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.
Generously Transcribed by Elizabeth. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Mike Hernandez, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: This episode is brought to you by our patrons, Ari Ashkenazi and professor of political theory in Star Trek, Kathy Ferguson.
Chris: This is the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me are:
Chris: And today we’re going to be talking about fantasy… In Space! The best type of fantasy.
Oren: Maybe you’re going to be talking about fantasy in space, Chris. I plan to get very pedantic over whether or not psychic powers count as magic.
Chris: Oh, okay. Well, then we’re going to have a debate-cast about whether psychic powers count as magic. Surprise debate-cast!
Mike: I’m just gonna sit here and pout that you got fantasy in my sci-fi.
Oren: Aww, but you got sci-fi in my fantasy. Wait, I actually, I can’t really think of a, I guess Dragons of Pern is kind of like that. [Series is actually Dragonriders of Pern] So Chris, what is fantasy in space? Explain to us what this is.
Chris: I would call it perhaps a subset of science fantasy. Science fantasy is really just a genre that’s a blend between the science fiction and fantasy genres. I feel like the most typical form it comes in is having a story that feels like fantasy, but actually has a scientific explanation, like a sci-fi explanation for all of the fantastic elements.
Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon[rider]s of Pern books is a really great example. You can’t even tell it’s sci-fi at first. Another one that has a little more sci-fi element to it is Joan D. Vinge’s Snow Queen and Summer Queen books, where they have a planet where things feel kind of low tech and fantasy, but one of the characters ends up going off planet into space and finds out there’s a scientific basis for everything.
Whereas, I would say what we’re talking about is specifically fantasy or fantasy elements that take place in a space setting, which is very strongly associated with science fiction. I gotta wonder though, does it have to be? Fantasy takes place everywhere else. Is somehow, if we put things in space, that automatically science fiction?
Oren: [jokingly] Well, I am prepared to argue for like 50 hours about what the definition is for fantasy and science fiction, because that is definitely a productive debate that we should have. [seriously] No, it’s not.
Mike: Okay. So, I’m going to mute Oren’s mic, [laughter] and then Chris and I can continue having conversations people actually care about.
Oren: That’s fair. That’s fair. I would not blame you.
Chris: Look, you’re just not a spec fic nerd if you don’t have strong opinions about what divides the genres. [she laughs]
Oren: We all have strong opinions. This is maybe not the place for them though.
Mike: Everyone has strong opinions. It doesn’t mean everyone wants to hear them. [chuckles]
Oren: Okay. So I feel like there is, regardless of what you think sci-fi is and what you think fantasy is, I do think that space is pretty strongly associated with science fiction. If nothing else only from a marketing standpoint, right? You know, Star Wars is science fiction. People market it as science fiction, and they buy it as science fiction, even though it has all the elements of a fantasy story, but it takes place in space and it has lasers. So, for our purposes, it is definitely, yes, a science fiction story, but it has heavy fantasy elements, right? With your knights and your space wizards and all of that.
Oren: Yeah. And that’s not uncommon. Right. We also have, Warhammer 40K is probably the big one that is really literal on the Fantasy in Space, because it has literal fantasy races. You know, Eldar, and it had dwarves until the eighties. It doesn’t have those anymore, but…
Oren: …But Squats. Yeah. It’s got actual Orcs. They don’t even have a new name.
Mike: No. No.
Oren: They’re just orcs in space.
Mike: It’s Orks with a K.
Mike: You spell it with a K instead of a C when it’s the 40K orks.
Oren: [hums noncommittally]
Chris: Totally different! Totally different new species – spelled differently.
Mike: They’re actually quite fantastic. And I can go into why, if you want.
Oren: Well, the Orks in Warhammer 40K are actually the best part of the setting from a world-building perspective because they’re like a weird fungus creature.
Mike: And their technology is all powered by psychic abilities.
Chris: [very amused] So, you mean by magic?
Mike: No. By psychic abilities. They believe it will work, so it does.
Oren: Which is basically –
Chris: Which is a common magic mechanic, that if you believe it becomes true.
Mike & Oren: Yeah.
Oren: Exactly. That’s why I would characterize 40K as –
Mike: So they’re psychic spores.
Oren: – Which is why I would characterize 40K as fantasy in space. Because it has a lot of very heavy fantasy elements going beyond even what most settings would do. It’s not super easy to find settings that have that literal transition.
