Science Fantasy

high crusadeWhile it seems contrary, there really is a subgenre of science fiction where magic and science occupy the same plane. For about a decade, from roughly 1965-1975, there was a spate of books published by authors like Arthur Landis and Christopher Stasheff that blended the two into a harmonious whole. In a recent conversation, Christopher Stasheff revealed the reason: Lester del Rey had said not to do it. Turns out that author-fans then were as contrary as they are now, and there were promptly quite a few books written, including the Poul Anderson Three Hearts and Three Lions, which may have been the first of them. It makes me wonder if Heinlein’s Glory Road was inspired by this thrown gauntlet, as well. There are many old treasures if you haven’t read them, but they continue to this day, written by authors like Dave Freer (the Forlorn), Anne McCaffrey (Pern series), and Sarah Hoyt (Witchfinder). I’ll have a list of recommended titles up at my blog. Why am I breaking science fiction into subgenres? Well, I’m not, really. This started with the Hard SF discussion, rolled into Space Opera, and now I’m bordering on fantasy. Although I don’t plan to delve into that genre until I’ve at least covered Military SF. Science Fiction, as a genre, is like a tree. These are the branches on that tree. They may cross over one another, and be hard to pick out from a distance, but it will help a reader who likes one book to find others like it, by assigning books to branches. Each book like a leaf, rustling in the wind… Ok, enough of that metaphor. Let’s turn a new leaf and move on. Science Fantasy may be distinguished from other fantasy genres by the existence of scientific mindset at the same time as accepted magic. The magic may be explained, or not. Often in modern interpretations, like John Ringo’s Council Wars series (first book There Will be Dragons, free on Amazon) the magic is simply very, very advanced technology. I used Clarke’s Law in my young adult take on this, Vulcan’s Kittens. I wanted to introduce the concept to kids who never think about what’s in the little magic box they use for texting, and chatting, and gaming, and sometimes even making a phone call.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. —Arthur C. Clarke“Profiles of The Future”, 1961 (Clarke’s third law)

This is the driving concept behind Freer’s The Forlorn, as well. The technology has been forgotten, but the power still remains. The other book I remember vividly with a similar concept is the third in a series, David Weber’s Heirs of Empire, where fallen technology is worshipped as magic, and a stranded lifeboat of tech-savvy people have to make their way through hostile religious furor. There are a lot of this style of science fantasy out there, which border on the Space Opera branch, wielding tech like a magic wand. McCaffrey’s dragons may have been born of advanced science in the beginning of the story, but the later books certainly feel more like fantasy, even though magic is not part of the tale. On a twig near it hang the other sorts of science fantasy books, where a modern man is pitched suddenly into a world that has magic. The Wizard Recompiled by Cook is one such example, where a computer programmer is forced to learn the connections between magic and his programming skills as he struggles to survive. The parents of the genre, Anderson, Stasheff, and Landis among others, usually wrote books like this. Arguably, John Carter of Mars is science fantasy. Certainly the science bits seem far-fetched to us now, but the mindset is the same, a man of science and technology dealing with a vastly different world than his own through mysterious forces.  I’m sure there is more out there which is escaping my mind, or that I simply have not read yet. What are your favorites? I’ll add suggestions to my list.

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84 responses to “Science Fantasy

  1. I think it can be a problem if it isn’t done properly. “Lord Valentine’s Castle” always annoyed me. (People will probably shout at me for saying this about a classic. Actually, was there magic, or just a retreat of tech?) The inconsistancy I always remeber is, they had the tech to make wagons that could hover, but they still needed horses to draw them? Seems unlikely to me. Anyway.

    I’m starting to write what I call “techno fantasy” which is set around industrial revolution type times in the fantasy worlds where science is just starting to take hold. (So more towards the fantasy end of “science fantasy”, I suppose.) Some people here have read one of them, I think. It can put an interesting spin on straight fantasy. (though obviously lots of people are more interested in straight fantasy.)

  2. McChuck

    “The Incompleat Enchanter” by de Camp and Pratt, 1941. Series complied as “The Complete Compleat Enchanter.”

    The “Schooled in Magic” series by Christopher Nuttall, 2014.

    • +1 on de Camp/Pratt’s Enchanter works. Those preceded (I think) most of the others that have been mentioned, but are still an enjoyable read.

      Three Hearts and Three Lions is one of my all-time favorites.

