92 – Fantasy in Space

The Mythcreant Podcast
While there isn’t exactly a hard line that separates science fiction from fantasy, there are elements that most people will identify with one genre or the other. Elves and wizards are considered fantasy, outer space is considered scifi. So what happens when you mix them together? That’s our topic for this week, looking at the results of putting fantasy elements in a space setting. The usual suspects make their appearances of course, with mentions of Eldar and Jedi Knights, but we also talk about the grand cosmology behind going to another planet and finding gnomes there. Listen in if you’ve ever wanted a space ship powered by wizard spells.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Orks from Warhammer 40k

Warp Drives May Come With A Killer Downside

Event Horizon (1997)

Rubber-Forehead Aliens

Four Ways to Bring Swords to a Gunfight by Mike Hernandez

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  1. Tyson Adams

    Warp drive having a killer downside doesn’t have to be dark. I’ve used it as a plot point in a satirical sci-fi as a joke.

    Of course, I could just have a really dark sense of humour.

  2. Pteryx

    Red Dwarf is worth mentioning as a sci-fi universe full of “nonhumans” who are really just modified and/or genetically drifted humans.

    Pathfinder’s official universe is worth mentioning because not only are there official other planets in Golarion’s system (see the supplement Distant Worlds), but a full-on fantasy-in-space variant called Starfinder is currently in development.

  3. Fay Onyx

    I had several major thoughts after listening to this episode.

    1) Placing fantasy in outer space inherently involves science because our understanding of what outer space is comes from science.​ Ideas like the vacuum of space, the existence of solar systems, the vast distances between solar systems, galaxies, faster than light travel, etc all come from science and therefore that setting inherently invokes some level of science and thus many people will have expectations that go with that science (for example, desire for some evolutionary justification for species similarity).

    2) If you want to make a fantasy world that has the epic scale of a universe or multiverse without invoking science (and thus being able to blithely ignore exceptions that come with science such as evolution), then you could create a setting that contains other worlds that is different than outer space. For example, you could create a bunch of continents adrift in an endless ocean and only the gods know about them all or say that there are infinite bubble worlds that exist in the infinite flow of magic with magic gates between them.

    3) I agree that there is not the expectation of evolutionary understandings of magical races in fantasy. Many fantasy races are base on mythology which comes from a time before scientific perspectives and ways of thinking came about and as such they are (largely) approached differently than races in scifi.

    4) As a reminder, Star Trek The Next Generation did come up with a (somewhat shaky) justification for the similarity of all of their races (certainly a bit after the fact as it was not present until later on in the next gen). The story is that there was an ancient progenitor race that knew they were dying out and who seeded many planets with the building blocks of their type of life.

  4. ejdalise

    I’ve read scholarly articles on the justification for bipedal beings with two arms as it relates to intelligence and the tie-in to aliens we might encounter.

    True, the argument relies on the variety of life here on Earth for justification and perhaps the argument is self-fulfilling since we have one and only one major example here, but the premises sounded reasonable.

    For instance, the development of the brain tied to the use of tools and vice-versa. Something lacking the dexterity to manipulate complicated systems is not likely to develop them in the first place. A dolphin may be smarter than us, but they’re not likely to smelt metals underwater or develop a launch system to go into orbit.

    Anyway, it’s interesting but the point is moot once one admits we want to hear stories about struggles we can relate to. For all we know, trees are sentient and communicating with each other via the arrangement of leaves and branches (one of my earliest writing ideas) but we’ll never know it because no one is dedicating hundreds of years to decipher a possible meaning to the development of tree branches geometry. We assume it’s to maximize light gathering, and that’s that.

    • Cay Reet

      Animals which use tools:
      -all members of the raven family
      -several parrots
      -sea otters
      -various apes/primates
      and that’s just animals observed using tools

      Both sea otters and octopi rarely, if ever, leave the water. Dolphins sometimes ‘play’ with object and playfulness is also seen a sign of intelligence. Even sharks are known to be curious and ‘test’ objects just to see what they are. Intelligence is spread around far further than we humans have admitted for a long time.
      Yes, some kind of limb to manipulate things with is necessary, but octopi have tentacles and birds use their beaks and feet.

    • ejdalise

      Yes, but there’s a difference to manipulating complex mechanism that require fine motor skills (and the cordination of two hands and multiple fingers) and simple things like lifting something with a beak. Some cats can open doors, but not unlock deadbolts by inserting and working a key.

      The point was also made that, for instance, birds had large portions of their brain devoted to the taking care of the wings (flying). I thought that was less of an argument since a portion of our brain is dedicated to simultaneously walk and chew gum.

      Plus, please understand I’m not arguing for human intellectual superiority (although, there is a little bit of evidence for it even if not in elected officials). Plus plus, as I said, imagining an encounter with space-faring races one might discount — for example, and ignoring the book Footfall — elephants. Not because they aren’t smart or able to do things with their proboscis, but because the mass and size involved would require huge lifting vehicles. Not impossible, I suppose, but lower down the range of possibilities.

      The paper was trying to defend the bipedal form as advantageous and perhaps more common than one might imagine in alien species.

      I, on the other hand (I have two), have no skin in the game. For instance, I seriously doubt we’ll ever go out in space to encounter anyone, but that’s a different discussion.

      • Cay Reet

        You severely underestimate the common octopus. They are extremely clever critters and can live on land for a limited time, too. If anyone can take the title of ‘dominant species who changes the world’ after us, it might be them.

        I see where you are coming from and why you argue that fingers or something similar seem absolutely necessary. I’m not sure, however, if they have to be limbs in the way we usually understand them – and if they can’t also be used for movement, like primates use their hands for walking as much as for manipulating things. There could also be creatures with six limbs – two sets of feet and one set of hands, similar to a centaur (not necessarily a mixture of human and horse, but they would definitely not have quite some balance and back problems humans have). Two sets of hands and one set of feet would be possible, too, of course, but then we’d be back at ‘bipedal’.

        As far as weight and size are concerned … on earth with earth’s gravity, humans are better off than elephants (elephants couldn’t become bipedal here without severely losing mass first, Barbar or no Barbar). But whatever world the other species has evolved in might have less gravity, which would make bigger bodies much less of a problem.

      • ejdalise

        I feel I should restate that I’m not the champion of any one set of constraints versus another. However, as I am the one who brought up the paper (which I’ll now have to find somewhere) I feel some responsibility in mentioning their arguments were more rigorous and founded on animal studies than what I present here.

        For instance, multiple limbs require larger brains to handle them (why octopi have large brains) which may impede other cognitive development.

        As far as different gravities, that’s a whole other discussion. One of the problems with long-term space travel is the absence of gravity and its effects on our bones. But now we’re in another topic. Personally, I don’t see viable space travel without significant genetic alterations to the human form (explored in numerous stories) or development of something that controls gravity while shielding us from radiation. And all that assumes we last long enough as a species to develop those things.

        As much as we allow for the diversity of life, as long as we admit to certain requirements (think of a jeweler or surgeon) we do need something like fingers and likely at least two limbs manipulating those fingers that are independent mobility. Yes, we can also use them to climb, but in general, arms and hands are for doing things.

        Many animals can do amazing things, but usually because of specialization (they can do just those amazing things) that does not translate well into other areas.

        . . . I really should find that paper and step away from championing it . . .

  5. Sonia

    A cute “fantasy in space” comic series are the French-Belgian comics “Lanfeust des Étoiles” (Lanfeust of the Stars), with trolls and – if I remember correctly – magic in space.

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