are you my genre? on defining science fantasy

There is no doubt that I write fantasy. The whole secondary-world settings kinda give that away.

The trouble starts when I try to narrow my work into a sub-genre.

My stories don’t have the scale and scope of epic fantasy. They don’t have the the coming-of-age themes or adventures of heroic fantasy. I stay away from writing in a historical or alternate Earth setting, so those genres of fantasy (including steampunk) are out. Some of my work is obviously based on fairy tales, but a large part is not. YA fantasy is a nice catch-all, but my protagonists are mostly older and I write with an adult audience in mind.

But, Rabia, why not call your genre traditional fantasy and be done with it?

Well, see, that’s what I started writing, way back when. My first novel was set in a pseudo-medieval world, with its attendant attitudes and technology. But since that book, my worlds have become more modern. They feature indoor plumbing and firearms, trams and trains, elevators and radios. My societies perform great feats of science and engineering, whether its using a radioactive element to punch portals into other worlds or hanging an artificial sun on a track made from the skeletal remains of a cosmic dragon. I have magic in my worlds, but my sorcerers are just as likely to be scientists as they perform genetic experiments and create mechanical constructs.

And not only that, but I have a fixation with what goes on in high above the ground. My first novel featured a sorcerer-made flying fortress. I love to deprive worlds of their suns and create weird universes. The back stories of many of my races has them traveling from other planets. Events on my worlds are affected by what comes from the sky, whether it’s space dust or the aforementioned cosmic dragons.

You could blame all this on too many episodes of The Universe. But truth is, science fiction elements have always crept into my stories and woven themselves into the background.

Can it be that I’m really writing science fantasy?

Turns out that it’s not too easy to define what science fantasy is. It’s a fluid genre with fuzzy boundaries. Often it looks to be straightforward fantasy, with the science fiction elements so well-hidden that they come out either in later books or in bonus material. Or it might look like science fiction until the elves and dwarves show up.

Take for example, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern book. The first book, Dragonflight, has a pseudo-medieval and low-technology setting that is familiar to readers of traditional fantasy. It contains dragons, another classic fantasy element. Yet the threat to Pernese society comes not from Dark Lords rising from their underground tombs, but in the form of Thread falling from the skies when the Red Planet draws near to Pern.  In later books we learn that the dragons were genetically engineered to fight Thread and that the Pernese people can trace their origins back to our Earth.

The Star Wars movies are often classified as science fantasy, and I can see why. When you take fantasy conventions (princesses, a brotherhood of mage-monks with arcane powers, swords–even if they are made out of lasers and called sabers) and plunk them into a universe with spaceships, firearms, and tanks, you’re blending the two genres. I think one could even put Cameron’s Avatar in the same sub-genre.

I love both science (chemistry and anything space-related) and the humanities (literature and history). When I write science fantasy, I’m free to draw inspiration from both these wells. And that makes for a happier writer and better stories.

Do you read or write science fantasy? Do you have any other examples of the genre? How would you define it?


  1. I’ve only heard of its rumored existence, so it’s fascinating to me to find out more about it. I’ve come up in science fiction label and fantasy label and speculative label, but not science fantasy, which sounds like some of what I write. Hm.

    • It’s a new label for me, too. I’m still trying to figure it out, but it’s a slippery thing to hold long enough to define.

  2. Much early science fiction has a lot of fantasy in it, such as the John Carter novels and Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Maybe the genres are.. reuniting? Evolving with a new mix of inherited traits? I can suggest another data point: Charles de Lint’s books of “urban fantasy” also combine modern world settings with fantastic elements, but without employing the ‘portal” device of works like Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry or the virtual reality device of Tad Williams’ Otherland novels, (or Snow Crash). I like where these authors are going, but I don’t like any of their actual books! excepting, of course, Lewis, and Burroughs to a degree. Maybe you’ll nail it, and give us the science fantasy classic!

    • I’ve heard good things about de Lint’s books (Onion Girl, right?). I’ll have to check him out. Can you believe I’ve never read Lewis’ Space trilogy? I even have the set on my bookshelves. I’ll pull it out so it’s more in my face. *grin*

  3. The only time I’ve really thought about genre is when I had to pick one in the OWW. :p

    Like you I started out with traditional fantasy, but now my writing is all over the genres. I guess “Elpida” is science fantasy and “City of Grime and Spice” will be to some degree as well, and then I have some urban fantasy WIPs here and there. “Sister”, which I am working on now is a phycological novel set in a made-up culture and setting, but with no fantasy elements, so I don’t know what to call it.

