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Starships, swords, and the faded grandeur of science fantasy

Like many film fans, I’ve been waiting patiently for my local cinema to show Hard To Be A God, the swan song of the late Russian filmmaker Aleksei German. The movie, adapted from Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s science-fiction novel of the same name, revolves around a group of space explorers who are studying a planet of humanlike inhabitants—so humanlike, in fact, that their society bears an eerie, grimy resemblance to medieval Europe. The earthlings traveled to this place in a starship; once there, they found swords.

Starships and swords have been mashed up so many ways throughout the history of pop culture, it’s become conventional. That mix of elements from both science fiction and fantasy is called, efficiently enough, science fantasy—but I didn’t know about any of that in the spring of 1983 as I walked out of the two-screen theater that my grandmother managed, having just seen Return Of The Jedi for the first time. All I knew was that the trilogy I’d been obsessing over since I was 5—when I saw Star Wars during its first run in 1977—had come to a close. Now there was a void in my life that not even hyperspace could overcome.

Science-fiction movies were everywhere at the time, and so were fantasy movies. And TV, and books, and comics. It wasn’t like I was starved for the stuff. For me, though, there was more than mere novelty in Star Wars’ interaction of advanced technology and magic (and yes, The Force was magic, at least until George Lucas waved away much of its mystique in The Phantom Menace by introducing the idea of midi-chlorians). Even at that young age, my brain was stretched by the sheer, imaginative hodgepodge of science fiction and fantasy, genres that were often mentioned in the same breath, yet seemed to have distinct rules and traditions.

Star Wars inhabits the far end of the science-fantasy spectrum. On the surface, it’s straight science fiction, awash in robots, space stations, and aliens. Where things get wonderfully muddled is in the way The Force works its quiet, mystical presence into the tableau, serving as a cross between occult philosophy and psychic ability that sums up the Western magical tradition since the days of John Dee—that is, before the Enlightenment split alchemy into the discreet disciplines of science and magic. The story of Star Wars is an archetypal one, as anyone who’s read Joseph Campbell (or has two eyes) knows well, which makes its King Arthur-like subtext glaringly apparent—but no less revolutionary for applying such a mythic aura to big-screen science fiction.

It all boils down to swords. Luke Skywalker is at the center of a barely disguised sword-in-the-stone story, and lightsabers are the preferred swords of Jedi Knights. George Lucas’ choice of the word “knights” only enhances the Arthurian connotation. But those swords are technological. Their blades look like lasers frozen in place. In J.G. Ballard’s 1977 essay on Star Wars, “Hobbits In Space”—a title that oozes science fantasy—he called the lightsaber a “laser-wand.” He did so sardonically, but it’s as accurate a name as any other. You can take thousands of words to describe the depths and intricacies of science fantasy to someone, or you can show them a lightsaber.

With the release of Return Of The Jedi, all those lightsabers were extinguished, with no hope of returning anytime soon. It also marked the end of an explosion—one that I’d call the silver age—of science fantasy in pop culture at large. It was ignited in 1977 by Star Wars, but also by a far less successful film that, like Star Wars, starred Mark Hamill. Three months before Lucas’ spectacle hit the screen, Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature Wizards was released. Hamill voices Sean, leader of a nation of fairies in a land torn by strife following the collapse of technological civilization. Rather than having technology and magic coexist seamlessly, as in Star Wars, those two forces are at war with each other. If Star Wars, according to Ballard, could have been called Hobbits In Space, then Wizards could have been called Hobbits After The Apocalypse.

The silver age of science fantasy didn’t really take off until 1980, when The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters. By then, Hollywood had had enough time to catch up with the unanticipated success of Star Wars three years earlier, and also to piggyback on one of the most anticipated film sequels of all time. Curiously, the most obvious Star Wars copies—from Battle Beyond The Stars to Hawk The Slayer, both from 1980—missed the science-fantasy crossover-appeal altogether and stuck closely to either science fiction or fantasy. And it’s not like The Empire Strikes Back was unaware of its roots in the golden age of science fantasy; screenwriter and pioneering author Leigh Brackett, who began writing science fantasy in the pulp era of the ’40s, was hired by Lucas to pen the first draft of Empire’s screenplay. Brackett worked in the science-fantasy tradition laid down by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lin Carter, and others, writers whose sword-and-sorcery epics on other planets might—or in the case of Burroughs’ Mars-set Barsoom novels, actually do—exist in our universe. Imagine being able to hop in a spaceship and travel to Middle Earth; this was the kind of cosmology that pulp science-fantasy writers used as their rich, polyglot backdrop.

