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Science Fantasy

Discussion in 'World Building' started by D. Gray Warrior, Nov 30, 2019.

  1. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

    Settings where sci fi technology mesh with the magical and fantastical. This is my favorite kind of fantasy setting.

    I like worlds with dragons and magic, but also have robots and ray guns. The problem is how to begin constructing this kind of world.

    One problem is that I want it to be more than the standard pseudo-medieval fantasy setting with hi-tech weapons added and I want to think through the implications of having robots and lasers in a setting full of castles, knights and feudalism.

    Another issue is that after a certain point, magic could be indistinguishable from science, since magic can just be science or technology we just don't understand yet.

    I've toyed with brainstorming an interstellar setting with wizards in space, and having magitech spaceships, but I couldn't quite get the magic system the way I wanted it to work in space.

    For example, in such settings, there might be psionics or nanotechnology that works pretty much like magic, serving the same purpose and accomplishing similar feats.

    Anyone else constructing a science fantasy setting, or want to share tips?
  2. Malik

    Malik Archmage

    I write fantasy technothrillers. They're not quite what you're talking about, but the plots hinge on technical arcana that many fantasy authors either get wrong or overlook entirely. Think The Hunt for Red October but for knights in armor instead of submarines. They're about as scientific as you can get while still being epic fantasy (as opposed to historical fantasy or alternate history).

    My tip is this: people will believe in flying horses if the saddles make sense. In order to suspend disbelief sufficiently to introduce the magical aspects of your world, or as the saying goes, the "sufficiently advanced technology" that's indistinguishable from magic, you first have to suspend disbelief in the mundane. Minimize the use of Handwavium. Figure it out. Research it. Invent it if you have to. Your book and your story will be better for it.
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2019
  3. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    There are a lot of high-tech elements on my primary world. Aliens terraformed that planet multiple tens of thousands of years ago, planted cities and bases in several regions, then imported other races, including humans, as servants and experimental subjects...before being almost wiped out. A great many relics produced by these inhuman races are still extant - though many are either inoperable or semi-functional. No small number require a degree of psionic ability to function correctly.

    Much of 'Empire: Judgment' (book six of the 'Empire' series) takes place in abandoned alien bases with futuristic technology and on a derelict alien spacecraft. Part of 'Labyrinth: Seed' (book two of the 'Labyrinth' series) involves uncovering and activating another abandoned alien facility.

    My spare time/back burner project is set 'fifty years from now,' after earth undergoes a hard 'Lovecraftian Sideswipe' that almost but not quite collapses present day civilization, and permits dangerous, unstable bridges to other worlds. There's a mix of ritual magic, 'wizardry' (psionc ability) and human and alien technology for those stories.
  4. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I think most of the time such stories are really just Space Fantasy. No science or futurism content at all.

    Star Wars and Barsoom, and to a lesser extend Dune, work so very well because they are designed to be fantasy stories first and then get dressed up with some sci-fi elements. Those sci-fi elements mostly remain decorative and make no attempts to have scientific backing or be an extrapolation of current technological developments.

    Their narratives work entirely in the logic of fantasy, unconcerned by science.
  5. I think the most common examples of science fantasy are Star Wars, Dune, Anne McCaffrey's dragon riders books and Starcraft. Those might be a good starting point for you.

    The main thing is that you need to think through the consequences of magic and technology. The problem with pseudo-medieval fantasy setting with hi-tech weapons is that the high tech weapons usually make the medieval stuff obsolete. Dune for instance solves this by giving everyone a shield which blocks all the high tech stuff but which can be passed through by a sword (something to do with the speed of it I think). But if you have a ray gun then you don't have much use for armor or being on horseback.

    The same with castles. A castle is pretty expensive and labour intensive to build. And having lasers and flying stuff makes them pretty useless so people would no longer build them. Again, unless there is a reason in the technology to keep building them.