Chris: But science fiction definitely does have a habit of putting in magic and then just calling it psychic powers and then being like, “It’s not magic because we have people’s minds doing it. Without help.”
Oren & Mike: Right.
Mike: And that’s different from magic, how? Hmm?
Chris: To be fair, there are definitely some magical abilities that are more associated with psychicness than others. Right? People don’t usually have a psychic power to like, change something’s color.
Oren: No, not as a rule. Although there’s not really any reason they couldn’t, that’s just the convention. To some extent it has to do with explanations. That can affect whether people call it fantasy or science fiction, but again, I think that is largely a matter of semantics. I’m really not interested in whether or not midichlorians made the Force more science-y, which is what some people insist.
Mike: Made it what now?
Oren: Yeah, I know, right? What even are those?
Mike: Are you talking about mitochondria? The powerhouses in our cells?
Oren: Yeah, probably.
Mike: Okay. You definitely aren’t tarnishing my Star Wars over there.
Oren: Yeah, for sure.
Chris: But it is fair to say that all of the Force powers are very closely matched to what we generally associate with psychic powers. Right? And that’s one of the reasons it gets away with this Force, which is kind of clearly magic, but, you know, people sensing the feelings of other people and what’s going on elsewhere and lifting objects. For some reason, lifting objects with your mind is one of the closely associated psychic powers.
Oren: Yep. It’s got all of that – and lightning, which is not quite as connected. [babble]
Chris: Lightning is pretty off the psychic chart. I don’t have an explanation for that one. But it’s evil, but it’s evil. That I don’t know.
Mike: So it’s evil magic. [Chris laughs] The dark arts, you might say.
Oren: Ooh, you got to get someone to teach a defense against that.
Mike: The best defense is to have a hulking man in a metal suit who can throw your opponent over a railing into a bottomless pit. [Chris laughs]
Oren: Chris, I know that you are working on your own space fantasy setting, and I think you’ve probably given this more thought than I have. What are the advantages of putting magic in space and other fantasy elements?
Chris: Magic comes with the sort of inherent ability to redo some of the basic metaphysics. And you can do it in ways that just inherently patch up some of the problems that naturally occur in really high tech, sci-fi, space opera settings. Specifically the ones that in the setting I’m working on are things that I’m trying to patch up right now. Our first resource shortages.
People can debate endlessly about whether or not you can have large scale conflict without resource shortages, but it certainly makes it a lot easier, and certainly makes your setting inherently have a lot more conflict that you can use for stories. If you have resource shortages, and if you just extrapolate the technology as it’s going now, and people end up with say, fusion power, there’s not going to be that much resource shortages, but if everything is powered by magic and magic requires manpower, then you have a shortage, potentially, of people, or if magic requires some sort of substance, then you have a shortage of that substance.
Mike: Unobtamium [sic].
Chris: Yeah. Another goal of the setting is to take care of the automation problem that is definitely embodied by Star Trek, where the ship doesn’t actually need – it’s so intelligent that it doesn’t really need any humans to operate it at all because they can just calculate all of the right moves for people.
Mike: They just don’t trust it to do it.
Chris: Yeah. This setting is designed to sort of reset that, because all the technology is dependent on magic and the energy for magic and magic requires a person and the person is kind of an inextricable part of that technology, that people become essential again. And of course the last thing that, again, people commonly hand wave is FTL [Faster Than Light], because a lot of people want to have faster than light travel in their setting.
Frankly, there’s really not that much scientific technology basis for extrapolating from what we have now for having FTL. You kind of have to hand wave-y it a little bit. But if you’re doing magic, you can kind of build in a mechanism for FTL. In particular, I’m doing, in a system I’m working on, the setting I’m working on, it’s FTL that specifically has restrictions. On Star Trek, they can use FTL to get anywhere at the speed of plot.
Oren: Yeah, absolutely.
Chris: For the setting I’m working on, I’m trying to design it so that there is FTL, but it’s not always easy. Specifically, it’s hard to get away from gravity wells with FTL. That sort of makes it so that it can be done, but there’s still interesting restrictions that enable a little bit more conflict in the setting.
Mike: Now, is it a science method or is it a magic method?
Chris: Of FTL? Yeah, it’s magic. It’s a space opera magic tech setting and the basic mechanics of how the magic works enables FTL.
Oren: Right. And that way you can have your setting that has FTL without having to have ships that can convert the – because right now our best theories of how FTL might be possible involve such high levels of energy that it’s really difficult for us to even contemplate how much energy that would take. It’s very difficult to tell a setting around that, so you just have to hand wave it, so you might as well just admit that it’s magic.
