This is a tricky one. For one thing, people can’t even agree whether it’s a subgenre or its own genre. And once you reach some sort of consensus on that, getting people to try and agree on a definition – well.
Science fantasy, I hope we can all agree, is, as the name implies, a mixture of science fiction and fantasy. This can take a variety of paths – straight science fiction with fantasy races, something that looks suspiciously like fantasy but then you find out you’re really on a planet that was colonized by Earth some time in the distant past, a world where magic operates but where it sounds suspiciously like our world in the distant past, etc. Some people claim it’s science fantasy if it’s technological, like science fiction, but uses technology that is impossible, such as time travel, or where things like telekinesis or telepathy are readily apparent. You see how it gets confusing.
As Arthur C. Clarke said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Take this book I just finished – Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. (Brilliant, by the way.) A key point of the book are these crystal keys that, for all intent and purposes, seem to be magical but you know they’re just extremely advanced technology from the way the world is laid out. I’d also consider it science fantasy, if you want an example of the genre.
Perhaps the most well-known example of science fantasy is Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. The stories themselves involve dragons and fighting the Thread which falls from the sky and leaves the land dead in its wake. Dragons = fantasy, yes? But here’s the clincher – Pern itself is an acronym for Parallel Earth, Resources Negligible - and it was colonized by humans some couple hundred years beforehand. Space exploration and colonization falls into science fiction. Tada! Science fantasy.
Other examples include Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials Trilogy (Golden Compass, et al.), Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, and, according to some people, things like Star Wars (the magical Force) and Narnia (arguable that Narnia is a separate planet/dimension, especially in The Last Battle).
Science fantasy is so widely debated that some people refuse to acknowledge it at all, but I have to admit it’s one of my very favorites. I think it adds a very fascinating depth to the stories.
What about you, Squiders? Science fantasy = real genre/subgenre? What are your opinions of it, and any books to recommend?