The line between science fiction and fantasy is often blurred. And that's okay. Genre is often more about marketing than anything else. As a general rule though: SciFi has science and technology and fantasy has magic.

This excellent question explores the distinction: How to distinguish if a novel is science fiction or fantasy?

Time travel is usually considered SciFi, but can also be part of fantasy if the traveling is via magic and/or the rest of the story doesn't fit into SciFi. Many other sites focused on worldbuilding and literature and readers discuss this at length, but not from the point of view of writing.

Within the Writing.SE world, where (or why) would we draw the line in deciding the genre of time travel? What are the implications for authors and publishers?

4 Answers 4


Time travel can enable the plot - appear as a plot device once at the start, and never show up again. Time travel is part of the setup, not part of the story, as it where. This is the case of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man. Those stories, I'm not sure either the "fantasy" or the "science fiction" label particularly benefits them. They are specifically time-travel stories, as they have no other "unreal" element in them. Their focus is the contrast between the modern character and the time they find themselves in.

In other stories, time travel plays a key role in the events throughout the story. It not only enables the story, but is explored within the story in some way. The problems created and solved within the story are connected to the time-travel element. (Time travel might not be the main element explored, though.) Such stories include Back to the Future and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. In such stories, I would look at the other trappings to decide whether a story is fantasy or science fiction, as per the question you link to.

Either way, I'm not sure there are implications for authors, maybe not even for publishers. Fantasy and sci-fi are sold together, in the "fantasy and science fiction" section. Alternate history is also usually found on those same shelves. I find "speculative fiction" is a good umbrella term for all the above. But you might want to take a look at (my) question What is genre, and why should we care? for some further discussion of genre distinction implications.

  • 2
    I love that distinction: part of the story vs part of the setup. And that is a very Writery implication. Something that someone coming from another POV might not notice (or even care about).
    – Cyn
    Commented Feb 23, 2019 at 17:11

I agree with Galastel. Time Travel is usually classified as "science fiction" because, unlike fantasy, science fiction doesn't introduce magical powers or beings, everything is supposed to be within some laws of physics. Science Fiction usually does include things that are probably impossible; like FTL drives, or time travel, or teleportation, but there is nothing in scifi that is explicitly unexplainable, like there is with magic. The characters in SciFi always refer to some fictional fundamental physics, biology or other science-type explanation. It is always "technology", not magic, even if the tech is basically doing magic things.

Fantasy, on the other hand, allows unexplainable or impossible creatures, introduces new magical forces, spirit worlds, and all kinds of mysticism. In a time-travel story, we would not expect any of that, we expect the world to still be the world and obeying the laws of physics, and evolving according to the laws of physics.

This makes "science fiction" a much closer fit to the time-travel story than to the "fantasy" genre, readers of SciFi expect what happens in time-travel, they will not be disappointed if time-travel is the one and only new thing in the story, and the rest of the story is actually a mystery, or a puzzle about how to change the future to avert some disaster.

Readers of Fantasy would be very disappointed if the only Fantasy element is time travel itself, that is NOT what they paid for!

Since there is no genre of "time-travel stories", I'd call it Science Fiction.

  • 1
    Interesting. I'm pretty sure my novel is fantasy not SciFi despite having time travel, though it's a fuzzy line. The story contains magic, primarily the manipulation of water. The time travel happens via water. I am working hard to make everything in the story realistic and possible, aside from parts that just aren't. But that doesn't make it SciFi.
    – Cyn
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 17:30
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    @Cyn No, if there is anything explained by "magic" then it is scifi, the time-travel is magical, it is not the result of some genius scientist developing an improved quantum physics or discovery of some new particle or effect. Note that it makes no difference what the reality of time-travel may be, it only matters how the author chooses to explain the non-realistic component. You have chosen magic, thus your genre is Fantasy, and not SciFi. (Some best-selling authors might get away with bending these rules, I don't think any first-time author can do the same.)
    – Amadeus
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 18:45
  • That's completely in line with what I was thinking. Thanks for the validation. I have been calling my novel "upper middle-grade fantasy" and that seems right.
    – Cyn
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 18:47

The difference is thematic.

Fantasy deals with destiny, family lineage and dynasty, purity of purpose, and typically things of the past. Fantasy looks back to a "simpler" age with polarized b&w morality (reductive), to examine character journeys about becoming legendary archetypes and paragons – combine family lineage with paragon characters and we get Chosen One stories, sometimes "accidental chosen ones" who did not know the true nature of their lineage until they pass a purity test and the story eventually turns them into paragons. Characters get punished for defying their destiny – an unconscious signal of a setting that looks like the past is that destiny has already been written and cannot be altered.

The themes in Science Fiction are invention and evolution – the opposite of a pre-determined destiny. Characters evolve their way into and out of trouble. Typically this evolution is already underway, perhaps science is evolving faster than society (progressive/mania), or one group of characters has an evolutionary advantage over another. Conflict is solved not through a purity test but through invention. The unconscious signal of setting stories in the future is that fate has not yet been decided, and can be altered. Grey morality means that Science Fiction often deals with the unexpected consequences of invention or evolution. There is no "destiny" in the Fantasy sense because the future is unwritten and anyone can evolve.

Time Travel has thematic rules

Time travel can go either way, but a clue is whether the MCs travel into their past (where they are tested by destiny and b&w morality) or into their future (where they are tested by their ability to adapt to an accelerated environment). Time travelers are often the eyewitness for the reader who can knowingly contrast the difference between current ideology and the anachronistic setting. The idea is typically to make a commentary about the present, by visiting a place where that aspect is more extreme – a character who struggles with understanding morality or responsibility might be sent into the past to face a world where morality is polarized, and avoiding responsibility leads to world-ending disaster. In contrast, A character who struggles to fit in to current society might face a world where they are the "evolved" one, or where society has changed so radically as to become unrecognizable, thus erasing the reasons they were an outcast in the real world. The outsider character has the chance to re-invent himself and create a new path.

If time travel teaches a lesson in immutable destiny and purity of purpose, it is a mechanism to drive a Fantasy story. The character must accept his fate. Any attempts to get around it are thwarted by an unseen hand.

If time travel is an invention that breaks the status quo – the past can be re-written, and things that have evolved for one era can be transposed to change the course of history – this is a mechanism to drive a Science Fiction story that explores unintended consequences and Science Amok.

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    Your description of fantasy would exclude Conan the Barbarian.
    – Mary
    Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 0:23
  • @Mary Conan is a warrior who was literally "born on a battlefield", descended from a lost people we never see, heroic traits are his code of honor and he's "destined to become king".... Don't recall a time travel story. Maybe you have a point but I don't see it in your comment.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 12:27
  • Nah, he wasn't. Read Howard's stories from beginning to end and you won't find any of that. Also, that was your definition of fantasy, not "fantasy with time travel."
    – Mary
    Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 23:32
  • Your comment has added depth to this discussion. thumbs up.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 3:09

How It All Works:

It's that simple: How the time travel is explained.

If it's explained as a wizard saying, "Abracadabra Waddledeedoo, go back to 1492!" Then, it's fantasy. This is clearly the setup for Harry Potter's time travel.

However, the more common is the sci-fi model of time travel. A good example is Michael Crichton's book Timeline, where it works through a 'Human Fax Machine'; it takes their DNA, takes them apart atom by atom, then recreates them in another place and time. Science.

When it's not explained at all, well, I'd lean towards Sci-Fi.

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