Despite what some purists may tell you, there’s no clear line between scifi and fantasy. Instead, each genre has a collection of elements we associate with it, and different stories may have more or fewer of those elements. That’s why we can confidently say that some stories are definitely scifi or fantasy, whereas others blur the line. These elements include a lot of aesthetic and worldbuilding choices like spaceships, swords, aliens, lasers, magic, and so on, but they can also include specific plots like the return of the one true king.
But what happens when authors choose the wrong genre elements for their stories? Science fiction in particular is sensitive to this, since it’s a genre with fairly high expectations for following the rules of real life unless stated otherwise. Some stories that are perfectly at home in fantasy flounder when surrounded with scifi elements, and learning about them can help you avoid similar problems in your own work.
Gideon the Ninth is a story of a necromancer and a swordswoman exploring the bowels of a necromantic castle. The swordswoman is our main character, and it’s her job to keep the necromancer safe from any creepy crawlies that might be lurking about, to say nothing of other necromancers and their swordspeople.
In fact, swords are the main type of weapon in this setting, used by both aristocratic bodyguards and conquering armies alike. They’re just normal swords, too, as far as I can tell. No magic or supertech involved. Given that, it might surprise you to learn that Gideon the Ninth takes place in a space opera setting. The necromantic castle is on an alien planet, and everyone has easy access to spaceships.
This produces a bit of dissonance, to say the least. This is a world where FTL travel is commonplace, but the most advanced weapons are sharp pieces of metal? You might expect there to be some kind of scifi explanation for this, but if there is, it’s so subtle as to be easily missed. In fairness, Gideon never claims to be hard scifi, but the technological gap is so wide even that can’t even save it. You might as well write a modern setting where everyone communicates via messenger pigeon.
Despite blowing its setting integrity wide open, Gideon the Ninth almost never actually does anything with its scifi premise. The spaceships and technology are all somewhere else while the story focuses almost exclusively on the necromantic castle that needs exploring. That’s simply not enough to justify a conceit that strains suspension of disbelief so badly.
Changing Gideon into a fantasy story would require almost no changes to the plot. The necromantic castle can still be a necromantic castle; only this time it’s at the heart of an empire that stretches over continents rather than star systems. A subplot in the beginning involves a small spacecraft that would need to be replaced with a boat, but otherwise it would be incredibly easy. Some of the characters’ dialogue might need to be adjusted, as they sound extremely modern, but frankly that’s a problem in a distant-future space opera as well.
Ninefox Gambit is a novel all about technology, and that technology has two problems. First, it’s incredibly arbitrary. The rules of what technology can do are never established, so it seems like any given problem can be solved by tech that we’ve never seen before, and a number of them are. Second, most tech in this space opera setting is based around a consensus reality that depends on calendars.
I know that sounds weird, so I’ll be more specific. The setting’s more advanced tech, including most spaceships and weapons, only works in areas where the majority of people use the proper calendar system. If you enter an area where a different calendar system is in use, then technology based on the old system fails. In that area, a completely different set of technology now functions.
Like with Gideon the Ninth, no explanation is ever offered for this as far as I can tell. In fact, the idea that it’s a consensus reality situation seems to have been decided on by fans because it’s the only possible explanation. But even if you accept that, you’re still left with a critical question: why calendars? Why is a formalized system of timekeeping the only way in which humanity’s thoughts can change reality?
In a scifi setting, this is really difficult to explain. The idea of a universe that physically reacts to human thoughts is already pretty far-fetched, so trying to explain why it’s limited specifically to calendars is probably impossible. However, in a fantasy setting, this is all much easier. If Ninefox took place in a world with time magic, then the connection to calendars would be easy to intuit. Chronomancers use the power of people’s thoughts to fuel their magic, and that won’t work when those thoughts are organized with the wrong system.
This alternate version of Ninefox could even keep the spaceships and interstellar empire, as space fantasy is a perfectly viable subgenre. Granted, if the advanced tech is powered by time magic, then readers will expect it to be time themed, but that’s probably a good thing too. If the technology is built around a single theme, it’s far less likely to be overly arbitrary, feeding two birds with one hand.
