I want to talk to you about one of my absolute favorite sub-genres: _________. You may have noticed a blank space there because the sub-genre I am talking about is more of a loose collection of books that share the theme of not belonging to any genre. I call them Science Fantasy, and while I am sure many other smart and qualified people have named and grouped these books before somewhere in the annals of the internet, it’s a subgenre I almost never hear talked about. This is a shame because, while they are enormously hard to do well – when they are done well, the payoff is amazing.
So what is a Science Fantasy book? Surprise! They are books that draw both from the science fiction and fantasy genres but don’t distinctly belong to either of them. For my own personal qualification, a Science Fantasy book doesn’t have to draw equally from both genres – but at least one core facet of the story or world needs to come from each of the parent genres. Thus, we get a fusion of science and magic, fire and water, past and future.
So what makes a Science Fantasy book hard to write? Well, while I love both science fiction and fantasy to pieces, they often don’t play well together. The underlying issues come from the typical context of the parent genres, and the favorite tools by which they solve problems. Both science fiction and fantasy are fascinating and wonderful genres, but the success of their overlap is limited for a number of reasons:
- Fantasy tends to focus on the past. Due to settings that are often technologically reminiscent of years gone by, the themes and topics of fantasy books often examine current issues through a historical lens and introduce the element of magic to see how it changes the situation. Take classical European or Asian history, inject elves and fireballs, and see how it shakes things up. Conversely, science fiction tends to focus on the future. Sci-Fi uses science and technology to imagine new futures, ideas, and problems that we haven’t dreamt up yet due to the limitations of our times. Often these stories have backward-facing insights into how our current society could be improved with changes to technology or observations into how society can evolve when paired with technological breakthroughs.
- Technology tends to step on magic. Magic is often a shortcut for technology in fantasy settings, and it is hard to have believable and interesting magic in a technologically advanced setting. When warfare is conducted over lightyears using faster-than-light travel, throwing fireballs is less a military advantage and more of a cool party trick. Science Fantasy books need to find ways to make magic relevant in a world that has moved beyond the need for it.
- Science fiction tends to be extremely concrete and fantasy tends to be very whimsical. Science fiction likes hard rules and frameworks that focus on handing the reader a puzzle to solve with clear directions. Fantasy is often the exact opposite (though yes, I am aware that Sanderson and his magic systems exist), relying on whimsy, the joy of discovery, and the unknown to hook the reader’s imagination. These elements are hard to align, but books that do bring them together have incredible results.
Despite the challenges, a number of authors have still produced wonderful Science Fantasy books that I include in my top books of all time. Below is my list of favorite Science Fantasy novels and a little bit about what makes each one such a unique gem.
1) Heroes Die by Matthew Stover – These books are in no particular order, except for this one – you can find a mini-review of Heroes Die in the link back from when I first started this site. One of my favorite books of all time, Heroes Die still amazes me now as much as it did when I picked it up for the first time. This book, to me, is the ultimate Science Fantasy. Set in a technologically advanced science fiction world, we follow the story of Caine. Caine is an entertainer who uses technology to go into parallel worlds where he broadcasts his adventures on a magical planet as a form of reality TV. The fusion of magic and technology in this book is perfect – each parent genre contributes half the DNA, but the child becomes something completely new. The book explores themes I have never seen in other books with incredible insight and contemplation. The one-speed bump that always slows my recommendation of this series is the fact that it is incredibly violent – probably the most violent book I have ever read. Heroes Die uses its violence as a vehicle to explore key elements of the story, but that isn’t going to mean much to someone whose stomach is turned inside out from some of the descriptions. It is a completely unique book, and I love it for both its strengths and flaws.
2) How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason – A brand new release that we actually just reviewed, Rory Thorne is a delightful new addition to my science fantasy shelf. The balance of fantasy and sci-fi here is very uneven, with the world being approximately 99% science fiction. However, the character journey/growth of the protagonist is catalyzed and tied to an unheard-of magic that cannot be replicated through the means of technology. Thus, Rory Thorne seats itself in the firm domain of the hybrids and draws strength from both its parent genres despite the imbalance in their contributions to the world.
3) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Another recent release that we have reviewed, Gideon has the opposite ratio of science fiction to fantasy as Thorne. Gideon is about space necromancers and an intergalactic empire run by an undying lich. Gideon gave me what I have been requesting for years: compelling necromancy. And Muir then put it in space in a true “hold my quill” moment. Gideon’s story is still developing, so many details are unclear, but book one definitely feels like it lends more heavily on fantasy with a science fiction framework. By that, I mean that the book focuses on magic and more traditional themes but uses a science fiction backdrop to expand the scope and pave an interesting original direction for the narrative.
4) Lost Puzzler by Eyal Kless – One of two of “post-apocalypse Earth that is so messed up it regresses into magic” books on the list. These are the most typical Science Fantasy hybrids you will run into in the book landscape, but I don’t like the ones where the emphasis is on the reveal that it was “Earth all along” Planet of the Apes style. Lost Puzzler is pretty upfront about the fact that it is a ravaged Earth, and doesn’t rely on the idea to make the story compelling. The book makes the interesting choice not to differentiate between magic and technology, but simply state that the two are indistinguishable. It’s a wonderful blend of both genres, and while it is possibly the least original book on this list, it is very good at what it does and an excellent specimen of its little storytelling niche.
5) Red Sister by Mark Lawrence – The second apoka-Earth story on the list, Red Sister stands out from Lawrence’s large apoka-Earth portfolio as the best of his work. Red Sister’s worldbuilding is truly astoundingly good, with strong elements of both fantasy and science fiction representing cornerstones of the setting and how characters solve problems. What I find most compelling about Red Sister is that the challenges use science fiction hard rules and framework, but the solutions and the characters lean into fantasy’s whimsy and focus on discovery. What this means is the reader is presented with clear technological challenges but uses fantasy and imagination to dream up solutions. It is the best of both worlds and deeply satisfying on a number of levels that few books are.
