Marrying Sci-Fi and Fantasy

I knew the genre I would be writing in by age six. The year was 1981, and I’d just unboxed my first He-Man action figure. Masters of the Universe was my introduction to all things fantasy and Sci-Fi. With his furry loincloth and rippling muscles and interchangeable sword, ax and shield, He-Man set my imagination ablaze. Even the box art, with its assortment of heroes and villains, opened my young mind to ideas that, at the time, felt almost real. It didn’t matter that He-Man was a barbarian hero archetypes and Conan knockoff, or that his world was a mishmash of every fantasy trope from the thirties to the seventies. As far as I knew, He-Man was original. But it was the mini-comic that came with the figure, Battle in the Clouds, that would determine my writing style for decades to come. At first glance, He-Man’s home-world, Eternia, appears dark and primitive. Heroes carry swords and axes and live in fanciful, skull-faced castles. There is no technology, nor modern conveniences, to speak of. Then, a single panel would change that perception, when He-Man meets Man-at-Arms, a hero with a high-tech suit of armor. Man-at-Arms introduces He-Man to the Wind Raider. What was clear to me, early on, was how strange and out-of-place this bird-shaped vessel appeared. To He-Man’s primitive mind, the Wind Raider was magic.

Fantasy meets Science Fiction in a single image.

To this day, I find it remarkable how creators Donald F. Glut and Alfredo Alcala managed to convey, in just a single panel, a perfect marriage between fantasy and science-fiction. Countless comic book writers, movie producers and novelists have tried to do the same, often with mixed results. Marrying Sci-Fi to fantasy is like trying to stick a round peg into a square hole, a lot more difficult than giving your hero a laser gun and a sword, which the live action Masters of the Universe movie did, with disastrous results. Even the recent, much acclaimed Marvel films struggle to walk the fine line between the two genres. Despite my love for Thor, both in the comics and the original myths, I cannot help but wonder how a hammer—even Mjolnir forged in the heart of a dying star—can be as efficient as a gun. In Thor 2: The Dark World, Odin’s guards defend against alien elven invaders with sword and shield, while castle towers blaze with anti-aircraft artillery. It’s just one of those gaps in logic I try not to think about, or work hard to rationalize. Perhaps swords in Asgard are ceremonial?

But what makes Sci-Fi and fantasy what it is? Defining these genres determines how one can be made to complement the other, but with regards to definitions, there is much disagreement. Years back, I argued with an agent on a fiction forum over this very issue. She insisted that fantasy is any story with magic in it. But for me, it has everything to do with setting. While there are countless variations on the theme, fantasy was born out of romanticism, with an emphasis on the “mythical past that never was”. Give me a story about castles and princesses and dragons, and even without magic, it’s fantasy. Conversely, science fiction is often defined as that which deals with “science” which is usually regarded, somehow, as the opposite of magic. Some books even pit the two against each other. But this is a fundamental flaw, a literary straw-man attack on science and on what it represents. When people think Sci-Fi, they think of laser weapons and spacecraft, but these are products of technology, and do not represent the scientific method in any meaningful way.

A world without science, or more specifically, physics, cannot exist. Even cave men relied on it when building fires and carving out spears. Whether Harry Potter and his friends realize it or not, there is more physics happening at Hogwarts than magic. A wand and an incantation may levitate objects, but the force of gravity is what makes those object fall in the first place. If Harry breathes oxygen, metabolizes food, or swings the Sword of Gryffindor, the laws of physics are at work. I realize that, for most readers, physical laws are irrelevant to a fictional story; it just isn’t something one needs to think about, but I cannot shut that part of my brain off, nor would I want to. I think Arthur C. Clarke said it best, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” because the secret to marrying fantasy to Sci-Fi is to recognize that there is no real difference between magic and science, that the difference in genres has everything to do with perspective. I call this Clark’s Law. In Sci-Fi, the world can be understood: a lightsaber, according to Professor Michio Kaku, is heated plasma running through a magnetic field, but in fantasy, the same sword is an enchanted blade of fire. This is why Battle in the Clouds was so brilliant all those years ago, because Masters of the Universe exists in a fantasy setting only so far as things like the Wind Raider remain ancient and mysterious and unknowable.

This is not to condemn the purely fantastical or the surreal. Not every story needs to follow logic. I adore Lovecraft, Kafka and Baum (Wizard of Oz) specifically due to their rejection of reason. But when writing from a perspective of realism, it becomes necessary to include physics into the equation (see what I did there?). There is magic in Ages of Aenya, however slight, but even then I am forced to consider the science behind it. When Emma transforms herself into a raven, I have to think long and hard about Newton’s Law of Conservation. A raven has considerably less mass than a human, so when she does transform, where does all the extra matter go? And how does she get it back when she turns back into a human? While I don’t pretend to know the answer (I chalk it up to Clarke’s law), I try to at least give science a nod, because physics must exist in a fictional universe whether an author addresses it or not. No doubt, there will remain legions of readers who hat check their brains at Chapter 1, and there will be authors who cater to those people, but for me, marrying fantasy to Sci-Fi is to acknowledge they are but two sides of the same speculative coin.  

