(This article contains spoilers for Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight)
The Fairy Mechanic has a very interesting article about how arbitrary the different genres of speculative fiction are, and how the classical categories of parody, comedy, tragedy and epic capture the essence of storytelling.
Even though the modern genres are ultimately arbitrary, I would like to point out that there are differences between science fiction and fantasy which go deeper than the themes and props used in them, and which cannot be fitted into the classical categories. This is of course not meant to limit what stories writers may tell; genres are only tools to understand existing fiction, and are by no means a restriction on what may be written in the future.
Science fiction is generally based on a belief in rational thought and a progressive world-view. In science fiction, everything can and should be explained by the rational mind. The hero uses rational thought to overcome obstacles. Often he overcomes them by the very act of understanding the world rationally. He chooses or is forced by circumstances to play his role, instead of being destined or chosen. In utopian science fiction, we see society develop to the better through the application of science, and in dystopian science fiction, it develops to the worse, but in both cases, the genre looks forward and tries to understand the future and its possibilities.
Example: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. Even though it starts out in a declining galactic empire, the protagonists overcome the decline by looking ahead and trying to understand the future with their science and rational thought. Truths are uncovered for the first time in human history, instead of being ancient wisdom. Even during the galactic decline, science is able to progress among a few dedicated people (within the First and Second Foundation).
Fantasy, on the other hand, is based on a belief in the mystical and ancient, and a regressive world-view. The golden age is gone; the gods no longer walk the Earth; fairies and dragons used to be plentiful; what we see today are remnants of the glory that once was. Obstacles are overcome by drawing on mystical and ancient powers: the sword that great heroes once held in their hands, the wisdom that has been passed from teacher to student for generations, the unexplainable magic, the favours of the gods, and so on. The hero is often chosen or destined to greatness. Often, obstacles are overcome when the hero looks into himself and makes a moral choice. Even after the obstacles are overcome and evil is vanguished, nothing new can be created; at most, the glory that once was can be reclaimed. Even when going into the future, fantasy is looking back to a better past.
Example: The Narnia books. The world is created pure and good, but very soon, evil enters it, and it declines all the way to the last book. Whenever obstacles are overcome (the witch is slain; the lost prince is found), some of the lost glory is reclaimed, but only temporary. The heroes draw on moral strength, the mercy of Aslan, and magical props like ancient swords and potions to overcome obstacles. The final book sees the main characters walk into an afterlife that is even more glorious than the old world, but it is nothing new; it is merely a return to the source which once created the world and that has always existed.
With this understanding, I’d like to put Star Wars firmly in the fantasy category. It uses scientific props, like spaceships and lasers, but under the surface, everything is fantasy. It revolves around a hero with mystical powers (the Force), who is chosen (by birthright) to play a special role in the war between good and evil, receives ancient wisdom passed down from teacher to student (through Obi-Wan and Yoda), and draws on mystical powers and moral strength (by choosing the Light side) in order to reclaim the lost glory (of the Old Republic). It’s basically a medieval fantasy tale with swords replaced by lightsabers, horses replaced by spaceships, mythological creatures replaced by alien creatures, and warrior monks replaced by Jedi Knights.
By the same token, I’d like to place Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight in the science fiction category. The fantastic elements in it (alien creatures which look like dragons and can travel through time) are not in any way mystical; they are understood by experiment and rational thought. The heroine always draws on her own rational thought to overcome obstacles. Even though some aspects of society on Pern can be said to be in decline (contact with Earth has been lost; the dragonriders are nearly dismantled because they are believed to no longer be necessary), other things are claimed by humans for the first time in history (they colonise a hitherto unexplored continent, and discover the dragons’ ability to travel through time, something which was not known even by the mythical dragonriders of ages past). And the mythical past ceases being so mythical once the main characters travel back to it to fetch some badly needed dragonriders.