Mike: The other promising train of research would lead to the ship accumulating charge particles on the forefront, and basically wiping out all life in front of it when it stops. [Chris laughs incredulously] It basically turns FTL into a super weapon.
Chris: That’s a dark setting. That’s a dark setting. [continues laughing]
Mike: No, that’s not a setting. That is, theoretically, if we did this, we could travel faster than light, but everything, every particle, between Point A and Point B would become supercharged, build up on the front of the ship, and then keep going after we stopped, which would wipe out any life or ships in front of us when we stopped. If we’re pointing at a planet when we hit the brakes, we’re irradiating a large portion of it.
Chris: It would make for a pretty dark setting.
Mike: It would make for a pretty dark setting.
Oren: This is actually not too dissimilar, at least in grand scope, from what the Warhammer 40K universe does. I don’t like the Warhammer 40K universe for a number of reasons, but their FTL is basically –
Mike: Those are fighting words, Oren.
Oren: Yeah, I know. You take a short hop through hell and then you come out on the other side, closer to your destination.
Mike: If your psykers are able to navigate you through it, without going insane and/or being overtaken by demons that then eat your ship from the inside.
Oren: Right. And so it’s a very risky thing to do, right?
Chris: Yeah. We saw it go wrong in the movie Event Horizon. So try [inaudible].
Mike: 40K prequel.
Oren: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s a good way to do it. It also means you don’t have to deal with relativity, which is just annoying. Like, [sarcastically] “Thanks, Einstein. Thanks for giving us that.” Because it was definitely Einstein’s fault that relativity existed. He wasn’t describing a natural force. He created it. That’s how I understand science to work. [Mike laughs]
Mike; So it’s Newton’s fault that when something falls on you, it hurts. [Chris laughs]
Oren: Yeah, absolutely. Before Newton, there was no gravity. Common knowledge.
Mike: There was no force at which things hit you with their mass and velocity.
Oren: They would not do anything like that. That would be rude. Another advantage to using magic in space is that you can really simplify your technobabble and you can stop pretending that your technobabble makes sense. Because you just admitted that it’s magic and so you don’t have to do the Star Trek thing of trying to come up with a bunch of science sounding words and string them together.
Chris & Mike: Yeah.
Mike: You can just be like Doctor Who and point your magic wand at the thing and then it does what you wanted it to do.
Oren: Although, hang on, hang on.
Chris: [excitedly] Oh no. Oh no.
Oren: I want to make it clear that putting magic in your setting does not excuse it just doing whatever you want whenever you need it to do it. It still has to be consistent.
Mike: Oh, it is consistent. It doesn’t work on wood.
Oren & Chris: [sounds of doubt]
Chris: Let’s maybe not try to veer this podcast into a debate about rational versus arbitrary magic systems and what shows featuring a doctor who might also be a Time Lord might have arbitrary magic in them.
Mike: I mean, it’s arbitrary, but it’s consistent.
Oren: That’s why – well, I will not respond.
Mike: It doesn’t do wood.
Oren: How do you guys feel about classic fantasy races in space fantasy?
Mike: I have no problem with it.
Chris: It is a little weird. I personally definitely support a blending between the idea of… Because the thing is that in Star Trek, actual alien races are kind of a farce anyway.
Oren: Yeah. That’s true.
Chris: Making them fantasy races doesn’t make them that much worse. I’m…. My tactic for this kind of thing is to have people who are human who have gradually diverged apart, and then calling them fantasy names without it actually being canon that they’re fantasy races. That’s how I like to do it.
Mike: That can work. I’ve seen similar things done in a novel that I cannot remember the name of. They weren’t necessarily called fantasy names, but humans, both through natural drift and through bioengineering, had ended up becoming very diverse. There were dolphin people. Not dolphins that became people, but a group of humans that had evolved to look quite similar to dolphins and that sort of thing. So, I can see it happening with elves.
Actually, some of the humans in 40K, like the Imperial Guard, basically have ogres and gnomes that are just from planets with different gravity settings. They have evolved to be really big and bulky or very small and stunt.
Chris: Yeah. It seems like most spec fic settings when there’s different races that are non-humans, there’s a certain level of variation that storytellers want to have, and I think it might just be that it’s enough different from humans to provide novelty, without being so different that they’re hard to write or hard to understand.
