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In the world I'm writing, there's a decent amount of magic - mages, spells, healing, etc. There's also a few aspects - hoverboards, strength/speed enhancing experiments - that don't quite fit into the realm of magic, but I'm not ready to commit to basing them in science. For one thing, that would mean the world is advanced enough to have guns, which I don't want. For another thing, that would basically be blending sci-fi and fantasy, which seems unwieldy and difficult to pull off.

Does anyone have any suggestions how I can keep those science-based aspects in the fantasy but avoid blending the two genres?

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The Dark Tower series by Stephen King is an example of a blend of technology and magic. (And an example of blending different genres as well.) In his case, the technology and magic are both remnants of days long gone and people have forgotten how they really work, thereby conveniently shielding the author from strident questions from readers. –  Myself Jun 9 '13 at 15:10
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Just don't call it science-fiction in the end. If it has a slightest element of fantasy, it's fantasy, period. The point of sci-fi is that it might happen one day, and when there's fantasy in it, it can never happen. Also, having spaceships doesn't make something sci-fi. Explaining scientifically how they work makes it sci-fi. –  Tannalein Jun 19 '13 at 3:43
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Look at the Mass Effect Series! This is essentially a fantasy set in Space. It has magic in the form of 'Adepts' and it blends it really well. Though in this example it leans heavily toward the Sci-fi aspect. –  Dan Hanly Dec 18 '13 at 22:54
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9 Answers

I think you are giving into the temptation of explaining. Sometimes you don't need to know how - or at least not for sure how - just to make it believable in your world.

Take your real life laptop as an example. It has thousands of microchips compacted into a single CPU but, what is a microchip? What is a diode? What is an integrated circuit? People generally don't know... A few may, but the vast majority don't care as long it works.

Many have heard that a laptop has a CPU and decided that the vague notions they have are enough to not care at all. If real life people are not interested in details, why over-detail a fictional world?

Same thing goes for books or movies. In Back to the future you have a "flux capacitor" but you have no idea what it is, you just know it allows time traveling. It's magical but also scientific because nobody ever tried to explain what it is.

It wouldn't be hard to create Back to the Future IV and say that some mystical being taught some weird magical ways to Doc, allowing him to create a magical device that could be inserted into a DeLorean. After all, nobody actually explained what the flux capacitor is and how it works.

The same goes in your book. The flying carpet or hovercraft works based on magic or science (why not both together?) At the start, will anyone actually care? Will it make any difference to specify? If people already know it is science, they will assume some weird scientific means make it work; if people know it is magic, they will assume it's magical without asking for more explanations.

Like I said in my previous answers, if you are not an expert in a field, just stay on the surface. It works here also. Don't try to explain what can't be explained, because that will close doors that could stay opened.

For example, if you leave the way a hovercraft works open, you can in the future (maybe your next book) decide that in fact it works based on science, even being in a magical world. That may lead to new histories like one where the guy finds out that science exists and wants to uncover more about it and become the most powerful engineer of the world.

If you already defined that the hovercraft is scientific, you won't be able to change that in the future.

The exception is the history itself. If it's vital for your plot to have the way the hovercraft works, than you should define it. But if it's not vital, just leave it unexplained until some idea comes up.

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Blending sci-fi and fantasy is actually quite easy, and can produce some excellent results; consider Steampunk for instance.

There are definitely plenty of great examples out there of sci-fi/fantasy blending (across many media): Final Fantasy (particularity FF XII), Dishonoured, China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, The Scar and The Iron Council, Neil Gaiman's Stardust…

Also, there's no reason why having advanced tech should allow guns, guns came to be because of particular discoveries, and it's easy enough for those to have not occurred.

It's also worth remembering what Arthur C. Clarke said; "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I have several stories where the science is closely guarded, so people see the tech as magic.

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+1 for Final Fantasy, the recommendation about guns, and the Arthur C. Clarke quote. –  jschabs Jun 5 '13 at 15:43
    
If we're into games, The Longest Journey would be worth to mention, with two parallel worlds - one for magic and one for technology, originating in one and still binded together. –  Darek Wędrychowski Jun 6 '13 at 12:44
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Why does apparent technology have to actually be technology? Can't it be either mundane or magical instead, even if in our world we would call it science or tech?

Strength and speed can be enhanced through medicine (and its cousin, magical potions). Hoverboards with mechanical motors/propellors/jet-packs/whatever aren't the only way to fly on a device; magic carpets are also available (if perhaps cliche). Separate the effect you're looking for from the means, and then look for means that fit within your fantasy world, whether they be mundane (fantasy worlds have medicine too) or magical (potions, flying carpets).

Or, you might be able to combine them if that's important to you. Anne McCaffery's dragon-rider books looked like fantasy initially, until the spaceships showed up. I think you will probably fare better if you don't try to combine elements like that, but if you decide to try, you won't be the first.

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+1 for "separate effect and means". –  Michael Kjörling Jun 5 '13 at 12:24
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You can always make them relics of the ancient civilisation (Morrowind), or some stuff left by travelers from another planet (Roadside Picnic). People in your world can be smart enough to use them and to understand more or less of their technology, what leads to experiments.

