In Sheep’s Clothing: Why Fantasy and SF might be disguised as each other

It used to be quite common for books that were fantasy, but not standard quest fantasy, to be published in the thinnest of SF disguises. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern began life in Analog. Telepathic teleporting time-travelling dragons are pretty fantastical, but it’s hinted all along that this is a lost colony and it’s all explained in Dragonsdawn. There are plenty of other examples, like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover (which also has a prequel explanation of how things got weird, Darkover Landfall) and Andre Norton’s Witchworld. There’s magic, but we’ll call it psionics. It feels like fantasy, but there’s a veneer of a science fictional explanation.

Another example is C.J. Cherryh’s Chronicles of Morgaine, which I’m reading right now and will be writing about soon. In these books there’s a beautiful perilous woman with a magic sword who is going around closing gates between worlds—gates that are abused by the elflike quhal to extend their lives by moving their consciousness to another body. Each volume comes with a preface explaining the science fictional background—but within the stories it’s all honour and betrayal and oaths stronger than virtue.

You may see books like this as a charming blend of genres, or you may be horrified to find fantasy cooties what you might reasonably have thought was SF. It’s perfectly obvious why people used to do this—all these series are quite old, from the time either before there was much genre fantasy published or from when the genre fantasy niche was quite specific. They might have wanted to write something that crossed genres—Bradley in particular used the culture clash. But one definite reason they cloaked the books as SF was because SF would sell, and fantasy wouldn’t.

What led me to think about this was reading Charlie Stross’s long essay on his blog about his Merchant Princes series. The thing is that these do it backwards. Instead of trying to make fantasy respectable with a few mentions of orbits and genetic engineering of dragons, they try to make science fiction fantastical by not explaining how things work.

I could begin writing in the back-story behind the Clan’s world-walking capability. In the first three books it was presented as a black box, implicitly magical; by book six it should be fairly obvious that the series is SF in fantasy drag, and as the series expands the breakdown and decay of fantasy tropes continues.

The reason for selling them as fantasy was economic and contractual. Ace had an option on Stross’s science fiction novels, and he wanted to sell something quickly. His agent said:

On the other hand, if you really want to write for a living, can you do something that isn’t specifically SF, so we can sell without breach of contract? Like, say, a big fat fantasy series?

So the series began looking like fantasy, and got to look more and more like SF as it went on, and as his contractual obligations changed. How did the readers feel about the SF cooties in their fantasy? I thought the geeky way the worldwalking was dealt with from the first thirty seconds in the first book was refreshingly nifty for fantasy, and this general attitude did mean that the reader wasn’t betrayed when the underpinnings showed up later. But I may not be typical here, I prefer SF anyway.

Another series that feels like this to me is Bujold’s Sharing Knife books. They’re on an odd intersection of genres anyway, having distinct elements of Western and Romance. They’re also post-apocalyptic fantasy—there was a big fantasy evil, way in the past, and it was only sort of defeated. So there are little evils—malices—showing up all over. This is fantasy, but the way it works, the way the malices moult and change is solid and logical and scientific. There’s magic, but the way they work with it is just as geeky and experimental as the way Stross treats worldwalking in The Family Trade. There’s a way in which what makes this come down firmly as fantasy is the covers, the marketing. If it was 1975, the covers would have said SF, and nothing else would be changed.

Finally, there’s Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series. These start off looking exactly like fantasy, standard medievaloid world, wizards, inns, barbarians. The annoying thing is that it’s a spoiler even to mention them in this context—consider yourself slightly spoiled. As the story goes on you find out slowly that this is science fiction, that a lot of the magic has to do with terraforming. In these books the slow process of revelation of what’s really going on—which I haven’t spoiled—is a large part of the joy of reading. This isn’t a case of “it has to look like X so it will sell” it’s an absolute requirement of the story that it be in the world it is in and the world be the way it is.

For most books, this is a labelling issue. You can slant things a little one way and call it SF, or the other way and call it fantasy. The writers are doing what will sell. Does anyone else care? Do you feel betrayed or delighted when you find out what’s under the sheep’s clothing?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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