Thursday, March 8, 2012

Genre Identified #3: Science-Fantasy

This is one of the most confusing, obscure, and misunderstood speculative genres. I like how agent Ginger Clark put it in her interview on Cynsations: "...there is no such genre as sci-fi/fantasy. It's either science-fiction or fantasy. (Unless it's science-fantasy, and I can sense your head is exploding, so never mind!)"

The 2009 Guide to Literary Agents defines science-fantasy this way: "a blend in which fantasy is supported by scientific or pseudo-scientific explanations." I think this is the best definition I've found to-date, simple and precise.

Most people automatically think of Star Wars with it's use of advanced technology plus the mysterious Force. For a more recent and better example might I suggest Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Series or Warbreaker  where the fantasy elements have pseudo-scientific explanations and rules. When you really get into the explanations and figure out what defines science-fantasy what you discover is that there are a lot of books that straddle science-fiction and fantasy but to really be defined as science-fantasy you can't just throw together laser guns and elves. Many people try to get away with defining their work as sci-fi/fantasy without having the actual pseudo-science involved and the fantasy elements that make up the difference to replace realism.

World-building wise, you can have a futuristic or current setting, or a medieval one. Science-fantasy straddles the genres here. Races, languages, customs, and what-not are also fair game. What isn't is the science and fantasy melding that makes and breaks the rules of your world. Without that, then yes, you've got a sorry hodge-podge sci-fi/fantasy Frankenstein that will be very hard to define unless it plays into the direct rules of some other speculative subgenre. Don't classify it as science-fantasy and never use the term sci-fi/fantasy in a query letter.

The debates are heated; especially among purists who'd either resign all science-fiction with fantasy elements to a junk pit which they designate as science-fantasy or would rather ignore the subgenre all-together. Regardless of how they feel, it is a valid subgenre, recognized by both the publishing and movie industry. Defining it is trickier and writing science-fantasy on purpose isn't as easy as one might think.

Now for some links to showcase the debate, to define, and to help you understand:

Fantasy Magazine does a wonderful job defining the three levels of science-fiction (of which science-fantasy is #3) in this article.

John Scalzi writes regarding the negative attribution of calling some films science-fantasy vs. science-fiction when in fact both are subgenres of fantasy, so there you go. Fun read, even if it blurs the lines a bit more.

The SF Site lists several main genres and subgenres of speculative fiction, including science-fantasy for a brief, clear-cut explanation.

There's even a Science-Fantasy fan page on Facebook you can like! And yes, they have an explanation regarding the subgenre too.

On Tia Nevitt's blog Heather Massey guest posts regarding science-fantasy and makes some very valid points.

Intergalactic Academy sheds even more light on what is science-fantasy here.

After researching a bit, can you think of a good example of a science-fantasy book that you've read? Share it in the comments.


  1. Excellent source post, and now I'm more confused than ever about where to place my novel (other than in the trunk.) It would seem to be more in the science-fantasy realm, though many on our AQC site said science fiction. I know my hard-core science fiction addict friend would balk at calling it that, but there is no space travel. It all takes place in an everyday Midwestern setting, albeit with a spirit guide, alien possession, and little cubes from another dimension that can alter energy for light or dark, can subdue, kill, or heal. Oh, and a fight to preserve a vortex of light energy. What say you?

  2. Hi Rick,
    Science-fiction isn't defined as space travel. In fact, there are a lot of science-fiction novels that aren't in space at all.

    You listed several story elements that are in your novel. But what you're missing that would qualify your story as science-fiction or science-fantasy is the science angle. Are you basing your story on actual science and is explaining it a prime element of your story? If so, you lean toward science-fiction. If you use actual science to explain fantasy elements or psuedo-science for the same purpose, then you have a science-fantasy.

    Your description, as is, sounds like you have both science fiction and fantasy elements. This does not make it a science-fantasy. Without the science basis of either real or pseudo-science, it can't be categorized that way.

    If science isn't a big factor, but the story has an advanced tech feel to it, then you'd need to lock in the genre as something else. If your story has technological elements and fantasy elements, same thing.

    Science-fantasy uses science or pseudo-science to explain the fantasy parts. Most people get confused about the term, thinking: sci-fi elements + fantasy elements = science-fantasy. They don't.

    So I suppose, in return, I would ask, do you have the world of your story figured out in scientific terms and is it an integral part of the story? If so, you might have a science-fantasy on your hands. =)

  3. I actually have the first book to the Mistborn series on my coffee table! Now I'm more excited to read it, awesome! :) As always, very useful links!