In my very first post on Tor.com, someone in the comments thread asked what science fantasy is. So I thought I’d provide an example with one of the more popular and acclaimed science fantasy novels ever written, this being Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg.
Lord Valentine’s Castle is the first in a series of books taking place on the vast planet of Majipoor. Actually, vast doesn’t begin to describe it. Majipoor is about ten times the size of Earth, with cities often housing as many as 10-20 billion citizens. A small town can contain hundreds of thousands of inhabitants.
At the beginning of the first book, we meet the character of Valentine, a wandering soul whose memories beyond the past few weeks are little more than a gray haze. At the same time, the world of Majipoor is celebrating the ascension of a new Coronal, the supreme ruler of the world. As is tradition, the new Coronal is touring the continents of Majipoor in the Grand Processional, which can often take several years because of the planet’s size. The new Coronal also happens to be named Valentine, though it’s a very common name.
Coming back to the first Valentine (the wandering soul with hazy memories who shall hereafter be referred to as Wandering Valentine), he and a newfound friend soon find themselves joining forces in a nearby city with a traveling troupe of jugglers. While they’re there, Lord Valentine happens to pass through the city as part of his Grand Processional. Wandering Valentine catches a glimpse of Lord Valentine and experiences an inexplicable and smoldering anger. Gradually, we learn that Wandering Valentine has been robbed of most of his memories, has had his true body stolen from him, and that he is the rightful Coronal of Majipoor. The Lord Valentine parading across Majipoor is an imposter, living inside Wandering Valentine’s body. When Wandering Valentine comes to grips with the realities of his situation and his identity, he and his band of companions embark upon a quest that takes them across the sprawling lands of Majipoor in an effort to reclaim his lost throne.
Depending on the device an author relies upon, a body switch can easily fall into the realm of fantasy or science fiction. That aside, the basic premise of this story–young man traveling across the world with his motley band of companions to reclaim his rightful throne–is one that normally falls into the camp of fantasy. There are other aspects to this story that suggest it’s a fantasy. One of Wandering Valentine’s companions is the wizard, Deliamber. Another companion is Lisamon Hultin, a giant warrior woman who sells her sword to the highest bidder. Some of the holy figures in this world are the King of Dreams and the Lady of the Isle, who visit the dreams of their worshippers in seemingly mystical fashion. And let’s not forget the requisite battle near the end of the book, as armies clash in bloody epic struggle.
But not so fast. There are a lot of sfnal elements in this tale as well. First and foremost is that the humans on this world are descendants of colonists from Old Earth, who came to Majipoor thousands of years ago. On the whole, the technology in this world won’t compare with anything you’ll find in an Arthur C. Clarke novel, but there is definite science (or remnants of it) that would seem out of place in your standard secondary fantasy world. Let me provide a few examples. That friend Wandering Valentine makes at the beginning of the novel? He is a shepherd, herding his flock of six-legged purple synthetic mounts. The juggling troupe that Valentine joins? There are a couple of humans in the group, but mostly the group consists giant four-armed shaggy humanoids called Skandars (the extra set of arms really come in handy for juggling!). There are also other races in this world, such as Vroons, Hjorts, and the two-headed Su-Suheris. Like humankind, these races traveled among the stars before settling on Majipoor. The main native race to Majipoor are the Piurivars, more commonly referred to as Shapeshifters or Metamorphs. Considering that Shapeshifters crop up all the time in both fantasy and science fiction, making this species native to Majipoor strikes me as a very appropriate choice.
So let’s see. We have human colonists, alien races, and synthetic animals. I’ll also mention the sonic showers…and that Lisamon Hultin’s sword is a vibration sword…and that the wizard Deliamber is a tentacled Vroon, whose magical abilities strike me as being decidedly psychic. And while Deliamber is able to hurl his spells, the Skandars are also capable of firing their pulse rifles.
Other science fiction and fantasy elements occur throughout the story. But these elements aren’t at odds. The story isn’t a puzzle, challenging readers to figure out whether this tale is science fiction or fantasy. It is science fantasy. It is a successful melding of both genres, as it borrows, tweaks, merges, and in some cases entirely reinvents. Books like Lord Valentine’s Castle seek to take the best of both genres and merge them into a seamless tale. Containing scientific and fantastical elements is both acceptable and expected.
For those of you who have yet to read a science fantasy, Lord Valentine’s Castle is a good place to start. The book is rather self-contained, so if you decide it’s not your thing, you’ll get a complete tale. And should you decide you want more, not only does Silverberg provide wiggle room for a sequel, but last time I checked the series (two series, really) is complete at seven books (plus a couple of shorter works). No waiting for sequels!