On Star Wars

Star Wars: Fantasy, Not Science Fiction

By Ken Wharton

Ladies and gentleman of the jury: Most people would agree that there’s a difference between fantasy and science fiction–except, of course, for people who shelve books in chain bookstores–but what exactly is that difference? Unless we can agree on this basic distinction, there would be no point in arguing that Star Wars was one and not the other.

At first glance it might seem like the key difference between the two is whether the story uses science or magic to explain any speculative story elements. But one problem with this approach, as Arthur C. Clarke famously pointed out, is that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” There’s some truth to this, which means that simply using science or technology is not enough to make a story science fiction. And, to take the other extreme, any system of “magic” that follows universal, well-understood rules would effectively make the study of this magic a science.

But surely we can agree that there’s a real difference between magic and science, between rules made up for a story and the rules that actually might govern our universe. Here’s a thought experiment: Pick some speculative element from a science fiction or fantasy story, and imagine asking the author why that element works the way that it does. Then ask why about the answer, and then why again, like an over-curious nine-year-old. If the trail of “whys” eventually leads to something we know about the real world, shouldn’t we call that science fiction? If  …

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