Mike & Oren: [noises of agreement]
Chris: It’s usually given a pass in fantasy settings; that’s considered normal, but in space, if they’re treated like aliens, it becomes really weird. Certainly making them fantasy races, if they’re just going to be rubber foreheads anyway, I don’t think makes it any worse, but I feel like just looking at genetic drift of humans is probably the best way to scientifically recreate that level of difference that storytellers seem to want anyway.
Oren: Then another option is, and I’ve always kind of been a fan of this one, if we assume that fantasy settings don’t have some kind of block on them that stops advancement, that people are still going to make advances, be they in discovering new technologies or coming up with new kinds of magic, because that’s also a thing that could happen. It’s not unreasonable that if you have a classic fantasy setting, it could reach the space age. There are all kinds of stories about fantasy settings that reached the industrial revolution. The only one I can think of that goes all the way to the space age is Spelljammer, which is a D&D setting.
Mike: There’s also Dragonstar, which was a short-lived RPG that was basically D&D In Space. You have all of your typical D&D races + magic + power armor and plasma guns.
Oren: Yeah, like you do. Having them be from the same planet, like, you know, it was a fantasy planet that reached the space age; at least to me, that feels a lot more natural than the 40K version, which is “We got to space and there were elves in space; they were alien elves, and they called themselves elves,” except, I mean, Eldar [technically Aeldari now], excuse me, very different. [laughter]
Mike: I don’t see why that makes things any worse. I mean, elves don’t exist in real Earth. In fantasy, they’re completely made up and they are made up to fill a particular role. In Tolkien, they are wise and superior, but in other pieces of folklore and fiction, fae fill a different role and elves are part of the fae, and they are tricky and mysterious and jumping in and out of our realm of existence. That sort of thing. And those two sets of traits can just as easily work in a sci-fi setting where you are already going to have magic as they can in a terrestrial setting.
Chris: I think the issue is that it’s the same rubber forehead alien problem where you go to another planet. The idea, at least when you move into a sci-fi setting and you find other creatures and another planet, there comes with sort of a base assumption that that creature evolved entirely separately. When it sort of strangely resembles humans to the point that it’s also humanoid, that breaks that sort of notion that they would have evolved completely independently of humans. I think that the advantage of everybody coming from Earth is that you take care of that problem. Now, obviously, some people care more about that problem than others.
Mike: Yeah. And, you can’t just put them all on Earth and then they advance, because then you’re going to end up with a very different universe to write a story in than if they all come from different parts of the galaxy.
Chris: Yeah. Although, you could probably write a story where everybody originally came from Earth and then there’s a colony that went out and they lost contact [with] each other for a while. Again, storytellers don’t really want to make completely alien species. They want species that are close enough to human to be relatable. A better explanation for that is having a common ancestor with humans. It’s just a better scientific explanation than assuming that they evolve separately on an alien planet. And, because the level of novelty they’re actually introducing isn’t as high as actual aliens.
Mike: I’m confused as to why it should necessarily be a priority when we’re already talking about stories where we’re inserting magic into them. We’re already breaking a whole lot of conventions of what is, quote, “reasonable’.’
Chris: Well, I think that when we were just… Going back to this association between space and science fiction. Obviously every genre has its own set of expectations. People who are used to the genre expect something, people outside the genre expect something else. I think when you start invoking some of the science fiction elements there’s a slightly more [inaudible], I would say.
Mike: So you’re talking about sci-fi with fantasy elements, not fantasy that takes place in space.
Chris: Well, the question is, does it become sci-fi if it’s in space? I feel like space comes with some levels of sci-fi explanations.
Mike: It can; it doesn’t have to. Is it not possible to write a story or a setting that is completely reliant on fantasy tropes, but you put it in space and you increase the scale appropriately? Isn’t that something that a writer could sit down and do?
Chris: I think if you had an alternate explanation for how life started, because you could. You could have a fantasy explanation for how life starts more than a scientific explanation. You could build in those expectations for life working in a different lane. Like, there were some gods and they had the whole galaxy to work with and they decided this god put his children on this planet, and this god put her children on this planet. I feel like you could, if you wanted to, if you really wanted to develop that in your setting, you could sort of adjust expectations about those kinds of things. By default, it would be the rubber forehead alien problem. That’s all.
Mike: But, what I’m saying is, if you’re building a fantasy story with fantasy tropes and just happen to set it in space, you don’t approach every single fantasy story in a low tech fantasy terrestrial setting with, “Okay, I need to justify where all of these different races came from.”
