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Cover of Other Worlds, October 1952

Science fantasy is a mixed genre within the umbrella of speculative fiction which simultaneously draws upon and/or combines tropes and elements from both science fiction and fantasy. In a science fiction story the world is scientifically possible, while a science fantasy world contains elements which violate the scientific laws of the real world. Nevertheless the world of science fantasy is logical and often is supplied with science-like explanations of these violations.[1][2]

During the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the fanciful science fantasy stories were seen in sharp contrast to the terse, scientifically plausible material that came to dominate mainstream science fiction typified by the magazine Astounding Stories. Although at this time, science fantasy stories were often relegated to the status of children's entertainment, their freedom of imagination and romance proved to be an early major influence on the "New Wave" writers of the 1960s, who became exasperated by the limitations of "hard" SF.[3]

Eric R. Williams lists the following "microgenres" which can belong to science fantasy: Discovery, Dying Earth, ET Relations, Mad Scientist, Space Opera, Sword and Planet.[2] Carl D. Malmgren classifies science fantasy by the type of the violation of science and discusses the following main types: the time loop motif, the alternate-present world, the counterscientific world, and the hybridized world.[1]


Versus science fictionEdit

Distinguishing between science fiction and fantasy, Rod Serling claimed that the former was "the improbable made possible" while the latter was "the impossible made probable".[4] As a combination of the two, science fantasy gives a scientific veneer of realism to things that simply could not happen in the real world under any circumstances. Where science fiction does not permit the existence of fantasy or supernatural elements, science fantasy explicitly relies upon them.

Historical viewEdit

The label first came into wide use[citation needed] after many science fantasy stories were published in the American pulp magazines, such as Robert A. Heinlein's Magic, Inc., L. Ron Hubbard's Slaves of Sleep, and Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp's Harold Shea series. All were relatively rationalistic stories published in John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Unknown magazine. These were a deliberate attempt to apply the techniques and attitudes of science fiction to traditional fantasy subjects. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction published, among other things, all but the last of the Operation series, by Poul Anderson.

Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore published novels in Startling Stories, alone and together, which were far more romantic. These were closely related to the work that they and others were doing for outlets like Weird Tales, such as Moore's Northwest Smith stories.[citation needed]

Ace Books published a number of books as science fantasy during the 1950s and 1960s.[citation needed]

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction points out that as a genre, science fantasy "has never been clearly defined", and was most commonly used in the period 1950–1966.[5]

The Star Trek franchise created by Gene Roddenberry is cited as an example of science fantasy. Writer James F. Broderick describes Star Trek as science fantasy because it includes semi-futuristic as well as supernatural/fantasy elements such as The Q.[6] According to the late iconic science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, many purists argue that Star Trek is science fantasy rather than science fiction because of its scientifically improbable elements, which he partially agreed with.[7]


Dying Earth and post-apocalypseEdit

Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories are sometimes classed as science fantasy because the cosmology used is not compatible with that conventionally accepted by science fiction. Other stories in the Dying Earth subgenre such as M. John Harrison's Viriconium novels or Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun are usually classed as science fantasy.[8]

Terry Brooks' Shannara books represent a fantasy world as the far future of Earth after supernatural events cause the downfall of civilization.

Planetary romanceEdit

The planetary romance, a story set primarily or wholly on a single planet and illustrating its scenery, native peoples (if any) and cultures, offers considerable scope for science fantasy, in the sense of fantasy rationalized by reference to science-fictional conventions.[9]

The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and E. R. Eddison are probably the earliest examples of this genre, especially the John Carter of Mars series. David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, published in 1920 is one of the earliest examples of the type, although it differs from most of them in not assuming a science-fictional background of interplanetary or interstellar travel; it is rather a philosophical romance, which uses an alien planet as a background for exploring philosophical themes. C. S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet (1938) is an example of the same type of story, though in its case the preoccupations are theological. In both cases, the magical elements are barely rationalized, and in Lewis' case stand in stark contrast to the pseudo-scientific machinery that frames the story.