Okay, I’m cheating with this one, as by most people’s definition, Shadowrun is already fantasy. Here’s the thing: it should be even more fantasy. As a setting, Shadowrun’s biggest problems all stem from the fact that it takes place in the real world and how various supernatural elements interact with that world.
First, there’s the theming clash. In Shadowrun, Native American spiritual beliefs are objectively real, or at least a version of those beliefs created by the FASA design team. You know what else is objectively real in Shadowrun? Tolkien-style high fantasy tropes. So we’ve got a world where a real people’s actual belief system exists alongside elves, dwarves, and fireballs. Weird. Plus, Shadowrun then has to explain why magic used to exist in the world, then went away, which is really hard to keep straight.
Then we get into the issues of appropriation and erasure. Many marginalized folks don’t want their religious and spiritual beliefs turned into fantasy elements. This desire is especially common among Native Americans, who have seen their culture mangled by white people over and over again, so most white storytellers should consider that subject off limits. Then there’s a bunch of awkwardness over some people being portrayed as more supernatural than others, like how Ireland is mostly elves in the Shadowrun timeline. That’s not as bad as appropriating Indigenous beliefs, but it’s not great.
Finally, Shadowrun’s setting is just confusing. It’s hard to tell when metahumans* form their own culture and when they identify with an existing human culture. The level of integration seems to change depending on who’s writing the book. For all that, Shadowrun gets very little use out of its real-world setting. Its cyberpunk version of Seattle is so different that it might as well be a fictional city, and most of the world bears little resemblance to anything you or I might recognize.
An easy fix for these problems would simply be to set Shadowrun in a high fantasy world that’s advanced to the era of cyberpunk technology. That way, you can have all the magic you want without appropriating anyone’s religion. You don’t have to explain where magic went either, since it’s always been there. And you wouldn’t have the complex awkwardness of trying to fit fantasy cultures around existing human ones.
The first Jurassic Park film is a masterpiece of cinema, but it does have one major problem: the message. The whole film is about how we shouldn’t let science go too far, which is already pretty problematic since what does science going too far even look like? Are these cancer meds an instance of science going too far? What about this tech to grow crops more efficiently?
It’s an especially weird message in the context of resurrecting dinosaurs, which we should absolutely do if we have the chance. Dinosaurs are just animals, not world-ending monsters, and most of them aren’t any more dangerous than an elephant or a lion. That’s not even considering all the other benefits that such technology would provide. We could bring back species that humans drove to extinction at the very least, and probably do a lot more.*
The first film went to a lot of trouble creating a scenario where it’s at least plausible for dinosaurs to pose a danger to humans. Basically, everything in the park goes wrong at once. There’s a storm, most of the personnel are absent, and an industrial spy disables all the safety precautions. That’s a pretty rare set of circumstances, but it at least provides a decent setup for this movie. Unfortunately, each Jurassic Park film gets worse from there.
In The Lost World, we see a well-armed paramilitary expedition get taken down by a bunch of non-sapient reptiles, and in Jurassic Park III,* a kid gets lost on Dino Island because he was parasailing nearby, for some reason. In the Jurassic World age, things are even worse. Now the park’s security systems fail for no reason at all, and then in Fallen Kingdom, we’re told that a handful of escaped dinosaurs are somehow an existential threat to the human species. We’ve arrived at The Walking Dinosaurs, nevermind that dinos are also shown to be incredibly vulnerable to bullets, and most of them don’t even have breeding pairs.
Turns out it’s really difficult to create a scenario where dinosaurs are actually a threat to humans, but if Jurassic Park were fantasy rather than scifi, this wouldn’t be a problem. A park full of dragons and other fantasy monsters actually would be incredibly dangerous, and with the right mix of powers, these creatures could pose an existential threat to humans. Plus, it’s far easier to come up with more evil things the park owners could be doing, if you need to branch outside of “operating unsafe theme parks for money” in the sequels. Maybe this harmless-seeming demon zoo is actually a front for stealing people’s souls, and the park goers find more and more of their life forces drained away with each exhibit.
