The Ballad of the Trope-Stealers from Outer Space
July 24, 2011 7:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in books that are nominally fantasy, but steal scifi tropes, and vice versa. Suggestions?

io9 has a list of works that pretend to be fantasy, but are "really" science fiction. They tend to be ones that pull a switcheroo ("Hey, you thought it was magic, but it was technology!"). I'm more interested in works which don't "switch" genres so much as borrow tropes heavily.

For example:
- Dune. It's science fiction, but feels like fantasy.
- China Mieville's Embassytown. Science fiction, but again it feels like fantasy- hyperspace is seriously creepy.
- Solaris, maybe. (the original movie, at least. Not read the book yet)

- Diane Duane's Young Wizards series. It's fantasy, but full of science fiction. The big baddie is literally the embodiment of entropy. They travel in space, but have to remember to bring air and heat along. Magic accomplished with an Apple II. Silicon-based life forms.
- Diana Wynne Jones' Dark Lord of Derkholm. It's fantasy, but with gene spliced griffins, pocket universes, alternate dimensions and evil megacorps.

What more can you think of in this vein?
posted by BungaDunga to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
L.E. Modesitt's Recluce books (and probably some of his other fantasy works, because he seems to have that turn of mind.) Very focused on the "technology" of the magic system - they read very like scifi in some ways, despite all the horses and wizards and medieval tech levels. (And there's a "they came from spaaace" reveal eventually in the series, but, as with the Pern books, it's barely relevant except for the books set in that timeframe.)

Likewise, Brandon Sanderson tends towards the magic-as-rational-system idea. I think it comes across more in Elantris than his other works, but it's definitely a fundamental outlook for him.

Both of these are examples where the stories are focused on the personal and societal effects of a very concrete system of "magic" - change magic to technology and you have one of the defining characteristics of scifi. Definitions are awfully blurry, of course, but I'm assuming from your examples that you're not of the "science fiction has rivets" school.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:44 PM on July 24, 2011

Another that starts seeming to be fantasy but turns out to be science fiction is Jack Chalker's Soul Rider series. (The first book is "Spirits of Flux and Anchor".)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:45 PM on July 24, 2011

Jeff Noon's stuff sort of felt like this to me, as did Jonathan Lethem's Gun...With Occasional Music.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:46 PM on July 24, 2011

It's not heavily science fiction-borrowing, but Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora and its sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, pretty clearly takes place on another planet previously inhabited by a now-vanished alien race. There are multiple mentions of an indeterminate number of moons, as well as Elderglass, an unbreakable building substance left behind by the previous inhabitants of the planet.
posted by WidgetAlley at 7:52 PM on July 24, 2011

Charles Stross's Merchant Princes series fits the bill. It was even originally marketed as Fantasy, despite being Science Fiction.
posted by fings at 7:53 PM on July 24, 2011

Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl books posit a secret underground world of elves and ogres and magic, but one which resembles modern human society in many ways, and whose magic both obeys rigidly defined rules and is heavily supplemented with advanced technology. The series is nominally young adult, but has an all-ages appeal similar to Harry Potter (with a dose of James Bond).

In a similar vein, many of Ted Chiang's short stories take concepts from religion or mythology and explore what the world would be like if they were literally true -- Hebrew cosmology in "Tower of Babylon," golems in "Seventy-Two Letters," Old Testament angels in "Hell is the Absence of God," etc. All damn good stories, too.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:06 PM on July 24, 2011

I really enjoyed CS Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy. The synopsis portion of the wiki gives a nice summation of the world without any spoilers.
posted by munchingzombie at 8:08 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, to point out a likely obvious one; The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. I'd also suggest the rest of the Hainish cycle, but I have not yet read them all.

To me, The Left Hand of Darkness always felt like a fantasy due to restrictions built by characters. The overall story feels like fantasy, but theres a periodic reference to anisibles or the spaceship the Envoy arrives on.

Anyways, its a great book and it even won a Hugo.
posted by graxe at 8:13 PM on July 24, 2011

I'm not sure I entirely get your Embassytown example (nothing about it seemed like a fantasy novel to me at all, which I associate with a more epic or classical structure; maybe for the LeGuin-ish emphasis on what might be considered "softer" sciences like anthropology or linguistics?).

How about Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun?

Maybe Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, too.
posted by bcwinters at 8:48 PM on July 24, 2011

Patricia Wrede's Thirteenth Child and sequel Beyond the Great Barrier.

Robin McKinley's Sunshine (which is a vampires-and-werewolves fantasy, as opposed to elves-and-goblins).