Some examples of this type of science fantasy deliberately blur the already vague distinction between science fictional paranormal powers and magic; for instance, Poul Anderson's The Queen of Air and Darkness, in which aliens use psionic powers of illusion to imitate earthly myths of fairies—who are themselves traditionally regarded as magical illusionists.

In Andre Norton's Witch World series, the fantasy world is excused as a parallel universe. There are a few science fictional elements in the earlier stories of this series, which are absent from the later novels.

Sword and planetEdit

Sword and planet is a subgenre of science fantasy.[10][11] Many works by Edgar Rice Burroughs fall into this category, as well as those of his imitators such as Otis Adelbert Kline, Kenneth Bulmer, Lin Carter, and John Norman. They are largely classed as "science fantasy" because of the presence of swords and, usually, an archaic aristocratic social system; Burroughs' own novels are, however, skeptical in spirit and almost free of any non-rationalized "fantastic" element (other than the never-explained mechanism by which John Carter gets to Mars). The graphic novel Camelot 3000 is another good example of this. The movie Krull also falls in this category, since that the movie depicts a story where a near-omnipotent alien creature invades a fantasy world and the protagonists must find a way to fight back against the alien.


Steampunk is a subgenre of science fantasy, but can also be a subgenre of science fiction, taking old age technology and making it into a futuristic setting with fantastic elements.[12][13]


The Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society is an example of a social grouping of fans on the genre of science fantasy and possibly other speculative fiction.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b Malmgren, Carl D. (1988). "Towards a Definition of Science Fantasy (Vers une définition de la fantaisie scientifique)". Science Fiction Studies. 15 (3): 259–281. JSTOR 4239897. 
  2. ^ a b Eric R. Williams, The Screenwriters Taxonomy: A Collaborative Approach to Creative Storytelling, p. 121
  3. ^ Moorcock, Michael (13 June 2002). "Queen of the Martian Mysteries: An Appreciation of Leigh Brackett". Fantastic Metropolis. Archived from the original on 18 February 2012. Retrieved 7 July 2017. 
  4. ^ "The Fugitive". The Twilight Zone. Season 3. Episode 25. 9 March 1962. CBS. 
  5. ^ Nussbaum, Abigail (2 April 2015). "Science Fantasy". In Nicholas, Peter. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Retrieved 25 May 2017. 
  6. ^ Broderick, James F. (2006). "Chapter Sixteen: Fantasy Versus Reality". The Literary Galaxy of Star Trek: An Analysis of References and Themes in the Television Series and Films. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co. pp. 135–144. ISBN 9780786425716. OCLC 475148033. 
  7. ^ Clarke, Arthur C. (October 2006). "Forty Years of Star Trek". Locus. No. 549 (Vol. 57, No. 4). Retrieved 25 May 2017 – via the website Star Trek: Of Gods and Men. 
  8. ^ Nick Rennison; Stephen E. Andrews (1 January 2009). 100 Must-read Science Fiction Novels. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 164–. ISBN 978-1-4081-0371-5. 
  9. ^ Brian Stableford (13 August 2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Scarecrow Press. pp. 319–. ISBN 978-0-8108-6345-3. 
  10. ^ Eric Williams (5 September 2017). The Screenwriters Taxonomy: A Collaborative Approach to Creative Storytelling. Taylor & Francis. pp. 121–. ISBN 978-1-351-61066-7. 
  11. ^ "Sword and Planet". Listopedia. 
  12. ^ Jeff VanderMeer; S. J. Chambers (1 June 2012). The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature. Abrams. pp. 60–. ISBN 978-1-61312-166-5. 
  13. ^ Ann VanderMeer (5 October 2012). Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution. Tachyon Publications. pp. 423–. ISBN 978-1-61696-111-4. 

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