Worldbuilding

Five Scifi Stories That Would Be Better as Fantasy

Spock and McCoy held captive by Romans with machine guns.
Despite what some purists may tell you, there’s no clear line between scifi and fantasy. Instead, each genre has a collection of elements we associate with it, and different stories may have more or fewer of those elements. That’s why we can confidently say that some stories are definitely scifi or fantasy, whereas others blur the line. These elements include a lot of aesthetic and worldbuilding choices like spaceships, swords, aliens, lasers, magic, and so on, but they can also include specific plots like the return of the one true king.

But what happens when authors choose the wrong genre elements for their stories? Science fiction in particular is sensitive to this, since it’s a genre with fairly high expectations for following the rules of real life unless stated otherwise. Some stories that are perfectly at home in fantasy flounder when surrounded with scifi elements, and learning about them can help you avoid similar problems in your own work.

1. Gideon the Ninth

Cover art for Gideon the Ninth

Gideon the Ninth is a story of a necromancer and a swordswoman exploring the bowels of a necromantic castle. The swordswoman is our main character, and it’s her job to keep the necromancer safe from any creepy crawlies that might be lurking about, to say nothing of other necromancers and their swordspeople.

In fact, swords are the main type of weapon in this setting, used by both aristocratic bodyguards and conquering armies alike. They’re just normal swords, too, as far as I can tell. No magic or supertech involved. Given that, it might surprise you to learn that Gideon the Ninth takes place in a space opera setting. The necromantic castle is on an alien planet, and everyone has easy access to spaceships.

This produces a bit of dissonance, to say the least. This is a world where FTL travel is commonplace, but the most advanced weapons are sharp pieces of metal? You might expect there to be some kind of scifi explanation for this, but if there is, it’s so subtle as to be easily missed. In fairness, Gideon never claims to be hard scifi, but the technological gap is so wide even that can’t even save it. You might as well write a modern setting where everyone communicates via messenger pigeon.

Despite blowing its setting integrity wide open, Gideon the Ninth almost never actually does anything with its scifi premise. The spaceships and technology are all somewhere else while the story focuses almost exclusively on the necromantic castle that needs exploring. That’s simply not enough to justify a conceit that strains suspension of disbelief so badly.

Changing Gideon into a fantasy story would require almost no changes to the plot. The necromantic castle can still be a necromantic castle; only this time it’s at the heart of an empire that stretches over continents rather than star systems. A subplot in the beginning involves a small spacecraft that would need to be replaced with a boat, but otherwise it would be incredibly easy. Some of the characters’ dialogue might need to be adjusted, as they sound extremely modern, but frankly that’s a problem in a distant-future space opera as well.

2. Ninefox Gambit

Three ships approaching a space station in Ninefox Gambit.

Ninefox Gambit is a novel all about technology, and that technology has two problems. First, it’s incredibly arbitrary. The rules of what technology can do are never established, so it seems like any given problem can be solved by tech that we’ve never seen before, and a number of them are. Second, most tech in this space opera setting is based around a consensus reality that depends on calendars.

I know that sounds weird, so I’ll be more specific. The setting’s more advanced tech, including most spaceships and weapons, only works in areas where the majority of people use the proper calendar system. If you enter an area where a different calendar system is in use, then technology based on the old system fails. In that area, a completely different set of technology now functions.

Like with Gideon the Ninth, no explanation is ever offered for this as far as I can tell. In fact, the idea that it’s a consensus reality situation seems to have been decided on by fans because it’s the only possible explanation. But even if you accept that, you’re still left with a critical question: why calendars? Why is a formalized system of timekeeping the only way in which humanity’s thoughts can change reality?

In a scifi setting, this is really difficult to explain. The idea of a universe that physically reacts to human thoughts is already pretty far-fetched, so trying to explain why it’s limited specifically to calendars is probably impossible. However, in a fantasy setting, this is all much easier. If Ninefox took place in a world with time magic, then the connection to calendars would be easy to intuit. Chronomancers use the power of people’s thoughts to fuel their magic, and that won’t work when those thoughts are organized with the wrong system.

This alternate version of Ninefox could even keep the spaceships and interstellar empire, as space fantasy is a perfectly viable subgenre. Granted, if the advanced tech is powered by time magic, then readers will expect it to be time themed, but that’s probably a good thing too. If the technology is built around a single theme, it’s far less likely to be overly arbitrary, feeding two birds with one hand.