A sidenote: I think that blending sci-fi and fantasy shouldn't be considered as a bad thing. Many great books cover such schema without being unwieldy.

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Hmm. Thanks for the advice. Do you have any examples of books that blend sci-fi and fantasy well? –  jschabs Jun 4 '13 at 17:39
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@jschabs Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series went from scifi to fantasy to a blend within the universe's timeline; whether it was any good is up to the reader. Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series is steampunk fantasy, while her Talents series is futuristic scifi with mental powers. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 4 '13 at 17:50
    
Hard to be a God by Strugatsky brothers would be the most classic, imho. –  Darek Wędrychowski Jun 4 '13 at 18:26
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I just wanted to add that Roadside Picnic but you were first. An interesting thing was an artifact that was an infinite source of electric energy - nobody knew how it worked, but humans developed a way of "cloning" it making it not a unique, extremely rare thing but a common-day (if expensive) "appliance" used for mundane tasks like powering up electric cars. –  SF. Jun 6 '13 at 11:42
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This is an old debate. What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy? Or more precisely, what are the differences and similarities between science fiction, fantasy, and the real world we actually occupy. After all, all fiction is ‘made up,’ yet we intuitively understand that scifi and fantasy share the similarity that neither are the world we know. With equal certainty, we all feel that scifi and fantasy diverge, being somehow different, perhaps opposites.

Before I attempt to define science fiction and fantasy respectively, I think we can agree that both genres fail (including clever combinations of both) when they come to remind the audience of our own boring reality (the real world).

Similarly, no story is purely science fiction or fantasy, all have at least a little of the other. I think the three realities (scifi, fantasy, and real world) can be defined from two perspectives, each representing a kind of spectrum.

Mundane vs Mysterious

The real world is mundane because we know it so well - even for people leading fortunate, extraordinary lives. For clarity, we don’t have all the answers about the real world. What makes it FEEL mundane is that no answers are desired. I may not know how my TV works, but I don’t want an answer either. It is enough that I can turn it on. In contrast stands the mysterious. These are the things that I don’t know, but that I want an explanation for. What were those weird lights I saw in the woods last night?

In a narrative, the audience will be exposed to much: world, people, and events. A story that confronts the audience often with mysterious elements will be understood to be a different world then our own. This even holds if the story (scifi or fantasy) takes place on “present day Earth.” Where the two genres diverge is how they address the audience’s need for an explanation.

Pure science fiction answers the audience’ questions in factual terms, clear and quantifiable. Pure fantasy either provides vague explanations or none at all.

Typical vs Rare

Ultimately mundane vs. mysterious addresses the audience’s perception of the story, but the audience perceives the story through the eyes of the characters, particularly the protagonist. How do the characters see their world? This largely comes down to whether a specific mysterious element is typical or rare.

If everybody in a story world is a wizard and understands how magic works, then magic is typical. If nobody in a story world has ever seen a vampire, then vampires are rare. When elements, mysterious to the audience, are common to its characters, that is science fiction - the character’s mundane world. When the characters share the reader’s feeling of something being new or unknown, that is fantasy. All of this is doubly true of the protagonist. Often, the protagonist is a stranger in a strange land sharing the perspective of the audience, amplifying their feelings about it.

Let’s look at some science fiction and fantasy that were both partially undone by feeling a bit too much like the real world (when the mysterious elements become weak).

Star Wars

Star Wars is a science fiction story, but the Jedi knights are a fantasy element. Not because they fight with laser swords instead of laser guns, but because they are rare and mysterious. Everything in the movie is mysterious to the audience (space ships, aliens, other planets), but most of it is mundane to the story’s characters. On the other hand, neither the protagonist Luke Skywalker or population of the galactic empire have heard of the Jedi. Effectively, only Obi Won and Vader have heard of the them.

Consider also, Obi Won’s explanation of the force, “The force is what gives the Jedi their power. It is an energy field, generated by all living things, that surrounds us and binds the galaxy together.” When you think about it, this isn’t really an explanation. There is nothing factual in the answer. It intends to keep the Jedi mysterious. The first three movies work fine even while combining fantasy and scifi.

In contrast, consider that in the three prequel films, Jedi’s became typical, an ordinary element known to all of the story’s characters. This shifted the Jedi into a scifi element. Now the force could be reexplained, quantified with a midi-chlorian count. Technically, it still doesn’t make sense, but it’s presentation is factual and mundane. The Jedi had lost their teeth. And since so much of the rest of the star wars universe was familiar, it too lacked mystery.

Harry Potter

In the modern fantasy classic, magic is a mundane fact of life in the wizard world of Harry Potter, but not to Harry. Firstly, because Harry is from the audience’s ‘real world,’ so he knows nothing of magic. Secondly, Harry (and his friends) are kids, so while the adults (who are mysterious from the perspective of children) may know about magic, they don’t. Further, the antagonist Voldemort is totally mysterious. Everybody is so afraid of him, even adults won’t mention his name - the author’s device for withholding explanations.

