Last time I spoke of the Fantasy genre I went on about the Trapped in a Game genre. It was on my mind as I watched the very good Overlord anime, about a player staying on the last day of his MMO’s lifespan, spending the time with the NPCs of his Guild House, then as the servers shut down, he finds himself inhabiting his character.
The series does many interesting things with the genre, particularly with having a nice guy main character that is evil at the same time. Well, not entirely evil but as his character is a Lich, he adopts the personality of an undead lord, cold and detached. It creates a nice contrast between the character’s inner monologue and how he behaves on the outside.
But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today, but about one of the most intriguing sub-genres in fiction and one I consider the Holy Grail of speculative fiction, Science-Fantasy, or simply Sci-Fantasy.
Fantasy is at the core of speculative fiction, and I’ve argued, in the past, that all creative narrative works are essentially fantasy. You’re creating something from your mind, you’re imagining events, characters and places, so it is by definition a flight of fancy, pure and unrestrained Fantasy. But the publishing world doesn’t work on definitions but the expectations of each genre, which is why we tend to have so many similar Fantasy novels out there.
Science-Fantasy, as it name implies, is the marriage of the Fantasy and Science-Fiction genre, and to understand what it means, please allow me to define the basic concepts. We’ve established that Fantasy is a ‘core’ genre, the basis for many—if not all—other genres. Fantasy, as genre, allows authors to create any world and situations they fancy, very often without requiring extensive proof, logic or even rationality at times. “A sorcerer did it!” might be a clichéd cop-out, but it’s not without merit in the Fantasy Genre.
Science-Fiction, on the other hand, has a basis in logic, technology and science. While it’s true that it is fairly common to find Sci-Fi works with a lot more Fi than Sci, at its core the genre is all about taking current ideas and hypotheses and take them to another level, taking something that is purely in the theoretical realm and create a story where that concept evolved into something real and perhaps even tangible.
“A scientist did it!” doesn’t cut it in Science-Fiction, at least not often, and part of the inherent logic in the genre forces authors to come up with explanations, no matter how flimsy they may be. It’s not unusual for Sci-Fi authors to create their stories based on currently accepted theories only for those to be disproved by the time they’ve published the novel.
Science-Fantasy thus might seem like it allows for authors to wave away some of the complexity of their world under the “A sorcerer did it,” excuse, to use fantasy to reinforce the weaker elements of the science-fiction. But in reality, in Science-Fantasy the author has to be even more careful on how he explains things and if technology and magic coexist, then there have to be scientific studies on magic and the supernatural, and it’s up to the author to define how the two branches interact. How does the presence of magic influence science and vice versa.
Science-Fantasy is not an easy genre and it requires the author to strike a delicate balance between the otherworldly elements of his fantasy with the more grounded aspects of his Sci-Fi. If they fail at it, then you have that typical story where the elements don’t mesh well enough, where it seems like the world has many elements but they don’t play together. Bungie’s videogame, Destiny suffers from this, the writing and lore not good enough to make the disparate elements of its universe work well enough together, leaving the players confused as to what’s going on.
But when done correctly, it can create worlds so astonishing you can’t help but lose yourself in them, with logical rules for the supernatural but also high-level technology reached only thanks to the influence of magic in the world.
Shadowrun is perhaps the best example of Science-Fantasy. For those of you who don’t recognise the name, it’s a tabletop RPG created by Catalyst Game Labs. For the video-gamers, you’ll probably recognise it as the Harebrained Schemes series of tactical RPGs. Shadowrun takes place in a world where, after eons, magic suddenly returned to the world, the first sign of it being the return of the great slumbering dragons. Over the years and through the process of goblinization, the different species returned to the world as well, some of them transforming spontaneously, one day human and the next something else and others over time and generations.
Shadowrun explains its technology, its magic, defines how they work together and what makes them different. It creates barriers between them but also some bridges. With different races, it also studies racism in this new world, prejudices and stereotypes in a new reality. The result is that the science-fiction makes sense and so does the fantasy. But most importantly, they make sense together, and that’s the challenge.
Another fantastic setting that combines magic and science into something new and wonderful—and to show that the Japanese do come up with some amazing stuff—is To Aru Majutsu no Index aka Just Another Magical Index. Taking place in Academy City, a metropolis filled with all manner of education institutes and research facilities, and with the only Esper Curriculum in the world, the city is a marvel of super-technology and of super-powered beings.
But then people from the “magic side” of the world start intruding on this logical world and while things naturally become chaotic, it’s never nonsensical, with the rules for each branch, science and magic, always clear. In fact, To Aru Majutsu no Index has some of the most scientific approaches to Magic that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read and it’s always fascinating to read how they prepare and cast spells, how the magical formulae work. It often reminds me of how Wizards work in D&D.
And then there’s one of my favourite Science-Fantasy settings, and one that might cause some contention as it’s generally viewed as just Science-Fiction: Star Wars. Even if you include the, frankly ridiculous, midochlorian claptrap, the Force, its effects, lore and related phenomena well escape the bounds of Science-Fiction and jump headfirst into Fantasy.
Star Wars, much like DC and Marvel Comics, has long suffered from the multiple-writer-syndrome, and each adds his bit to the overall setting, some with more success and flair than others. But when you get a good writer, you don’t see the lines between the Sci-Fi and the Fantasy. You just see a cohesive whole that is just brilliant.
Science-Fantasy is not an easy genre to tackle, but when you do it right it opens the way to so many amazing stories that make the Science, the fiction and the fantasy that much better.
Of the stories I’m proposing, two or three are in this genre, and I would love the chance to explore it with you. Check the poll below and the premises for stories here.
Finally, tell me about your favourite Science-Fantasy novel. And what do you think of Star Wars, is it Sci-Fantasy or just plain-old Sci-Fi?