What is the Science Fantasy Genre?

“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. It also sometimes incorporates elements of horror fiction”. – Wikipedia

“Science Fiction is something that could happen – but usually you wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen, though often you only wish that it could.”~ Arthur C Clarke.


After completing 60K of words within November’s NaNoWriMo writing challenge, I am left with a partial zero draft full of holes and lacking many connective scenes. I have a lot of work ahead of me to make sense of what I wrote, and what I didn’t write but now need to.

In going back into the work this month I began by returning to basics, to ensure I wasn’t missing anything dramatic enough to change or necessitate the dumping of my efforts so far.

My first place was looking into genre and conditioned expectations or tropes. Which is a little difficult in itself.

My novels sit within the superhero genre, which is a sub-sub-genre of speculative fiction. However, it also relies heavily on both science and some supernatural elements. Superheros, although they can and often include some science fiction basis, sit more so within the realm of fantasy fiction, with superheros being the latest rendition (as with Harry Potter and his wizard world) of our call for stories of universal mythical heroes.

Speculative Fiction, as a genre, is huge with many sub-branches into science fiction or fantasy fiction, but with my own novels I have come to the understanding that they sit firmly meshed between science and fantasy,  with some critical elements of both. This is, to put it into a super-genre term, science fantasy.

Science Fantasy

The Science Fantasy genre is a difficult genre to get to grips with.It has never clearly been defined in anyone’s mind, although was the title for a UK magazine published in the 1950’s.

On the one more generic hand you have a definition from Wikipedia: –

“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”.[1] 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” ~Wikipedia.

But then you have TV Tropes which counteracts its own definitions with expectations that science fiction has recurring tropes of robots, scientists, aliens and humanoid aliens while Fantasy has warriors, dragons, castles and supernatural elements.

Science Fiction and Fantasy stories can be difficult to tell apart under normal circumstances, as all but the very hardest sci-fi introduces some hypothetical technology that one has to take on faith, like FTL Travel or Humanoid Aliens. And at the other end of the scale, even High Fantasyworks have consistency requirements like Magic A Is Magic A, which can blur the line into Sufficiently Analyzed Magic.

Science Fantasy works, on the other hand, take traditional Fantasy and Science Fiction tropes and throw them in a blender, purposely creating a setting that has the feel of both. Expect to see a lot of classic Fantasy tropes (e.g. warriors with swords, dragons, wizards, castles, and elves) and a lot of standard Science Fiction tropes (e.g. spaceships, aliens, lasers, scientists, robots, and Time Travel)” ~ TV Tropes.

No, TV Tropes, my own novels do not currently include lasers, spaceships, aliens or warriors with swords. Yet I do agree, there is a blend of some elements from each.

Then you have this article by Randy Henderson “Is it Science Fiction or Science Fantasy?” published at fantasy-magazine.com, which describes science fantasy as the third level of science fiction –

• Hard Science Fiction
• Soft Science Fiction
• Science Fantasy

That article also suggests that the Star Wars franchise is science fantasy due to the mixture of spaceships and a supernatural Force. And it provides a good definition –

“The difference is that if the story includes a mix of possible science fiction (i.e. scientifically possible future or alternate events or technology) and something that is impossible (no matter how plausible the author makes it sound), then it is science fantasy.”~ Is it Science Fiction or Science Fantasy?

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction takes a much gentler attempt at defining Science Fantasy –

Certain sf themes are especially common in Science Fantasy – Parallel Worlds, other Dimensions, ESP, Monsters, Parallel Worlds, Psi Powers and Supermen – but no single one of these ingredients is essential. ~ SFE.

The SFE page, however, after listing a lot of well-known authors in Science Fantasy then goes on to note that through the online Encyclopedia body of work, such mixes of two genres like that are referred to under the name of Equipoisal.

Nowadays as consumers we are used to mashups in our music, books and other media.

Returning to the Wikipedia page on Science Fantasy, there is some suggestions towards sub-genres of this sub-genre: steampunk, post apocalypse, and sword and planet are listed. Often these genres or works within them do include elements of science and fantasy, as do both blending into the superhero genre.

Science Fantasy for Superheroes

If we look at the latest swathe of superheroes both in DC and Marvel movie franchises, the heroes include those based off scientific technology or accident origins (Batman and Ironman, Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk ) and those based off pure fantasy or mythology (Dr Strange, Thor, The Scarlet Witch).  Question – do the Green Lanturns, who are guardians appointed by supposedly superior alien beings, fall within the scope of science or fantasy?

In A.V.’s article “Starships, swords and the faded grandeur of science fantasy” one of our biggest films of later years, The Avengers, is held up as pure science fantasy, providing every earmark of the genre, including aliens and ancient gods. This article also suggests that although we may not recognise science fantasy as a viable form, it provides the dynamics and engine behind many of our best loved stories and cinema. Rather than a sub-genre, or positioned in-between these two large genres of science and fantasy, the article goes on to suggest that science fantasy is more like a supergenre sitting overtop of these two large categories.

Suffice to say, although no-one may entirely agree as towards the definition and tropes of what is science fantasy, it does exist, has recognisable applications for the writer, and for me – it’s what I am writing.

Even TVTropes, at the end of the article suggests that the definition of Science Fantasy is “arguably” indeterminate –

“Science fantasy may also arguably describe character oriented stories where the fantastic elements are very subtle and are common to both science fiction and fantasy. Examples could include Paranormal Romance which just happens to involve Applied Phlebotinum, TimeTravel or Artificial Intelligence. Many such stories strive to keep the fantastic elements understated (often in the form of minimal Special Effects) in the interest of focusing on human drama”. – TV Tropes.

The Superhero Sub-Genre is an origin and human story of one person – by some means – becoming an enhanced powered hero. It is – or should be – a very humanistic story concentrating on character growth.

So although

This reckoning has two repercussions for me –

  1. Bookstores and sellers do not have a Science Fantasy category on their shelves. More often than not they combine science fiction and fantasy onto the same shelves also. So the point is relatively mute – for categorization I will need to submit under a more known genre such as Fantasy (or even superhero as an overall and understood catchment).
  2. However, I will need to investigate both science and fantasy as overall genres to understand fully the expected tropes and expectations of readers. This generic knowledge base will then need to be augmented with conditions from the superhero sub-genre also.

Some of this I know already. However, as I do encounter new theories I will post up here, under a general series on Science Fantasy Fiction.

“Science fiction makes the implausible possible, while science fantasy makes the impossible plausible.” ~ Rod Serling

Science Fantasy Sources


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