the fantasy hat.  This is probably because science fiction people tend to enjoy rules in their literature, so they take more time to think about these things.  Or maybe they’re just a bit snootier.  I’m a bit snooty about SF too, so we’ll start along that line of reasoning.


The oldest definition of science fiction is that it must heavily emphasize space, aliens, and/or advanced technologies.  This seems to be the obvious way to go because it’s right there in the name: science.  Unfortunately, even in the earliest days of science fiction, space operas and other science-based adventure stories contrasted sharply with more cerebral, clever, and thought-provoking works characteristic of The Golden Age (see any SF anthology edited by John W. Campbell for examples).  A laser gun does not a science fiction story make!

Hard and Soft

After this, SF people got more crafty and invented “hard” science fiction.  The delineation here was in the rigor applied to the science component.  Stories that kept away from faster than light (FTL) travel and other impossible physics (by today’s theoretical standards) were deemed “hard.”  Stories that took place in space or the future but utilized flimsier logic were deemed “soft.”

This “hard/soft” system is still used to a fair extent today because it is useful.  Whenever a reader is shopping for their next novel, they can get a grasp of the complexity or difficulty of the subject matter by the inclusion of “hard SF” somewhere on the dust jacket.  Unfortunately, I think the “hard SF” label tends to imply authenticity and thus it does not give “softer” SF the appreciation it deserves.  Think of Ray Bradbury’s work for instance.  Dandelion Wine is a fantastic collection of short stories and most of them take place in a relatively quiet town in the midwest.  While some might characterize them as fantasy or “soft SF” by the setting, I think there’s a better, less derogatory way to think about them.

The One Change Rule

Whenever I read a piece of speculative fiction, I run it through a little mental algorithm called The One Change Rule.  I’ll freely admit that this is my own invention and I welcome lively debate to help refine it.

I ask, “Starting with our reality, how many changes did the author make for his story to jump from realistic to speculative fiction?”

If the answer is one, I will usually say that work is science fiction (regardless of its “firmness”).  If the number is greater than one, and usually this number is a great deal higher than two, I will classify the work as fantasy.

That said, there are some caveats: What counts as a change?  The characters are an invention, are they a change?  What about a future setting?

Exceptions and Givens (and Excuses)

The One Change Rule has a few exceptions and givens.  Setting the story in the past or in a reasonable future doesn’t count as a change because one can assume that time is going to progress forward anyway.  If the author, for instance, places the story in a future where human society follows a logical progression of space exploration stemming from present day, this doesn’t count toward their number.  If that future includes travel by something like a “stargate” on the other hand, that would count.

This same given can be made for technologies as well.  While it is futuristic to think of ships that approach the speed of light under the power of atomic blasts, this is not outside the range of what could stem from our current evolution.  If a ship could travel FTL by some sort of SF magic (be it warp speed or hyperspace), that would count as a change.

The exception to this rule is the “fruit of the fictitious tree” idea.  If you make a single change and that leads to OTHER logical changes, then it still counts as one.  For instance, if you wrote a story where unicorns were somehow real (and no other mythical creatures), then a story stemming from the magical properties of a powdered unicorn horn would not count doubly against you.  A better, published example is coming up in a moment.

Lastly, anything that might be permissible in normal fiction (characters, plot, intrigue, conspiracies) is fair game and should not count against the author.

[An excuse: sometimes even a true “change” can be given a pass if it simply aids in the telling of the story.  For instance, there are several tropes like FTL travel that allow authors to take us out of our own solar system or galaxy in a reasonable amount of time.  Whenever I see a vague FTL method alluded to or conveniently explained for the sake of conciseness, I tend to not count the change.  FTL travel isn’t the only good example, but it’s certainly the most common.  Alien-human linguistic aids are another common one.]

What’s the point of all this?  Why should it matter if there is one change or one hundred?

I’ve found that stories that take OUR fundamental universe (past, present, or future) and make ONE change can use that singular device to make a powerful analysis of an idea, a character, or a practice that is still bound to our own reality.  Once more changes begin, the author has really created a NEW universe in which to explore concepts that may or may not relate back to our own.

A great example of a seemingly fantastical story is Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.  The book is set in a different universe, has an entirely different world culture, has highly advanced technologies that we might never discover, and YET, it passes The One Change Rule quite gracefully!  How is it possible?  Well I won’t spoil the story for you, but all of these impossibilities are the result of a single theoretical change (more of a massage, even) that helps bridge quantum cosmology with Platonic forms.

Another similar example might be Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, which only posits the possibility of alternate universes (which still obey reasonable laws of physics).

Speaking of books, I will add that many books probably have a harder time passing The One Change Rule than their short story counterparts because longer stories lend themselves to more extended thinking and perhaps more  changes.  The two books included above are possibly rare examples to the contrary.

What is Speculative Fiction?

Recently the term “speculative fiction” has popped up as a new way to describe the SF/F genres.  While you might think I’d oppose the apparent glossing over of disparate entities (especially with my oh-so-carefully crafted rules!), I find it is a welcome relief.  The new, larger genre not only lets readers spend less time haggling over subdivisions, but also makes room for new styles of fiction that push the boundaries of any established classification.  My rule would place an author like Neil Gaiman squarely in the realm of fantasy, but I’d like to think he’s one of those guys really pushing into his own personal genre of spec fic.

Where to go from here?

There are still a lot of questions left open by The One Change Rule.  We can weed through the “space fantasy” pretty easily with it, but some legitimate fantasy starts to flow back the other way.  Where do The Dragonriders of Pern end up?  Is the existence of dragons, or even just crash landing an alien planet that HAS dragons (among other things), enough to constitute more than one change?  Most would say this story is clearly fantasy.

Maybe fantasy tends to be defined less by the rules that SF readers love so much and more by the aesthetic it portrays.  Let’s ponder it together, shall we?

[SPACE MAN Image | City of Primary Colors Image | Anathem Cover from Harper Perennial]