English: Illustration for The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel by Margaret Atwood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Science fiction and literary fiction are two of the most important genres in fiction. They have similarities in that both deal with fictional characters and situations. However, there are many differences between them, which will be explored in this article.
Differences between science fiction and literary fiction are:
1. Science fiction’s settings are on other planets (other universes even) and/or in the future, either the near or the far future. Literary fiction, in comparison, tends to have settings which are in the present or the past, although some successful literary fiction has been set in the future; e.g. Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos: Archives series (first published 1979-1983). Also, literary fiction tends to be set on Earth.
2. Science fiction deals sometimes with situations which might seem impossible (e.g. time travel), whereas literary fiction tends to deal with situations which are likely to occur in real life, and even real-life situations.
3. Science fiction includes discussions of utopian and dystopian societies (e.g. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, and in the genre of young adult science fiction, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), whereas literary fiction generally does not. (Some exceptions to this rule include Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake.) Science fiction also tends to imagine the possible consequences of present-day technological and scientific trends in the future as part of commentary on present-day society, whereas literary fiction is not known for this, but instead focuses more on personal situations and people’s lives.
4. Science fiction has been traditionally not considered literature, whereas literary fiction has been. However, the term “literary fiction” and its counterpart term genre fiction, to which science fiction belongs, have been criticized; author Elizabeth Edmondson states, “”Genre fiction” is a nasty phrase—when did genre turn into an adjective? But I object to the term for a different reason. It’s weasel wording, in that it conflates lit fic with literature. It was clever marketing by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and declare it Literature—and therefore Important, Art and somehow better than other writing.” (Edmondson) Also, some science fiction works have qualities which also make them literature; for instance, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”
5. Finally, science fiction is usually considered entertainment, and pure entertainment at that, whereas literary fiction is considered profound and full of deeper meaning. However, author Juliet McKenna offers a different definition: “Speculative fiction may not mimic real life but it uses its magic mirror to reflect on the world around us. It’s a fundamentally outward-looking genre, in direct contrast to literary fiction, which looks inward to explore the human condition.” (McKenna) (Note: Science fiction belongs to the speculative fiction genre.)
With all these differences between science fiction and literary fiction, readers might think the two genres have absolutely nothing in common. However, both provide a way to kill time, and also take readers away to different worlds, sometimes different times, for a few hours. Therefore, next time you read science fiction and/or literary fiction, think of these differences, and also think of the similarities. Happy reading!
Edmondson, Elizabeth. “The genre debate: ‘Literary fiction’ is just clever marketing.” The Guardian 21 Apr. 2014: 14 pars. Web. 15 May 2014.<http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/apr/21/ literary-fiction-clever-marketing-genre-debate>.
McKenna, Juliet. “The genre debate: Science fiction travels farther than literary fiction.” The Guardian 18 Apr. 2014: 17 pars. Web. 15 May 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/18/genre-debate-science-fiction-speculative-literary>.