I loved this distiction/definition from The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature by Brian Attebery.
Any narrative which includes as a significant part of its make-up some violation of that which the author clearly believes is natural law– that is fantasy….
And fantasy treats these impossibilities without hesitation, without doubt, without any attempt to reconcile them with our intellectual understanding of the workings of the world or to make us believe that such things could under any circumstances come true.
I like this definition very much, and even more so when Attebery places it in contrast to science fiction (so frequently lumped with fantasy as a matter of course):
Science fiction spends much of its time convincing the reader that its seeming impossibilities are in fact explainable if we extrapolate from the world and science that we know.
This distinction is very good for the way my mind works. By giving myself “permision” to accept that the fantastic needs no explanation, I free up all sorts of brain cells to focus on what I’m actually interested in.
Hmm, I’m not sure I’d agree on these definitions but maybe they’re a starting point. I’m thinking that LOTR explains these events happened “before the age of man” and that Firefly makes no attempt whatsoever to explain how a ship flies —
Starting point is a good way to put it, but I’m not sure the examples you give negate the definitions–
LOTR works with or without the explanation, (Does he explain it in the story or in the appendices?) and, while I have not seen Firefly, I’ve heard people talk about it a few times, and the labels of fantasy and sci-fi were used about equally.
I think what these two example are good for is another distinction I’ve found between F/SF, and that is time or era.
In my limited experience it seems the label “fantasy” is on anything “unreal” that takes place in the past, while SF is slapped on anything “unreal” that takes place in the future.
But this definition seems more crude (rough-cut) than the definitions suggested by Attebery, and (for my purposes) less-useful.
I thought this was a good and simple way of explaining the differences of the 2 genres.
I’m sure there are more, subtle differences but it almost noon. And I promised I would cook pancit noodles for my family today.
I like those distinctions, and from what I’ve read in both genres, I feel they are solid descripriptions that accurately reflect both genres.