I just finished re-reading Diana Wynn Jones's Year of the Griffin (the sequel to DLoD, for those who haven't read it) so I was thinking about it before I finished reading the question!
posted by anaelith at 9:24 PM on July 24, 2011

Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series of books. It kind of depends where you came into the series to have gotten that frisson of "You got science fiction in my fantasy! You got Sword and Sorcery in my hardcore sci-fi!" but I definitely got it. "Wow, all this telepathy and other ESP is actually based in science fiction," I thought as I read more and more of the Darkover books.
posted by Lynsey at 9:37 PM on July 24, 2011

Oh, you might also like Ursula Vernon's Gearworld Blog (although it is unfortunately somewhat short). I'm not sure it really falls in between two genera, mostly because it doesn't seem to fit any of them to begin with.
posted by anaelith at 9:42 PM on July 24, 2011

The Jacob's Ladder trilogy, Elizabeth Bear. Sci-fi setting up the wazoo; fantasy tropes up the wazoo.

"Flesh and Blood", by Brent Buckner, is a problem-solving short story in classic sci-fi style, but about vampires and Catholic doctrine. (You can find this in the anthology Divine Realms, 1998.) Speaking of vampires, there are a few efforts to rationalize them: Peter Watts' Blindsight; Suzy McKee Charnas' The Vampire Tapestry.

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card, is sci-fi, but the set-up reminds me of well-worn fantasy tropes — despised child has a special birthright which makes him a crucial figure in a world-historical battle. (I am just thinking of this now as I type, so maybe it doesn't hold up under closer analysis.)

Roger Zelazny did a lot of genre-mixing, by repute. I think his Lord of Light is the crowning example, again by repute; I haven't read it. I have read his Donnerjack (completed after Zelazny's death by Jane Lindskold), and it definitely fits. Also, maybe, his short story "A Rose for Ecclesiastes".

There's a bit of this in Larry Niven, in a few different forms. Closest to what you asked for is "The Magic Goes Away" (and subsequent stories in the same universe, see link), which has a prehistoric swords-and-sorcery setting, treated with a science-fictional attitude toward world-building. See also The Flying Sorcerers (with Gerrold). Further from what you asked for, but perhaps still worth a look: Ringworld is often said to be structurally similar to The Wizard of Oz. The Legacy of Heorot (with Pournelle and Barnes) is pure sci-fi, but with oodles of allusions to Beowulf. The Dream Park novels (with Barnes) are all sci-fi, with role-playing games inside (somewhat) virtual reality, and the game settings are fantastic. His Svetz time travel stories involve settings which the reader recognizes as fantastic but (most of) the characters do not. And maybe Inferno, with Pournelle, a retelling of Dante's book.

Heinlein's Glory Road, maybe? I can't remember it well enough. Tad Williams' Otherland series? I only read the first book, and only recall how much I didn't like it.

posted by stebulus at 9:47 PM on July 24, 2011

Formatting fail. I will cut off a finger in penance.
posted by stebulus at 9:47 PM on July 24, 2011

Terry Pratchett's Discworld is the kind of fantasy world with differently sane wizards manning thaumic reactors and Leonard de Quirm, a blatant ripoff of a Leonardo, going and inventing a spaceship. A wooden one, mind you. And an espresso machine. No shortage of very scientific people there, actually. Pratchett himself was a nuclear engineer, so there is a lot of stuff about invention and the human spirit and nerdhood there.>
posted by curuinor at 10:04 PM on July 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Another Jack Chalker series, Rings of the Masters

Tad Williams' Otherland
posted by Glinn at 10:49 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've found that it's easier to find SciFi with a fantasy bend instead of the other way around:
The Samaria Series by Sharon Shinn (you do eventually find out it's science fiction, but the first two books are more fantasy.)

The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge

Many Sheri Tepper books, in particular the True Game Series.

Dave Duncan's Dodec Series. It takes place on a world the shape of a dodecahedron.

Karl Schroeder's Virga series although really the first 2 books, less so the last 2.

Almost everything by Martha Wells.

Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series
posted by fiercekitten at 11:18 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

And oh yeah, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.

Man, I read way too much of this stuff
posted by fiercekitten at 11:20 PM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Name of the Wind and its sequel The Wise Man's Fear read very much like fantasies, and the people who make magic in the book seem magical to most other people in the book. But the magic-makers are actually using technology... just a really different kind of tech than we have in our world.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:21 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tad Williams' Otherland series.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:31 AM on July 25, 2011

John Varley's Titan trilogy is the ultimate in this regard, simultaneously one of my favorite fantasy and favorite sci-fi series. Astronauts exploring a mysterious object orbiting Titan (a moon of Saturn) "crash" into a straight-up fantasy setting featuring epic quests, malevolent gods, centaurs, angels and other fantastic creatures.

