Subgenre Study: Science Fantasy

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?

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Christopher on 2011/07/29 at 2:39 PM

    I myself think of science fantasy as a genre of its own, not so much because it is both science fiction and fantasy as that it isn’t really either.

    If that sounds weird, I’m sorry– but I can’t explain the feelings and thoughts behind it very well right now (if ever). It’s like the obscenity vs. art thing. I know an obscenity when I see it, but I can’t articulate well why it’s obscene *until* I see it.

    I write in all three genres– science fiction, fantasy and science fantasy. There, I actually can tell you how I define each one.

    Science fiction means that I am paying attention to what science I know. I don’t put in anything that science labels as impossible, or that “feels” like magic. There are a lot of people nowadays saying that some of the things I consider possible aren’t (up to and including some scientists apparently believing interstellar travel impossible, now)– I just shrug and start listing things that people were saying were impossible 200 years ago, and any worry I might have been feeling goes away. Also, any time I’m writing science fiction there is research involved, an *attempt* at understanding the rudiments of whatever technology is heavily involved in my story.

    With fantasy, the driving force behind the world I’m writing in is magic. There won’t be any technology much past the late nineteenth century, and probably very little of that. But magic will be the main force of the world, it will be a definite force in any conflict, and there are likely to be things happening that would make any physicist shake his head and walk away.

    With science fantasy, I tend to use the *trappings* of science fiction, but there will be forces that, according to science, can’t do the things those forces are being used for in the story, or that simply can’t exist. ( Also? With science fantasy,while I’m using the trappings of science… I don’t do a bit of research into the tech or forces I’m using.) 😉

    Wow, that got long. Hope you don’t mind!


  2. I think Jim Butcher’s series The Codex Alera would fit into that. it takes place in a very earth like world with magic IE: Fury’s that are controlled by the Alera, but then we meet another race called the Marat that don’t have fury’s. at one point the leader of the Marat talks of not being of this world having traveled from afar. One of the enemy’s has also traveled from world to world devastating them and then moving on.
    Science fiction fantasy all wrapped into one series. and a load of good fun to boot!


  3. Science fantasy has long fascinated me, though I don’t tend to write it. Some of my favourites, besides those already mentioned: – Anne McCaffrey’s Pegasus trilogy (telepathy, telekinesis, precog), and I’m pretty sure she has other series that qualify that I’m not remembering — her SF tends to be very soft SF
    – Louise Marley’s Singer series (magic on another planet)
    – Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon trilogy (dragons on another planet)
    – Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet (magic mixed with space travel)
    – Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series (ditto) and the stand-alone novel Stealing the Elf-King’s Roses (elves and space travel)
    – Matthew Hughes’s Fools Errant (magic on a far-future Earth)

    I would definitely put Star Wars and Pern into science fantasy, but Narnia and Dark Materials have always felt like solidly fantasy to me.


  4. […] then you get into Science Fantasy and oh God everything is so confusing.) Share this:EmailDiggFacebookStumbleUponTwitterLike […]


  5. […] then you get into Science Fantasy and oh God everything is so […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: