Genre readers love to argue about the often fine line between science fiction and fantasy. It’s a problem without a solution—no matter how rigorous the science, there will also be elements of invention in SF. And even books full of magic can operate with the internal logic that pushes them into the realm of sci-fi (the geologic magic system of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season being a standout recent example).
Perhaps the true solution is to fully embrace the hybrid genre: the science fantasy, those books that gleefully pull tropes from both sides of the divide. Today, we’re happy to announce just such a book: Hidden Sun, by Jaine Fenn (the unrelated Hidden Empire series), is coming this fall from Angry Robot books. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale of family and science and aliens and technology stranger than magic.
You can read the official summary below. Then, scroll down for a guest post from the author, who discusses the books that inspire her and muses on the grand tradition of the science fantasy novel.
An eccentric noblewoman scientist’s journey into a hostile environment will change her world forever, in this enthralling novel.
Rhia Harlyn is a noble in Shen, one of the dozens of shadowlands which separate the bright, alien skyland. She has a missing brother, an unwanted marriage proposal and an interest in science considered unbecoming in her gender. Her brother’s disappearance coincided with a violent unsolved murder, and Rhia impulsively joins the search party headed into the skyland—a place whose dangers and wonders have long fascinated her. The dangerous journey brings her into conflict with a young rebel stuck between the worlds of shadow and light, and a charismatic cult leader who believes he can defeat death itself.
And here is Jaine to discuss 5 genre-bending books that inspired her:
Stop me if you’ve heard this one…
A potential reader walks into a bookshop’s genre section and says “What you got?”
The assistant replies, proudly, “Well hon, we got both kinds here, Science Fiction and Fantasy!”*
And the reader, perplexed, says, “Can’t I have a book that’s both kinds at once?”
That reader might have been me in my teens. I started out reading fantasy. Actually I started out reading media tie-ins, because we didn’t have books in our house, and this was about a century before the internet, so I bought the book of whatever I’d just seen on TV. Some dire and sometimes inappropriate reading experiences ensued.
Then I was seduced by the cover of A Wizard of Earthsea, and from age nine to my early teens, I was all about magic, dragons, elves and quests.
My tastes changed, and by age 20 it was the SF life for me; now I wanted virtual reality and spaceships and lasers and a scientifically plausible future. But those transitional books kept their place in my heart. You see, I’ve got a weakness for odd juxtapositions – salted caramel is my downfall—and when it comes to fiction I’m always on the lookout for stories which combine an element of the fantastical/mystic with underlying (if often well-disguised) scientific rigour. I should probably get myself a tattoo of Clarke’s Third Law.
And now, after having ploughed the spaceways for a few years, I’ve gone back to my science fantasy roots. The Shadowlands series is set on a cosmologically unusual world divided between the eponymous shadowlands – where human folk live lives recognisable to any fantasy-reader – and the bright, alien skyland where the folk aren’t human any more and it’s all about symbiosis. Oh, and just in case I hadn’t crammed enough genres in, the first book, Hidden Sun, is also a murder mystery.
To celebrate Hidden Sun’s release this autumn, I’ve been back along my bookshelves to re-acquaint myself with some of the books that showed me what great things can happen when your fiction is both science fiction and fantasy at once.
*with apologies to The Blues Brothers
The White Dragon, by Anne McCaffrey
Anne MaCaffrey was my gateway drug. Her Pern books bridged the gap between fantasy and science fiction. Yes, they’re about dragons, but those dragons aren’t naturally occurring magical creatures; for a start, they can sometimes travel through time. When, aged about 12, I read Dragonflight, I was uneasy at the odd references – such as to ‘thread’ – which didn’t seem to fit with what was ostensively a fantasy universe. By the time I read The White Dragon a couple of years later I was actively looking for science fictional clues as to the real nature of the world of Pern, and this book provided them. Although The White Dragon is the most science fictional of the Dragonriders trilogy, if you want to follow the same journey I’d advise reading all three books.
Golden Witchbreed, by Mary Gentle
No other story type manages to show those disquieting and intriguing juxtapositions on a society-wide level like science fantasy does. One classic technique to achieve this is to have an outsider from one technology level try and get to grips with a world with a different level of technology, not to mention belief system. In Golden Witchbreed a human envoy from a spacefaring civilisation has to assess the suitability of a world of ‘primitive’ humanoid aliens for inclusion in the galactic fold. She comes with her own baggage but an open mind, and in a journey that mirrors the classic fantasy quest, travels a long way to find out that the people and the world she is falling in love with are not what they seem.
The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Giving your protagonist a vocation that would repel a lot of readers is a brave move, but Wolfe’s a master storyteller, and Severian is an engaging character, despite being trained as a torturer and sometimes making a living from executing felons. His world is in decline, a classic ‘dying Earth’ where memories of past – and hints of future – glories are preserved in myths and occasional rare artefacts and where little distinction is made between technology and magic. The book includes some traditional accoutrements of fantasy, such as the blacker-than-black torturers’ uniform and an bloody great big sword but as the story unfolds the scale – and stakes – keep growing and the unique science fictional nature of this far future is revealed.
The Saga of the Exiles, by Julian May
The Saga of the Exiles, which begins with The Many-Coloured Land, is all about misfits, some repellent and some sympathetic. They take a one-way journey, singly and together, back from our near-future world into Earth’s distant past, looking for a fresh start with only the gear they carry and the hopes and fears of pioneers. Unfortunately, someone else got there first. I have, as anyone who’s read my earlier books might know, a bit of a weakness for the idea of ‘techno-fey’ and the Tanu in The Saga of the Exiles are one of the best examples of the otherworldly melding of magic and science that I know of.
Confluence, by Paul McAuley
Science fantasy gets to build the best worlds. You can underpin it with Clarke-law level tech, then people it with folk who come up with ways to make sense of their crazy world that we, the reader, may see as simultaneously ingenious and misguided. This trilogy certainly does that, with its growing sense of people trying to live their ordinary lives oblivious of being at the mercy of forces beyond their comprehension. The story also has a great protagonist who, like Severian in The Book of the New Sun, is an apprentice-becoming-master with a capacity for great good and great evil and whose personal journey we’re happy to share, even before its significance to his world becomes clear.