SF Subgenres: Science Fantasy

Once upon a time, there was science fiction. But as the genre matured, the term was more tightly defined, leaving out many stories that no longer fit the bill. Thus the term “science fantasy” was born.

Green Martian from Barsoom - excellent example of science fantasy

Art by James Allen St. John, cropped and edited by Asavaa / Public domain

Science fantasy defined

Sometimes called future fantasy, this sub-genre is a mixture of both science and fantasy. Where science fiction makes the implausible possible, as Rod Serling once said, “science fantasy makes the impossible plausible.” The underlying meaning is that science fiction extrapolates from current science and technology, whereas this type of fiction uses science and technology more as a guideline or an accessory.

For example, magic and the supernatural don’t exist in science fiction, whereas they can in this genre. Although, that could change if verifiable, scientific evidence of the supernatural were to come to light. Keep in mind what Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Today’s commonplace technology would have been seen as magic by our ancestors.

Examples

If the science in the fiction is not in alignment with currently accepted scientific thought and theory, the work is automatically considered science fantasy. This means works that may have been considered science fiction when they were written, are not considered science fantasy.

  • The John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs uses an alien world as a backdrop for a wild west or swashbuckling adventure.
  • The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, uses an alien world as a backdrop for exploring theological themes.
  • A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay uses an alien world as a backdrop for exploring philosophical themes.
  • The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman, Black Sun Rising, When True Night Falls and Crown of Shadows takes place in the future on a distant planet wher magic is explained with scientific overtones.
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury romanticizes Mars and uses Martians to explore themes of prejudice, manifest destiny and the subjugation of indigenous life.

It is easy to find science fantasy here in your local library or favorite bookstore. Look for the science fiction section and keep an eye out for covers that are more romantic and scientific … those will be the science fantasy books, no doubt. Science fiction books more grounded in science are more likely to have realistic, albeit futuristic, covers. There are exceptions, but this is a good rule of thumb.

For more terms defined, visit the Glossary of Terms.

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About the author

Carma Spence has been a science fiction fan since childhood. Her father first introduced her to Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury when she was about 7 years old. She's never looked back. YesterYear's Future is a passion project inspired by a class she took in graduate school called "Science Fiction and American Culture." She is now volunteering as Co-Web Director for the Science Fiction Research Association.

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