Exploring Genre: Magic in Sci-Fi

Can magic exist in a science fiction novel?

NOT science fantasy. I’m talking about true science fiction, which relies on explainable (even if it’s with made-up jargon) technology to power its plot. There have been many successful sci-fi stories that used fantasy tropes or elements (the Dragons of Pern series comes to mind) but when I go looking for examples of true science fiction with magic, I get nothing but science fantasy.

Let me back up a little bit.

This post stems from my thoughts after a few conversations with a few different people about what defines a genre. From my perspective as a writer, I identify a genre through its tropes, stakes and conflict, and the overall tone of it (and I tend to read fantasy OR a sci-fi/fantasy blend). However, most readers I talk to rely heavy on artifacts within the story—the technology, the clothing, the architecture, etc.—to give them a familiar backdrop on which to base their expectations. If it has lasers and aliens, it’s science fiction. If there are talking animals and magical powers, it’s fantasy.

I read an interesting Cracked article that made the argument: Technology is magic, just science fiction magic. This was based on the fact that science fiction technology often doesn’t exist, so the author can research all they want but they’ll have to make something up and find a way to explain it—sci-fi magic.

I think it’s too simple to say tech = magic. There are different ways of thinking about each of them, different ways of using them, and different ways they come about that mean they aren’t equivalent.

I have a little bit of experience with this. In SAAFire, the main characters have magical powers that are explained as evolutionary adaptations. People with fire abilities tend to have calloused skin where they manifest the fire in order to protect themselves. Those individuals with telekinesis can only move what they can see. It goes on and on.

My main sidekick, Adam, is a human and doesn’t have any special powers BUT he does have a homemade telekinesis simulator. It’s a tool for him to use, his value to the team actually comes from how well he knows our heroes, who require a bit of handling from time to time.

My point is that the simulator and Dawn’s telekinesis are two totally different things–and, yet, they’re kind of the same. Adam and Dawn can each move stuff around (as long as they can see it), but because Dawn’s is an inherent ability, she has more control and more flexibility. How she summons her power is entirely different from how Adam operates his simulator.

In this case, we have magic and tech side by side doing the same thing but with very real and tangible differences in where the power originates, how it is used, and exactly what can be done with it.

So, I would argue that technology is not the same as magic, but that some science fiction novelists may try to get away with magic-like tech.

Finally, in my opinion, having real magic, no matter how much you can explain it, makes a science fiction story into a science fantasy story. As much as I rely on story elements to define the genre, this is one artifact that pretty strongly indicates fantasy.

What do you think? Do you know of any science fiction novels that use magic?

Author: V. Kane

I write YA fantasy, blog about it, and then take my dog out for therapy. My current manuscript is ANATHEMA, a story of two sisters caught up in a war between the gods. Find me on Twitter at @ValkyrieWriting or Instagram at books_and_dogs

2 thoughts

  1. You could, if you could explain the magic scientifically. Like, if you move an object with your mind, it’s telekinesis. To some people, that’d be magic though. So if you can explain how your magic works, then I’d say you could write a hard sci-fi story with magic in it.

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