Joan D. Vinge’s “Eyes of Amber” is (at time of writing) the latest Hugo finalist featured as part of my series Young People Read Old SFF. Many of the Young People liked the way a story that initially seemed high fantasy turned out to be science fiction. Readers (at least those who didn’t look at any of the covers for the various editions of Eyes of Amber, which always give the game away) could well believe they were reading a purely fantastic tale set in some secondary fantasy universe, rather than one set on Titan (as understood before the latest data collected by Voyager).
While Vinge’s story is arguably one of the finest examples of that particular sleight of hand (which explains the Hugo she won for it), Vinge is not the only author to deploy this strategy. Consider these five other works.
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (1967)
This LBJ-era science fiction story appears at first to be a South Asian fantasy world as imagined by a chain-smoking American science fiction author. Almost true…but at the same time, very wrong. In fact, the world on which Lord of Light is set is an alien planet, a planet settled ages ago by the Star of India. Armed with advanced technology and stupendous psychic powers, the crew first stole the planet from its original inhabitants, then set themselves up as the ruling class over the colonist-class settlers. To discourage rebellion, the crew have been cosplaying Indian gods ever since. They have applied a high fantasy patina to an oppressive SF reality.
The flaw in this grand fraud? Even a god might object to injustice and even dictatorial gods may not triumph over a sufficiently cunning social justice warrior.
Enchantress From the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl (1970)
As far as humble woodcutter Georyn is concerned, the rampaging beast terrorizing his village is a dragon, a fell creature against which mortal weapons must fail. While the situation is just as perilous as it appears to be, the fact of the matter is the seeming dragon is just a machine, one of the tools that the starfaring Empire will use to conquer Georyn’s undeveloped world, Andrecia. Armed as its people are with medieval-level technology, Andrecia’s natives are doomed. Or so it seems.
Unbeknownst to the Empire, there’s another polity out there, the Federation. It’s more technologically advanced and has what we would regard as a superior moral code: Don’t conquer less advanced cultures; don’t even interfere in their affairs. The Federation sees the doom threatening Andrecia and looks for a loophole that might allow it to help the Andrecians.
Loophole: the Federation sends a teenaged agent, Elana, to Andrecia, there to pose as an enchantress. She is to wake Georyn’s psychic potential by her supposed magic. The woodcutter, given awesome psychic powers, can repel the Empire. Or so it is hoped.
“The Org’s Egg” by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson (1974)
Fifteenth has all the accoutrements of a sword-and-sorcery protagonist (armor, sword, etc.). He even has a quest; if he succeeds, he will outrank some of the fourteen older men in his clan. But while his personal armament would be familiar to Conan, the winged harness that allows seven-foot-tall Fifteenth to soar through the skies of his world might surprise the Cimmerian.
All is explained to the reader in short order: the setting isn’t a high fantasy world but the low-gravity, high air-pressure exterior of a Dyson Sphere. The org whose egg Fifteenth seeks is not a dragon-by-another-name but an alien beast. Fifteenth is the descendant of primitive humans kidnapped by the Dyson Sphere’s hidden masters, who may not be elf lord and ladies, but who are just as tricksy and dangerous.
The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein (1989)
As in a thousand fantasy stories, two strangers meet in a tavern. One is Bel the Outskirter, a barbarian warrior. The other is Rowan, a Steerswoman. Steerswomen are a guild of explorers and archivists who have committed to answer truthfully any questions (provided that the asker truthfully answers Rowan’s questions in turn).
Rowan is as prudent as she is curious. She hires Bel to serve as her bodyguard while she investigates an odd fact: strange gems have been found scattered across their world, as though by some absurdly violent event.
It’s just as well that Rowan has a bodyguard, as she has inadvertently vexed the wizards who rule her world. If it weren’t for Bel she would be dead.
Wizards. Fantasy. Except… as the narrative slowly reveals, this is no fantasy world. The wizards don’t command any magic; their power comes from advanced technology. Their grudge against Rowan is that her scientific insights make her all too likely to discover facts that the wizards very much want kept secret.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson (2015)
The gods are long gone but their demigod descendants are incapable of following them to…wherever. The demigods are forced to live among mundane humankind.
The Captain uses his semi-divine gifts to command a company of mercenaries. Demane serves the Captain loyally. This is not because both men are demigods, but because Demane is hopelessly infatuated with the Captain. The other soldiers don’t trust Demane, though perhaps they should. The talents of both demigods will be needed if the troupe is to survive passage through the Wildeeps.
While the setting at first seems fantastic, we eventually learn that the gods wielded advanced technology rather than magic. Their abandoned descendants are the beneficiaries of their tech.
These are, of course, only a few of the works I could have cited. No doubt you have your own favorites, stories you expected but did not see above. Comments are, as ever, below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.