Thundarr The Barbarian

That cosmology—not to mention the pulp tradition itself—permeated 1980’s breakout science fantasy hit, Flash Gordon. Based on the Alex Raymond-created character who starred in comic strips, film serials, and television shows from the 30s on, Flash Gordon is sword-swinging science fantasy played to, well, the hilt. In 1981, the mythology-based fantasy film Clash Of The Titans opened, but it also bore a trace of science fantasy in the form of Bubo, the clockwork, R2-D2-like owl that winds up being the true (if unrecognized) hero of the film. Given that special effects were a huge deterrent when it came to science fantasy, which often required androids and wizards, animation proved to be an accommodating medium for science fantasy in the early ’80s. On TV, the Saturday morning cartoons Thundarr The Barbarian and Blackstar debuted in 1980 and 1981, respectively; each swirled together technology and magic, with Thundarr’s Conan-after-Armageddon theme being a particularly vivid one. It didn’t hurt that Thundarr’s fellow traveler across the sorcery-bedeviled ruins of Earth, Ookla The Mok, bore an unmistakable resemblance to Chewbacca the Wookiee.

The animated anthology film Heavy Metal, released in 1981, also falls squarely in the science-fantasy camp, although it’s an interesting case. The movie’s ten segments are either fantasy or science fiction, except for one: “Taarna” is pure science fantasy, inasmuch as any hybridized genre could be considered to be pure, a thrilling marriage of the two genres. That chemistry is even reflected in the two bands from the Heavy Metal soundtrack who dominate the “Taarna” segment: the fantastic majesty of Dio-era Black Sabbath and the science fiction-steeped clang of Devo. And while 1982’s animated feature The Secret Of NIMH might not seem like science fantasy in the most obvious sense, its mingling of speculative science and mysterious magic fits the bill—and it broadened the scope of what science fantasy was willing to tackle.

Film and TV weren’t the only media in which science fantasy flourished in the early ’80s. The old guard of pulp science-fantasy authors were no longer in vogue, but its unshakable appeal popped up in John Varley’s Gaea series, three novels published between 1979 and ’85 that deal with a living satellite of Saturn—one whose inhabitants are centaurs. M. John Harrison revived Viriconium, his elusively genre-wandering series of novels, with 1980’s elegant A Storm Of Wings; Gene Wolfe published his masterful science-fantasy trilogy, The Book Of The New Sun, between 1980 and ’83. On the lighter side, Piers Anthony took time out from his popular fantasy series Xanth in 1980 to launch Apprentice Adept, an innovative (if not necessarily great) cycle of novels that takes place across two parallel worlds: the science-fictional Proton, where magic does not work, and the fantastical Phaze, where technology does not work. In comic books, 1982 saw the release of two stunning, starships-and-swords series: Marvel/Epic’s intergalactic, swashbuckling Dreadstar (created by Jim Starlin) and DC’s Camelot 3000 (written by Mike W. Barr and drawn by Brian Bolland), a futuristic retelling of the Arthurian legend that hit science fantasy square on the nose.

I devoured all these things in the early ’80s, thanks in part to my grandmother’s theater, where it was easy for me to sneak into R-rated matinee. I never fully grasped the shape of the continuum they all belonged to, but I somehow sensed that it all fit together. I got into role-playing games around the same time, which branched out into science fantasy with 1978’s Gamma World, published by TSR, the company behind Dungeons & Dragons; as for D&D proper, the beloved 1980 module Expedition To The Barrier Peaks broke the boundaries of the game by thrusting one’s spell-casting magic-user into the ruins of a spaceship. Science fantasy hits its peak, however, in 1983. Along with Return Of The Jedi, the subgenre branched out in ’83 with the spirited, Western-spiked science fantasy film Metalstorm: The Destruction Of Jared-Syn—a geek grab-bag if there ever was oneand Rock & Rule, an animated, dystopia-with-demons phantasmagoria aimed squarely at the Heavy Metal contingent. And while He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe began as nothing more than Mattel’s toy-line tie-in in 1983, the popular animated show (along with its distaff counterpart from 1985, She-Ra: Princess Of Power) foisted the most kid-friendly iteration of science fantasy yet.

