First, Alyssa went and started watching the X-Files (so all of this is clearly her fault). Then Erik had to chime in on whether or not the X-files was science fiction or fantasy. Jaybird tossed in $0.02 and finally Todd chimed in.
Since being wrong on Friday now seems to be a thing, I will tell you all the way it ought to be.
There are three ways to differentiate between science fiction and fantasy.
The first way saves a lot of time, it’s Jaybird’s mentioning of Orson Scott Card’s method. “Science fiction has rivets and fantasy has trees.” If your real desire is to find something to read and you have a personal hankerin’ to have a dragon be part of your story, it’s much easier for you to find what you’re looking for if dragons = fantasy and all the fantasy books are over there on the back shelf of the bookstore, and spaceships = science fiction and they’re on the next shelf.
People who split fantasy and science fiction up this way are the same sort of folks who just sort of shrug at classification systems for their literature and say things like, “It’s all speculative fiction with different window trappings. If you like curtains, you go with fantasy, and if you like shutters, you go with science fiction, but it’s really all the same gig. I just want something to read.”
These people are all correct, and this is a perfectly reasonable way to decide what bucket you ought to put “The Dragonriders of Pern” into when you’re sorting through your book pile. After all, the point of the classification system is to be able to find what you’re looking for later, and so you’ll know what’s in the bucket, right?
They’re also crazy and wrong and I pity them for their shortcomings.
The second way to differentiate these things is to attempt to establish some sort of bipolar differentiation that doesn’t rely on just window trappings… or at the far OCD side of the spectrum, a continuum where one end is hard science fiction and the other is wild mythic fantasy, and all the works of literature that you’re trying to categorize fall on the number line somewhere. This works fine as well, it’s basically what Tod was doing with “character” instead of “window trappings” in his post.
Again, this is all correct, and this is a perfectly reasonable way to decide what bucket you ought to put “The Dragonriders of Pern” into when you’re sorting through your book pile. Except, you’ll note, that Tod has a problem deciding where to put The Dragonriders of Pern and it has a special rule that falls back on the first method. The point of the classification system is to be able to find what you’re looking for later, and so you’ll know what’s in the bucket, right? Except now we have squishy bits where we need to find out where on the continuum something fits when it doesn’t seem to fit somewhere naturally, which is hard when you have works that embody characteristics of both Hard SF and Mythic Fantasy.
Where the hell do you put anything by PKD? Surrealistic Science Fantasy? Where does that go on a continuum?
So these people are also crazy and wrong and I pity them for their shortcomings.
The third way is to look at this as a question of literary tradition. Based upon his comments on Tod’s thread, I suspect Jason will immediately get on board with this one. I think Mike probably will as well. In this case, “fantasy” works are those works which feed off of the literary tradition of mythic heroes, great mysteries, faith, the ineffability of existence and/or struggles with Fate/The Gods. Fantasy novels follow a literary tradition that goes back to Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and the Odyssey, The Aeneid, the traditions of Irish heroes like Cú Chulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill, even characters from older religious texts like the Bible and the Hindu Puranas (examples not given in chronological order, obviously). Tod comes close to this, by recognizing that character is an integral part of fantasy literature; he’s correct, it is. But the mythic hero is almost by definition not us. They far exceed the human norm in capabilities or pride, or both. Even the tiny Hobbits of Tolkein’s work are central to the story because Frodo has the strength of will to carry the ring, where a normal human would not. Oh, and the hubris. Hubris is big in fantasy: the true mythic hero spits in the eye of Fate, attempts the impossible, and usually succeeds (albeit, often, with Consequences). Fantasy is about individualism in the face of the paranormal. It is about unknowns, or unknowables.
Science fiction, on the other hand, has very little to do with human character, and everything to do with the character of humanity (this is where Tod dog-legged right instead of left). Science fiction is about science, as Steven and Wardsmith point out… or most accurately, it is about technology and the effects on the human condition. “Real” science fiction, by this classification method, doesn’t include Star Wars or Space Opera -> the first is clearly fantasy (turn the spaceships into naval ships and the death star superlaser into a nuclear bomb illustrates how little “advanced technology” has to do with the narrative of Star Wars, it’s really just fun pulp fiction).
In science fiction, the characters aren’t typically as superhuman as they are in fantasy, but that’s not because “normal human heroes” are an essential feature of science fiction, it’s because the characters in good science fiction are stand-ins for humanity. How they respond to the fundamental changes in their society that have been enabled by technology that does not yet exist, either as individuals or as a collective, (and, typically, whether this is Bad or Good) is basically what the story is actually about. Science fiction is about altered human sociopolitical reality. It is about knowns or knowables, even if they are just fictional ones.
Now, of course, this is a lot more complicated method of differentiating between the two, as you have to read everything, digest what it’s about, and put it either in the Science Fiction bucket, or the Fantasy bucket (or the Horror bucket, or the Pulp fiction bucket where all other speculative fiction lives). Since there are books that can be read both ways, you can argue about which bucket they truly belong in, although this is usually where I throw up my hands and say, “Shoot, it transcends simple classification as it is truly a work of greatness and nothing else can describe it.” One can go down the rabbit hole and spend far too much time musing about whether a work is this or that or the other. It certainly lacks the time saving methods of the first method.
Which is why these people are also crazy and wrong and I pity them for their shortcomings. I just happen to fit here. And this is the right place to be, sayeth I.