SF or Fantasy, Pick One?

It’s Science Fiction Saturday, so today I want to consider a fairly common question a fan might encounter: “Science Fiction or Fantasy?” The implication is that one tends to exclude the other. In these polarized times, it can amount to a declaration of your tribe.

One problem is there’s a spectrum from hard SF to pure fantasy with everything in between. But let’s take them as two legitimate poles and consider the question in terms of configuration space. (See posts #1 and #2 if you need to catch up.)

I think you’ll see that using a space give us a new take on the question.

In the first post I presented the Neapolitan room, a (three-dimensional) space where a marker (a point) in that space gives us three values: distance east, distance north, and distance up. We associated those with three flavors of ice cream.

In the second post I presented the Baskin-Robbins space, which had a whopping 31 dimensions. But just as in the Neapolitan room, each dimension links to an ice cream flavor. A point in that space (which we could visualize as a pretty pattern) indicates a unique opinion on the Baskin-Robbins offerings.

That was kind of jumping into the deep end, but I wanted to provide a flavor of the range of this technique. Down the road, I’ll revisit spaces with even more dimensions than 31. We can have as many as we need.


Most will have fewer. For now I’m going to drop back to just two dimensions. It turns out that’s all we need for lots of useful applications, and it’s much easier to visualize.

One of the first posts I wrote on this blog introduced the idea. If you haven’t read it, you need to read it now.

(I called it Vector Thinking for reasons I’ll get into in the future. You can stop when you get to that section.)


Okay, so the problem with the question about Science Fiction or Fantasy is that it seems to want a single answer. Even granting the spectrum, it seems to demand a point on a linear scale.

That leads to a tug-of-war.

The biggest problem being: What’s in the middle?

In a tug-of-war, the middle is the mud pit. On a plus-minus scale, it’s zero. When it comes to decision-making, it’s “sitting on the fence.”

Agnostics and bisexuals get crap from both sides for not picking a side. To many it seems ambiguous and weird to not declare your tribe. It tends to be seen more as excluding both than embracing both.

Even being middle-of-the-road (or just plain average) doesn’t have the greatest reputation. (“Living on the edge” is the thing.)


The solution: Don’t play tug-of-war! Don’t look at it as a linear scale!

Recognize that feelings about the two, Science Fiction and Fantasy, don’t exclude each other. They don’t even affect each other. How we feel about one doesn’t have any impact on how we feel about the other.

A common term for this is that they are orthogonal properties (feelings, in this case).

Mathematically, orthogonal means “perpendicular” — as in a right angles. By extension, we use it to mean things that don’t affect each other.[1]

For instance, in the Neapolitan room, moving east was orthogonal to moving north (and vice versa). Our feeling about vanilla is orthogonal to our feeling about chocolate.

And strawberry (up) is orthogonal to both of those. Our feelings about the three flavors are separate — they don’t interact or affect each other.[2]

In the Baskin-Robbins space, all 31 flavors are orthogonal to each other! Our feeling about French Vanilla has nothing to do with our feeling about Chocolate Mint.

By the way: I’m using the term feeling for a single axis (dimension, direction) and the term opinion to represent these combinations, these points in some space we make up. This is entirely arbitrary on my part; a way of distinguishing the parts from the whole.


When we have orthogonal properties (of any kind), they naturally form a space. The space has as many dimensions as there are properties.

That space is their Cartesian product. (If that doesn’t mean much, focus on the word “product” which is the result of one thing multiplied by another.)

Thinking about two orthogonal properties as opposite ends of a number line does them a serious disservice (and catches you in a tug-of-war)!

The natural way to visualize them, to understand them, is in a simple X-Y graph. Like the one above.

The black marker is probably close to expressing my answer to the question, “Science Fiction or Fantasy” — that is, I’m a 9.8 on the former and a 7.5 on the latter.

(Actually, I’m a definite 10 on the SF, but I wanted to keep the marker on the map to make it easier to see. I sacrificed for you!)

You’ll remember I previously spoke of regions in the space where “like minds” gather (“appear” is probably a better verb). In the chart above, the red zone above the purple line is the zone of those who prefer Fantasy over SF.

Contrariwise, the blue zone is for loading and unloading… I mean, the blue zone is for those who prefer SF over Fantasy.

The purple line is what used to be the middle of the tug-of-war. See how the chart expands that middle zone (which used to be just zero)?

The purple line represents having exactly equal feelings about both sides, but the line has length. It starts (lower left) with zero feelings on the matter. Moving up and right feelings increase equally. At the very upper right, max feelings for both.

Ultimately most people who do like both will fall just a bit on one side of the line or the other — they will have some preference for one over the other — but that doesn’t detract from their strong feelings for that other.


This may seem very obvious. All we’re really doing is creating a scatter plot.

