Books: Exploring Science Fantasy

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffreyAs a reader, I’m all over the spectrum of speculative fiction. I’ve been known to enjoy everything from hard science fiction, like Peter Watts‘s Blindsight, to epic fantasy, like George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. (I’ve written a pretty big variety of stuff, too. I also read and occasionally write outside speculative fiction, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

One thing that has always fascinated me is the way subgenres nudge up against one another, how the lines are drawn, where they grow fuzzy. Is a zombie story science fiction or horror? What about a time travel story or a superhero story? How about things like Star Wars, whose genre classification depends on whether you prioritize scientific accuracy over the presence of spaceships? Today I’m looking at one of my favourite areas of genre-bending — science fantasy and variations thereof.

The most common form of science fantasy, at least in my experience, is exemplified by Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels. For the most part, the Pern books read like fantasy — there are dragons and a low level of technology, and the world is clearly not ours. But we know from the prologues and from the novels that delve into the history of Pern that the stories are taking place in the far future, where spaceflight exists, even if it has been forgotten. Some of my favourite Pern books were the ones where they rediscovered their own history, where fantasy and science fiction collided. Other books set in a future that sometimes looks like fantasy include Fools Errant by Matthew Hughes, parts of Frank Herbert’s Dune, and several others I can’t mention due to spoilers (since the plot often revolves around uncovering the forgotten technology).

Then there are stories where science fiction notions such as spaceflight and other planets explicitly coexist with the fantasy notion of magic. In Diane Duane‘s Young Wizards series, two teenagers from present-day Earth learn to do magic that allows them to travel to other planets (subject to rigorous restrictions, because fantasy universes have rules too) and meet aliens who can also do magic, for good or for evil. Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet is another example. In other media,  Star Wars, James Cameron’s Avatar, and parts of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine arguably fall into this category as well.

Finally, there are stories set in worlds that cannot possibly be anything but fantasy, but the way the stories are developed comes across more like science fiction. The characters are doing what they think of as science, but it’s clearly not anything that would work under the physical laws that govern our own universe. China Miéville‘s Perdido Street Station and The Scar involve scientists working with impossible forces and using the scientific process to study creatures that don’t exist. The graphic novel series by Phil and Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius, is another example (occasional mentions of existing countries notwithstanding). Older speculative fiction works such as Frankenstein and The Time Machine also qualify.

I love the intersection of science fiction and fantasy in all its forms, and I’d love to read more of it, if only I can find it. Here’s where you come in…

What novels have you read that play with these or other genre boundaries? What’s your favourite sort of genre-bending — or do you prefer stories that are clearly one subgenre or another?

For more on genre-bending, check out Defining Steampunk: Books.

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3 responses to “Books: Exploring Science Fantasy

  1. I’m a big fan of Kate Elliott’s Jaran novels, which are a series looking at how future technology from a “science fiction” society impact a pre-industrial planet that reads like fantasy. I guess technically it’s SF, but… As the books progress, the impact and role of technology increases. Really interesting. (I wish she’d go back and write the next book in the series, which pre-dates Crown of Stars.)

  2. Ellen, those sound fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Pingback: Science Fantasy (Part 2): An Expedition | World Enough and Time

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