World Building Aenya

Since Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, world building has become a mainstay of fantasy fiction, gaining a resurgence among budding novelists after the release of the film adaptations. Much of the love lavished on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has a great deal to do with world building. But this phenomenon is unique to the genre. You’ll never find gushing praise for world building in the literary, romantic or horror fields. This sets Sci-Fi and fantasy apart, but it can also stigmatize those genres, when story gets lost amid an author’s fervor to create a convincing universe. If we look at world building from the perspective of another genre, the glut of details becomes needless exposition. Take Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. While considerable history is provided for the Catholic Church, Brown does not bog his novel down describing the rise of Christianity. Of course, this has more do with the fact that readers know basic human history. Nevertheless, should aliens want to borrow The Da Vinci Code, adding the history of Earth would not improve the story. Good fantasy needs just two things: characters we care about and a plot to invest us. It’s basically the same for any genre. Whether it’s fantasy, Sci-Fi, horror, or romance, the fundamentals are the same. Aspects of genre, like world building, are but set dressing.

That being said, world building can be of great value to a novel, if done well and if it enhances the story. Fantasy is about escapism, a way to step out of the mundane, every day world and into another. There are few better experiences than that momentary lapse from reality when you feel transported to a different time and place. But for fans of fantasy, if the leaves don’t change on the trees, the book is just a book, and you are just sitting on a couch staring at letters. If done properly, world building can be the icing on a cake, but when poorly executed, the world the characters inhabit seem hollow, like the cardboard scenery used in old Hollywood films.

So, what makes a fantasy setting believable? There are many factors, and even the best of us stumble. J.R.R. Tolkien is considered the father of world building, and his Middle Earth the gold standard by which all others are judged, but his setting is not without flaws. Looking strictly at the map, Middle Earth is less of a “world” and more of an island, no bigger than New Zealand. There are only three or four major regions to speak of: Gondor, Mordor and Rohan; the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell; the dwarven mines of Moria and the Shire (a small village). Now before any Tolkien fans send me hate mail, I realize there are many more places I could name, but with regards to story, these are the hot spots, and it feels rather minuscule. Things start to feel less convincing when you consider Tolkien’s mythology, as told in the Silmarillion, where the “sun” and “moon” are described, in literal terms, as fruits fallen from trees.

By now, you may think it best to avoid secondary worlds altogether and go with what we know. After all, Earth is a convenient backdrop, complete with every historic and geographic element an author could want. But mixing fantasy with the real world comes with its own set of pitfalls. In the Harry Potter series, Rowling balances story, character and setting with finesse, but she paints herself into a corner in her later books. How is it possible that hippogriffs, dragons, giants, and all manner of magical creatures exist on Earth, yet no scientist ever finds trace of them? I can understand wizards wanting to hide their existence, but hippogriffs? Why go through all the trouble to hide every fossil, egg shell and nest? Erasing every photograph and video? Just to keep a half eagle, half lion a secret? It’s obvious Rowling didn’t plan on the success of her books spilling over to the adult market. At least Piers Anthony sets his magical world in a separate dimension. In The Hunger Games, we learn that Panem is made up of what was once the United States, but what the hell happened to the rest of the world? Do they even still exist? After three books, Suzanne Collins leaves us wondering. In Stephen King’s The Stand, 99% of the human population is wiped out by the flu, but we learn nothing of the world beyond the U.S.. This might be acceptable if the book dealt with a limited perspective, but when King brings Satan into the mix, and an apocalyptic war, you have to wonder where the fuck Europe went.

For me, the most convincing fictional universes are the ones you cannot see, because they continue to exist off the page. Imagine Earth as a fantasy setting. How many nations, cultures, races, religions and species exist? How infinitely complex is human history? I have visited Greece, France, Italy, Spain and Morocco on a number of occasions, but can tell you only little about them. This is what a reader should be, a tourist in the author’s world. A believable setting gives the illusion of reality by mirroring it, so that, just like Florida, Fictional Florida can never be explored in its entirety, even if the author writes a hundred books about the same place. Frank Herbert, creator of Dune, manages a convincing interstellar society by referencing things the reader can only guess at, while Michael Ende, author of The Never Ending Story, simply concedes Fantasia has no boundaries. George Lucas, of Star Wars fame, made world building his films’ most standout feature by hinting at the enormity of his universe, which has to be enormous considering it involves an entire galaxy, most of which he never shows us.

When Emma retrieves an ancient tome, The Ages of Aenya, she finds that there are simply too many kings and queens, and empires come and gone, to process in a single night of studying. Despite this, Aenya has definite, geographic boundaries, because it is based on real world science, thanks in part to the Hayden Planetarium. But while Google Earth can show us a complete picture of our world from a distance, we cannot hope to experience all of it. My intent with Aenya is to mirror the one model of a world that we know. I reveal major landmarks like the One Sea and the Pewter Mountains, and major empires like Hedonia, but there will always be more to find in each new tale, there will always be gaps and an infinite horizon to explore.