On Space Wizards and Laser Swords
Online communities are filled with discussion of subgenres like the aptly-named romantacy and YA dystopia. So why is no one talking about the popularity of science fantasy, a subgenre that includes heavy hitters like Star Wars and Final Fantasy?
What We Talk About When We Talk About Space Wizards
If we’re going to talk about science fantasy—and it’s a topic I love to talk about—we first have to define what it is.
Science fantasy is, as evidenced by the name of the subgenre, a story that includes both science fiction and fantasy elements. It’s a subgenre that may be nearly as old as science fiction itself, since the earliest authors didn’t discriminate in the same way many do today.
There are science fantasy stories that sit firmly in the middle—stories like Jack Vance’s Tales from the Dying Earth, or video games like Torment: Tides of Numenara, or even Star Wars. Then there are works that sit closer to the science fiction side or the fantasy side.
Dune is a classic example of the former. On the surface, it appears to be a science fiction story leaning hard into ecological sci-fi (one of the earliest books to do so), bioengineering, eugenics, space travel, and a rich and detailed history that has recognizable ties to our present world. But it also has mystical prophecies, the ability of the main character to foresee the future, superhuman powers gained by the spice mélange, and a feudalistic society that is reminiscent of much western fantasy.
On the example of a fantasy tinged with science fiction elements, we can look at the Final Fantasy series of video games. Each game in the series features magic powers, monsters, fantastic worlds, and prophecies—all classic tropes of fantasy. Some of the settings are medieval/feudalistic while others are futuristic or steampunk, however all of them feature a clear focus on fantasy elements. Prevalent in many of the games, however, are elements apparently plucked from science fiction: robots, giant machines, even cars and other technological vehicles.
Science Fantasy Ascendant
Science fantasy is more popular than ever, largely thanks to Star Wars, in my opinion. With mystical powers like the Force and literal laser-swords, Star Wars clearly includes a heavy dose of fantasy elements in with its X-Wings and Wookies.
The generation that grew up on Star Wars and Nintendo games, and passed that love onto their children, have turned our culture into one where science fantasy stories are as commonplace and popular as sitcoms and dramas.
It isn’t just Star Wars and Final Fantasy that have boosted the popularity of the subgenre. The release of the Dune: Part 1 film in 2021 was a triumph, finally bringing a classic science fantasy novel to the big screen in a way that succeeded commercially and culturally (unlike the flawed but fantastically stylized David Lynch film from 1984 or the sadly anaesthetised made-for-SyFy miniseries released in 2000). Dungeons & Dragons, which has distant roots in science fantasy, saw a huge boost in popularity with the onset of the Pandemic and the appearance of online virtual tabletops. The enormous popularity of comic book adaptations to film and TV should also count, since these stories commonly blend contemporary fantasy—superpowers—with common science fiction themes like invading aliens, time travel, and more.
Worlds of Robotic Sorcerers and AI Demigods
What draws me in most powerfully in science fantasy stories is always the worldbuilding. The way in which science fictional and fantastic elements are blended to create deep and rich worlds can be truly fascinating and original.
One great example is a little indie video game called Hyper Light Drifter released in 2016 by Heart Machine. It’s a 2d pixel-art action RPG influenced by early Zelda games with an incredible soundtrack by Disasterpeace. The protagonist is an energy-sword wielding hero suffering from an unknown disease of the heart. Controlled by you, they explore a world of ancient ruins, fallen giant robots, corrupted computers, and monoliths inscribed with forgotten languages that must be collected in order to progress through the game.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a beautiful and haunting anime film released in 1984. It’s a tale of the dangers of the ravages of war and environmental catastrophe set thousands of years after a nuclear apocalypse, when civilization has reformed into small kingdoms like the Valley of the Wind and wild, dangerous places like the Toxic Forest.
The worldbuilding doesn’t get more elegant, fantastic, or dense than in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, a quartet of novels set so far in the future that the sun will soon burn out and a new sun will be born. Wolfe, like Tolkien, invents his own language to describe this world in are unfathomably distant future, but he presents the world to us through a mysterious protagonist who rarely reveals the whole truth about his motives or intentions. I plan to cover this masterpiece in its own blog piece later this year.