3. Shadowrun

Shadowrun fantasy races in a police lineup.

Okay, I’m cheating with this one, as by most people’s definition, Shadowrun is already fantasy. Here’s the thing: it should be even more fantasy. As a setting, Shadowrun’s biggest problems all stem from the fact that it takes place in the real world and how various supernatural elements interact with that world.

First, there’s the theming clash. In Shadowrun, Native American spiritual beliefs are objectively real, or at least a version of those beliefs created by the FASA design team. You know what else is objectively real in Shadowrun? Tolkien-style high fantasy tropes. So we’ve got a world where a real people’s actual belief system exists alongside elves, dwarves, and fireballs. Weird. Plus, Shadowrun then has to explain why magic used to exist in the world, then went away, which is really hard to keep straight.

Then we get into the issues of appropriation and erasure. Many marginalized folks don’t want their religious and spiritual beliefs turned into fantasy elements. This desire is especially common among Native Americans, who have seen their culture mangled by white people over and over again, so most white storytellers should consider that subject off limits. Then there’s a bunch of awkwardness over some people being portrayed as more supernatural than others, like how Ireland is mostly elves in the Shadowrun timeline. That’s not as bad as appropriating indigenous beliefs, but it’s not great.

Finally, Shadowrun’s setting is just confusing. It’s hard to tell when metahumans* form their own culture and when they identify with an existing human culture. The level of integration seems to change depending on who’s writing the book. For all that, Shadowrun gets very little use out of its real-world setting. Its cyberpunk version of Seattle is so different that it might as well be a fictional city, and most of the world bears little resemblance to anything you or I might recognize.

An easy fix for these problems would simply be to set Shadowrun in a high fantasy world that’s advanced to the era of cyberpunk technology. That way, you can have all the magic you want without appropriating anyone’s religion. You don’t have to explain where magic went either, since it’s always been there. And you wouldn’t have the complex awkwardness of trying to fit fantasy cultures around existing human ones.

4. Jurassic Park

Two raptors from Jurassic Park.

The first Jurassic Park film is a masterpiece of cinema, but it does have one major problem: the message. The whole film is about how we shouldn’t let science go too far, which is already pretty problematic since what does science going too far even look like? Are these cancer meds an instance of science going too far? What about this tech to grow crops more efficiently?

It’s an especially weird message in the context of resurrecting dinosaurs, which we should absolutely do if we have the chance. Dinosaurs are just animals, not world-ending monsters, and most of them aren’t any more dangerous than an elephant or a lion. That’s not even considering all the other benefits that such technology would provide. We could bring back species that humans drove to extinction at the very least, and probably do a lot more.*

The first film went to a lot of trouble creating a scenario where it’s at least plausible for dinosaurs to pose a danger to humans. Basically, everything in the park goes wrong at once. There’s a storm, most of the personnel are absent, and an industrial spy disables all the safety precautions. That’s a pretty rare set of circumstances, but it at least provides a decent setup for this movie. Unfortunately, each Jurassic Park film gets worse from there.

In The Lost World, we see a well-armed paramilitary expedition get taken down by a bunch of non-sapient reptiles, and in Jurassic Park III,* a kid gets lost on Dino Island because he was parasailing nearby, for some reason. In the Jurassic World age, things are even worse. Now the park’s security systems fail for no reason at all, and then in Fallen Kingdom, we’re told that a handful of escaped dinosaurs are somehow an existential threat to the human species. We’ve arrived at The Walking Dinosaurs, nevermind that dinos are also shown to be incredibly vulnerable to bullets, and most of them don’t even have breeding pairs.

Turns out it’s really difficult to create a scenario where dinosaurs are actually a threat to humans, but if Jurassic Park were fantasy rather than scifi, this wouldn’t be a problem. A park full of dragons and other fantasy monsters actually would be incredibly dangerous, and with the right mix of powers, these creatures could pose an existential threat to humans. Plus, it’s far easier to come up with more evil things the park owners could be doing, if you need to branch outside of “operating unsafe theme parks for money” in the sequels. Maybe this harmless-seeming demon zoo is actually a front for stealing people’s souls, and the park goers find more and more of their life forces drained away with each exhibit.

