When it comes to books and films, the fantasy and science fiction genres stand side by side, sharing many attributes and a nearly unified fan-base. In fact, the two genres are so closely related that we might ask if they are really just one genre, a single category of books and film marked by shared subject matter and themes.
Let’s take Frank Herbert’s Duneas an example for our discussion. Dune is known as a science fiction classic. The book’s back cover proclaims Dune to be “the bestselling science fiction novel of all time”. And the novel certainly does boast all the signifiers of science fiction.
Set in a foreign galaxy, the novel’s secondary plot is concerned with inter-stellar travel, planetary take-over in a futuristic setting, and spends a considerable amount of time on technologies specific to the world of the novel.
Sounds like science fiction, and it is, but…
The content of the story, the primary plot line, is focused explicitly on a mythological trope: the hero’s quest. As a mythological tale, Dunemay be rightly called a fantasy story. The fantasy genre is always interested in transformation, encountering the other in one’s self, and other identifiably mythological subjects.
Some examples of popular fantasy stories are Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Neverending Story, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Princess Mononoke. Each of these films tackles a mythological subject, taking the mythic matter as the central element of the story’s plotline.
In keeping with ancient mythological customs, these stories rely heavily on the use of symbols to codify and represent particular cosmic forces. The famous mythology scholar Joseph Campbell wrote extensively on the use of symbols in myth in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
It is Joseph Campbell’s scholarship also that presents us with a definitive story arc for the “hero’s quest”. The hero, according to Campbell, is assigned a very difficult task. This is the first step. Next, he or she descends into an underworld or is cast out into a desolate place where he is a stranger. In this place he is challenged, usually facing death, and in winning the challenge, the hero receives a wisdom and a power that he brings back to his people.
This is the outline of every hero story in mythology, with some minor exceptions. If a book or film employs this mythological trope, then it qualifies as fantasy as the fantasy genre can be defined and described in adherence to the patterns of myth.
Fantasy and mythology are aligned directly in theme, subject, and a heavy reliance on symbolism. They are aligned so directly in fact that we might even suggest that there is no distinction between the two types of stories. Fantasy is mythology.
If we can show that science fiction is mythology too, then we will be very close to unifying the two genres of fantasy and science fiction.
Back to the “bestselling science fiction novel of all time”: In Dune, the protagonist Paul Atreides is a young man, son of royalty, who is forced to go into hiding with a cave dwelling desert people when his father is assassinated. Paul is challenged to a duel and wins. Then he is challenged to a feat of agility and strength which is, of course, highly dangerous. Paul passes the test and is recognized as a leader of his people.
He returns in battle to defeat his enemies and to give his newfound wisdom and strength to his people and to the planet he claims as his own.
This should sound very familiar.
Paul’s story, the story of Dune, is a mythological one. This means that the story belongs to the fantasy genre, in as far as the story is consistent with the definition of a mythological hero’s quest tale.
Star Wars, The Matrix, and Avatar provide us with more examples of science fiction stories that also qualify as fantasy in their use of mythological elements. Seen in the light of science fiction, these are films set in “space” or the “future” and they expend great efforts to create technologically consistent and futuristic worlds. These are the hallmarks of science fiction.
Yet, when we analyze the primary plotline of these films we find the subject to be mythological and therefore they belong to the fantasy genre.
There is room for debate on this conclusion. If we want to keep science fiction separate from fantasy, perhaps we can say that some science fiction films are also fantasy films and that they straddle the two genres, existing as both.
Certain troublesome examples could be tossed into the argument that might present us with science fiction stories that lack the proverbial mythological elements. Tron might give us trouble.
Then again, it might not.
Often the stories we tell that most resemble dreams – science fiction and fantasy stories – are best understood as modern-day myths that help us to organize the messiness of our real world through the use of symbols and to confront the powers of chaos that we see in rapidly advancing technology, in a sense of our growing spiritual detachment, and in our confused desire to do good in a world where we don’t always know which path is right and which is wrong.
Dune, Frank Herbert. 1965.