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Does using unexplained spiritual elements (soul, "spiritual"/non-physical beings, afterlife, God, etc.) in a story with a futuristic setting make it science fantasy rather than science fiction?

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    (Who cares? A good story is a good story.) – temporary_user_name Sep 14 '12 at 6:22
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    Disclaimer: the above comment was not intended to be useful or helpful. – temporary_user_name Sep 14 '12 at 6:23
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    @Aerovistae - Then you have succeeded amazingly well. :) – Neil Fein Sep 14 '12 at 8:04
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    If its any help, Amazon allows you to add upto 3(currently, I think) genres to your book. So you can tag it both SF and Fantasy. – Shantnu Tiwari Sep 14 '12 at 12:37
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    Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Ghost in the Shell, Lake of the Long Sun (and the series), Star Wars, and Avatar-among others. I rest my case. – Mussri Sep 14 '12 at 18:17
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Is Star Wars fantasy or science fiction? I say fantasy, but they sell it as SF.

So there are stories which meander along the borders. But to categorize your story you should not only ask what it is about. For example it's also important how the story ends.

We are tagging genres to make it easier for the readers to pick what they want. If you sell a romance and it has no happy ending you can really disappoint a whole bunch of readers. A tragedy they wouldn't have picked up.

High Fantasy is often about the eternal fight of Good and Evil. If Evil wins, readers could be disappointed. They don't expect (and probably do not want to read) such an ending when picking up this genre.

When you are in doubt about your genre, ask your test readers. Often their distant point of view can clarify this issue more easily.

Or look at the books you read yourself and ask to which of them your book is most comparable to. Then use the genre of that book.

  • How would you categorize FF: The Spirits Within? – Mussri Sep 14 '12 at 9:34
  • But apart from that, it's one of these movies where I would flip a coin to decide if it is Fantasy or SF. Or both. That's what the movie does: "Fantasy" in the name and tagged a as SF. – John Smithers Sep 14 '12 at 11:20
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There are a few ways to answer this. Which answer you use depends on what you want to achieve - something lacking in the original question. Does the work already exist and you're just trying to categorize it? Or are you in the planning stages?

For this answer, I'm assuming that there are deities or other spiritual elements explicitly in your story.

If there are deities:

Deities of any sort are fantasy, and we should all grow up and acknowledge this. This is the prototypical hardline-atheist answer. Your book will be looked at as such.

Deities may seem unlikely, but what if "god" is really just a powerful energy being? Arthur C. Clarke did this, as did Star Trek. It's a way to have gods in your fiction, still have it be science fiction (maybe), and avoid disrespecting religion.

"Pagan" gods are, of course, fantasy. The god I worship is real, so that makes this sci-fi. That would make your book religious fiction. I'm not aware if religious science-fiction exists or not, so you'd either be joining an existing genre or creating a new one.

If there are no deities, but there are spirits or ghosts, that would probably make your book a fantasy, or possibly what's now called a "paranormal" book.

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    Boy, that sounds complicated. Is this a philosophical discussion or a genre categorization? – John Smithers Sep 14 '12 at 8:45
  • Just doing my best to answer a vague question in a helpful way. – Neil Fein Sep 14 '12 at 16:39
  • I am in the planning stages. It is a mix - the God in the story is like an Omega Point / singularity entity that created the Universe, similar to Asimov's in The Last Question. The story also has agents that interfere in human lives like angels, though not anthropomorphic. – Jonas Arcangel Sep 15 '12 at 0:08
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Sometimes, it all comes down to a very precise answer to a very simple question: Are you dealing with magic or advanced abilities that transcend the current human understanding of the universe?

Some people will say that there's no difference between those two things. For such people, it's all fantasy, end of story. However, those people make up a fairly small percentage of the science fiction community.

There has been a long history, in science fiction, of elements that are beyond our current understanding of the laws of the universe. Some are relatively minor (the movie Dreamscape) while some have been quite dramatic (the Q in Star Trek, or the Vorlons in Babylon 5).

On the other hand, there have been stories with magical and religious elements that still had the look and feel of science fiction (Star Wars, and the Warlock of Gramarye books by Christopher Stashef). Some people consider them fantasy, some don't. Does it really matter?

In the end, I think the most important thing is to focus on writing a good story. Let people argue about labeling it once it's been printed.