Transforming Jurassic Park into a fantasy story would also let us fix the message. Instead of some vague alarmism about science going too far, it could specifically be a metaphor about not using inherently harmful technologies for profit. Bringing back dinosaurs isn’t inherently harmful, but summoning demons certainly could be.

5. Star Trek

The sailing ship USS Enterprise from Star Trek: Generations.

Really, Star Trek? I’ve got to be joking this time, right? Star Trek is the scifi TV show. And yet, many of its basic elements don’t fit with a scifi premise. First, there’s the technology. A lot of Star Trek technology was designed to get around production constraints or just as one-off novelty, not because the writers were interested in exploring its implications. Transporters mainly exist to save money on shuttlecraft-landing scenes, but from the explanation of how they work, they’re actually human photocopiers that can be used to resurrect anyone at any time. The ship’s computer mainly exists to provide critical exposition, but to do that it needs to display a sapient intelligence that Trek just isn’t ready to grapple with.

This would all be much easier in a fantasy setting. The transporter can simply be teleportation magic, and the ship’s computer could be some kind of knowledge spirit that the characters have a deal with. Don’t worry, we can still have characters like Data and Seven of Nine. Data would be a golem, and Seven could be an escapee from some kind of insect species that burrow into the minds of humanoids. Done.

More important than the technology, Star Trek’s approach to exploration has always fit better with ocean travel than space travel. For one thing, Trek loves to have ships run into space weather that they can’t just go around for unknown reasons. This requires a lot of disbelief suspension, both because space weather doesn’t work the way it’s portrayed, and because space is three dimensional. It’s much easier to show a ship being caught up in an actual storm. Trek is also really fond of ships sneaking up on each other, which is almost impossible to do in space but isn’t a problem on the ocean, where islands and the horizon’s curve can hide approaching ships.

Then there’s the entire question of away missions. A spaceship orbits above a planet, which means it can easily see what’s happening on the surface* and provide support through transporters, shuttles, communication, or even orbital bombardment. By contrast, Star Trek likes to treat its away teams like they’re exploring the interior of an island, completely cut off from the ship. If that’s how the writers want to portray things, why not make it an actual island where the exploring officers actually are cut off from their ship?

If Star Trek were set in some previously unknown area of the ocean full of strange magics and ancient ruins, the majority of its most prominent story elements would work a lot better. The writers would have to take pains in avoiding colonialist tropes, but that’s already a struggle for Trek, so it wouldn’t be any worse.

Why Not Star Wars?

An X-Wing in the sights of a TIE fighter.

Let’s address the bantha in the room. I know a lot of you were expecting Star Wars to be on this list, since it already veers pretty heavily into space fantasy territory. Despite that, I don’t think Star Wars would be well served by dipping further into fantasy aesthetics, and I’ll tell you why: space combat.

Of all the competing aesthetics that make up Star Wars, its most important is being World War II in space. All of Star Wars’ space battles are either lifted directly from history or strongly inspired by it. The Death Star Trench Run is basically a rehash of Britain’s Dambusters raid, and fleet battles in Star Wars look like they came right out of the Pacific campaign.

This dynamic is critical to what Star Wars is, and it would be very difficult to replicate in fantasy. The only option I can think of is to use a fantasy setting with a level of tech equivalent to  WWII, but that’s so similar to actual Star Wars that it wouldn’t be worth the change.

The major exception are the Jedi, not for their magic powers, but for their lightsabers. No matter how good lightsabers are at cutting arms off, it’s difficult to justify using a melee weapon in a setting where blasters exist. Star Wars tries to cover this by showing that lightsabers can block blaster bolts, but that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It might be possible for Jedi to block a handful of bolts, but any type of concentrated or automatic fire would quickly overwhelm them.

Lightsabers would make way more sense in a setting without guns or their analogues, but I don’t believe that’s worth losing Star Wars’ space battles, which are at least as big a draw as the Jedi. That’s the kind of tradeoff storytellers have to consider when deciding what genre to put their stories in. Star Wars actually uses its scifi elements, even if it’s imperfect. Stories like Gideon the Ninth don’t use those elements at all and could be changed to fantasy with little cost. Star Trek is more complicated, as it does use a lot of scifi tropes, but it then ignores them the moment they become inconvenient. As storytellers, we all have to look at our work and decide where it fits.