  3. Tim McDonald

    Two more for your consideration. Magic Inc, novella by Heinlein did a very good job. But the one you MUST NOT MISS is Jack of Shadows by Zelazny. Nominated for the Hugo, it was beaten out by something. I forgot what, it was a good book as I remember, but Jack of Shadows should have won that year. Zelazny wrote the first steampunk novel, WAY before anything was called steampunk.

    • sanfordbegley

      Arguably Randal Garret’s Lord D’arcy was the first to Steampunk. Then again when you start going down that sort of rabbit-hole people keep delving deeper until they argue that 20000 Leagues Under The Sea was Steampunk

      • Tim McDonald

        Lord Darcy never gave me the feel of Steampunk, nor did 20K Leagues Under the Sea. Leagues had no magic as far as I recall, and Lord Darcy was straightforward magic, with no feel of mixing of tech and magic such as Jack discovers in JoS. Just my opinion of course.

  4. CJ Cherryh’s Morgaine novels. No actual magic, so I’m not entirely sure it fits in the category, but it’s SF that feels entirely like sword & sorcery fantasy.

    The Gate of Ivory by Doris Egan (actually a trilogy) has magic which co-exists right along with technology and research. Really a fun set of books, and world-building which I really loved. But it was the characters I keep coming back for.

    Are we talking about just literature? Does Chronicles of Riddick count?

    I’m wondering where mental powers (telepaths, psychics (Anne McCaffery’s Talents series, Firefly) and ect (I Am Four, a lot of the X-Men)) count.

    • And a big “I second that” for the Ivory trilogy. It was a sad day for SF when Doris Egan found out how much money there was in writing for television.

      • Agreed. I end up re-reading the third one (the one with the salad incident) every year or so. I mean, I’m happy for her that she’s making bazillions, but still. Hope she’s still writing fiction on the side.

  5. Randall Garret’s Lord Darcy stories present ingenious mysteries in a world where magic has been distilled into a science within a culture that has otherwise reached a Victorian technology level. Very entertaining!

    • I like that series, too. I’d forgotten about it while writing this up.
      I’ll do a partial list now, and add to it later – it’s a busy day for me, so I will be in and out.

  6. Am I misunderstanding the definition of the genre here or is there a reason why no one has not yet mentioned the apotheosis of science-fantasy, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series…?

  7. Barbara Hambly’s Windrose series falls into the ‘real world character falls into magical world’ category; a female computer programmer winds up in a quasi-medieval world where magic is a dangerous science.

  8. There’s also Mordant’s Need by Stephen Donaldson (I think that’s the name of the series– it could be the name of one of the books). It has a man with powerbattle armour in a fantasy world. I’ll have to reread that series one day.

  9. It seems like a lot of the stories where someone from our world goes to a magical one could be considered science fantasy.

  10. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels had “magic” that was actually science “Psi Powers”.

  11. Karl Sandwell-Weiss

    For a modern take on mixing science and magic, there is an excellent YA series by Marion Harmon about a teen-age girl that gains superpowers, along with many other people. Some get magical powers, others get Superman attributes, others are super intelligent, or strong, and so on. The the logic in how the powers work makes sense and all in all, they are delightful reads. The series starts with “Wearing the Cape” and goes on for several other volumes. There are giant robots and power armor invented by mad science types and a vampire.

    This isn’t deep literature, just a fun romp that is as enjoyable to read as Heinlein’s juveniles

  12. I remember Lord of Light as the pantheon of “gods” are actually the crew members of the ship that populated the world, and the magic seen is actually the tech of the od ship. It stills feels completely magical because of the extremes to which the crew could go.

    • Yes, and that one was recommended to me elsewhere, I’ve got it on the draft list. Computer problems are slowing me down, I’m afraid. I should have it up shortly.

      • I disagree. I have always felt that Lord of Light was strictly science fiction, because there is always a clear mechanical and technological basis for the “powers” that they have developed, even if they are boosted by psychic abilities.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Well David one aspect of “Science Fantasy” has IMO always been “it looks like magic” but “is really science”.

          Lord of Light is that type of story. [Smile]

          Of course, YMMV.

  13. morrigan508

    There’s a sub genre of this too, usually called urban fantasy, modern world or just slightly post modern, but magic exists alongside tech. Misty Lackey writes a lot of it (the Serrated Edge stuff is a lot of fun) Laurel Hamilton writes exclusively this stuff (well actually soft core to hard core porn crossed with this stuff) and my John Fisher Chronicles are another example.

