Can’t decide between science fiction and fantasy? You don’t have to choose! Science fantasy blends futuristic technology with ancient magic, blurring the lines between these two popular speculative genres. In science fantasy stories and games, you’ll find spaceships navigating otherworldly realms where the laws of physics coexist with uncanny mysticism.
Are you ready for a wild ride into the subgenre subspace of mad science and rational magic? Amazing! Then let’s talk about where it came from, what it looks like, and how to execute it well as a writer or worldbuilder.
What is Science Fantasy?
If you ask a dozen geeks for a definition of science fantasy, you’d get… a dozen definitions. It’s a genre that can be hard to pin down. So let’s look to the hallowed halls of academia for a start?
According to Science Fiction Studies:
“a science fantasy world is one in which the characters or settings or events presuppose at least one clear violation of natural law or scientific necessity, but which explicitly provides an organized or scientific explanation for that violation which grounds its discourse in a scientific episteme. Science fantasy, like science fiction, assumes an orderly Universe with regular laws, but like fantasy, contains at least one explicit reversal of current natural law.”
Put more simply, science fantasy presents the impossible wrapped in the language of logic. Magic isn’t treated as unknowable and ineffable. It’s treated as something we simply haven’t figured out how to explain … yet. Or there is an explanation, but it’s all theory, pseudoscience and technobabble.
In this genre, both advanced science and magic exist. Or paranormal abilities are so dramatic they are indistinguishable from magic. Or the science is so advanced that it seems like magic to a present-day person. It can be considered a hybrid of science fiction and fantasy, or a subgenre of either one.
If the story or game setting includes a mix of scientifically possible future events or technology and the impossible and unexplainable, then it fits.
The Evolution of a Magically-Scientific Genre
Like sword and sorcery, science fantasy originated in the world of pulp adventures. Stories of fantastic voyages to other worlds populated with alien societies were at first called planetary romance. Early science fantasy deliberately applied the rationalistic perspective and tone of science fiction to traditional fantasy subjects.
Science fantasy can be a controversial subgenre! Disagreement about what should be considered science fiction sometimes places science fantasy completely outside the genre. These debates have sparked a lot of debate in different fan communities!
But for many writers, freedom from the restrictive confines of “hard science fiction” makes science fantasy an appealing subgenre to explore speculative possibilities.
Examples of Science Fantasy
Science fantasy has a long history, and that means plenty of books to add to your reading list! From established classics to award-winning modern books, there are plenty of amazing stories to help you understand the genre better.
However, the most popular books in this subgenre are probably licensed novelizations. If you’ve ever read a Star Wars or Star Trek book, you’ve read science fantasy.
- Dune by Frank Herbert: A sprawling science fiction epic set in a distant future where noble houses vie for control of the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of a valuable spice that grants psychic abilities.
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: A timeless tale of Meg Murry’s interdimensional journey with her brother and a friend, guided by three mysterious beings, to rescue her scientist father from an evil force threatening the universe.
- Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey: A captivating fantasy series chronicling the lives of dragonriders on the planet Pern as they bond with telepathic dragons to defend against the destructive threat of Thread, a deadly spore.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: A comedic and absurd space adventure that follows Arthur Dent, an unwitting Earthling, as he travels through space with an eclectic group, armed only with a copy of the titular guidebook.
- The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: The first book in the Broken Earth trilogy, it explores a world constantly ravaged by seismic activity and follows characters with unique abilities, known as orogeny, in a society teetering on the brink of apocalypse.
- Locked Tomb series by Tamsen Muir: A dark and humorous space fantasy trilogy that unfolds in a universe where necromancy, mystery, and political intrigue intersect as lesbian necromancers compete for power and unravel secrets on a haunted planet.
- Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente: A wildly imaginative and humorous science fiction novel that follows a washed-up glam rock musician chosen to represent humanity in an intergalactic musical competition to determine the fate of Earth.
- This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone: A lyrical and unconventional love story between agents on opposing sides of a time war, communicated through letters that traverse time and alternate realities.
Science Fantasy Tabletop RPGs
Licensed properties also dominate the science fantasy genre in tabletop RPGs. Star Wars and Star Trek ttRPGs offer fans the opportunity to play in their favorite imaginary worlds. But they are far from the only games in the science fantasy galaxy.
- Warhammer 40,000: A grimdark wargame set in a dystopian future where humanity battles for survival against various alien species, heretics, and demonic forces in a vast, war-torn galaxy.
- Numenera: A science fantasy tabletop role-playing game set in the far distant future, where players explore the Ninth World—a world built upon the remnants of countless civilizations, each leaving behind mysterious and powerful artifacts known as numenera.
- Shadowrun: A cyberpunk-fantasy tabletop RPG merging magic and technology, where players take on the roles of shadowrunners—mercenaries undertaking corporate espionage, heists, and other risky missions in a dystopian world.
- Titansgrave: A setting for the Fantasy AGE system created by Wil Wheaton, combining elements of science fiction and fantasy in a world where ancient technology, powerful relics, and diverse races coexist amidst political intrigue and epic adventures.
- Spelljammer (D&D): A campaign setting that introduces spacefaring adventures, enabling players to explore the cosmos aboard magical ships that traverse the “phlogiston” between crystal spheres, encountering strange creatures and worlds.
- The Dying Earth: Based on the works of Jack Vance, this RPG captures the waning days of Earth’s history, where magic, eccentric characters, and a sense of decadence permeate the setting, allowing players to embark on quests filled with wit and whimsy.
- Rifts: A post-apocalyptic RPG set in a world where dimensional rifts have merged various realities, bringing together magic, technology, and diverse races in a chaotic and unpredictable landscape.
- Technomancer (GURPS): A GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System) setting where players embrace the role of technomancers—magic-wielding individuals in a futuristic world where advanced technology and mysticism coexist, offering a unique blend of genres.
Ship-to-ship combat rules for space battles are also an important inclusion to consider, for when you absolutely, positively need to blow up a starship in your campaign.
A Short List of Science Fantasy Tropes
Obviously, science fantasy is going to comfortably contain most of the common tropes of both sci fi worldbuilding and fantasy worldbuilding. But there are a few elements that are part of this genre’s unique twist on those two categories.
Elves Are Aliens: And so are vampires. And also werewolves. Plus probably orcs, too. Basically, all the non-human sentient species are just natives of another planet. Brothers from another mothership, as it were.
We Can Travel the Stars (Just Don’t Ask How): Space fantasy solves the problem of faster-than-light (FTL) travel by just refusing to think about it too hard. Warp drives, hyperdrives, mass effect relays? None of these pass the physics sniff test – and nobody cares.
See also: SPACE DOGFIGHTS.
Biology is Magic: Instead of witches, wizards and sorcerers, science fantasy has psychics, telekinetics, and space monks with sentient mitochondria. (Yes, this means your favorite superhero comics probably fall under science fantasy).
Engage… Your Imagination!
Science fantasy is a genre that offers writers and game masters limitless options – from laser-shooting space orcs to mystical futuristic explorers. Worldbuilding a science fantasy setting for your story or campaign can be enormously fun – and an enormous undertaking.
With a robust set of features, World Anvil empowers you to breathe life into your original settings, offering a collaborative space to organize ideas, map out worlds, and share your unique creations. So sign up for your free account today, and start designing the next great science fantasy universe!