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Comments

  1. Petar

    I found myself nodding in agreement until I reached number four.

    If there is one element Jurassic Park would (and should) never be willing to give up, it’s the dinosaurs. It’s basically what defines the franchise. I’m not sure how else to solve it, but tweaking the message and presenting dinosaurs as something other than unstoppable movie monsters might work.

    That being said, a lot of JP fans I’ve talked to don’t mind the absurdities. I’m sure they would mind if the dinosaurs were replaced though.

    • LazerRobot

      I was considering this, because yeah the Dinos are a big draw of JP. So what if, in a low tech fantasy setting, wizards used resurrection magic to recreate dinosaurs, not really knowing what they were? We could still have the whole “velociraptors are super intelligent” fiasco and have the Dinos break out of their enclosures, (probably still with villain intervention.)

      I suppose we’d still have the message that dinosaurs are too dangerous to bring back, but maybe in a non-modern setting where magic exists the implication wouldn’t be as direct. Or maybe it was the use of magic resurrection that made them extra intelligent/more dangerous than they should be.

      • Petar

        Even this has its problems.

        Another big draw of JP was that it was actually pretty realistic. All other stories where dinosaurs and humans interact use lost worlds, time travel or magic. Genetic resurrection is, unlike all these things, something that could actually happen.

        Why is this important? Well, there is this thing known as the “Sci Fi Ghetto” which is basically the rule that speculative fiction works are hard to market towards mainstream audiences. While Jurassic Park is unambiguously spec fic, the elements are so small that they are often swept under the rug whenever the franchise is marketed in the “techno-thriller” category.

        Even disregarding that, it’s kinda cool that they introduced the concept of resurrecting extinct species to a broader audience.

        I think the best solution would have been to make the dinosaurs more intelligent. The first movie can stay as it is. In the second movie, maybe the powers that be could have thought that Einstein dinosaurs were a great tourism attraction and hence gave them intelligence enhancing genes. Then, they broke out and in the end formed their own society for a sequel.

  2. Dave L

    >any type of concentrated or automatic fire would quickly overwhelm them.

    That’s why they’re mostly reserved for Jedi. Jedi reflexes (including precognition) and dexterity let them block any number of shots, whereas non-Jedi WOULD be overwhelmed

    • Cay Reet

      As a player of several Jedi in video games, I can attest that sometimes the Jedi fail at deflecting the bullets…

      Yes, the force might give enough foresight and speed, so a Jedi could possibly deflect or otherwise avoid quick fire. I also seem to remember that Jedi didn’t fare too well against those wheel-shaped droids in the prequels which don’t exist.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The issue is that even if we assume the Force gives Jedi perfect reflexes and super speed, it’s not hard to reach a leave of saturated fire where there are simply too many projectiles for a lightsaber to block. The lightsaber has a limited surface area, and it can be in two places at once.

      • Luke Slater

        It’s also established in Attack of the Clowns that flamethrowers are the bane of a Jedi, and yes the Mandalorians explicitly have a lot of tricks that can circumvent Jedi defences, but a lot of that just proves that the great Mandalore was probably a smug fanboy who didn’t have an internet to rant into.

        As far as spaceships and swords go, I will mention Dune, an SF setting in which most combat was conducted with swords and knives, and which did it well. Blades were the weapon of choice because of the shields, a defensive technology which basically rendered most ranged weapons either redundant – anything that will go through a shield has to move so slowly you almost might as well walk up and stab them – or an absolute liability – lasguns work on the same principles as the shield, and the interaction of the two makes both explode in a kiloton-scale blast.

      • SunlessNick

        As ultimately happens in Revenge of the Sith. Which could serve your point in a way – Star Wars has its space knights fall before an industrialised army, which isn’t a fantasy plot.

      • Rose Embolism

        I’m not sure what you’re talking about. In the last Star Wars movie I saw a Jedi take on an entire line of Imperial Walkers with only his light saber, and he was unscratched. What more could you want?

        The question might be whether demanding Jedi have parity in weapons with storm troopers might be kind of missing the point of a Jedi Knight.

        • Cay Reet

          The sabre alone means that a Jedi can’t stop all bullets from an equivalent of a machine rifle or a mini-gun. It’s a simple question of the space a lightsabre blade can block at any given time and the wide spray a weapon like that can produce. This means that as a sci-fi story, it’s difficult to lift the disbelief, force or no force.