6) A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Galaxy by Alex White – What feels like a strange lovechild of dystopian cyberpunk and fantasy, Big Ship is a lightning-fast adventure. Big Ship won its way into my heart very quickly by fusing advanced technology and magical systems. The magic in the story is a fantasy cyborg – half fantasy and half sci-fi. The book takes place in a world where a magical fantasy progressed into a technological future (though this isn’t the focus of the book). As such, the technology in Big Ship has all evolved to augment and enhance magic as opposed to replacing it. We have space ship racers who can magically fuse their minds to their cars like a bootstrapped AI, protection mages that use amplifiers to project their shield around their ships and deflect railgun shots, and pages of other fun ideas that I don’t want to spoil. Alex White is building something original and fantastical here and this series is definitely worth checking out.
7) Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone – The Craft Sequence is everything I have always wanted out of urban fantasy – the present reimagined in a fantasy world. This isn’t some basic “Chicago, but with wizards” worldbuilding. Gladstone has built an entire fantasy world with the trappings of modern technology, ideologies, and problems. The books are modern-day workplace escapism paired with powerful messaging and a world just dying to be explored. The magic and technology are paired harmoniously in Gladstone’s brilliantly designed world, and getting immersed is as easy as jumping into a pool.
8) A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennen – First off, this series has possibly the best set of covers out of any fantasy books I own. Second, if you love dragons as much as I do it’s very likely you have fantasized about the idea of studying them like a zoologist. Natural History tells the story of a female biologist with a love of studying dragons in a time that was not kind to women. Which you know, unfortunately, doesn’t really narrow it down much – so I mean it takes place in the Victorian era. The book approaches the study of these magical beasts with all the rigor and methodology of actual biologists and tells a scarily immersive story for anyone who has ever dreamed about seeing one of these fantastical creatures in the flesh.
9) The Great Book of Amber by Roger Zelazny – Honestly, I can’t really do Amber justice with this tiny paragraph. I am working on a larger piece to go into the fun gritty details, but for now, know that this is an epic 10 book saga about a family of heirs engaging in a murder-off over 100 dimensions. The idea of Amber is that the titular plane of ‘Amber’ is the only actual reality, and all the other ones are shadows that Amber casts across the multiverse. There are two warring forces – order and chaos – and our Earth is one of the many shadows of Amber. The shadows range all sorts of realities, from fantasy to science fiction. The story follows the many heirs as they vie for dominance and control of Amber by maneuvering the various planes. Zelazny skips between fantasy and science fiction constantly and it slowly laces the two genres together like a beautiful quilt. I highly recommend it.
10) Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples – If you are familiar with anything on this list, it is probably Saga, which is good because Saga is universally loved, and I feel like it lends my list credence. If you are one of the few who are unfamiliar with this massively successful graphic novel, congratulations! You have a wonderful brand new experience waiting for you that will knock your socks off. Before we even get to the writing, Saga is gorgeously illustrated. Fiona Staples is a goddess of art amongst mortals and I love her work. As to the story, Saga tells the tale of an interplanetary war between two fantasy races. Our protagonists are individuals from opposite genocidally inclined sides of the conflict, and manage to fall in love and have a child despite all the obstacles. The entire universe begins to hunt the child for what she represents, and the story is about her poetically lifelong journey to stay alive. The big idea of the narrative is that the world says things shouldn’t mix and the world is wrong. There is beauty and wonder and newness when we forge new bonds, build new things, and blend the lines of what people think is allowed. Mixing two things that people think don’t go together (like fantasy and science fiction) can make something better (like Science Fantasy).
11) Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding – More of an honorable mention, this book series is essentially a better version of the space western with a cult following: Firefly. Retribution is more of a steampunk with heavy fantasy elements than what I would consider a Science Fantasy – but it feels at home on this list. Retribution tells the story of a crew of misfits bumbling their way through the known world, trying to stay alive and financially solvent, and occasionally saving the day by accident. There is a heavy mix between steampunk technology/ships and fantasy magic in the form of necromancy, demon summoning, and more. The series does a great job making the tech and magic feel blended and even and overall it is generally a good time if you like westerns.
12) A Shadow Of What Was Lost by James Islington – Another honorable mention, Shadow is firmly in the fantasy genre – but I still want to talk about it. Shadow is a modern classic fantasy book telling of an epic hero’s journey, similar to the well known genre staple: The Wheel of Time. However, the reason I felt inclined to include it on this list is Shadow is a story that revolves around a single key concept – time travel. And the way that Shadow tells its story is by narratively pitting the stereotypical fantasy idea of time travel against the stereotypical science fiction idea of time travel. There are two major sides of conflict in this story, both using time travel to achieve their goals. However, one side believes that time travel can alter the past to change the future while the other believes that all events in time are fixed and that if you go to the past you have always gone to the past, and the future is unchangeable. The battle of these two ideas is a fascinating and enthralling story and while Shadow is definitely a fantasy book, the borrowing of science fiction concepts and hard magic systems can scratch the itch of anyone looking for a Science Fantasy.
Science Fantasy is a real unspoken wonder, and I am sure that a number of you out there have read some prime examples that I have never heard of. If you think you have a good addition to this list, please let me know in the comments! I am always looking for more material in this genre and I would love a good recommendation. If you liked this list, be sure to share it. While I don’t usually like to push my content, this is a subject that could use more attention and every little bit helps.