Transforming Jurassic Park into a fantasy story would also let us fix the message. Instead of some vague alarmism about science going too far, it could specifically be a metaphor about not using inherently harmful technologies for profit. Bringing back dinosaurs isn’t inherently harmful, but summoning demons certainly could be.
5. Star Trek
Really, Star Trek? I’ve got to be joking this time, right? Star Trek is the scifi TV show. And yet, many of its basic elements don’t fit with a scifi premise. First, there’s the technology. A lot of Star Trek technology was designed to get around production constraints or just as one-off novelty, not because the writers were interested in exploring its implications. Transporters mainly exist to save money on shuttlecraft-landing scenes, but from the explanation of how they work, they’re actually human photocopiers that can be used to resurrect anyone at any time. The ship’s computer mainly exists to provide critical exposition, but to do that it needs to display a sapient intelligence that Trek just isn’t ready to grapple with.
This would all be much easier in a fantasy setting. The transporter can simply be teleportation magic, and the ship’s computer could be some kind of knowledge spirit that the characters have a deal with. Don’t worry, we can still have characters like Data and Seven of Nine. Data would be a golem, and Seven could be an escapee from some kind of insect species that burrow into the minds of humanoids. Done.
More important than the technology, Star Trek’s approach to exploration has always fit better with ocean travel than space travel. For one thing, Trek loves to have ships run into space weather that they can’t just go around for unknown reasons. This requires a lot of disbelief suspension, both because space weather doesn’t work the way it’s portrayed, and because space is three dimensional. It’s much easier to show a ship being caught up in an actual storm. Trek is also really fond of ships sneaking up on each other, which is almost impossible to do in space but isn’t a problem on the ocean, where islands and the horizon’s curve can hide approaching ships.
Then there’s the entire question of away missions. A spaceship orbits above a planet, which means it can easily see what’s happening on the surface* and provide support through transporters, shuttles, communication, or even orbital bombardment. By contrast, Star Trek likes to treat its away teams like they’re exploring the interior of an island, completely cut off from the ship. If that’s how the writers want to portray things, why not make it an actual island where the exploring officers actually are cut off from their ship?
If Star Trek were set in some previously unknown area of the ocean full of strange magics and ancient ruins, the majority of its most prominent story elements would work a lot better. The writers would have to take pains in avoiding colonialist tropes, but that’s already a struggle for Trek, so it wouldn’t be any worse.
Why Not Star Wars?
Let’s address the bantha in the room. I know a lot of you were expecting Star Wars to be on this list, since it already veers pretty heavily into space fantasy territory. Despite that, I don’t think Star Wars would be well served by dipping further into fantasy aesthetics, and I’ll tell you why: space combat.
Of all the competing aesthetics that make up Star Wars, its most important is being World War II in space. All of Star Wars’ space battles are either lifted directly from history or strongly inspired by it. The Death Star Trench Run is basically a rehash of Britain’s Dambusters raid, and fleet battles in Star Wars look like they came right out of the Pacific campaign.
This dynamic is critical to what Star Wars is, and it would be very difficult to replicate in fantasy. The only option I can think of is to use a fantasy setting with a level of tech equivalent to WWII, but that’s so similar to actual Star Wars that it wouldn’t be worth the change.
The major exception are the Jedi, not for their magic powers, but for their lightsabers. No matter how good lightsabers are at cutting arms off, it’s difficult to justify using a melee weapon in a setting where blasters exist. Star Wars tries to cover this by showing that lightsabers can block blaster bolts, but that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It might be possible for Jedi to block a handful of bolts, but any type of concentrated or automatic fire would quickly overwhelm them.
Lightsabers would make way more sense in a setting without guns or their analogues, but I don’t believe that’s worth losing Star Wars’ space battles, which are at least as big a draw as the Jedi. That’s the kind of tradeoff storytellers have to consider when deciding what genre to put their stories in. Star Wars actually uses its scifi elements, even if it’s imperfect. Stories like Gideon the Ninth don’t use those elements at all and could be changed to fantasy with little cost. Star Trek is more complicated, as it does use a lot of scifi tropes, but it then ignores them the moment they become inconvenient. As storytellers, we all have to look at our work and decide where it fits.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?