        • SunlessNick

          In The Last Jedi, Luke was unscathed by the walker fire because he was’t really there.

          As far as the rest of your comment goes, I think you missed the point of the article. Lightsabers were only cited as an exception to the reasons that Star Wars isn’t an example of a setting that would be better off as fantasy style rather than science fiction style. No one was demanding that Jedi have anything.

    • Shawn H Corey

      Because Jedi can block any bullets or blasters, puts Star Wars into the realm of fantasy.

  3. Ian Poissant

    I don’t think either Shadowrun or Star Trek would work that well if they were another genre. At least, not without changing almost completely their draw and their identity. I think a lot of people will like fantasy or sci-fi, but not necessarily the other way around (Or at least not to the same level). For me personally, I got a bit sick of fantasy a while ago. I used to read and watch almost exclusively fantasy books, shows and movies when I was younger until it all started to look the same. Today, I watch mostly sci-fi and a tiny bit of fantasy here and there. The story I’m watching could be the same as a fantasy one, except with blasters and spaceship instead of boats and swords, but I’ll enjoy it a lot more just because of the visuals, the vocabulary and the aesthetic in general (It will have a sci-fi coat of paint instead of a fantasy one). My brother does the opposite. A story with magic will draw him in very quickly. But if the same story with the same premise look more like sci-fi, he won’t be as interested.

  4. NeonChrome

    The Earthdawn RPG is a prequel of sorts to Shadowrun. I’ve never personally played it but it ties to its concept of cycles and the return of magic—still, it won’t make Shadowrun any less the chaotic, all over the place setting it already is (but I might be biased as I was heavily into classic Cyberpunk 2020 during the ’90s, if I wanted fantasy stuff I would have played something else).

  5. Tony

    I also always thought that Doctor Who might work better as fantasy. Make the Doctor a wizard and replace his screwdriver with a wand.

  6. Yora

    Star Wars works because it understands what it is and what the setting is supposed to be.
    The one thing I actually really liked in The Last Jedi were the heavy bomber in the opening battle. Seeing the bombardier walking through the bomb bay made me immediately think “This is a B-17 bomber in space!” And when I got home I went to look up what those ships are called in the movie, and they are actually called “B/SF-17″s.
    That’s the one good memory and one good thing I have to say about the movie.

    • Tony

      Another reason that Star Wars works as SF might be that that kind of adventure with wizards, knights, and swords has been done to death in fantasy.

      • Yora

        Star Wars really isn’t science fiction at all. It doesn’t concern itself in any way with technological progress and the future of human society. It’s straight up fantasy stories that work entirely on the logic s d dynamics of fantasy. It just happens to have lasers and space ships, but what is happening is still pure fantasy.

  7. Yonyonyon

    Tbh I couldn’t get into the Gideon the Ninth despite everyone I know singing praises about it. Mostly because I read the first lines as a fantasy story and then got punched in the teeth with sci-fi terms. I didn’t like that.

    But surprisingly I like Shadowrun, despite of its faults and shortcomings.

  8. LeeEsq

    My impression from Shadowrun was that the dwarves were closest to humans and basically still associated with whatever human culture they came from, so you can have a synagogue with a Dwarf for a Rabbi and elves were the farthest. Orcs and trolls were kind of in-between but like the unfortunate use of Native Americans, tended to be associated with urban street cultures (i.e. African-Americans, particularly the orcs). So you had Orc rap and all the teens were into it.

    Shadowrun was a product of it’s time, late 80s/early 90s and not thinking things entirely through. Its creators thought that cyberpunk and grunge rock were cool but so was Tolkien high fantasy tropes. So they decided to combine the two, not necessarily entirely successfully.

    • Tony

      Didn’t Bright do something similar with orc society based on Afro-American culture?

      • BeardedLizard

        Yes, they did. Every orc in that movie (except the main character) dresses like a stereotypical Afro-American gangster. Shadowrun isn’t as bad on that point, though. Artworks and descriptions for the orc place them in the sames situations as anybody else without too much stereotypes (or at least, as much as anybody else). But they can easily slip that way if you’re not careful, since they are a stand-in for an oppressed minority in general (which make the fact they can’t be as intelligent as human or elves it’s own problem for so many reasons).

