When I was met with Zarah last weekend, she was surfing the 'net and found out that one of her students was reading Neil Gaiman's Stardust. It was a welcome surprise although she clarified to her student that Stardust was not science fiction but fantasy (maybe the star in the title confused him?). Now defining science fiction vs fantasy has been an age old debate in the genre. Personally, I'll just use the term speculative fiction so that it encapsulates both (although using SF as an acronym can be confusing... SF for me used to stand for science fiction but the same acronym is also being used to refer to speculative fiction). The question I want to ask however is whether we should be rigid in defining what is science fiction and what is fantasy. Take Ted Chiang's The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate. Now Chiang has been known to be a writer of SF (science fiction) yet his latest work reads like a story out of Arabian Nights. But as Dean pointed out, to some SF fans, just because Chiang hints of a worm hole in the story automatically makes it SF. And then there's the likes of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station or Jeff Vandermeer's Veniss Underground which seamlessly blends magic with science fiction elements (or is it vice versa?). Whenever I talk about Frank Herbert's Dune, I usually tell people that for me it reads more like a fantasy epic rather than a science fiction novel in much the same way Star Wars is more mythic rather than hardcore SF. And as a D&D player, I must mention Jack Vance whose magic system later was referred to as "Vancian magic" (damn you Vance and your spell memorization!). But the interesting concept about Vancian magic is that it's really pseudo-science at work rather than actual mysticism (I'm curious though what George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois will do with the Jack Vance anthology coming up in 2009). Even until today, I'm still surprised when people talk about Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 or Lois Lowry's The Giver as SF because for me it feels more like a what-if fantasy tale. Is it that important to distinguish one from the other? Could we not live with the new term speculative fiction instead? I mean we're already lumping science fiction with fantasy either way with terms like SF&F. In most of the bookstores I visit, both genres are located in the same shelf. And just this week, a co-worker asked what I did in my spare time. I told him that I read fantasy and he replied by asking if I read science fiction.
One good reason to distinguish the two is due to the tropes. Fantasy and SF might have a lot of elements common between them but there are also characteristics that is known for in one genre but not in the other. At the very least, it helps set expectations for the reader. A lot of fiction (and not just genre fiction) usually incorporates some form of happenstance, Act of God, or surrealist event yet we don't call them fantasy per se. And as much as political fantasy has been done before (the likes of Terry Goodkind is more blatant about it but I appreciate Terry Pratchett's take as he liberally douses it with satire), politics and social commentary feels more "natural" in the realm of science fiction. To the casual reader, the fact that both science fiction and fantasy are deemed "impossible" might be a worthy excuse to lump the two genres together but to fans who can distinguish in minutiae and talk about the various sub-genres in detail, it's for their sakes that we distinguish science fiction from fantasy.
What I'm more impressed with however are those who go beyond genres and challenge the medium. At the end of the day, whether you're science fiction or fantasy, you're interested in telling a great story and as a writer, you'll use whatever tools you deem necessary. There are a lot of writers out there who mix fantasy with literary fiction (although the public doesn't necessarily see them as so) for example and I love them: Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is at the same time young adult, religious, fantastical and even contains sci-fi elements. I really enjoyed Neil Gaiman and Michael Reeve's Interworld which is similarly a fusion of various genres. While I think genres are good "boundaries", it's also a pleasant surprise when a piece of fiction goes beyond what is expected. Isn't that a SF&F author's calling too? To ask the question of what if? Not just in terms of story but in terms of technique and style.