    • I’m actually setting aside Urban Fantasy, it’s got a unique feel to it that doesn’t quite meet these books. I’ll discuss that in another post.

    • I liked Lackey’s Diana Tregarde. I wish more people had, maybe she would have finished the series. (that last book felt like there was more to come.) I read a few of the SE books, but I’m not much into elves, so it didn’t appeal to me.

      • If I remember one of the author’s notes right, she stopped because the folks coming to her to make contact with “The Guardians”– or showing up, in person, to tell her they were Guardians– were freaking her out.

      • morrigan508

        actually she didn’t stop them because they weren’t selling (according to what I read from her) she stopped them because of freakazoids that were sure they were autobiographical and wanted her to teach them how to do magic, or clear out a nest of demons or…. we’re talking real stalker shit here.

  14. Draven

    Some of the later and middle Pern books got too science-y… I think

    • Reality Observer

      Arranged in chronological order by when they were written – Pern started as a pure fantasy that accreted the “sciency” bits over time. (Wisely, so far as I know, McCaffrey has not even tried to attach hand-wavium to the teleportation and time-travel bits…)

    • **cough** She tried, but unfortunately her grasp of science is about on par with mine – limited. Some of it is bad enough that some of us Pern fans refer to it as “Anne Science”.

  15. pouncer

    http://www.watt-evans.com/worldsofshadow.html Our Earth is a realm between a “tech” Galactic Empire and a “magic” Dark Lord’s Kingdom..

    http://www.davidbrin.com/practiceeffect.html Our Earth is just like a realm where “survival of the fittest” makes things evolve while being used.

    https://archive.org/stream/rog-KeithLaumerTheWorldShuffler/Keith%20Laumer%20-%20The%20World%20Shuffler_djvu.txt Keith Laumer’s “World Shuffler” Layfette O’Leary,

    There’s a bunch of GOOD stuff by BIG NAMES in this crossover category.

  16. Brandon Sanderson’s YA superhero series (Steelheart and Firefight so far and when’s the next one, Mr. Sanderson???) is fantasy with SF overtones.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      I kind of thought of that as into a distinct superhero genre. Which is why I had decided not to mention both Worm and Whateley. Whateley makes a distinction between physics warping ‘science’ powers and science powers that find solutions anyone can use.

      • I don’t read it, so I suppose I should do some research and give it a niche all it’s own?

        • Karl Sandwell-Weiss

          I think super hero could be a distinct niche. Just a word of warning about Worm for anyone that isn’t familiar with it – it’s the equivalent of 27 books long.

  17. Reality Observer

    One that I will add – I wish he would write more in the same vein – is Harry Turtledove’s “The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump.”

  18. Fred Saberhagen’s “Empire of the East” series was another one, if I remember right, and lord knows I remember it fondly. Mary Gentle’s “Book of Ash” series was more recent, and pretty damn brilliant despite the slow start, I thought.

  19. Pingback: The Starter List of Science Fantasy | Cedar Writes

  20. I have the list up, and will no doubt be adding to it as we go along. Plenty of titles on there I haven’t read. Now, we need a time machine so I have more reading time! http://cedarwrites.com/the-starter-list-of-science-fantasy/

  21. Uncle Lar

    Larry Niven did his own take on magic, positing that magic was real but required a force or element that was consumed in the making of magic. As I recall he called it mana or some such. As is his wont he created a very consistent world within his premise: dinosaur fossils were actually dragons turned to stone when their magic left them, magic could be used up with a spell to spin a disk at impossible speed while holding it together.
    As I recall he wrote two stories: “The Magic Goes Away” and “The Magic May Return.”
    And too, Laurel Hamilton and Jim Butcher both employ elements of magic in their very popular series. But as you point out, urban fantasy is its own genre in and of itself.

    • Draven

      I think i may have read ‘Talisman’, a short story in that setting. My dad had subs to F&SF and Asimov’s for years.

    • Griz

      Aren’t those Niven/Pournelle collaborations?

      • Niven and Pournelle wrote two books in the same universe many years later (The Burning Tower and The Burning City), but the Magic Goes Away universe was all Niven’s once upon a time.