    Dragons are interesting, in the sense that if they exist in your world they have no reason to disappear if more technology becomes available (after all, there are still elephants around). And they might still play a viable role in society and warfare depending on their abilities and intelligence.
    James Wilson likes this.
  6. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    I think the first step in building a sci-fantasy setting is to define terms. The way I see it, it goes like this...
    Science is the acquisition of knowledge through the scientific method or some other empirical method.
    Technology is just tools used for a specific purpose with the application of scientific knowledge.
    Magic is supernatural or metaphysical things or powers that people demonstrate. Based on this kind of definition, I think once you give an explanation to magic like “nanomachines”, it stops being magic. Psionics and telekinetic stuff can still count.
    None of these terms are really mutually exclusive.

    So, I don’t see why a wizard and an astrophysicist cannot exist in the same world. I mean, theologians and physicists exist in our world just fine, they just have different areas of study.
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Jack Campbell did a decent job in The Dragons of Dorcastle, but really there are many science fantasy books. You might take some time to get an armload of them and read through.
    Steerpike likes this.
  8. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    I would love to write something as complex as Julian May's Saga of the Exiles. I love the mix of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Myths and Fables.
    Steerpike likes this.
  9. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    Someone in a review called my book science fantasy, and while that's not a term I'd use myself, I still want to butt in here.

    When I began, I started by creating a fantasy setting and I included as many of the standard fantasy elements as I could fit in. Magic, dragons, elves, dwarves, short people who live behind round doors in hillsides, and humans. I established the basic mechanics for how magic work, and a few other things that separate a fantasy world from the real world, and ended up with something that felt pretty solid.
    Then I pushed it forward in time, so that science and technology would have time to evolve.

    In effect: start by creating the things that won't change, the magical fantasy version of the laws of physics, if you will. Then add curious and creative people trying to make things easier for themselves.
  10. The Dark One

    The Dark One Maester

    Then I pushed it forward in time, so that science and technology would have time to evolve.

    I have issues with this. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, so what technology is necessary when magic already exists?

    Having said that, any world building can be effective when adequately underpinned by plausible rationalisation.

    For my part, I never blend science with magic, nor reality with magic, but I do like to play with the ambience of magic. My latest novel was a historical novel which included a fantastical flavour which was explicable to modern readers, but would have seemed like real magic to the characters.

    My next book is pure sci-fi.
  11. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Sage

    My work in progress isn't necessarily science fantasy but it does incorporate magic and science (albeit that which existed in the 1930s in our world). Indeed, there is conflict between traditionalists who think magic must take priority over science, rationalists who think science must take priority over magic and egalitarians who think science and magic are of equal worth and can compliment each other.

    I have elves, faeries, ship crushing sea monsters, dragons with machine guns mounted on them, mages who wear suits and bowler hats and surgeons who use modern surgical procedures and magic in operating theatres.

    Fantasy should be about letting our imaginations run wild. So science and fantasy elements like magic should not be mutually exclusive.
  12. What if magic is only available to a select few people or not actually all that powerful? If only 10% of the people can do magic then the other 90% will still do things the "old fashioned" way.

    And of course, magic needs to be invented and advanced just like any other science. It's a common trope in fantasy that magic is this constant thing which people simply know, stumble upon or are taught, but all of it already exists or is known. But it's much more plausible that magic develops just like any other science would. People experiment and find out new ways to apply it. We've known about electricity (a form of scientific magic) since the 1600's or so, and we've known the basic equations that govern it since the 1860's, but we're still learning new stuff about it. So it can be with magic as well.
  13. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    As an aside: that series is a lot of. Worth checking out.
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Yeah, Campbell needs go on my TBR list.
    Steerpike likes this.
  15. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I’ve enjoyed a lot of his work. His short story collection “Ad Astra” is good if you want short fiction.
  16. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Sage

    That is a very good point! I decided with my work in progress that magic (called the Spark because it manifests itself as a spark) would be gifted by the gods to around 0.5% of the population on their sixteenth birthday. However, while the gifting of the Spark is seemingly random the person who receives it still has to be taught how to use it effectively and safely. Thus, the government requires that all people who get the Spark must attend a mage's college. Not everyone is equal when it comes to the ability to use magic, though. As a result, some people who are gifted are regarded as being so stupid or dangerous that they are only taught the most basic magic before being packed off to a factory to enchant household or corporate shrines being churned out on a production line or sent off to enchant and maintain roadside shrines. Others only master enough magic they can only ever work under the supervision of a higher ranked mage who is more skilled in the use of magic.