As the series advanced, I thought the fantasy grew less strong. Outside of Hogwarts, magic was so common, it became mundane to me. Every car, building, event, even the government was magical and yet they were the cars and buildings I was familiar with. It simply reminded me of modern life. Also, presenting so much detail of Voldemort’s life and childhood demystified the antagonist, the story’s most mysterious element. Here the fantasy didn’t shift to scifi, it shifted to real world. It became ordinary.

Advice

So at the end of this LOOOOOOONG answer, I would give this advice. The issue isn’t mixing scifi and fantasy, because that is done often and works fine. The danger is failing to understand the difference, and thus accidentally referencing the real world - the mundane reality known to your audience. Specifically, be careful with explanations for the mysterious elements you present and be mindful of how typical these elements are to your story’s characters.

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One way is to have all your technology run on magic, instead of electricity and gas. Check out the movie Paradox for an example of a "modern" world run solely on magic (the movie is crap, but the idea is interesting).

Another way is to simply write Science Fantasy. It's nothing new to mix scientific elements into fantasy, Science Fantasy exists for over half a century now. The trick is not to explain how things work, they just do.

That's the beauty of fantasy, you can create any imaginable world. Technology, magic, everything is equally possible. In Science Fiction, on the other hand, you can't do that, your world needs to be scientifically possible, even if highly improbable.

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This isn't the only way to do what you want and the other answers are good, but I felt another perspective might be useful.

Magic and Science are really just two ways of comprehending our world that come primarily from different levels of consciousness. (Explaining that in detail would take many pages, but it's been carefully done.*)

If you look at the "real" world, you have scientists and engineers (and certainly gymnasts!) doing things that look quite impossible. On the other hand, you have yogis and other mystics who can do many things that defy scientific explanation. Both are coexisting here now, not just in imaginary worlds.

The problem with putting the two together is that to do it well requires being able to form and hold a world view that subsumes both. Most people haven't done that and it's hard to write about what you don't know.

Two of my favorite shows got it dead on. Star Trek TNG had tons of advanced magic/metaphysics in it - most thinly disguised as science - and Babylon 5 had technomages alongside clearly "spiritual" beings like the Vorlons, Shadows, and the First One.

What I'm saying, in essence, is that it's not primarily a "writing" problem, but more of an issue of expanding the consciousness of the writer. The only way I know of to do that is using meditation or other techniques that allow you to directly experience things beyond our normal 3-dimensional reality. Most of what's really out there is a lot stranger and more wonderful than anything someone can just make up!

If your work is based on that, then it will ring true with your readers (at least subconsciously) and will have a much greater effect on them.

  • The explanation I'm familiar with was by Bill Harris (if I can find a link, I'll add it here) several years ago in his Mind Chatter magazine (now blog).

I'm not sure where to find it now and I don't want to just add a link to his site because there's too much there to sift through and it might look like an ad.

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Keep in mind that Sci-fi and Fantasy are not just the sum of it's parts (spaceships, robots and aliens for sci-fi and magic and dragons for fantasy). Sci-fi (the "classic" sci-fi of Asimov, Clarke, Dick...) is usually about development of the society as a whole (TNG is essentially about the almost utopian society Earth could evolve into, and the moral dilemmas such a society faces, plus their interaction with different alien societies they meet along the way) while fantasy usually focuses on the individual (a hero destined to defeat a great evil and save the world). –  Tannalein Jun 20 '13 at 20:15
    
@Tannalein That's a good point and does seem true for most of what I've read. Where do you put something like Dune (the whole series of books) in that sort of analysis? –  Joe Jul 9 '13 at 7:28
    
Good question. I've only read the first book(s) so I can't judge the whole series. There's a lot of people out there that want to put it in fantasy, partly because spice isn't really explained scientifically. If we look at the conflicts, it's more of a fantasy conflict - Paul needs to "find himself" in order to become the Kwisatz Haderach so he could save the world of Dune from the evil Harkonnen. Personally, I'm fine with the sci-fi classification, but it might just as well fit into fantasy category. –  Tannalein Jul 24 '13 at 16:07
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Another good way to tell a "true" sci-fi story is to try to take out the sci-fi element. I can't think of any element of Dune that couldn't be re-written as a fantasy, as opposed to Asimov's I, Robot, for example. You can't take the robot out of I, Robot. I suppose you could get really creative and substitute the robot with a magically animated golem, but I doubt it would have the same impact. Our society will never have to deal with a sentient golem, but with all the progress in robotics these days, a sentient robot might be just around the corner. –  Tannalein Jul 24 '13 at 16:19
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This actually exists, this is called Arcanepunk http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arcanepunk. It boasts such things as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_(book), which I must say is an amazing read.

Anyway, this is the more general problem that writers have when choosing what world-building to explain. After all, the writer might often have the mechanism that something works by in their head, but if it does not play a specific role in the story, then the writer does not have to explain it.

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You might want to read Harry Turtledove's "Case of the toxic spell Dump" It is a mystery set in a high tech magic based world. It is a interesting blend of science fiction and fantasy, in that all the high tech elements are built on magic and that this creates a world much like our own.

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