In many of my favorite examples, it’s the sense of the passage of time that is the connecting thread.
Sprawling histories and lost secrets stretch out inside my imagination and fill it with ancient halls, corroded spaceships, and wars that upend entire worlds. It’s a theme that’s often present in my own science fantasy stories. In When Stars Move, Anusha finds a robot that’s been buried for a hundred years, the world passing it by from one day to the next. In my novel Gods of Sky and Dust, Varick and Anias go on a quest with another robot, Aion, to find out what happened to the vanished gods of their world, the Skylords. And in my current work-in-progress, The Radiant and the Corrupt, the catastrophe that unfolds in Inkosa’s life was set into motion with events that transpired on a distant planet more than two thousand years before her birth.
This fascination with ancient histories was born out of my interest in the history of our own world. Ancient civilizations that existed hundreds or even thousands of years ago died out and disappeared, leaving behind structures and ruins like the Colosseum, Machu Picchu, the Temple of Artemis, the Great Serpent Mound, Ephesus, and many more. Our planet is dotted with places like this where you can go and touch a distant, mysterious past with your own hands. Visiting such places begs a profound series of questions—what happened to those people? How did their civilization fall? How was our own born from that? Will our civilization one day collapse? And who or what will rise from its ashes to build something new?
The Question at Hand
At the beginning of this blog, I posed the question, why is no one talking about science fantasy when it’s clearly so popular? I believe there are a variety of reasons.
First, the term “science fantasy” originally appeared in the 1940s in very pulpy, planetary romance-type stories (think Buck Rogers and Forbidden Planet). It carried a certain stigma that was hard to escape. Even fantasy authors carried this stigma that didn’t plague the more “serious” science fiction authors. The legendary Anne McCaffrey, for example, insisted on being called a science fiction writer even though her work clearly spans genres.
Fortunately, most of the genre bias distinction has faded (though it still exists—there remain readers who look down on genres they don’t read as somehow “inferior”), at least in terms of science fiction and fantasy.
In video games, where science fantasy is quite common, distinctions of narrative genre are largely unimportant. No one talks about Starcraft being a “science fiction” game or The Legend of Zelda being a “fantasy” game. Video games are categorized more by gameplay elements (real-time strategy, open world adventure, etc.) than by setting or narrative tropes, so the distinction of science fantasy is simply not remarked upon.
In the end, I suspect that the discussion of science fantasy is overlooked mostly because the subgenre has become so commonplace that it isn’t remarkable in its sudden popularity, as opposed to newer subgenres such as cozy fantasy or solarpunk.
I also think that the genre conventions of what makes something a “sci fi” story or a “fantasy” story are very blurry at the edges. Are psychic powers science fiction or fantasy? What about time travel? Laser swords? The fact is, science fantasy stories can almost always be considered science fiction or fantasy, and thus they are often lumped into the wider genres. We often have an intuitive sense, based on how we define our own ideas of genre, whether a narrative should be lumped into science fiction or fantasy. For stories like Foundation, it’s pretty easy to call it science fiction (though there are a few fantasy-like elements in there), and with works like Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light or Chronicles of Amber they’re largely considered fantasy, even though they contain varying degrees of SF elements. But some narratives, like Star Wars, sit firmly on the middle line and cause heated debates over whether they are science fiction or fantasy.
It comes down to how you personally define the genres and the bounds of the genres. But really, we need to acknowledge that there is a grey area, and that grey area is called science fantasy, and it’s an amazing playground that is worth exploring in fiction, comics, games, films, and TV.
What do you think? What are your favorite science fantasy narratives? Is Star Wars fantasy or science fiction? Add your thoughts to the comments below.
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I write science fiction, fantasy, and science fantasy. I also write about science fantasy, tabletop RPGs, books, culture, and more. If you want more content like this, check out my other blog posts and sign up for my newsletter.