    The advent of science and technology, especially in medical science, came about in my world because magic could no longer keep up with the demands of a modern society and the mass slaughter of a modern battlefield.
  17. caters

    caters Sage

    I have never written science fantasy before. My closest to science fantasy is a world which is dominated by reptilian species in all environments. Even then, there is a lot of science to back up the species, so I would consider it science fiction(which is the genre most of my stories are in).
  18. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Seems to me that almost all the science fantasy I know has the overriding sense of being science fiction but with a lot of hand waving (explicit or implied) for certain putatively "sciency" elements of the world.

    For instance, those fobs used to track Baby Yoda (or any other quarry of the bounty hunter guild.) They're pretty much ridiculous. But, they are shown as devices, they exist in a world that has been drawn to be a science fiction type of world. They are given a veneer of "science;" only, we viewers are never given an explicit and rational explanation of their operation.

    The same thing occurs with the spice in Dune. It has certain effects on the mind and also allows the Spacing Guild to bend/warp space. How, pray tell? No explanation.

    In Dune there's also the religious and psychic aspects. Some of these are tricky. I remember as a teenager reading a story or two that were classified as science fiction in which telepathy played a major role. The problem is that some people in our very real world believe telepathy is a real possibility. In our very real world, some people believe in religious realities, in souls and such. So incorporating these concepts and beliefs into an otherwise sci-fi story, and having them play a major role, would from my POV make it science fantasy, but others might not agree, heh.

    Then you have the problem of warp drives or some other form of FTL, FTL communication, even things like teleportation. We may have a current scientific hypothesis about possibilities of teleportation, actually, or for a process that would pass for teleportation, but we really don't know if such a thing will ever be possible. We don't know that FTL travel or FTL communication will ever be possible, and a lot of science fiction depends on these. Those stories aren't relegated to the subgenre of science fantasy, even so.

    Yeah, this sort of thing would be pretty annoying, I think. I.e., just dumping the two things together without thinking through consequences.

    Star Wars has "The Force" for its warrior wizards, heh.

    One thing you could try, in two parts:

    • Have a magic system that has extreme limits, or extreme specialization. For instance, perhaps the only magic that exists is a kind of electromagnetic magic, in which wizards are able to manipulate the electromagnetic force with their minds. Perhaps this has always been the only magic that existed, but before technology developed there was hardly much use for it. Or it just wasn't realized fully until technology had developed to the point it has. Now, wizards use that magic to keep their magitech spaceships working, and for defense of their ships, and probably to keep prying eyes from being able to scan their ships, etc. Heck, it could be a sort of magical anti-technology power in many respects when confronting other space faring races who only have technology. (I'd say some really inventive wizards could find many cool applications, shocking others even in their own society.)
    • Have the number of potential users be very small. This works for the Jedi in Star Wars. I'd say, only one space faring race has the ability (even if it's your main race and they are human), and a comparitively small number of people in your race are able to use it. This makes that power a sort of unicorn, already. As such, there's a little more maneuver room for just hand waving it. You could have some sort of pseudo-sciency explanation (just not midichlorians, please), still vague, for why the ability exists and only a small number of people have it; but you don't need to go into great detail. Give it a veneer. Heck, you could even use some kind of religious or spiritual aspect also, if you want. The point would be to give this unexplained thing just the possibility of being something real that simply isn't explained in detail. If you were to give large numbers of your populace this power, that'd be harder because then you'd have to go through that lengthy process of mapping out all the consequences of it in your society, stretching for millennia.
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2019
  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    >Have a magic system that has extreme limits, or extreme specialization.
    I'll again suggest a look at Jack Campbell's Dorcastle books. One part of society is partly steampunk-y while the other is very much all wizardry. Another might be the Riftwar books, by Feist.

    So, it can be done. For every book where it's done well, I would guess there are a dozen where it's done poorly.
  20. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I'm not familiar with the Campbell books.

    Mostly I was addressing what I think of as "science fantasy," although there may be examples of stories that combine science fiction elements and fantasy elements...which I probably wouldn't classify as science fantasy? Dunno, maybe I'm splitting hairs. Things like Marvel and DC have fantasy and sci-fi elements, but I don't consider them to be science fantasy per se. It's just that they are able to include both, heh.

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