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Fantastic Science Fiction or Science Fiction Fantasy?

“Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.”

“Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination”

Arthur C. Clarke

“Any magic, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from technology.”


The Doctor

The speculative fiction genre has no fixed rules, though there is a tendency to acknowledge there are, in general, two distinct sides: fantasy and science fiction. There is also another tendency to view the two sides as equal in storytelling but maintained separately. One could view them as distinctly as peanut butter and chocolate, two flavors that are tasty alone. At times, however, the two flavors crash together, mixing the ingredients unexpectedly. A somewhat famous set of commercials include two people bumping into each other and complaining simultaneously “Hey, you got your chocolate in my peanut butter! – You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!” The same can be said of the two sides of the genre.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope has been called by many a science fiction fantasy or space fantasy. The movie begins by introducing the audience to a time “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” These lines, which riff on the starting point for any number of fantasy stories that began “long ago in a land far away,” inform us subtly that this is a mixture of science fiction and fantasy.

The science fiction element is strongly introduced in the first scene of the movie when the Rebel blockade runner appears above Tatooine attempting to escape the Imperial Star Destroyer. The elements are more strongly emphasized when we are introduced to two droids on the ship and see a battle using laser guns.

Interestingly, the fantasy elements aren’t introduced until later in the film. Our first indication is when Owen Lars is talking with Luke Skywalker and describes Obi-Wan Kenobi as “that wizard is a crazy old man.” Then later, Obi-Wan Kenobi himself describes a magic system called “The Force” saying “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Through the nine films, we see the Force allowing the Jedi, and their dark counterparts the Sith, to cast lightning bolts, draw physical objects to them, mind control the weak-willed, see portents of the future, extend their own lives, and speak with dead Jedi masters.

On the other side of the mixture is the Terry Brooks series “The Chronicles of Shannara” which describes a future Earth decimated by a magical apocalypse. Overall, the series is portrayed as fantasy, with titles like The Sword of Shannara and The Elfstones of Shannara. As the books describe the world, certain pieces of technology, such as killer robots, show up, some having been infected or affected by magic. The television show even portrayed the remains of helicopters, cars, and the ruins of the Seattle Space Needle during the main character’s journey.

Some of the most famous mixtures of the genre’s parts are found in superhero comics, which often mix science fiction and fantasy together into a cohesive whole. The two titans of the industry, Marvel Comics and DC regularly and freely mix magic (both divine and arcane) and technology. These are literary universes, where aliens like Superman, the Martian Manhunter, Rocket Racoon, and Groot fight alongside allies of a more technical bent such as Iron Man, Batman, and Spiderman. They also have allies of magical capabilities in the form of, to name a few, Dr. Fate, Dr. Strange, Thor, Wonder Woman, and Hercules. There are even characters who it is hard to determine whether they are using super-science or magic, such as Captain Marvel and the Green Lantern. Are the lantern ring’s powers a manifestation of cosmic energy through ultra-high technology or supreme magic?

Speculative fiction cartoons have freely introduced concepts from both sides of the genre. There were pure fantasy shows, such as Dungeons & Dragons, Dragon’s Lair, and Dark Waters as well as science fiction show like Dino-Riders, Transformers, and Spiral Zone.

However, the mixing of the genres was popular as well. In He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and the companion show She-Ra, Princess of Power, the characters regularly used both science and magic in their battles. Villains and heroes alike cast spells and fought with energy weapons and bioengineered creatures.

The introductory voice-over from Thundarr the Barbarian states “Human’s civilization is cast in ruin! Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn. A strange new world rises from the old. A world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery.” The show’s characters, who themselves mixed technology and magic, dealt in the various episodes with both mad scientists and their technological terrors and dark wizards who fought with spells.

Another example of how mixing science fiction and fantasy can work is the Shadowrun books and roleplaying game. At the turn of the century, magic reawakens and causes some children to change into elves, dwarves, trolls, and ogres. Shamans and wizards begin to perform actual spellwork and magical creatures of all types begin to walk the planet again. On top of this, breakthroughs in technology allow for a new version of computing where users can literally plug into a virtual reality network, the protection software can kill them, cybernetics and bio-enhancement are commonplace, and a dragon becomes the President of what remains of the United States.

I also feel there is another version of blending science fiction and fantasy. What I’ll term as magic in place of technology. These are works where technology, as we think of it, is never developed, yet the described world is close to if not equal to our own in both socio-political terms and general lifestyle. There are stories, such as Randell Garrett’s Lordy Darcy stories, which move the fantasy timeline forward (the 1960s in this case) but retard the overall development of both social and technological nature to earlier times. The world of the 1960s in these stories resembles the mid-Victorian era of our own world as far as the setting goes.

Poul Anderson’s books Operation Chaos and Operation Luna describe a variant of the United States where World War II happened (though quite a bit different from our own history, including the invasion of the West Coast by forces of the Caliphate) but the post-war decades are similar to our own with suburbs, government-related civilian research jobs, and the classic nuclear family concept. They follow one such family through the post-war years and into the earliest days of the conquest of space, always using magic instead of technology to solve engineering issues. Another example of this, Robert A. Heinlein’s “Magic Inc.”, takes place during roughly the same time period.

Moving the clock ahead to the 1980s, Harry Turtledove’s The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump introduces the readers to a world where the environmental complications of spell working, and the toxic results of the waste byproducts of said spell working, draw a government investigator from the EPA (Environmental Perfection Agency) into a mystery dealing with potential leakage from the titular toxic spell dump and children born without souls.

“Tow-may-tow, ta-mah-tow” as the old saying goes. How one person views a subject doesn’t make it automatically more right or wrong. It makes their view different from yours. Speculative fiction isn’t a single, easily identifiable style. It freely mixes ideas from all genres, even intermixing magic and technology at times to create interesting and enjoyable new stories. Like the old commercials for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups said, “they’re two great tastes that taste great together.”

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