Science Fantasy

We all know the difference between fantasy and science fiction. Fantasy has witches and wizards with magic powers, whereas in science fiction the exact same character doing the exact same thing is called a psychic or psionicist.

Fairy tales have monsters and science fiction has space monsters.

Fairy tales have absurd, unbelievable, impossible things like true love, heroic sacrifice, noble knights, holy hermits, and fair damsels chaste and pure, whereas science fiction has believable and realistic science things like time machines, mind reading, parallel worlds and faster than light drive.

When Gandalf the Gray returns from the dead, this is a miracle arranged by the Valar, the angelic powers of the world; but when Spock returns from the dead this is mumble mumble mind meld something something genesis torpedo something.

So far so good. But what of stories that have both?

My suggestion is that works with both science fictional and fantasy elements be categorized into genres by the theme and appeal of the invented world.

The dragons of Pern, for example, are intelligent extraterrestrials with psionic powers. They look and act just like magic dragons, but technically they inhabit a naturalistic and scientific universe. This is science fiction flavored to look like fantasy.

Likewise, the common people in DUNE by Frank Herbert refer to those trained in the observational and parapsychological skills of the Bene Gesserit order as Witches. Their role in the plot, as manipulators of the beliefs and bloodlines or others would seem to justify the term, but they do not literally have magic powers. This is science fiction dressed in the garb and ornaments of fantasy.

Specifically, this is Frank Herbert’s rather successful attempt to take the tropes of a “swords and spaceships” yarn — a genre now largely forgotten, but once popular (A.E. van Vogt wrote some, in his ‘Wizard of Linn’ setting) — and treat them seriously, with a serious science fictional explanation for why nobles fight with blades rather than gunpowder or rayguns, have no computers nor robots, but still have starships and space colonies.

On the other hand, in Zelazny’s Amber books, there are technological things like guns and gunpowder (a crucial plot point in the second book) but the worlds where gunpowder works, and the laws of nature are set, is merely one shadow among countless, all controlled by what is basically a magic rune-pattern created by a wizard of chaos with the aid of a unicorn and a magic jewel.

Such works are actually fantasy, and the technology is treated as a type of magic, that is, a set of rules that apply in only one of many realms or worlds. (My own SOMEWHITHER falls into this category).

On the third hand, in the MASTER OF THE FIVE MAGIC by Lyndon Hardy, as well as in MAGIC, INC by Heinlein, the so-called magic is literally magic, but it is treated as an alternative technology bound by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and there is nothing that looks or feels supernatural about it. Perhaps it is a technology based on alchemy or New Age aura fields rather than physics, but there are no gods and spirits involved. This is its own sub-genre. Call it a nuts-and-bolts fantasy.

Urban fantasy is a close cousin to nuts-and-bolts fantasy, but it has rules and protocols of its own. Guns and bombs and even the unlicensed nuclear accelerator backpacks of the Ghostbusters work in urban environments, but there are also all the famous movie monsters running amuck as well, vampires and werewolves, and perhaps elves and dwarves and the like. Usually the magic is honest-to-the-devil magic, complete with pentagrams and bubbling cauldrons, and contracts with demons signed in blood, but sometimes it has a science-flavor figleaf which explains vampirism or lycanthropy as caused by a blood disease, or what have you.

Like horror stories, Urban fantasy usually will allow anything that keeps to the mood and flavor of a film noir film, and allows for considerable variation on what is involved.

With the notable exception of the Monster Hunter International books by Larry Correia, guns in Urban fantasies operate under the laws of nature, but our leather clad heroines prefer to stake vampires with a sharpened stick. Like the blasters in Star Wars, the guns in an Urban Fantasy are usually there more for flavor and atmosphere than as serious, problem-solving weapons.

Superhero stories are likewise generous in what they permit. Dr. Strange and Iron Man and Silver Surfer can serve on the same super-team with no one to bat an eyelash of disbelief, and likewise Cyborg and Wonder Woman, or Starfire and Raven can serve the Justice League or Teen Titans. Magic and technology, space aliens or mutants or mythical beings, are merely one or another source of superpowers, used to fight crime and save the world. But they have both science and magic. Does that make them science fantasy?

