Posted by: kshayes513 | February 15, 2011

Godzilla, Dragons, and the Difference between SF and Fantasy

Giant Monsters. That’s the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy.

JRRT's painting of Smaug,The Hobbit

Godzilla, king of the movie monsters

Of course it’s not the only difference, but it gets to the meat of the matter. Fantasy can have giant monsters like Godzilla, King Kong, Smaug and other dragons, huge spiders and insects, giant turtles and elephants that can carry a world on their backs, not to mention the 20, 50, 100 foot tall humanlike creatures that we English speakers just call “giants.”  These creatures can romp across the landscape or the sky, setting fire to castles and skyscrapers, stomping whole villages flat, having battles with tyrannosaurs, or stalking frightened, heroic hobbits in the dark, and the audience simply surrenders to the wonder and the terror of such an awe-inspiring creature.

In science fiction, on the other hand, you can’t have a skyscraper-sized reptile with radioactive flaming breath, without a lot of explanations. How did Godzilla get so big? What kind of reptile did he mutate from? Why don’t his bones and muscles collapse under his enormous mass? How does he generate his atomic breath? What does he eat to refuel between rampages, since he doesn’t seem to eat any of the things he attacks?

A science fiction setting would require sound answers to all of these questions and many more, and these answers must be based in our current, real-world knowledge of biology and physics. For that reason alone, you probably couldn’t write a science fiction story with a 200 foot tall radioactive reptile, unless perhaps the story is set on a different planet with very different gravity.

If you put dragons in your SF, the same problems arise in terms of physics and biology, even if your dragons are purely reptilian. How does a dragon fly with such a heavy body? How does it breathe fire at all, let alone without burning itself from the inside?  If your dragon is both sentient and magical, like the dragons of Middle Earth and Chinese myth, then you’ll need to explain not only its physical abilities, but its intelligence (not such a great leap, given what we are learning about animal intelligence) and especially its magic, in purely scientific terms.

I’m not saying, of course, that fantasy writers don’t need to explain anything! Dragons, especially, are so widely used that many modern authors have gone to a lot of trouble to create distinctive dragon biology and even dragon cultures. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series is probably the most famous of these. My personal favorites, at least when it comes to explaining the physics of dragon flight, are Peter Dickinson‘s classic natural history, The Flight of Dragons, which I read when it first was published (though my original copy is long lost, alas); and S. Andrew Swann‘s The Dragons of the Cuyahoga, which provides a great forensic explanation of how to murder a flying dragon (and which I reviewed here in 2009).

Yet for me, half the point of fantasy is leaving some things unexplained. After all, if you understand how everything works, then what’s left for mystery and wonder?

As a worldbuilder, one of the advantages of fantasy is that you can choose which aspects of the story to leave unexplained, attributed to magic, myth or the unknown. In writing science fiction, you don’t have to explain everything on the page, but any speculative, science fictional aspects of your story do have to be plausibly explainable.

Each approach has its pleasures, of course! Which one is yours?





  1. Even in fantasy worlds, I prefer some splainin. As in what dragons eat besides virgins. As for flying, if pterodactyls can fly, why not dragons? Now that fire breathing? I think somebody just exaggerated some really bad breath. Genrally I prefer science fiction, but without so much explaining that it gets in the way of telling a story.

  2. Excellent post, I stumbled across your blog in Google.

    I do agree the SF does require a lot more explaining, but I would say that there are still a lot of fantasy stories that try to explain the “physics” so to speak of their creatures. Some even attempt to employ real-world physics as limitations, with the added aspect of magic of course. I know that Jim Butcher does this in his Dresden Files (though I’m not sure if that would be a good example of traditional fantasy stories).
    Personally, I try to keep everything as realistic as possible. Heck, I even went and researched wing-span to weight to length relationships in flying creatures to get relatively plausible measurements for my flying creatures, hehe.
    But I do appreciate the level of realism seen in SF, particularly in a lot of Arthur C. Clarke’s works where much of it is based in actual plausible science. The same with Carl Sagan. Frank Herbert does this to an extent, but falls a bit more into the gray area between fantasy and SF.
    Anywho, I’ve rambled on for far too long, cheers! And again, great work you have here.

  3. Thanks for joining us, Lakan. Researching wingspan & weight to length ratios? You’re clearly a serious worldbuilder!
    Explaining and rationalizing magic and the metaphysical does seem to be more common in fantasy now, especially in genres like urban fantasy and paranormal mystery that are rooted in our world. But I love it when people writing in those genres let the magic push through and be inexplicable at times. If everything can be explained, what’s fantasy for?

  4. Flying creatures. I worry over this, and gravity and atmospheric density. I wanted my aliens to be really real, so they have their own souvenir shop for Earth T Shirts and an amazon store where you can buy emergency supplies like a gps, bottled water, she crab meat and owl pellets. I don’t expect anyone to buy the stuff, but I thought it would be funny on their website.

  5. Karen,

    I wonder if we’re missing another element on the difference between SF and fantasy. One genre features scientific rules while the other demonstrates magical rules.

    I don’t think the aspect of explaining is enough of a distinction. In both an SF or fantasy, we could see an unexplained event occur only to offer an answer later in the plot. Goodkind’s Seeker had unexplained ways the Dark Lord operated only until new discoveries made clearer how the rules of the magic operated. Television’s Fringe uses the same surprises, but the key difference is that the rules come from science.

    Using giants can be applicable to either genre and we might even see unexplained aspects of the science in an SF story. Walter Jon William’s Metropolis showed a giant fire creature where the rules of science were only partially explained until the latter part of the story.

    While the Tolkien style was more black and white with aspects of magic, later day writers like Feist and SL Farrell take pains to set up rules for the magic.

    Maybe the key item is the use of either a science based structure or a magic based one?

    What do you think?

  6. Aye, that’s true that if everything is explained, then it’s hard for it to be a fantasy. But personally, I like laying down some ground rules as to how magic operates. For example, magic can only affect inanimate objects, or magic must have sacrifices. I wouldn’t go so far as to explain -why- it only works on inanimate objects or -why- it needs sacrifices, but I find it helps with the willing suspension of disbelief. If magic is just, “this is magic”, then I as a reader would question, “Well why doesn’t that wizard just burn the army to a cinder?”

    For me, and I know this won’t apply to everyone nor will everyone agree with it, but explaining the rules as to what magic -can- and -can’t- do, and the mechanics of how it works helps the reader go with the story rather than questioning why something can or can’t be done.

    In response to Cynthia, that actually sounds like a brilliant idea. And it would even work well as a marketing tool of sorts.

    To Tom, aye, I think that also works well. Rather than massive exposition as to how magic does and doesn’t work, or how science does or doesn’t work, it works well for things to be gradually explained. Jim Butcher does this to some extent in the Dresden Files, but as the books are written in the first person, most of the “magical physics” so to speak are more thoroughly explained.

    But that’s just me, hehe.

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