A few days go I was invited to a discussion in an FB group, regarding what or who determines if a story is science fiction or fantasy. Where the line is drawn between those two apparently distinct genres. The discussion evolved from whether it was an attribution of publishers to the boundaries between such genres to where the borders of one genre start and the other ends. Personally, I think it is a false dichotomy that while may be helpful for marketing purposes, or to attract a specific group of readers, can be very restrictive if we see it as a hard border.
Some of the oldest pulp stories and comics have this blend of science fiction and fantasy from early on. Doc Savage, The Shadow, John Carter of Mars and the first team-up superhero comics such as the Justice Society and the Invaders serve as examples of this.
Returning to the prime example, Star Wars is basically Science Fantasy. Why? Because The Force is magic by another name and yet it cohabitates in a world with lightspeed, robots and space stations.
I think the main confusion and mistake comes from seeing Science Fiction and Fantasy as mutually exclusive genres when in reality it is more like a sliding scale when you go from one color to another, gradually changing bits and pieces of the worldbuilding accordingly to the requirements of the story. Roughly something like this:
This, of course, is a theory in progress that I will keep revisiting in future posts. However the main point I think stands: it’s not a matter of hard borders between genres, but a sliding scale that is to serve the best interests of the story. Kinda like The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature by Steven Brust (the author of the Dragaera series):
“The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows: All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ’em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ’em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.
The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.”
― Steven Brust
The worldbuilding should be in service of telling the story and as such if the author considers that is it has to be hard science fiction, fantasy or a blend of both, it is because that’s the way they feel is the best to tell that particular story. In genres, like in real life, hard borders, enforced by the whims of a few tend to stifle creativity and natural growth.