    How about “Dune”? Science Fantasy?

    • No idea about Dune since I haven’t read it. I know, I know. *hangs head in shame*

      There are a few novels I know of that are set in a made-up world, but don’t include any magic, different races, and those sorts of typical fantasy elements. I *think* Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman falls into this category. The YA series by Megan Whalen Turner (The Thief and sequels) has gods but no magic per se. The characters survive on their wits and skills.

  4. I’ve heard people put Dune in the “Space Opera” category with Star Wars, though it definitely feels more sciency than Star Wars does. Hmm, how does one distinguish between Science Fantasy and Space Opera? Perhaps Science Fantasy is like hard SF with supernatural elements?

    • Space opera always seems to me to be the science fiction equivalent of adventure fantasy.

      I don’t think science fantasy can be defined solely as “hard SF with supernatural elements”. If it did, the space & sword and planetary romance books would be right out of the running. :D

      • Great discussion! I also would classify Space Opera as a different breed from Science Fantasy. I tend to think of SO as hard sci-fi with epic, operatic themes and space travel (as opposed to cyberpunk or near-future sci-fi). With “A Fire Upon the Deep” by Vernor Vinge being the quintessential Space Opera. And perhaps Dune as well, though I too must dunk my head in some shame pudding regarding never having read that one. However, I did enjoy the mini-series the sci-fi channel did (before the network ridiculously changed the spelling of their name) and I have the audio version of the first Dune novel which I haven’t yet listened to….and my best friend is a huge Dune fan so we have had many discussions on that universe.

        I am currently working on publishing a novel that I tell people is a Space Opera, though in my head I define it as ‘hard sci-fi with *mythological* elements.’

        Anyway, Rabia, a couple sidenotes: If you read and/or write Science Fantasy, then you might enjoy the first post on my revamped blog – – wherein I talk about culture-building in the movie John Carter of Mars, which as Ryan said is commonly considered to be among the precursors of that genre. Also, just wanted to let you know that I found my way here via the WANA network, which I recently joined and am just now beginning to explore in greater detail. Look forward to seeing you around!


        • Hi, Tim!

          Thanks for stopping by. :)

          I don’t think space opera *needs* to be hard sci-fi. I tend to think of it as “adventures in space”, personally.

          Dune has just shot up to the top of my reading list. Too many people reference it in discussions for me to not give it a try at least!

          Good luck with the novel! It sounds interesting.

  5. This definition and explanation is so clear, and I definitely see those elements in the works you mention here and in the stories of yours that I’ve read (and loved!). It’s wonderful to find a genre where you can blend all of your interests.

    I think I write literary magical realism, if that’s a genre. Literary fabulism? Can I just make this stuff up? :)

  6. The way I’ve found to understand it is that science fantasy includes a blend of science – usually in the form of advanced technology – and magic – usually as psychic phenomena.

    By this definition, Star Wars counts because you have star ships, lasers, aliens, and planets for the science, and the Force for the magic. Midi-chlorians do not explain the force. It just pushes the magic of “think this, do that” to “think this and the midi-chlorians do that.” That’s magic. {Smile}

    Pern counts because they immigrated from Earth to another planet, and eventually find genetic manipulation, space ships, and so on their past, and dragons and fire lizards who go between, talk telepathically, and eventusally move things around with their minds for the magic.

    Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover is another more-or-less classic example: you have space travel and a planet circling a red star for the science, and laran (mind powers) for the magic.

    Other good authors to check out are Andre Norton and mroe recently Linnea Sinclair. They’re forever putting telepathy and other “mind powers” on space ships and strange planets. {Smile}

    As for you… I suspect your modern settings might be “urban fantasy,” and your more futuristic stuff science fantasy. Urban fantasy is another slippery label. Modern settings count even if it’s rural. If it’s old/non-technological enough, it needs to be in a city. How modern is moern enough for rural to count is not clear. {Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

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