I recommend against such a categorization. When judged by the standards one might apply to THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY or CHILDHOOD’S END or CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY, superhero yarns fall short, and likewise if judged compared to books about Narnia or Oz or Middle Earth. These are not the right standards to apply. It would be as if a discriminating devotee of romance novels were to read the stories where Lois Lane tries to trap Superman into marrying her, and comparing that to GONE WITH THE WIND, or even to a formula Harlequin romance.

Superhero stories, since they have their own niche genre with their own protocols and reader expectations, are best referred to as belonging to their own genre.

Likewise, ghost stories are not science fiction or fantasy or science fantasy. Even if taking place in the modern world where modern technology is at hand, they are a different genre altogether. Ghost stories are ghost stories.

On the fourth hand (and if we are Green Martians from Barsoom, we can continue the conversation to the fourth hand) there are books that are deliberately ambiguous or mixed between technology and magic.

The New Sun books of Gene Wolfe are perhaps the most adroit example of this kind of mixed genre, and the Short Sun books even more so. There we have citadel towers that are actually spaceships, ghouls that are actually fauna from space, pagan gods who are actually computer generated entities, a world that is actually a space colony, entities from a higher energy universe, magic mirrors that are actually hyperspatial teleportation machines, holy hermits who are actually time travelers, but we also have prophetic dreams, black magic, space vampires, ghosts of extinct races, astral projection, spirit possession, holy jewels and at least one saint.

The Dying Earth stories of Jack Vance or the Cthulhu Mythos stories of HP Lovecraft, where the magic is explicitly magic, but the gods and demons are ambiguously denizens of alternate dimensions or worlds, and both magic and technology work and are present, even if the characters, and perhaps the reader, has trouble telling which is which.

Any sufficiently advanced magic, after all, is indistinguishable from technology.

We have run out of hands. But what about Star Wars?

A movie like STAR WARS uses the tropes of fairy tale and fantasy even thought set in an explicitly Space Opera universe.

For those of you who do not know what Space Opera is, allow me, as second to last living writer of Space Opera, to suggest that any work, which, if adapted to film, would be best begun with an opening word crawl marching upward across the screen to trumpet music like the Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon series of old, is safely categorized as Space Opera. If the work also has a comely space princess displaying a bare midriff, or has an entire planet obliterated by a superweapon or space monster, all the better.

The Lensman series of E.E. Doc Smith is the quintessential Space Opera books. STAR WARS is the quintessential Space Opera film. Like Frank Herbert before him did for ‘Swords and Spaceships’ yarns, or J.R.R. Tolkien for fairy stories, George Lucus took a previously neglected genre of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon flicks, and lavished all the art and craft of modern cinema on it, theme music and special effects of a mainstream movie, and treated the material not as a parody or kiddie fare, but lovingly and in earnest.

Nonetheless, in STAR WARS, before the Flash Gordon word crawl was a title card bearing the standard fairy tale opening of “once upon a time” or words to that effect.

The setting is peopled by princesses and knights, and characters explicitly called a wizard, or as having “sorcerer’s ways” — whether literally or in mockery, the viewer may decide. The magic is here produced by a galactic “energy field,” which seems to indicate it is a science, if perhaps an eccentric one, but the belief in it, is explicitly called a hokey old religion, which indicates it is a faith, if somewhat New Age or Taoist Lite in flavor. All of this carries the look and feel of a fantasy story.

Whatever else Star Wars is, I submit it is in the same genre as Pern, or close to it.

In one, we have dragons that are technically not dragons, doing fantasy dragon things in the science fiction setting of an alien planet.

In the other we have knights and wizards who are technically not knights and wizards, and we have a princess who, being an elected officer, is technically not a princess, doing knightly and wizardly things in a science fiction setting. With more than a little bit of samurai movie thrown in for spice.