Although I’ve partially covered this topic in another article, I thought that I’d talk about mixing two of my favourite genres today. I am, of course, talking about sci-fi and fantasy.
At first glance, these two genres might sound as far apart as possible. After all, fantasy stories are usually set in a stylised version of the distant past and sci-fi stories are usually set in a stylised version of the distant future.
Still, there are a few similarities if you look below the surface. Fantasy stories have magic and sci-fi stories have sufficiently advanced technology. Fantasy stories have elves, goblins, dragons etc… and sci-fi stories usually have various types of aliens. Fantasy stories are set in long-forgotten lands, sci-fi stories are often set on distant planets. In other words, both types of stories often involve strange powers, unusual lifeforms and interesting fictional places.
So, how can you combine these two genres into something that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. Well, from my experience of reading, watching and playing things that manage to do this, I can offer three ideas which might come in handy.
However, I should warn you that this article may contain some plot SPOILERS for various games, webcomics and stories (Including some spoilers for “The Longest Journey”, Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, “Unicorn Jelly” by Jennifer Diane Reitz and MAJOR SPOILERS for “Viking Dead” By Toby Venables).
So, without any further ado, let’s begin:
1) You Gotta Keep ‘Em Separated: One of the best computer games that I’ve ever played which combined fantasy and sci-fi is probably an adventure game from the late 1990s called “The Longest Journey”. Basically, the events of this game take place in two parallel worlds – one is called “Stark” and it is a futuristic cyberpunk version of our world and the other is a more traditional fantasy world called “Arcadia”.
Whilst I don’t want to give too much about the plot of this excellent game away, the two worlds are connected in all sorts of strange ways. In fact, the first scene of “The Longest Journey” takes place within a surprisingly realistic dream that the main character (April) has about Arcadia.
By splitting the fantasy and sci-fi elements of the story into two distinctly different locations, neither of them is particularly “diluted” by the other and this means that the sci-fi parts of “The Longest Journey” can be wonderfully futuristic and that the fantasy parts of it can be wonderfully fantastical. So, don’t be afraid to keep the two genres mostly separate from each other in your story.
Another similar way to do this is to show your sci-fi characters visiting different planets which are (mostly) less technologically-developed than Earth is. This sort of thing can be seen in old sci-fi shows like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Stargate SG-1”, which often feature the main characters travelling to historical fantasy-style planets and societies.
Yet another way to do this is to create a fictional society where both fantasy and sci-fi characters co-exist, either easily or uneasily. The best example I’ve seen of this is probably an excellent webcomic by Jennifer Diane Reitz called “Unicorn Jelly” which I read a few years ago.
In “Unicorn Jelly”, there are witches who use magic and herbs for healing and who fly around on broomsticks. But, there are also “alchemists” (?), who are basically scientists that wear elaborate monocles and both use and invent various machines.
Anyway, one of the interesting parts of the comic is when the main character (a witch called Lupiko) talks about how she accidentally invented a machine when she was a child. Lupiko explains how this horrified her teacher so much that she explained the long and complicated history of how the witches and the alchemists eventually made peace with each other (after signing a treaty which forbade witches from doing the things that alchemists usually do and vice versa) to her.
Although this is only an interesting part of the backstory of “Unicorn Jelly”, it’s interesting because it provides a reason for why there are both fantasy and sci-fi characters in the same comic – which actually sort of makes sense in the context of the story as a whole.
2) Fantasy With Technology: This is probably one of the best ways to combine sci-fi and fantasy. Basically, you create a fully-developed fantasy world and fantasy storyline, but add enough futuristic technology to it so that people can’t quite tell whether it’s sci-fi or fantasy.
A classic example of this is probably the old “Star Wars” trilogy which, for all of it’s spaceships and lightsabers, is still basically a story about magic (eg: “the force”), the monomyth and strange fantastical worlds (eg: Tattooine etc…).
But, a much better example of this is probably Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Although it’s been about eight years since I read it and I can’t remember every plot detail, most of the story is set on a desert planet called Arrakis in a feudal universe which is ruled by several noble houses (eg: Atreidies, Harkonnen, Corrino etc..) and it follows the journey of young Paul Atreidies who learns that he is actually the Mu’ad Dib – a chosen one who, if I remember rightly, has the power to control the giant sandworms that roam the deserts of Arrakis.
Sounds a lot like a fantasy story, right?
Well, there’s a lot of sci-fi stuff in there too. There’s futuristic technology (although they use highly-intelligent people called “mentats” instead of computers), there’s interstellar travel (eg: some early parts of the novel are set on a different planet called Caladan) and there are a lot of very clever metaphors about the oil industry (eg: the society of the novel relies on a fuel called “spice” which is harvested from the desert).
So, don’t be afraid to add a little bit of sci-fi to your fantasy story – or vice versa.
3) Time Travel: Writing a story which involves time travel is probably one of the most obvious ways to combine fantasy and sci-fi elements in the same story. In fact, I’ve already written another article which partially covers this whole subject.
However, this technique can be used in all sorts of interesting and unexpected ways. In order to explain a really clever way that I’ve seen it used, I am going to have to include massive PLOT SPOILERS in the next couple of paragraphs. You have been warned!
The best example I’ve probably seen of time travel being used to combine sci-fi and fantasy is probably in an absolutely excellent horror novel called “Viking Dead” by Toby Venables. Most of this novel is a fantasy/horror story about a group of vikings battling hordes of zombies in ancient Scandinavia.
However, near the end of the story, the vikings encounter a group of time travelling scientists who are supporting the main villain of the story in order to safely perform experiments on the zombies in the hope of finding a cure for a zombie virus that has decimated Earth in the near future. Of course, the vikings accidentally trigger the time travel device and the story ends with this absolutely epic scene where the vikings find themselves surrounded by zombies in the ruins of a modern city and decide to fight on regardless.
Although the sudden inclusion of sci-fi elements in a fantasy story like this is a bit shocking, it actually works surprisingly well and it’s also one of the best plot twists that I’ve seen in a horror novel too. But, remember, if you’re going to include time travel in your fantasy/sci-fi story, then you need to make your audience aware of this fact (even in a very subtle/ cleverly disguised way) before any time travel happens.
In other words, although the sci-fi plot twist at the end of “Viking Dead” is quite shocking and surprising – it isn’t completely unexpected. I can’t remember the exact line, but there’s one scene in the middle of the novel where one character has a vision of some kind or another (or reads something in the runes) which tells him that he will still be near a particular location “a thousand winters later”.
Of course, when you first read this, you expect this character to die and end up being buried there for a thousand years- but it’s actually a very subtle clue about the time travel later in the story.
Sorry that this article was so basic, but I hope that it was useful 🙂