At the same time, novelist Fred Saberhagen introduced his The Book Of Swords series, which I religiously began checking out from my local library starting with 1983’s The First Book Of Swords. By then, science fantasy had become second nature to me. Still, I was blown away by Saberhagen’s post-apocalyptic premise. First laid down in his earlier series Empire Of The East, the idea behind The Book Of Swords utterly captivated me: After a nuclear war wipes out civilization as we know it (which, incidentally, was my most common nightmare as a kid in the Cold War ’80s), a supercomputer called ARDNEH is worshipped as a god named Ardneh. There are also, as the series’ title suggests, lots of magic swords. That it was more or less the same premise as Thundarr The Barbarian, only literary and a bit more mature, was not lost on me.

The biggest science-fantasy event of 1983, barring Return Of The Jedi, was Krull. For a movie that ultimately flopped, Krull was, and remains, a sumptuous eyeful of big-budget, science-fantasy pageantry. Set on a vaguely medieval planet where kings rule, magic is real, a benevolent cyclops glares, and Fire Mares carry their riders across the sky, Krull should have been massively successful; instead it’s remembered just as much, if not more, for the Atari game it spawned. Last month I screened Krull as part of my Science Friction film series at Alamo Drafthouse Denver, and I was shocked at the huge turnout. People weren’t there to mock it. They were there to enjoy it. It was everything I remembered, and more: a slow-paced, beautifully shot, slightly hokey tale of a prince who must rescue his princess from a big, bad, diabolical villain known simply as The Beast. Where the original Star Wars trilogy leans heavily toward science fiction, Krull leans toward fantasy. But the dashes of science fiction that flavor the movie are lovely, including The Beast’s Black Fortress that descends from outer space to terrorize the planet Krull. Monstrously monolithic, it’s the Death Star meets Mount Doom. It just doesn’t get any more science fantasy than that.

Krull’s failure at the box office marked the tipping point for science fantasy’s silver age. After 1983, the rest of the decade experienced a sharp decline in the production and popularity of science fantasy, Star Wars excluded. Whether due to an increasingly sophisticated audience, ignorance of what made science fantasy really tick, or sheer burnout, Hollywood was no longer interested in throwing huge budgets at what might turn out to be the next Krull. A handful of science-fantasy stragglers like 1984’s The Dungeonmaster—a smorgasbord of schlock cynically aimed at the stereotypical, D&D-playing, heavy-metal-listening teen reprobate—limped across the finish line. David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune ported over some of the source material’s science-fantasy trappings, but it, too, flopped. Meanwhile, far from the tides of the American market, anima filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki released one of science fantasy’s masterpieces, Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind, a poignant and lyrical spin on the post-apocalypse-and-magic premise.

Toward the end of the ’80s, role-playing games jumped heavily into the science-fantasy arena with 1987’s gritty, militaristic Warhammer 40,000, which left most of the subgenre’s air of mythic wonder bleeding out in a trench; it was counterbalanced by Dungeon & Dragon’s 1989 campaign Spelljammer, a dizzying medley of maritime fantasy and interstellar adventure. Surprisingly enough, one of the most successful and fully realized science fantasy properties of the late ’80s wound up being the ThunderCats cartoon. With supple, vibrant animation, a diverse cast of characters, and a mythos that wasn’t wholly prefabricated, ThunderCats came on strong, reveling in all the possibilities of both technology and magic—even though it served as the last whimper of the silver age of science fantasy.

Since the ’80s, science fantasy has blossomed only briefly and sporadically. In comics, the most ambitious example, and the most tragic, is Vermillion, a short-lived ’90s series on DC’s failed Helix imprint that I wrote about extensively following writer Lucius Shepard’s death last year. Shepard was a prose author of science fiction and fantasy, and in Vermillion—his one and only stab at comics—he attempted to fuse the genres into a sprawling vision of cosmic magic and quantum surreality that takes place in a city that spans lightyears. It was canceled after 12 issues, sadly out of step with the times, and it was ignored then and since. Shepard never had the chance to come anywhere near realizing the promise of his grand endeavor, but he did leave behind a staggering run of lyrical, existential weirdness that has yet to be collected into a trade paperback. It likely never will.

