Science Fiction. Fantasy. In any bookstore or public library you’ll find them lumped together as Sci-Fi/Fant. Often this is fair since there’s a lot of an “You got peanut butter on my chocolate” approach taken with both genres.
Or as Miriam Allen deFord said, “Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities.”
Star Wars is famously not considered hard Science Fiction by nerds. Instead it’s given dubious terms like space opera or the ponderous fantasy-that-happens-to-be-set-in-space. Conversely, nerds will often cite Star Trek as being proper Science Fiction since it is supposedly based on scientific concepts. Even if warp drive is based on actual scientific theories, really it’s just as much space-fantasy as Star Wars‘ generally unexplained hyperdrive. And is the Vulcan mind meld really any less magical than the Jedi mind trick? If you ‘re going to be completely honest about it, no, it’s not.
But more importantly, for the average person, it’s just all the same pile of space shit, as one of my roommates used to say with her face scrunched up like a cat’s ass.
But if you’re a nerd and want to quibble, as nerds often do, Original Series Star Trek actually was real Science Fiction. Frequent instances of space-wizardry aside, each episode was based on a classic sci-fi concept. Whether it was speculating on alien biology or quantum mechanics, the crew’s weekly adventures were merely the backdrop to the bright idea hatched by that episode’s writer.
The Next Generation was less interested in scientific speculation and more interested in exploring socio-political concepts. Science was relegated to merely being the excuse for the Enterprise to visit the planet/star system of the week. By the time Deep Space Nine came along, science had been almost entirely discarded in favour of pure space opera.
Which is ultimately what almost all contemporary Sci-Fi has become. Battlestar Galactica was really just Odysseus in space trying to make his way home; the Stargates are closer to magical wardrobes than CERN reactors; the the aliens in District 9 could be exchanged for human refugees; Avatar could easily have been told in a traditional fantasy setting with magic and elves instead of science and aliens—the sci-fi elements were really not essential to any of these stories. They really are Fantasy-Adventure stores with a few technological trappings.
On the other hand, films such as Inception and Moon entirely rely on their Sci-Fi premises. But films like these are rare compared to the fantasy-that-happens-to-be-set-in-space.
You can still find plenty of hardcore Science Fiction of course. Speculative, often cautionary, stories about emerging technologies, time travel and interstellar exploration are alive and well in print. Yet they remain the domain of a niche market. Your average reader might pick up a Michael Creighton, but will shudder at the sight of something by Ben Bova. Now take into consideration the popularity of Harry Potter, Twilight, the Lord of the Rings films, every damn vampire franchise currently going, perennially popular horror tropes such as demonic possessions and hauntings, and it appears that these days Fantasy is far more popular than Science Fiction. Especially if you add “space opera” to Fantasy’s score.
As I said before, by default your average Normie is going pigeonhole anything set in space as Sci-Fi. And who’s to say they’d be wrong in doing so? If you find Star Wars filed under Fantasy in a video store, you know you’ve walked into a joint run by some nerd-ass geeks. Just having a separate Fantasy section would be pretty telling, actually. It probably has a killer selection though. If you find this store in Toronto, let me know.
Cage match result: Sci-Fi is the bigger, nerdier hurdle. As long as you ignore the existence of LARPing.
Star Wars Begins