I believe that science fiction and fantasy are two different languages explaining the same kind of concepts. A simplistic overview posits that science fiction deals with the future, while fantasy deals with the past. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is his own imagining of the history of England while Robert Heinlein enjoyed exploring different militaristic societies adapting to the wonders of space. But this reductive binary does not cover the nuance and complexities both science fiction and fantasy explore through different mediums. In my view, I would argue that science fiction (and fantasy for that matter) is about humanity’s fascination of the unknown. The writer C.S. Lewis discusses this in his essay, “On Science Fiction”. He writes:
Thus in Grimm’s Märchen, stories told by peasants in wooded country, you need only walk an hour’s journey into the next forest to find a home for your witch or ogre. The author of Beowulf can put Grendel’s lair in a place of which he himself says Nis paet feor heonon Mil-gemearces. Homer, writing for a maritime people has to take Odysseus several days’ journey by sea before he meets Circe, Calypso, the Cyclops, or the Sirens. Old Irish has a form called the immram, a voyage among islands. Arthurian romance, oddly at first sight, seems usually content with the old Märchen machine of a neighboring forest. Chrétien and his successors knew a great deal of real geography. Perhaps the explanation is that these romances are chiefly written by Frenchmen about Britain, and Britain in the past. Huon of Bordeaux places Oberon in the East. Spenser invents a country not in our universe at all; Sidney goes to an imaginary past in Greece. By the eighteenth century we have to move well out into the country. Paltock and Swift take us to remote seas, Voltaire to America. Rider Haggard had to go to unexplored Africa or Tibet; Bulwer Lytton, to the depths of the Earth. It might have been predicted that stories of this kind would, sooner or later, have to leave Tellus altogether. (Lewis, 3)
Barring the unfortunate colonialist subtext of some of these examples (such as Haggard’s stories), Lewis makes an interesting point. So much of fantasy and science fiction deals with humanity’s inescapable desire to confront the unknown. Of course, science fiction predicts and plays with social problems, political theories, and imagined technology. These are all important components of a science fiction story. But it is the exploration of the unknown that is key—whether it is discovering the horror of parasitic aliens, as Ripley does, or the beauty of evolutionary change, as we see in Annihilation. The unknown is neither good nor evil, neither horrifying nor captivating—it simply is. Until, of course, our heroes or heroines confront it.
Lewis, C.S. “On Science Fiction”, Of Other Worlds. https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=9116,
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