Arthur C. Clarke once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Sci-fi and fantasy are lumped together as SF nowadays, but they are distinctly different in ways that give each its unique appeal and its strength to express different themes and stories.
Sci-fi universes are variations of our own (ie. alternate timeline, possible future, etc), and they must be bound by laws of physics. These laws can be different than our own, but they should make some sense in themselves. The sci-fi work must adhere to these laws as much as possible or risk upsetting sci-fi fans. Nothing frustrates sci-fi fans more than having something ‘miraculous’ or nonsensical happened after they have spent hours or even days immersing themselves in an otherwise believable universe.
Creating laws and technologies is tedious and time consuming for the author, but it allows him to explore issues and themes that have real world impact. For example, sci-fi has the power to examine enduring problems of humanity from a different perspective or show us the challenges and dangers that may arise from new technologies (Brave New World). The author can do this because his sci-fi world is connected to our world by science.
Authors have far more freedom in fantasy because fantasy need not be bound by reality. Authors can make us believe almost anything with relative ease because magic is beyond logic and reason. A handful of heroes routinely defeats thousands of enemies with little rest and food.
But if we can be made to believe anything, then we also believe none of it. Fantasy is entertaining but not much more. Like any great fiction, outstanding fantasy can move us with tales of fellowship, love, and loss, but we neither see the world differently nor learn anything new because the fantasy world has little or no relation to the real world.
As a fan, I enjoy both sci-fi and fantasy depending on my mood. When the intellectual part of my brain craves stimulation, I seek sci-fi. There, my mind revels in alternate histories, possible futures, and sharp social commentary. But sometimes I just want to escape the real world for a little while, and fantasy is perfect for this. I cannot tell how many months I wiled away in the fiendishly addictive World of Warcraft before I managed to tear myself away (Warcrack is a more accurate name). At least for a time, you can imagine yourself to powerful enough to save the world from darkness.