Jack Chalker's been mentioned a couple of times, but not his Well of Soul series which also fits the bill (warning: the opening chapters of the first book are pretty damn clunky but worth getting through).

Also, Steven Brust's Jhereg series is technically sci-fi but reads more as fantasy (the sci-fi is pretty thin, and, if I remember right, doesn't even come in till later in the series).

Robert Heinlein's The Number of the Beast starts off as science fcition and quickly evolves into ... something like fantasy. Seriously weird and not recommended for first time Heinlein readers.
posted by zanni at 12:57 AM on July 25, 2011

The excellent "Amber" series, by Roger Zelazny.

The first series reads as sci-fi to me, despite the sword and sorcery stuff. The second series (which isn't as awesome) leaned heavier on the traditional fantasy.

The series is easy, light reading. The books aren't long. The first book (Nine Princes in Amber) is decent, but not mind-blowing, but it sets up a world for the following books to take apart, revealing... something better.
posted by anonymisc at 1:12 AM on July 25, 2011

Pratchett himself was a nuclear engineer.

<nerd mode on>He was in PR for the nuclear industry: he's never had any formal scientific training whatsoever to my knowledge.</>

I was going to suggest Stross as well, but I see he's already been mentioned. Gene Wolfe likewise

How about Neal Stephenson's works? A little verbose for some perhaps :)
posted by pharm at 2:27 AM on July 25, 2011

Traci Harding's "The Ancient Future" series starts off as a fairly traditional fantasy style story, but with elements of sci-fi: a character time-travels back to ancient England, magic, Merlin, etc. By the third book, it's pretty much firmly placed in sci-fi territory. Even the cover of the novels shifts between genres.

(Australian Author; may be hard to track down in the states?)
posted by chronic sublime at 3:55 AM on July 25, 2011

Perhaps Patricia Kenneally-Morrison's Keltiad series? The ancient Irish went into space, swords, magic, spaceships oh my.
posted by a person of few words at 5:55 AM on July 25, 2011

Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains. It's got magic swords, witches and dragons, but the swords are only "magic" because their alien technology is not well understood, the "witches" are really highly technologically-evolved inter-dimensional beings and while we don't yet know what the "dragons" really are (since this is the first book in a series and they are only spoken about), it's unlikely that they're fantasy-magical. I love Morgan's science fiction, so I read this nominally fantasy novel out of trust for Morgan's talent, and was pleasantly surprised to find that (by my interpretation at least) it's actually a science fiction novel in fantasy clothing.
posted by biscotti at 6:13 AM on July 25, 2011

Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series might work for you - it's military fantasy, and tends to borrow tropes/themes from military scifi, maybe a bit reminiscent of Warhammer 40K in that you have squads of marines fighting alongside demons et al.
posted by reptile at 6:24 AM on July 25, 2011

Mieville's Perdido Street Station is fantasy written with a science-fictional sensibility.
posted by Zed at 9:08 AM on July 25, 2011

Simon R. Green's Deathstalker series, all the epic fantasy fluff you can handle with spaceships and aliens.

As ever, TVTropes are helpful, with good stuff starting in Space Opera, moving over to Space Elves, Planetary Romance and Sufficiently Advanced Alien.
posted by N-stoff at 11:11 AM on July 25, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks! Thought I'd add a couple:

Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land counts, I think. Sixth Column is about some military scientists with Sufficiently Advanced Technology who masquerade as a religion (except with miracles to order).

Diana Wynne Jones' Hexwood. Loved that book, very sneaky indeed.
posted by BungaDunga at 1:08 PM on July 25, 2011

Seconding Amber. It's somewhere between between Sci Fi and Fantasy, and I wouldn't want to spoil it by revealing more.
posted by ridogi at 5:56 PM on July 25, 2011

Doris Egan's Ivory books are science fiction, I think, but every time I mention them I have to stop myself from calling them fantasy novels.

Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman books (here's a review by Jo Walton) seem on the surface to be fantasy novels, but feature magic that the reader can recognise as science. Now, that's more along the lines of io9's list, but it's very well done, and they are in any case excellent books that everyone should read. ;-) Also, Ms. Kirstein should hurry up with volume 5, please...

I'd like to second fiercekitten's recommendations of Martha Wells and Sheri S. Tepper, too.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:03 PM on July 25, 2011

Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series. It's a classic.
posted by rkriger at 8:31 AM on July 26, 2011

I think that pretty much everything Andre Norton wrote falls in between fantasy and science fiction.
posted by Quonab at 1:48 PM on July 26, 2011

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