How to craft genuine science fantasy

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This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Few things highlight the distinction between science fiction and fantasy better than science fantasy. Science fantasy comes in multiple forms, and is almost as varied as science fiction itself is; yet, it is also an underexplored genre. Science fantasy is speculative fiction that takes place in a non-naturalistic universe (fantasy), but which either has the aesthetic of science fiction (futurism, space travel, etc.), or in which characters act and think like scientists, or anything in between.

Consider the spectrum of interaction between natural and supernatural elements of a story. On one end, we find what might be summarized as “wizards in space,” a category arguably occupied by Star Wars (if we accept Star Wars as fantasy). In this corner of science fantasy, space travel (or some other futuristic technology) is highly developed, and yet we see mages and wizards doing extraordinary, magical things. The technology and the magic coexist, but operate in fundamentally different ways; engineers might know nothing of magic, and magicians might know nothing of engineering.

On the other end, we might find that technology and magic not only coexist, but supplement each other. A great example of this is Bands of Mourning, in which the basic principles of allomancy and feruchemy are applied in increasingly sophisticated ways, to produce effects that might otherwise have been thought to be purely technological. Technology, in this version of science fantasy, has a dollop of magic thrown in the mix, to augment, supplement, or distort the technological marvels.

We (the authors) often engage in speculative exercises of the latter variety: “How might we produce ___ effect, if ____ non-naturalistic premises were in effect?” For example, how might we create a space elevator if we had the ability to produce portals, like Doctor Strange? How might we create computers differently, if rune magic were real? If our intentions and emotional experiences left a magical imprint on our physical environs, how might those effects be amplified by the internet and social media?

Signalling Fantasy

There are a number of ways an author might signal that a work is a fantasy instead of purely science fiction, even while systematically analyzing the magic — and even when the magic is used to augment or advance the technological marvels of the in-story universe. Again, this draws from the defining characteristics of naturalism. Consider some examples below:

Signal a potential animism at the bedrock of the universe. Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass was a strong contender for “alt-universe science fiction” with its alternate physics, levitation crystals, engineers who mathed out the power of the crystals, etc. — all the way until the book hinted elements of animism at the bedrock of their physical world. Their airship, the Predator, was alive, and could converse with mystics among its crew. This animism meant that no matter how naturalistic the rest of the universe might be, the in-story universe is not naturalistic and the work, therefore, is fantasy.

Create a morally inflected universe. Make good and bad more than just convention, more than just a team jersey. Make it consequential in terms of how a character can succeed in their quest, or perform magic. In Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, we see magic used in highly sophisticated, technological ways: gems filled with stormlight are used in engineered devices to create effects not otherwise possible. However, not only is there animism involved in the story — it turns out most magic involves interacting with living entities called spren — the characters’ ability to tap into the vast powers offered by the spren is partially contingent on their moral center. Kaladin lost his abilities for a while because he betrayed an oath that he had made.

Another way to do this is to make good and evil strong themes in the story, baked into the cosmology of the world. It hardly matters how much magic or other non-naturalistic elements a story contains — if the universe is morally inflected in the right way, a story can still be science fantasy instead of science fiction. For example, imagine a colony of spacefarers who must morally recenter themselves in order to advance on their pilgrimage through space; otherwise, things keep going wrong. Even if everything that goes wrong has — in isolation — a perfectly naturalistic explanation, the fact that their progress becomes contingent on their moral center signals that they don’t live in an impartial universe (and, therefore, they live in a non-naturalistic universe).

Ensure that magic — no matter how systematized — cannot be reduced to the workings of inert matter complying with impartial, universal laws. For example, rune-based magic is nearly impossible to reduce this way; semiotic interpretation is something that simply doesn’t emerge from inert matter. This doesn’t mean that rune magic cannot be systematized, empirically experimented with, publicly scrutinized. It simply means that there’s no way that inert matter can decipher abstract symbols and treat them as imperatives; the concept itself implies some sort of rudimentary animism on the part of the responding matter. There is a subtle difference between matter reacting to stimuli (such as reacting to an etching chemical), and matter obeying the artificer (such as responding to the etched symbol). Most language-based magic is similar in this respect.

Inadvertently turning fantasy into science fiction

In the previous installment, we argued that Arthur C. Clarke feared that extraordinary technology might begin to resemble fantasy. We argue that the reverse is also a danger: established fantasy might inadvertently resemble science fiction, if authors use tropes that signal a naturalistic universe. Sometimes authors will build up what looks like a fantasy, and then provide little details that render its fantastical elements naturalistic instead. Sometimes, this is because of the mistaken assumption that to systematize something, we must systematize it along naturalistic grooves. When this happens, we can sometimes inadvertently slip into the role of the Borg, “assimilating” non-naturalistic premises into naturalistic premises, as if it is the only common sense thing to do.

Think back, for example, on the ways that fantasy can violate the characteristics of naturalism (see Part #2 and Part #3). You might be building an alt-universe science fiction (instead of fantasy) if:

  • The rules can change from place to place only because of some deeper rule that can be explained in terms of universal law — e.g., the forest is enchanted because of unobtanium deposits, etc.
  • The rules change across time because of some deeper phenomenon that is based on unchangeable rules — e.g., the magic requires the planets to be aligned because it is powered by gravitational synchronicity or some other technical jargon.
  • It turns out that the “active magic” is merely a super-intelligent alien that has transcended corporeal existence through technological innovation, or that a universe’s god became a god through technological advancement.
  • It turns out that magic works differently for different people because of genetic predispositions, or chance (sometimes randomness can be naturalistic), or because of little microorganisms called “midichlorians.”
  • If good and evil in a “fantasy” universe ultimately devolves on consequentialist or utilitarian considerations, or if “dark magic” is merely entropy by another name.
  • If animistic elements turn out to be just products of an alternate evolutionary history from our own; or if the mountain or sentient trees have something analogous to brains (e.g., it’s no longer a mountain that is annoyed with the trespassers, but an organism shaped like one).

None of this means that there can’t be reliable and observable patterns in a fantasy world, or that there is no order or reason in the operations of such a universe. It merely means that the order or reason might take on narrative form rather than naturalistic form. The observable patterns might involve language or intention interacting with the bedrock of the universe. Or it might be of a sort that wouldn’t make sense without some element of animism (like a living “Force”). Or they might be morally inflected in a way that extends beyond the conventions and preferences of the characters.

In short, when characters illuminate the mysteries of their magical universe, it may be wise to avoid signposting those marvels as technologies or something reducible to inert matter passively complying with universal law — unless you do want to pivot your fantasy towards science fiction, and you do want your universe to be a naturalistic one. In that case, by all means do so. Our only concern is that we do not do so by accident, simply because we adopted the (false) assumption that the only way to subject magic to systematic scrutiny is to naturalize it. Magic can be subjected to systematic observation and rational analysis (e.g., “science”) without naturalizing it, and therefore without losing its magicness.

If you have a place in the no-man’s-land between science fiction and fantasy that you want to write a story in (maybe works of paranormal fiction operate in this ambiguous territory, for example), by all means go for it–but we strongly recommend keeping both eyes open with regards to the cautions above, lest you find yourself weakening your story through inadvertent signaling in one or the other direction, as we have seen other writers do before.

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