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I got some basic definitions that more or less are accepted by the majority - the average reader:

fantasy "the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things." "Fantasy Novel is any book that contains unrealistic settings, or magic, often set in a medieval universe, or possibly involving mythical beings or supernatural forms as a primary element of the plot, theme, or setting."

science fiction "fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets." "Science fiction is a genre of fiction in which the stories often tell about science and technology of the future. It is important to note that science fiction has a relationship with the principles of science—these stories involve partially true- partially fictitious laws or theories of science."

paranormal "denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding." "A ghost story may be any piece of fiction, or drama, that includes a ghost, or simply takes as a premise the possibility of ghosts or characters' belief in them. ... It is a form of supernatural fiction and specifically of weird fiction, and is often a horror story."

Now, combining those looks complicated. You have phenomena beyond the scope of scientific understanding of your sci-fi setting. And you have a specific sci-fi setting because of definition : "...future scientific or technological advances". Plus fantasy that states "Fantasy is any story that contains unrealistic settings".

So you need to merge 1) a scientific future setup with 2) an unrealistic setting and 3) phenomena falling outside the scope of scientific understanding. And all those, scientific + unrealistic + unexplained setups must coexist.

The only viable way to this is different species (different intelligent life forms), unknown to each other and met under unclear circumstances. Different species have different tech levels, different cultures, knowledge methods and motivations. 'alien A' and 'alien B' may both teleport but if their technologies are vastly different (still teleport mass in a standard way) one will see the other as 'ghost' and 'paranormal' as each one understands its own tech thus teleportation is only possible through the known method. 'Alien C' is far more advanced so abilities of this one enter the sphere of impossible for the other 2 species. I cant really think of anything else that could mix those genres.

Still, as already mentioned, readers will categorize subjectively.

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That's a question of definitions that one could debate endlessly. Definitions are invented by people, often indirectly by simply using words with a certain meaning in mind without necessarily spelling out a definition. On subtleties like this, different dictionaries will often have different details to the definition.

So really, I agree with @temporary_user_name's comment: Who cares? Just write a good story.

To actually answer the question: I don't see how referring to God or the soul would of itself make a story not science fiction. If a character in a realistic adventure novel said, "It was a miracle that we escaped", and in context it was apparent that he meant that literally, I don't think that would make this now a "religious story" and not an "adventure story".

Or more to the point, suppose someone wrote a story where a character invents a machine that can detect and measure a soul. I'd think that is practically the essence of science fiction: postulating a new and extraordinary technology and exploring the implications. The fact that the technology overlaps a subject that has historically been thought of as "religious" would to my mind make it, at least potentially, more interesting science fiction, not non-science fiction.

And in real life, genres intersect all the time. I've read science fiction murder mysteries and spy thrillers set in fantasy worlds. Almost any genre can include romance subplots. Etc. To say that a story might have elements of science fiction and also elements of religion is an unremarkable assertion.

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If you look at a large portion of sci-fi there is always a spiritual element to it of some kind or another. Star Wars has the Force; Battlestar Galactica had the Lords of Kobol (and was based of the works of a devout Mormon, who's faith heavily influenced his writitngs), even things like Stargate had various faiths and senses of spirituality interspersed in it. So no, I wouldn't use spirituality to gauge whether a work is a piece of Science Fantasy or Science Fiction.

I would also add that there is a huge difference between religion and spirituality. You can be a spiritual person, without being religious. There is no hard and cut definition of spiritualism. And that, therein, lies part of the problem you are experiencing.

To me there are larger facets to the story that would make the distinction - but that is not what is asked here.

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Does using unexplained spiritual elements (soul, "spiritual"/non-physical beings, afterlife, God, etc.) in a story with a futuristic setting make it science fantasy rather than science fiction?

If they are treated as real then yes. If we just have a scifi MC that believes in God and souls and ghosts, then no.

I would also classify Star Wars as a Science Fantasy; but Star Trek as science fiction, despite the tendency of many characters in Star Trek to refer to "life essence" or whatnot.

Of course most science fiction takes on fantasy elements. Star Trek uses FTL travel, Time Travel, Transporters, all of which violate the laws of physics as we know them.

But the pretense in Star Trek is that all of this is technology and nothing but. It can coexist with religion, but there is no magic, no ghosts, no God making decisions about what happens next. Even their God-like figures (Q for example) are explicitly alien and using alien technology, Q can be killed.

That is not the pretense in Star Wars; they are explicitly on the spiritual side, an unexplained magical Force that transcends space and can be used only by an elite. The Force is not strong in most people. That they supplement that with technology does not make it science fiction.

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