H.G. Wells on the Distinction Between Fantasy and Science Fiction



In the preface to H.G. Wells Science Fiction Treasury, Wells comments on how he is often compared to Jules Verne, the grand-daddy of Science Fiction. He goes on to explain how that comparison is unfounded, and in doing so makes one of the first attempts at defining the differences between Science Fiction and Fantasy.


“His [Verne’s] work dealt almost always with actual possibilities of invention and discovery, and he made some remarkable forecasts. The interest he invoked was a practical one; he wrote and believed and told that this or that thing could be done, which was not at the time done. He helped his reader to imagine it done and to realize what fun, excitement or mischief would ensue.”

Wells obviously made a distinction between what could possibly be done (even if technology and science were a long way from getting there) to was was pure impossibility. From Wells’ explanation we can see how the term ‘speculative’ came to encompass both Science Fiction and Fantasy. Both have speculative elements, only Science Fiction speculates on the real (or potentially real), and Fantasy speculates on the unreal.


It’s important to note that Wells doesn’t use the word ‘speculative’, nor does he use science fiction or fantasy to refer to genres. He’s not purposefully making genre distinctions, he’s simply separating the content of Verne’s writing from the content of his own. Though we still mostly hold to these same distinctions today.

Of his own writing, in particular the stories in this collection, Wells says:


“They are all fantasies; they do not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream. They have to hold the reader to the end by art and illusion and not by proof of argument, and the moment he closes the cover and reflects he wakes up to their impossibility.”

Oh if only Wells could have known the insane popularity of future fantasy novels and how readers kept building on to their impossibilities long after closing the cover. But he’s right, almost every book categorized as Fantasy has some absolutely impossible elements.


Wells argue that Verne’s writing, science fiction, is appealing because of it’s inventive nature. He claims that the appeal in his own writing, fantasy, is not in the fantastical elements but in it’s emotion and conceived portrayal of human experience. Though many fantasy fans proudly profess their love of dragons, or magic, or hidden worlds, Wells believes that “the fantastic element, the strange property or the strange world, is used only to throw up and intensify our natural reactions of wonder, fear, or perplexity.” In other words, the unicorns are just there too look at, not to touch.


So what does Wells have to offer the modern fantasy writer besides his helpful distinctions in genre? He says that the writer of fantastic stories must “domesticate the impossible hypothesis” by making any fantastic elements “as near actual theory as possible.”


Wells is adamant that fantasy writers of his time are too busy with cliche aesthetic, totally occupied with elements we now refer to as world building. In fact even today I think many writers would claim that world building beyond all else is what’s most important to good fantasy, but Wells believes it’s the realistic reproduction of the human experience that keeps readers turning pages. He says:


“As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real.”

If Wells is correct, and his stories should be considered fantasy rather then science fiction, then modern fantasy has fallen a long way from the rigor of Wells’ own stories. The beauty of writing fantasy is that anything is possible. But this is also the peril of writing fantasy. Too many writers take this as an excuse to be lazy, to not be rigorous, to ignore the real in their fantastic stories.


Whether you agree with Wells’ genre distinctions or not, he is beyond a doubt one of the founders of speculative fiction and his advice is applicable to to any writer of speculative stories, or, as he calls them “scientific fantasies”.

 

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