I've heard a worrying amount of rhetoric lately that pitted science fiction against fantasy, and even different subgenres of the two against each other, upon the assumption that one is better than the other. This seems to be particularly common among fans of hard science fiction, who are fond of asserting that soft science fiction ought to be labelled as "science fantasy". I take issue with this 'us vs. them' mentality that attempts to split in pieces what I believe to be one genre, speculative fiction.
One idea that I hear rather frequently is that science fiction, despite the fact that it is fictional, is meant to be grounded in scientific reality. It is considered plausible, if not now, than at least some point in the future. On the other hand, fantasy, as well as the so-called "science fantasy" subgenre, lack this grounding in reality and are less intellectual. After all, anyone can write about wizards, right? It takes real talent and intelligence to create a unique futuristic society based upon a scientific foundation.
I call bullshit.
First, it is true that in some cases hard science fiction does try to use current science as the basis for its world, or at least to supplement it somewhat. There are, in fact, many cases in which hard science fiction handwaves its own implausible scientific devices as too advanced to be explained. However, I will concede that it is the case in general. Second, it is true that it can be extremely difficult to create a unique, interesting society in which the story can be set.
As to the first concession, so what? Yes, sci-fi authors try to use science to enrich or justify their settings. Why does that make it inherently better or worse than other stories. One could argue that it is more realistic than other, less scientifically minded genres. However, to quote young adult novelist John Green, "Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species."
On top of that, the effort to create science fiction works strongly grounded in science are doomed to become eventually inevitable. With the constant progress science makes, what seemed plausible a decade ago may be proven impossible now. Just look at the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. At the time, their stories may well have been considered quite possible. Nowadays, though, we know that bleaching the pigments out of your body will be more likely to kill you than turn you invisible, and the center of the earth contains molten rock, not mushrooms and cave people.
As to the second concession, yes. Creating a new world is difficult. As a matter of fact, though, it is difficult in any genre. Science does not make the setting any more or less difficult to create, particularly if one is being thorough. Some may mention a laziness in fantasy world building lately, as people are more likely to copy Tolkein and Dungeons and Dragons than to make an effort to create an original setting. While this is a subject for another rant entirely, suffice it to say that if the author is doing their job properly, creating a fantasy setting is at the very least equally difficult to creating a science fiction setting. Those who seek to honor Tolkein's work by copying him are doing him no favors; he worked hard to make Middle Earth new and interesting, and his fans owe it to him to try and do the same with their own stories.
And now we come to my conception of the two of them as a unified genre, speculative fiction. Speculative- dealing in maybes and what-ifs, whether it be 'what if humans found intelligent life on Mars' or 'what if humans could shoot fireballs from their bare hands'. The genre deals in impossibilities, in creating a new world for the reader to visit, a world that could never be experienced first-hand. The distinction between the subgenres of science fiction and fantasy is really little more than an aesthetic choice; one is evocative of a past setting, and one of a future setting. Even that is not a hard and fast rule, as things like urban fantasy and works involving time machines can show. While some wish to pull the two sister genres apart, I say that we bring them together under the speculative fiction banner. They are more alike than they realize.
Man, that got really long really fast.