On the big screen, 2002’s Reign Of Fire and 2012’s John Carter—the latter based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal science-fantasy novels, in which travel to Mars is an arcane, mystical process—kept science fantasy proudly alive. Both films are better than they’re often given credit for. They’re viewed predominantly as oddities in a pop-culture landscape that no longer recognizes science fantasy as a viable form, and therefore has little context to offer them. Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City Of Lost Children is far more acclaimed—but it’s not generally thought of as science fantasy in the classic, starships-and-swords sense. Nor is one of the biggest films of all time, The Avengers, despite bearing every earmark of science fantasy, from aliens to ancient gods. Science fantasy is the hidden engine that drives the jaw-dropping magnitude of The Avengers; superheroes are just the hood ornaments.

That lack of recognition remains one of science fantasy’s inherent problems. At first glance the category seems narrow, the sliver of the Venn diagram where science fiction and fantasy overlap. In practice, however, it encompasses the entirety of both genres, and more: It’s the synergistic play between the two, a vast area where reality is just another fabric for the creator to manipulate. Rather than being a subgenre, it’s a supergenre, although it’s rarely recognized or celebrated as such. Some current creations, like Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ brilliant comics series Saga, get it. And in a sense, the ongoing steampunk movement fulfills many of the technology-plus-magic possibilities that science fantasy has as its most powerful tool. But even Saga draws substantially from Star Wars, the franchise that all but eradicated the fantastic from its stodgy, over-explanatory prequel films—and in doing so helped relegate science fantasy as a whole to the dustbin of historical aberration.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law—“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”—often gets dragged up in conversations about science fantasy, as does Rod Serling’s opening to The Twilight Zone episode “The Fugitive”: “It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things: science fiction, the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable. What would you have if you put these two different things together?” Neither truly applies to the swords-and-starships splendor of early-’80s science fantasy. In his Third Law, Clarke wasn’t glorifying the paradox of advanced technology dwelling peacefully alongside magic; on the contrary, he was trying to explain that paradox away. And Serling, for all his eloquence, was describing the specific, Bradbury-esque stew of alien-invasion tropes and folksy magic realism simmered to perfection in “The Fugitive.”

Unfortunately, many genre fans love the rules that govern the genres they love. They love debating them, refining them, redefining them, as arbitrary as they are. Science fantasy shimmies between, around, and through every one of those rules. The past few years has seen a big push in the wing of speculative literary fiction known variously as slipstream, interstitial, or weird fiction. These terms aren’t interchangeable, either with each other or with science fantasy. But the marginal status of these subgenres—regardless of the fact that giants in the field such as Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, and China Miéville (whose 2000 novel Perdido Street Station is a marvel of science-fantasy reinvention) seem to have no problem with them—speaks to the rigidity of genre classifications, things that have become restrictive rather than useful.

It may seem counterproductive, then, to think in terms of genres at all, science fantasy included. That argument has certainly been made over the decades. Maybe it’s better to think of science fantasy as a tradition rather than a genre. I have my reservations about Hard To Be A God, as eager as I am to see it. Yes, it might be viewed as a science-fantasy film in the loosest sense; the discovery of an alien planet that closely resembles medieval Europe, after all, is a notion that borders on some sort of future fabulism. But if it is, it’s clearly a grimdark science-fantasy film, one that seems likely to deconstruct or at least subvert the kind of science-fantasy extravaganza I grew up with.

Then again, that might be what science fantasy needs before it comes roaring back into the collective consciousness in some permutation or another (for instance, in the recently announced upcoming TV adaptation of Dreadstar, although that owes more to Starlin’s new Hollywood cachet as the creator of some of the characters from Guardians Of The Galaxy than to any sudden rekindling of interest in starships-and-swords as a whole). Return Of The Jedi’s long-awaited sequel, The Force Awakens, comes out this year, but it’s yet to be seen if writer-director J.J. Abrams will luxuriate in the original trilogy’s unique amalgam of starships and swords, or if even more of that aura will be erased. If the faded grandeur of science fantasy is past its sell-by date, there’s still a vast silver age to revisit, reexamine, and be spellbound by.