Oren: Right. The point is that if you go to an entire other planet (and this is true of straight sci-fi now as well), if you go to another planet and are like, “This is a completely different life form, and it’s a human with funny ears,” that’s super disappointing. At that point, my question is, “Why did you bother setting this in space? I had to absorb an entirely new set of information for basically no payoff.”
I’m willing to accept it in TV shows that have limited budgets and need to cast actors that are human. Not a lot of shoggoths showing up to audition for Star Trek. There’s a certain amount I will accept from television that I will no longer accept from a written story. If someone writes a fantasy story and sets it in space, and there are elves that appear that evolved on another planet, I’m just gonna be like, “Why did you bother setting this in space?” What advantage does that give me? It would have been simpler just to set it on a single planet at that point.
Mike: If that’s the type of story they want to tell, there can be lots of reasons to set it in space. You could emphasize the isolation between planets and the fact that travel takes a long time. You can have things happening in space stations with, you know, magic missiles and fireballs going off in a space station are a little more dangerous than going off next to a dirt road.
I don’t see why you wouldn’t be able to take the tropes and the conventions of fantasy, put them in a setting that happens to take place on a much larger scale, because by putting it in space, it is automatically a larger scale. Of course you can shrink it depending on how fast travel and communication is, but still, they don’t seem incompatible to me.
Chris: I would say that space isn’t just a larger scale. The default assumption is that on Earth, if you’re on the same planet, there’s a natural migration that happens between all of the species. Even if you find a new confident [sic] – continent, and there’s elves on it, and those elves are a lot like humans, the base assumption for all life on earth is that it comes from the same life tree because there’s life over Earth.
Mike: No. I’m sorry. I’ve never thought about evolutionary divergence in my fantasy. I’ve studied anthropology and human evolution and stuff, and I’m really fascinated with it all. I have never examined a piece of fantasy, Tolkien or otherwise with an eye for justifying where the common ancestor between dwarves and elves are.
Chris: Okay. But the thing is, Mike, I’m saying that in general audiences have certain expectations for certain genres. This is something that will bother some people. Even if you are personally not bothered by it, it’s still something that is likely to happen for some people.
Mike: Okay. So you’re now saying ‘some people,’ as opposed to before, when you were framing it as “Don’t do this, it’s, it’s widely understood to be in poor form and lazy.”
Chris: It doesn’t bother you, so clearly it doesn’t bother everybody. I still don’t recommend it, because it’s going to bother some people when you can easily, when it’s something that you can easily avoid. If it’s super important to your setting to have it that way, maybe it’s worth having that disadvantage, but I wouldn’t call it not a disadvantage.
Oren: All right. We’ve only got a few minutes left. I do have one, since we spent a fair amount of time talking about the divergence of fantasy races and such, before we head out, there’s one more thing that occurs to me. If we’re doing fantasy elements in space, how far does that go? Is it going to seem silly if you have, for example, long swords on your spaceship and plate mail?
Mike: Is your spaceship Voltron, [Chris laughs] or is it a regular space ship that you happen to have like 5,000 broadswords on the front of to make it a porcupine?
Oren: Well, I was more imagining people on the ship.
Mike: Oooh! [laughs]
Oren: If you want you can do Outlaw Star, and just have the ship have an arm with a giant ax. That is a thing, too. I can’t say why exactly; I just know that I am much more willing to accept a setting that has wizards who can cast spells, but your standard equipment is still going to be fairly sci-fi-ish. Whereas, if you were like, “Here’s a wizard with a staff and then next to him is a fighter with her sword on a spaceship,” that would strike me as kind of hokey. I don’t know why. Maybe that’s just my expectation.
Chris: If you have that high technology, you certainly need justification for why you’re using swords. When you have a laser gun, if you do have both swords and laser guns in your setting. Obviously, Star Wars gets around that by having a sword that deflects laser guns with super powered reflexes. Obviously people love lightsabers. They’re super popular. It clearly paid off for Star Wars to have them.
Mike: Dune also gets away with it by having the Kinetic Dispersal Field or whatever it is. Actually, that’s a very common one. Some takeoff of that in one way or another, where you basically disable ballistic weapons in order to get your characters sword fighting or knife fighting again.
Oren: As God intended. [laughter] All right. I think we are about out of time. Thank you everyone for listening. If anything that we said piqued your interest, feel free to email us at [email protected] Otherwise we will see you next week.
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