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Science fiction vs. Fantasy vs. MacGuffin

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

By the title, I don’t I mean to say that all science fiction has bad science. It doesn’t. But a lot of science fiction books do. By no means do I say that all fantasy magic systems break if you hammer on them even moderately hard. They don’t but many of them do. The reason why is because both of them represent a non-reality. We as readers step into these words to suspend our belief in how reality works and be taken somewhere else for a time.

This short piece is not about how to maintain veracity in the book, and how different changes to reality might impact the fictional world in believable vs. not believable way. This is more about an idle thought I have had of late that fantasy and science fiction are not so different. Perhaps that is why there is the emerging genre of science fantasy.

I guess I am saying whether it is altered science or magical mystery, it is all just MacGuffin in the end.

What is the difference between a golem of fantasy, an android of science fiction, or an automata of something like steampunk? Ignoring the physical differences, they are all semi sentient or sentient artificial creations in a world of humans.

Frankenstein's Monster

They are all Frankenstein’s monster. (A golem by the way 😊) They change their physical form because they don’t play well thematically in one another’s genres but the purpose they serve in literature and storytelling are the same.

Magic power or new technological thingy that does thing XYZ? MacGuffin.

Tolkien’s ring of invisibility or a bracelet light bending for cloaking. Same end effect, same literary function, different mechanical properties, nothing more.

The One Ring
Ring of Power
Invisibility shield

Friendly alien race from the stars or new friendly non-human race from across the sea?

Same function, different literal skins to deliver the idea of foreign benevolent peoples.

If they are so similar, why are they so different and why do so many people swear by one and not the other. Perhaps the surface matters? I think it is more than that. Science fiction stories tend to be recognizable as our world. They look and feel and smell like reality with small differences. Fantasy has a tendency to deal with the same mythological hardships we all think about, but it does so in settings which feel foreign and remote, or at the very least historical.

I think they share more than they differ. If you are a fan of one and you have never tried the other, give them a shot. If you have never tried fantasy, give the Kingkiller Chronicles a try. If you have never read science fiction, try really anything by the last 10 years of A.C. Clarke or the very modern Robert Sawyer. Don’t hold one genre down, or another up. You might find you enjoy them both.

Either way, love an author, and keep on reading.

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