      • Uncle Lar

        I checked and my e-book copies say copyright by Niven only. Both are novelettes rather than full books.

        • As far as I know both were collections of short fiction?

          (Pause whilst goes to library)

          Yup, bother were collections. In fact there was also a third, “More Magic”.

  22. I prefer a color-and-texture metaphor, myself, but leaves work– especially since then you can have something on one “branch” that’s closer to another “branch” than many of the other leaves that are actually on Branch #2.

    A slight variation of the “science and magic” thing is the magic where it’s more like psi powers or odd chemistry rather than the “making deals with Other Powers” end.

    • Foxfier, ShadowDancer mentioned you as one of the people who had brought her here to this safe place. It, along with ATH and MHI, have been a refuge for her, I just discovered.
      I honor you.
      I blogged about processing grief on my blog, and included ShadowDancer’s post made the dy Brandon died.

      • I just knew she needed to be around people, and this is a good place for it. There’s enough elbows that she wouldn’t want to scream at folks to stop pussy-footing, but it’s safe— actual malice gets removed, folks can just be themselves.

        Plus, I knew she’s a writer. 😀

        I just thank God that it worked out. I was rather worried.

        Thank you for caring enough about her to find it a good thing. I think she’s pretty neat. *wry smile*

        • This seems to be resonating with everybody. It’s a strong contrast with the blather going on about The Award.
          You were in the right place, at the right time, and you did the right thing. It really doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

  23. Christopher M. Chupik

    Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark series qualifies. Early books are set in an old-fashioned Solar System with a strong Robert E Howard vibe. Feels much more like Sword and Sorcery than SF. The Book of Skaith is a trilogy she did in the ’70s, taking Stark out of the Solar System to the dying world of Skaith.

    C L Moore’s Northwest Smith stories are very similar, with an even stronger fantasy element.

    • A. Merritt’s books are often side-by-side fantasy and lost high tech. The Moon Pool is particularly good, but there’s one with nanites too. (And if you play D&D, you owe a lot of standard spells to Merritt!)

      • I should probably mention that he was writing in the Teens and Twenties, so he influenced everybody. Eeeeeverybody. And he’s on Gutenberg, and there are free audiobooks too.

  24. Anachronda

    Big long list like that without Charles Stross’s Laundy novels and their computational demonology?

    Although I must admit that I was disappointed that he missed the possibilities offered by the fact that Zuse used 35mm film as the programming medium in his machines…

    • I’ve been AFK most of the day. I will update the list with suggestions when I can. There is a reason I crowd source these listings: i simply can’t remember or read everything. By throwing it open, we all learn about new titles/ authors.

  25. absolutely loved the Wizardry novels. they came out when i was a freshly minted software engineer and the industry insider jokes were a source of continual enjoyment.

  26. lonejanitor

    Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of the New Sun’, Poul Anderson’s ‘Operation Chaos’ and ‘Operation Luna’, Heinlein’s ‘Magic, Inc.’, and I think there was one by Clifford Simak but I can’t find it on my shelves. Probably in the wrong stack, somewhere. All had either science people thought was magic or magic used as science.

  27. “Limiting Factor,” a short story by Theodore Cogswell, 1954, was the lead story in “The Third Galaxy Reader,” which one of my parents bought. It’s a story of the super-humans with magic powers and the normals.

  28. I was surprised no one had gotten around to mentioning Star Wars yet. I know the universe began as movies, but there are so many tie-in novels (which still exist even if Disney did throw them out of the continuity) that I think it counts. It’s certainly the example that you can give most people and have them understand the concept almost immediately.

    Also, Margaret Weis wrote a series called Star of the Guardians, which she explicitly stated was science fantasy. It’s been ages since I read the books, but I recall them being fun adventures.

    I’d also recommend Timothy Zahn’s Trilpet for another example of the subgenre. It’s lots of fun.

    • Lucas threw them out, if you accept that the new movies happened.

      I can remember the utter flabbergation of my ‘Wars fan friends that, after all that good will and rich history was built up… he totally dumped it. If it wasn’t violated it the movies, he still made it clear that it wouldn’t be respected going forward.

      Before that, the talk of the Geek Table was about which books would be the most influential on the movies. -.-

    • Yeah, Star Wars is maybe the greatest example of the two modes of magic and technology in conflict.
      What about ‘The Matrix’ ? Is it all just technology, or does technology become magic?

