My local public library has a special section for science fiction and fantasy. As a admirer of (hard) science fiction I should like the existence of such section. However, if you look at the titles at the shelves of this section, then you will see that it mostly fantasy. A rough guess of mine would be that about three quarter is fantasy.
I have nothing against fantasy, in fact I like good fantasy such as Harry Potter, Discworld and Wheel of Time, but I am quite disappointed about the lack of sf in my local library. We have no Asimov, Clarke or Heinlein – the big three of 20th century hard sf – in this particular section.
Apparently fantasy is more popular than science fiction, which might explain the lack of science fiction in our fantasy and science fiction section. At least I hope that popularity is what determines the library’s choice of books.
What makes me worry, is the conflation of both genres. I see too often that works of fantasy is referred to as “science fiction”. Of course, there are work, such as Star Wars, that blurs the line between fantasy and science fiction and then we have the genre of planetary romances. To be honest, I do not consider PR as science fiction. Rather I would classify these works as a make-over of adventure novels set on exotic planets instead of exotic islands.
The demarcation between both genres is difficult as different people will give different definitions. A simplistic distinction would be to say that science fiction is progressive while fantasy is reactionary. Science fiction is usually set in the (far) future, while fantasy has an inclination to a nostalgic past.
Personally, I favour a more literal approach: science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction, especially hard sf, is about exploring scientific concepts and technology as a spin-off of science and their consequences to society. In other words if science and technology cannot be removed from the story, we can speak about science fiction.
In contrast fantasy is about made up stuff, only limited to the author’s capabilities of imagination. The fantasy series I mentioned earlier, are good examples. Though in all three series magic is studied in a somehow scientific manner (at Hogwarts, the Unseen University and the White Tower), but no one would claim that any of the ideas in those works have any basis in real science.
I can hear you say “what about warp drive?” and you have a fair point. To be honest, FTL-travel is in my opinion the weakest point in modern science fiction. However, though warp drive is a highly speculative concept, it has its basic in general relativity and the related concept of an Alcubierre drive is seriously debated by theoretical physicists.
My point is that any serious author of science fiction will try to connect his story with known science, even though this might be quite weak. In contrast a fantasy author is free to construct his own world as he sees fit.
For our German-speaking readers, die Welt has an article on the physics behind Star Trek: