What is Science Fantasy?

Right now, science fiction and fantasy are everywhere. From books to television, the big screen to the Internet, there is a veritable pupu platter of media devoted to the telling of otherworldly tales. Whether set in the vastness of space, in a dragon-filled sky, or on a fast-moving train through a stygian winterscape, both genres artfully form bridges between our world and elsewhere. These tall tales engage us, showcasing not only the struggles between villains and heroes, but introspectively exploring hidden powers or realities within ourselves to help us see that identity doesn’t have to be defined by where we are now, but by who we can be. At times, these stories startle our senses, hinting at bright magic and frightening monsters, or what fantastical dreams may come. Further still, they might delve deep beyond the human condition, perhaps understanding life that isn’t carbon-based, or discovering a burgeoning consciousness that can see through dimensions and time, into even more outlandish worlds that could very well be right in your back yard.

Simply put, science fiction and fantasy helps us experience the extraordinary by asking a very simple question: What if?

But the genres themselves are not mutually exclusive. So what happens when you mix them together?

Defining science fantasy is a challenge. Is it the belief that magic follows a distinct, yet incomprehensible binary code of numbers and letters to create the brilliant, miraculous and scary? Is it a hard understanding that up is down, left is right, and magnetic north is always magnetic north, no matter what color is your sky? Perhaps it is quantum physics coupled with Einstein’s theory of relativity mixed with vodka and spritzed with butterbeer? Or maybe it’s all of those things, plus techno-wizards, time-traveling mathematicians, and friendly, talking dino-dogs.

If science makes us think, then fantasy lets us dream.

Science fantasy takes the softer side of science fiction and marries it to bits and pieces of the fantastical. It’s a sub-genre of a sub-section of a subcutaneous admixture of all the juicy goodness that fans clamor for, without all those troublesome trans-fats adding to your waistline. Its definition is varied and multi-faceted, and I bet if you ask any five writers from five different age brackets, they’d give you five fairly unique answers. It is slippery, evolving and subject to the vagaries of legitimate, present-day science innovation, the current comic cinematic plot-line, the hottest read on the NY Times best seller list, and the latest show streaming somewhere on the wide world of web-slingers, among a host of other subtle and sledgehammer-direct influences.

Science fantasy bends the genres in the same delightful way a TARDIS folds time and jelly-babies. It is bigger on the inside than the outside, both boggling and simple, and totally recognizable.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t make the genre up. It’s been around for a long time. According to Goodreads, there are oodles of literary examples, from C.J. Cherryh’s classic Morgaine & Vanye, to Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series. I’m nostalgically fond of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, where he’s a master of blending fantasy with science fiction by tossing in flying cars, impossible cities and dimension hopping for good measure.

Besides, you can’t deny awesome covers like this one:

(Frank Frazetta’s art is timeless. Anyone says otherwise is just plain wrong.)

Fantasy settings, alternate Earths, places out of time and space, technology mixed with pseudo-science, demon hands, undead eyes, soul-sucking swords, and really cool names. What more do you need?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

IS SCIENCE FANTASY UN-POSSIBLE?

When researching today’s Unpublished post, I came across this insightful explanation scribed by Randy Henderson in an issue of Fantasy Magazine:

“The difference is that if the story includes a mix of possible science fiction (i.e. scientifically possible future or alternate events or technology) and something that is impossible (no matter how plausible the author makes it sound), then it is science fantasy.

Of course, the word ‘possible’ is often the sticking point here.”

Speculative fiction authors like myself dabble in a smorgasbord of genres, never adhering to just one. Rest assured, we aren’t the folks who start our prose with “It was a dark and stormy night”. That we leave to our beagle betters. Instead, we offer to readers an incredible variance of possibilities, and relish the challenge of making something impossible become possible. By prospecting a twisting riverbed of what could be, what might have been, and why, we form bridges-between-worlds, bending genres to our creative will.

One of the primary goals of any writer is to entertain, open a reader’s eyes to the possibilities of here and elsewhere. And part of the reader’s enjoyment is to wonder at how an author strung together enough words in a series of sentences to amaze and astound them. When a reader puts a book down and takes a moment to savor the story they just read, marvel at the character arcs and development, appreciate a turn of phrase or a particularly poignant moment, that’s the precise moment when the impossible became possible.

“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.” – Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury

Possible and impossible are two of the key ingredients in your grandma’s homemade chicken noodle soup that makes science fantasy tick. Transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary or, as Ray Bradbury effortlessly wrote in so many stories, by painting a picture of the ordinary to remind everyone that extraordinary is nothing without the ordinary.

A brilliant story that mixes up necromancy with science fiction, with a murder mystery tossed in for good measure.

That’s the peanut butter mixing it up with chocolate. Why, yes, humans did colonize Optimus Nine, the twentieth planet in a far-flung galaxy which just happens to have acid-spewing dragons and tentacled wizards inhabiting it, despite the high levels of all-spice in its atmosphere. This place exists somewhere in the darkest recesses of a spotless mind. Whether typed or hand-written scribbles to make it all dance is simply a question of finding the time to get it all down. Wait, there’s a romance between the slave-prince of Agribar and the mystical enchantress of Never-Ever Land? And they ride steam-powered elephants through a mine field that surrounds a ruined New York City searching for transistor radio nirvana?

I believe there’s no reason to be bound by genre constraints. Science fantasy opens all the doors. An empty page beckons. Fill it with everything.

Don’t be afraid. Bend it all.

WHY IGNORE SCIENCE FANTASY WARNING LABELS?

Western society has been fond of labeling things for as long as I can remember. So if labels define things, then science fantasy remains righteously unlabeled, yet demands, nay, deserves continued exploration. The explosion of fresh, new ideas, fantastic plots and characters cobbled together from the crinkliest corners of fertile minds is thanks, in no small part, to the advent of Mother Amazon and other self-publishing centers. With the great proliferation of e-books, blogs and other websites, it’s fair to say the current reading landscape is happily overrun by stories, but the discerning reader has all the tools at their disposal to sift through the morass and uncover glorious literary diamonds in the rough.

Do a Google search on “Science Fantasy”. The very first result you will find are books, and there are many, many delightful options on the menu.

Space ships, laser guns, still suits and giant sand worms! Oh, and did I mention prescience?

From legendary classics to legends-in-the-making, these covers and hundreds like them are out there waiting to be explored and devoured! Alternate worlds, dark necromancy, apocalyptic love stories, and a continued call for wondrous diversity!

Let’s examine Bloodlines, my debut novel.

A hint of the police procedural. A dash of the supernatural. Sprinkle in dystopia, some not-quite-futuristic tech, toss it all in a bowl and pour several cups of magic on it and you’ve definitely tumbled down the science fantasy rabbit hole.

And let’s not forget its themes. Mothers, daughters and sons. Friendship. Difference. Strangers in strange lands. Light and dark. Addiction. Identity.

Redemption.

I took the possible—a dystopian, quasi-post-apocalyptic enclave, a new vision of New York City known as Empire City—and merged it with the impossible—magic has returned as a result of the cataclysm, along with one-way portals leading from parallel Earths.

The science itself isn’t hard. There’s an AI called Enhanced Virtual Intellect (EVI) that administrates some of Empire City’s governance. Holo-technology, vast hybrid clouds collecting information, mass transit pods traversing towering skyscrapers and the vast length of the enclave, and massive spell-forged steel walls surrounding Empire City protecting it from the horrors of the past. But underneath that is the familiar—people work, raise families, but without the totalitarian regime overseeing everything. People remain people, diverse, culturally unique and proud of their heritage. The “haves” and “have-nots” are grounded in today’s issues. The protagonist, homicide detective Tom “Doc” Holliday epitomizes these struggles. He’s not liked at work, has rent to pay, a limited social life, and a lot of angst.

He’s just a guy, standing in front of a murder mystery, asking it to, well, solve itself.

But he’s also wired into the impossible. Armed with a fickle clairvoyance he calls the Insight, Holliday sees what others cannot—an intricate, strange, and often-times frightening world fraught with monsters. Toss in a murdered woman with a bogus past, bio-engineered vampires, soul-sucking parasites, and the magical masterminds behind it all, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a mystery wrapped in a conundrum inside of a conspiracy of Churchill proportions.

The elements are all there. It’s not purely science fiction or high fantasy. Nor is it urban fantasy or a police procedural. Alternate history? Nope. Mystery, thriller, crime, noir? Not exactly.

Genre-bending appears to be what today’s publishers are looking for, but the stories have to fit in a surprisingly narrow box. Now, I won’t bore you with my own querying struggles in trying to break into the industry. Instead, I am simply thankful that the advent of self-publishing allows authors like me, and especially the more marginalized authors out there, to spin our diverse, multi-genre stories and make them available for public consumption.

Bloodlines is science fantasy. The story swims with the other fish but is neither amphibian nor mammal. The tale is black with white stripes, and equal parts white with black stripes.

“A riveting multi-genre tale with sharply drawn characters in a striking futuristic world.” – Kirkus Reviews

All creatives, our flexibility, our spark, our imagination, our vision to peer into the Elsewhere, sprinkling aspects of other genres to keep the story fluid and undecided, yet remarkably coherent and fresh, THAT, intrepid traveler, is why you ignore the warning label. Journey to places near and far, develop settings alien yet familiar, craft grounded characters whose minds soar beyond the stars, delve past the mythical and mystical, to discover the unimaginable.

WHAT ABOUT THE POWER OF MUSIC?

“We are the music makers. And we are the dreamers of dreams.” – from Ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy

I listen to music whenever I write. Even as I type this, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s haunting synth sounds from the film Ex-Machina permeate my office. From movie and television scores, to Broadway showtunes, to good ole fashioned rock-and-roll, music gets me into the groove and flow, and calibrates my creative mind to the task at hand.

Music sets the scene, drives or calms the action, and crystallizes the very essence of its craftmanship in as simple as two or three notes. Music is memory and time and thought and emotion. It is creative, fluid, graceful yet caustic, subtle and sublime, and permeates the deepest, darkest marrow of your bones like nothing else in this, or any, world.
Music is science fantasy in its purest form.

The music of RUSH, and, in my humble opinion, the greatest hard and progressive rock band of all time, provides some of the best examples of science fantasy.

Time is a gypsy caravan
Steals away in the night
To leave you stranded in dreamland
Distance is a long-range filter
Memory a flickering light
Left behind in the heartland

Dreamline, from Roll The Bones

Study their lyrics. Admire their album covers. Listen to their musical arc from the late 1960s to today. Reggae, new wave, classic rock, blues, synth-oriented, guitar-oriented—the list is endless. If you want to appreciate the concept of science fantasy musically, RUSH is your gateway drug. Actually, it’s the only drug, but I’m biased, too.

I stand atop a spiral stair
An oracle confronts me there
He leads me on, light years away
Through astral nights, galactic days

I see the works of gift hands
Grace this strange and wondrous land
I see the hand of man arise
With hungry mind and open eyes

They left the planet long ago
The elder race still learn and grow
Their power grows with purpose strong
To claim the home where they belong

V. Oracle: The Dream, from 2112

(Let’s now take a brief moment of silence honoring the passing of Neil Peart on January 7, 2020. On that tragic day, the world lost a creative giant of unbelievably epic proportions.)

To my mind, music is time travel in its purest form. Kick back and listen to the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Arlo Guthrie, Elvis Presley, Sophie Tucker, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. Soak in their words. Be enlivened by their voice. Bask in their masterful genius and the totality of their compositions.

Music’s transportive power is both undeniable and unmistakable. By blending science and fantasy with lyrics, rhythm and sound, music might be the most identifiable example of science fantasy out there. Your emotions roil as your mind hearkens back to the halcyon days of whatever misspent youth you had doing however many interesting things that you’d probably still not mention to your parents today. The smiles. The tears. The rage. The love. The surge of rollicking good times, bad times, and THOSE times which may have defined you as YOU, or at least put you on, or knocked you off, whatever path you were headed.

WHAT DOES SCIENCE FANTASY MEAN?

The rubber meets the road whenever the possible and impossible hook up. It’s inevitable and unavoidable, yet also exhilarating and scary. Think of it this way. If you can describe anything as “timeless”, then you get it, like rolling that natural “20” in the most critical moment of whatever flavor of role-playing game you’re in to slay the latest villain-du-jour and save the virtual world.

Science fantasy simply is. It abides. It endures. It makes you wonder. It captures and illustrates in layer-cake fashion the best and brightest of what the main genres have to offer, then flips them on their heads, and does the triple lindy.

But science fantasy also flourishes because of its meaningful diversity. Difference is what gives this genre-bending story style its striking allure, form and definition. Its draw is both pervasive and familiar. The stories drive you to want to think, with the good kind of aftertaste that lasts long after you’ve finished with it.

In a time where people struggle to self-ascribe, where their quest for identity challenges and defines them in far more meaningful ways than ever before, no one should hide away and be ashamed of who they truly are, what they feel inside, how they should feel it, or be broken down by anyone else. Let these dreamers dream. Let them grow and flourish and show what their creativity is made of to the world.

Science fantasy is a sub-genre heralding the new, the profound, the challenged, the fringe, even the downtrodden, and everything else that should be given light, love and showered with respect for being hopeful, brave and strong.

And for being true to itself, defined by its innermost parts.

3 thoughts on “What is Science Fantasy?

  1. As fantasy can blend beautifully with fiction; so your gorgeous prose voluptuously swell the seams of my screen with poetry. (I wonder how your unfettered stream of consciousness would play out in subsequent works. I think it would single you out from the herd assuming it could, by its nature, be harnessed to such an endeavor as a structured novel.

    Frazetta: As an adolescent and youth, I could stare at his cover art and transport my imagination to fanciful and romantic realms of daring-do as much as with the written words of Rice Burroughs within. Moorcocke: Probably one of the greatest overlooked Scifantasy writers of all time. Strangely, I don’t think I ever read his Sword novels but was slavishly addicted to his fantastical Dancers at the End of Time and Jerry Cornelius series. If you never read it, check out his Behold the Man novelette. A 20th century Jew gets talked into going back into time to search for the historical Jesus. I’m surprised it hasn’t been made into a movie.

    Music: Can we ignore the musical progenitors of the genre of fantasy and dreams and the unsullied imaginations and hopes of the young. The Moody Blues? “Time will tell, of stars that fell, a million years ago.” Pretty simple fare but, it transports you like a tantric mantra.

    “If science makes us think, then fantasy lets us dream.” …Peter Hartog. Wonderful!

    I’m still a little conflicted about the new Bloodlines cover art not portraying a larger sized hand gun (S.M.A.R.T) It would be the only element that evokes the future.

    Liked by 1 person

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