  29. Luke

    A recent example, “Off to be the Wizard” by Scott Meyer. (Also author of the Basic Instructions webcomic.) First of a series.
    Central concept is that reality is a computer simulation, a programmer finds the datafile, learns that he can alter it, and rapidly gets himself into a great deal of trouble.

  30. I think that all of Liad counts. I mean… it’s got *elves*. And witches. And wizards. And spaceships and whatever else too. Cats that can open spatial gates…

    And human scholarly treatises explaining that of course the magic isn’t real.

    But it’s absolutely a sci-fi setting… with a gigantic sentient tree that’s been genetically engineering a family for 900 years as a thank you for being rescued as a sapling. The “elves” and the “orcs” are decendants of extensively engineered humans, the elves with an additional influx of traits from time and reality bending agents created by malicious gods.

  31. Angus Trim

    The first Madwand novel by Roger Zelazny. That was mainly fantasy, but had magic in conflict with the technical.

    Zelazny did this a lot. “Cat” was mainly sf in the future, but had some Native American woo-woo stuff mixed in.

    There are three or four other novels of his from the eighties, whose titles I can’t bring to the surface, that featured both. Advanced tech and magic at the same time.

    It really ought to be a sub-genre of its own.

  32. Mary

    Dread Companion by Andre Norton.

    A lot of her SF, actually, is borderline, like Ice Crown or Catseye. But definitely Companion.

    • Tim McDonald

      I had forgotten Andre Norton. Judgement on Janus and another, I forgot the name, magic and technology in direct conflict.

  33. Much more recent, but Hell’s Gate and the sequel by David Weber and Linda Evans? Basic notion is that different universes have different rules, science, magic, etc. and they have learned to cross the boundaries. So explicitly mixing science and magic.

  34. Conjure, Wife? Not sure whether that’s an early urban fantasy or science fantasy. I haven’t read it in a while, but as I recollect, the husband talks his wife into giving up her superstitious little magic rituals — which is when they find out they really worked! And…

  35. “where a modern man is pitched suddenly into a world that has magic.”

    Two that I can think of that fit this criteria are Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series. (I read the first three back in college) and Dickson’s Dragon Knight. (I’ve read a couple of them so far and have found them enjoyable.)

  36. Laura M

    Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series if you postulate that dragons have to be magic. Of course, in the books they aren’t. Those were tremendous fun. If you like Patrick O’Brien, Georgette Heyer and Sharpe’s Rifles, but with an air force. Mmm, mmm, good.

  37. Jess

    Jack Chalker’s Flux-and-Anchor books start out as a magic/fantasy world that turns out to have an extremely high-tech basis. I always enjoyed them.

  38. Murgy

    Alan E Nourse’s “Bladerunner” may have inspired the name of the movie, but dang, doesn’t it sound eerily prescient of today’s “managed healthcare”. Save for the eugenics portion.

  39. fontofworlds

    Okay. I am surrounded by people who can remember names. Book names, even. But I remember a wonderful book about a wizard who was transported into Nazi Germany. And… he has to deal. Apparently, he was brought forth by the SS wizardlings, who wanted him to teach them advanced Dark Arts or something. He figures out what they are, and realizes that he probably won’t survive the “I’m sorry Dave, I cannot do that.” Hilarity ensues.

    It is an awesome book, and supposed to be a first of something or other. No memory of the author or the title, sadly. Any help from the massively better read group mind? Well, if you do know what the thing is called, have it be known I strongly recommend it.

    Oh, and early Tepper, the Marianne series.”Marianne and the Malachite Mouse” is the first in series. That had “philosophy is magic” that was pretty nifty. It’s really a shame, because I haven’t read anything she’s written since even half as good.

    • It was a Barbara Hambly book – The Magicians of Night. Second in a series called Suncross. the first and set-up book was The Rainbow Abyss. She hasn’t to date written any books carrying on the characters established, which is a crying pity, because the first two set up the story, carried it to a fascinating point … and then, nada.

      I started reading some of Hambly’s books because some of them (The Darwath series, and Bride of the Rat God especially) had a start in a part of Southern California that I knew quite well, since I was born and was brought up there. She wrote about them so evocatively, and it was just basically throw-away scene-setting in some cases – but those scene-settings really hit home to me.

  40. The Apprentice Adept series by Piers Anthony makes the science/fantasy story divide pretty clear.