Yep. That’s all we’re really doing. (And we can do it in as many dimensions as we like, although we can’t easily visualize a space with more than three.)

The whole point of this is to get away from the linear tug-of-war, to not see orthogonal properties as fighting each other.

I’ve found it very useful for clarifying how I really feel about something. I previously mentioned nuclear power. It can also be applied to gun use and politics, all sorts of real-life situations.

And I find it very useful to not feel “caught in the middle” when I have mixed feelings about an issue.

Simply put, a configuration space gives us more room in which to express our opinion. In particular, it seriously expands areas of mixed feelings, and the technique may help us sort through them.

It’s also excellent at showing how it’s possible to have mixed, but very strong, feelings about something. Importantly, it shows how relative neutrality is possible even with very strong feelings about each side.


Stay orthogonal, my friends!

[1] It has a related meaning used by software designers. If a system features “A, B, C” (which are one kind of thing, say registers) and also “1, 2, 3” (which are another kind of thing, say register commands), then your system is orthogonal if all combinations (“A2” or “C1”) are valid.

The mental image or metaphor is of a grid, like a spreadsheet, with one set of properties as rows and the other as columns. In an orthogonal design, all the cells are valid and meaningful.

(It’s the perpendicular rows and columns of the grid that lead to the design sense of orthogonal.)

[2] The concept of orthogonality is directly related to the idea of degrees of freedom. An orthogonal property, an axis or a dimension, is a degree of freedom. (See Dimensional Coordinates for more.)

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

13 responses to “SF or Fantasy, Pick One?

  • David Davis

    When the old TV commercial asked if Certs was a breath mint or a candy mint, I think they punted.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    It’s interesting that science fiction and fantasy have always been entangled with each other. A lot of science fiction people have historically tried to draw a sharp line, but the fact that most fans can effortlessly move between them seems to tell us what most of us are really getting out of those stories. Not that something perhaps actually being possible doesn’t add an additional thrill.

    “Agnostics and bisexuals get crap from both sides for not picking a side.”

    My experience is that “agnostic” and “atheist” both denote tribes, ones that at times argue with each other as intensely as they argue with believers. I consider myself to be both, and I’ve taken flack from both camps for that, which I why I usually just stick with “nonbeliever” these days. (Although even that innocuous label occasionally generates a comment.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “It’s interesting that science fiction and fantasy have always been entangled with each other.”

      It would be interesting to see how that all started. I think there was a magazine way back when, Fantasy & Science Fiction. Tolkien and Lewis go back a ways. I wonder what the first fantasy novel was.

      “[T]hat most fans can effortlessly move between them seems to tell us what most of us are really getting out of those stories.”

      That’s a very good point. We just want a really good story!

      “Not that something perhaps actually being possible doesn’t add an additional thrill.”

      Yeah, we were just talking about how cool it is when authors don’t use too many gimmes.

      “My experience is that “agnostic” and “atheist” both denote tribes,…”

      Absolutely. Along with all the theist tribes!

      One thing that happens with tribalism is that members of the tribe get into the thought pattern that the other tribes can’t possibly be right. It’s really easy for things to become a mission to “set others right (for their own good).”

      And, sadly, this configuration space metaphor won’t help because of the regions. Those are exactly where the tribes congregate!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “It would be interesting to see how that all started.”

        One of my interests is the history of science fiction. Of course, the history of fantasy goes much further back, eventually blurring into ancient mythology, although in its earliest instantiations, the people telling the stories probably thought they were telling something that was, while fantastic, ultimately possible. As we learned more about the world, those old stories seemed like fantasy. Indeed, fantasy could be seen as stories told using an old understanding of how the world works.

        There was a magazine in the 1920s called Weird Tales. It introduced a large swath of the modern fantasy genre, publishing stories from Howard, Lovecraft, and similar authors. But it also published early science fiction stories from people like Edmond Hamilton, whose Crashing Suns stories were arguably more ground breaking than E.E. “Doc” Smith’s at the time (although Smith’s stories were admittedly better written).

        After a few years, magazines like Amazing Stories got started, dedicated to what Hugo Gernsback called “scientifiction.” But Weird Tales never stopped publishing science fiction. WT had no problem with science fiction, although many of the SF magazines eschewed stories that were too obviously fantasy, even while publishing stories that arguably were as much fantasy as anything.

        All of which is to say, fantasy is ancient, and science fiction grew out of it, updated to reflect our modern memes and narratives. Frankenstein is sometimes tagged as the first science fiction novel, but it’s themes are arguably far older.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Good stuff! If you’re ever strapped for an idea for a blog post, SF history might make a good topic. It’s clearly near and dear to you!

        And true, about mythology. (I usually manage to remember how fantasy is rooted in myth, but I’m a bit distracted today. Stuff to do, things to see…)

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