PLEASE!!! Could everyone just SHUT UP!

Everywhere I go, it seems there is always a new definition of science fiction and fantasy and the difference between the two genres.

It’s really confusing. And exhausting.

Here’s one and here is another one. They both make valid points but it just doesn’t help me. The debate keeps going on without any resolution in sight. What is the distinction between science fiction and fantasy fiction? Can the lines truly be drawn?

Some really creative writers have stretched the genre, further complicating the lives of experts who’re trying to help people like me understand what the hell is going on. There was a time when it was easy to tell them apart. Elves never wandered into the future and time travelers didn’t faceoff against wizards.

Distinguishing between the two genres really bothers me because I eventually have to categorize my novel.

When the book publisher/book store asks, “What genre is your novel?” I want to know what exactly to say.


So I invented my own way of identifying/categorizing fantasy fiction and science fiction. I call it – The Human Interface system (cue drum roll).

It’s simple. First, you count how many major characters are in the story, divide that by how many times the hero and the villain meet in person. Then depending on the presence/absence of an epilogue/prologue, you decide how often…. I’m kidding.

This is it – In the story, what is the interface between the real world (our world) and the story world? If it is magical/supernatural, then it is fantasy; if it is technological/scientific, then it is science fiction. Simple.


Let’s start with an easy one. In the Harry Potter series, the story takes place in a world of magic. Human beings ignorantly co-exist with witches and wizards and this is possible through magic. The human interface is magical therefore Harry Potter is a fantasy book.


On the other hand, the Old Man’s War series chronicles the story of an intergalactic war taking place between human beings and hostile alien colonies beyond the Milky Way galaxy. It doesn’t get more sci-fi than that. Intergalactic travel is made possible by devices called skip drives, the workings of which are explained (well sorta).  This means the human interface is technological – science fiction.


If the world in which the story is set in is not earth, but there are humans there, how did those people get there? Was it something supernatural that took them there or was it technological? For example, in Tobias S. Buckell’s Crystal Rain, humans are stranded for centuries on a foreign planet after their spaceship was shot out of the sky in a foreign planet. The only way those humans got there was through space travel therefore the human interface is technologgical – Sci Fi.


In Zoo City, Lauren Beukes creates a South Africa where murderers are animalled – get attached to an animal that gifts them magical abilities. She doesn’t explain how this happens or where the animals come from. It just is. Something supernatural is responsible for the “animal” people, which means the human interface is supernatural – fantasy.


If the story world is not set on earth, and there is no explanation how the story world came to be, nor is there any link between that world and our planet earth, then there is no human interface whatsoever. I guess you can call it whatever the hell you want to call it. I’ll call it fantasy e.g. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora.


It really is simple.

I don’t think this method is perfect but I think it easily handles 98% of the books in both genres. If there is any exception to this rule, I’d definitely love to hear it. Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.



  1. Hmmm, great blog.

  2. I’d say the last examples you gave are classic second world fantasy, especially since magic is involved. The magical elements make it pretty clear that it’s fantasy in any case. But what if there’s a story likes this, and three books into the series, the characters discover the ruins of an old space port? Or what if aliens (or humans) show up in a space ship? Then it may be science fantasy. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels fit the bill, I think. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels might be too, though the space origins of Pern are explained in the prologue to the first novel. So maybe that one’s just really soft SF.

  3. Interesting write-up…

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