What happens when you have magic and spaceships? Or gods and mad scientists? Some of the most exciting worlds in science fiction also include fantasy elements — and here are our 12 favorites.
It really feels as though the cutting edge of speculative fiction lately is stories where neither magic nor science can fully explain what's going on. A lot of our most popular entertainments lately have merged both, and that space in between the genres is shaping up to be the most fruitful domain of all.
Note: This article doesn't really include the "science that's so advanced, it's indistinguishable from magic" trope, which is a very different thing and probably deserves its own list.
Marvel's most famous characters mostly get their secret origins from science — a radioactive spider, mutants, a cybernetic super-suit, a super-soldier serum, etc. — but once you drill even a little bit below the surface, the mystical comes bubbling up and it's totally awesome. The Scarlet Witch, whose name pretty much says it all, is a mainstay of the Avengers, and the Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange, is one of Marvel's coolest heroes. And so on — pick up any one of the Essential Defenders reprint trades, and you'll see the Hulk and the Silver Surfer venturing into the worlds of magic with the Atlantean prince Namor. Rocking.
Superman is the last survivor (well, sorta) of a distant planet, Krypton. He has two main weaknesses: the radioactive fragments of his homeworld, or magic. How awesome is it that a nigh-invulnerable alien is scared of magic? It boggles the mind. The DC Universe's mystical characters include Dr. Fate, the Spectre, the Phantom Stranger and Zatanna. And with storylines like Identity Crisis revolving around magical mind-wiping, magic is now at the center of the DC Universe, alongside all the science-fictional parallel universes and super-cyborgs.
The Book Of The New Sun sequence by Gene Wolfe.
Set in a distant future when the Earth is dying — not unlike the Dying Earth stories by Jack Vance — Wolfe's novel takes on the appearance of a fantasy epic. As SFSite explains:
The shape of the plot itself is pure high fantasy, and at the beginning of the series one would be forgiven for thinking Urth was a parallel world of the comparative past, complete with magic and monsters. But as one progresses, Wolfe drops subtle hints that accumulate into the realisation that Urth is in fact our own Earth, just far into the future.
The Dark Tower by Stephen King
King doesn't respect genre boundaries — the only thing unifying the various features of this post-apocalyptic series is it all came out of his brain. There's that insane runaway train Eddie defeats with dead baby jokes, plus all the mutants in the first novel. But then there's the incubus at the beginning of the third novel, and the whole ominously mystical cast to the series.
No matter how you felt about this show's ending, you have to admit that Lost blended fantasy and science fiction in an addictive way, the likes of which we'll probably never see again. There was electromagnetism and time travel, and a cute physicist in a skinny tie explaining it all to us. But there were also supernatural forces that toyed with our mortal fates. From early on, it should have been obvious that science was never going to rationalize every aspect of this story, and the ending confirmed it.
The other show with a controversial ending definitely took a turn towards the mystical in its final season. Stuff happened that you really can't explain with jump drives and cyborg consciousness, and suddenly all of the spiritual "god" talk that was being bandied about throughout the show's entire run turns out to be more than just a matter of opinion among the characters. In the end, you can't get there without going through the supernatural.
The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.
This series starts off with a proto-scifi, Jules Verne-type trip to Mars, and ends with Merlin popping up out from under some English forest. Ranson, the guy who went to Mars in Out of the Silent Planet, randomly turns out to be the Pendragon. The final book, This Hideous Strength, features a kind of evil scientific organization (ironically named N.I.C.E.) actually run by fallen eldila, who are kind of extraterrestrial aliens.
This one is more a matter of opinion — was all of the "worldmind" stuff, with the planet's deity Eywa, purely scientific, explained by all the Unobtanium in the ground and the neurons in the trees and the fiberoptic hair? Or is there more of a spiritual, magical side to all of it? Even leaving aside the fact that this is a world full of dragons, and it looks like a fantasy world, it feels to a lot of people like James Cameron leaves pure science behind about the time you see the floating mountains. But even if you believe this movie is pure science fiction, its huge, record-setting success is probably at least a little bit due to the way it blended space opera and the appearance of magic.
This one's sort of a slam dunk, becuase, well... ghosts. And weird high-tech devices to contain/control them. It's kind of self-explanatory really. And yet, totally awesome.
The Bas-Lag novels by China Miéville.
In Perdido Street Station and the other novels in this universe, the boundary between magic and science goes all swirly and bendy. The magic is referred to as thaumaturgy, but that doesn't change the fact that it's basically magic, with its own idiosyncratic rules. And there's also steampunk technology everywhere, and colourbombs and weird radiation from the Torque, and other stuff. It's a swirl of magic/science that kind of dazzles you after a while.
The John Carter Of Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Who knows how the upcoming Disney movie will deal with this weird storyline, in which the main character sort of dies but his spirit goes to Mars via astral projection? Not to mention the fact that John Carter is immortal and ageless. And of course, the version of Mars — Barsoom — that John Carter goes to is pretty fantastical, and the whole thing plays like a kind of sword-and-sorcery epic on another planet, even though they're fighting over the Atmosphere Plant.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Midichlorians. But no. First of all, the Phantom Menace never happened. But more importantly, even with Midichlorians, the Force is still a supernatural force that obeys no laws of physics anybody ever heard of. It's part telekinesis, part mind control, part clairvoyance... plus a whole bunch of other things, depending on the story. And there's clearly a spiritual discipline involved in using the Force, even as its practitioners wave laser swords and get into space battles.
Runners up: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance; Doyle and MacDonald's Mageworld; Hal Duncan, Vellum and Ink; Spirits In The Wires by Charles De Lint; Shadowrun; Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Stover; Top Ten by Alan Moore and Gene Ha; Grimjack by John Ostrander and Timothy Truman; Matt Stover's Caine Novels; Rosemary Kierstein's Steerswoman series; The Jennifer Morgue/The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross; The Company series by Kage Baker; The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey; The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers; Witchworld, by Andre Norton; The Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross; David Weber's Hells Gate series; and loads of steampunk novels.
Additional reporting by Kelly Faircloth. Thanks also to Andrew Platt, Kevin Lovelace, Andrew Liptak, Austin Grossman, Pablo Defendini, Astra Goblin, Colleen Lindsay, Rus McLaughlin, Jay Tomio, Erin K., Gwen Smith, Chr0me, Geek Girl Diva and Evelyn Rios.