Arthur C. Clarke stated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Larry Niven responded that “any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology.” Either quote could be used in a pinch to describe works of science fantasy. As a subgenre of both science fiction and fantasy, it occupies the overlapping center in the Venn diagram of both genres, often borrowing tropes from each.
Science fantasy has enjoyed an illustrious history. Edgar Rice Burroughs (better known as the creator of Tarzan) penned the Barsoom series from 1912 to 1933. Set on a fictional Mars and featuring the travels of John Carter, a Confederate Army veteran, the Barsoom books mixed elements of fantasy–monsters and princesses and swords–with scientific speculation that was then considered possible. Like many works of fantastical SF of the same era, the science introduced in the Barsoom books would have been considered much harder in the era of their publication–Burroughs rendered Mars an arid landscape where canals carried water to its inhabitants–but time has softened the science of these tales. They’re much closer to “sword” than “laser” territory these days!
Burroughs had an indelible influence on the SF world. Clarke, Heinlein, and Bradbury all were fans. But perhaps nowhere was Burroughs’ influence more deeply felt than in the serialized cinema of the ’30s. Both Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon got their start in print (Buck Rogers in a novella; Gordon, in comic strips), but they’d find wider audiences when serialized on the big screen in 1939 and 1936, respectively. Buck Rogers was the tale of a contemporary man preserved for 500 years, who must travel to Saturn to resist an evil military dictator. Flash Gordon, meanwhile, told the story of a young Earth man who travels to the planet Mongo to battle the evil emperor, Ming the Merciless, not to mention such exotic henchmen as the Shark Men and Hawkmen. Both serials celebrated common science fictional tropes such as rayguns and rocketships, but eschewed the scientific explanations that in other formats supported the genre. They seemed to be intent on telling traditional adventure stories, just set on other planets rather than idealized fantasy versions of, say, medieval Britain.
These serial films would have an undeniable impact on a young George Lucas. Star Wars was, in fact, heavily inspired by Flash Gordon. Both tell the story of blond everymen who travel out from their planets of origin to battle evil villains on a variety of exotic extraterrestrial locales. Like Flash Gordon, the story of Luke Skywalker could easily be considered a fantastic one. In the initial films, at least, “the Force” stands in for what we usually refer to as “magic.” Skywalker battles with a sword, rescues a princess, encounters creatures just as strange as any orc or troll. The major difference here is not, as in harder works of science fiction, that the premise depends on the scientific, but rather that the scientific has been used as an attractive new window dressing. While later Star Wars films attempt to move the series into the realm of soft science fiction, the original trilogy is quite firmly and clearly science fantasy.
Concurrent with the release of the Star Wars films, print science fiction saw other explorations of science fantasy premises. In novels of the era, the science wasn’t always used as window dressing–in fact, in some novels, fantasy elements were used to spice up SF universes. Nowhere is this done to better effect than in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels. These books are set on a planet with dragons and lords–but the dragons arrived via genetic engineering of a native extraterrestrial species, and though they can both teleport and travel through time, they do that by virtue of their psychic abilities (then, thought more plausible than commonly believed today) rather than by magic spell. McCaffrey’s introduction to the very first volume, Dragonflight, announced her intent to mix the science fictional and fantasy genres:
When is a legend legend? Why is a myth a myth? How old and disused must a fact be for it to be relegated to the category, fairy tale? And why do certain facts remain in-controvertible, while others lose their validity to assume a shabby, unstable character?
Rukbat, in the Sagittarian sector, was a golden G-type star. It had five planets, plus one stray it had attracted and held in recent millennia. Its third planet was enveloped by air man could breathe, boasted water he could drink, and possessed a gravity which permitted man to walk confidently erect. Men discovered it, and promptly colonized it.
In many ways, science fantasy is one of the most mainstream forms of genre writing. Ask any reader on the street what they think of when the think of “sci-fi” and they’re likely to respond something along the lines of Star Wars–planetary romances featuring spaceships and aliens–as they are to prattle on about extrapolations of the impact of current science (a definition favored by many SF writers and fans). And science fantasy isn’t anywhere near dead; in fact, Disney is to release John Carter, an adaptation of one of the Barsoom books, The Princess of Mars, in March.
Oddly, despite the current popularity of soft science fiction and atmospheric dystopias in YA sci-fi, few YA authors have taken the path of writing science fantasies. Anne Osterlund, in her novel Academy 7, a school story set on a distant planet, and Jodi Meadows’ upcoming Incarnate, featuring a planet with dragons and laser guns, are the only contemporary YA novels which come to my mind (if you know of others, feel free to mention them in the comments!). That’s a shame–with a history that stretches back to the dawn of the twentieth century, nearly as far as that of science fiction itself–science fantasy deserves to be a subgenre with a future, too.