  9. LeeEsq

    Although as a Jew, I always thought the idea of Hassidic Elf Jews would be kind of funny. Would they feel at lost for their lack of an ability to grow a beard?

    • Tony

      Funny you say that — as a Cuban-American on my dad’s side, I’ve wondered the same thing about a Cuban-influenced gnome society in a D&D setting. Cuban culture would certainly be exuberant enough. And in Cuba itself, you see a lot of people MacGyvering stuff out of whatever’s available (due to limited resources under a command economy), which also fits well with gnomes.

      • LeeEsq

        My guess is that Gary Gygax of mid-20th century Wisconsin knew next to nothing about Cuba, it’s people, and culture besides what other mid-20th century Americans knew.

        • Tony

          My dad’s Cuban family lived in mid-20th century Wisconsin when he was growing up, and Dad even claims that one of his friends knew the D&D creators. Maybe Gygax based gnomes on them?

          Not likely, though. But I’d still like to base my gnomes (or at least some of them) on Cuban culture if I ever run a campaign.

  10. Innes

    The weirdest one for me is The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin (which isn’t a bad thing, I love these books!) I can never decide whether they are fantasy or scifi. Although the books feature highly developed technology/post-apocalyptic destroyed cities and a lot of geology based technobabble, it also has actual magic in it. Ultimately I think it hews closest to fantasy and that its best described as a dark fantasy, but I really loved the way that the world-building mixes the genres.

  11. SunlessNick

    Jurassic Park’s dangers of science message was also weakened by the fact that the park’s systems only fail because of deliberate sabotage.

  12. Adam Reynolds

    Star Trek would make more sense as a fantasy series, but it would never have the same cultural legacy without the science fiction trappings. Perhaps the strongest lasting cultural legacy of Star Trek is its portrayal of an inherently optimistic future, which doesn’t work in a fantasy setting. While I certainly enjoy an optimistic fantasy world like Avatar, it doesn’t do this to the same extent as a science fiction future.

    The same is true for Jurassic Park, which is more memorable as the film that brought dinosaurs back to life than anything else. It wouldn’t do this as a fantasy work even if it showed dragons with the same level of fidelity.

    Shadowrun is the one I agree with the most strongly, as it also fits with why I enjoyed The Legend of Korra’s setting. I really would like to see more fantasy worlds evolve to a modern setting like this and show how their magic interacts with technology.

  13. Kai Aquila

    I agree with you an Star Trek and have not read the other series. But I have to disagree on your opinion on resurrecting dinosaurs. You said we absolutely should do it, if we had the chance and that’s just not true. A big carnivorous T-Rex or even the herbivorous Apatosaurus have no place in our ecosystem today. There is no adequate prey animals for them or cultural landscape that could sustain them. At least no in bigger numbers. And having only a handful of animals resurrected and then kept in very segregated spaces is animal cruelty. Same goes for human made extinct animal races. They went extinct in a time when our world was significantly different. They don’t fit into the existing food chain. It’s like bringing rabbits to Australia. WHy would you want to bring back the Kubaara parrot? It went extinct because we captured half of them to die in cages cause they’re beautiful and the other half was hunted or starved because they eat fruit we cultivate for ourselves. If they were resurrected they’d face the same problems today, along with the still alive animals which are threatened by the same problems but now have a new competitor. This solves nothing, let’s us gain no knowledge of worth and makes everything worse for the animals.
    My point is: Animals go extinct for a reason, resurrecting them without fixing the underlying cause for their extinction and not foreseeing their impact on the existing ecosystem (which you can’t completly) is stupid.

    • Tifa

      I was going to say that the ecosystem wouldn’t be able to support dinosaurs at all, but you beat me to it!

    • Dinwar

      There are a lot more issues with bringing dinosaurs back than you list. The atmosphere is different–the Cretaceous was so hot it shut down thermohaline circulation a few times (this ended some 5 million years before the K/Pg event and is not associated with the mass extinction). And even if we did clone the body of, say, a triceratops, we can’t clone the MIND of one. These are intelligent, social organisms, and we can assume that much of their behavior would be learned. We can’t bring that back. This is my main objection to the current attempts to bring back mammoths (aside from the purely practical objections, anyway).

      I will disagree with you, however. Cloning animals can provide tremendous knowledge–remember, paleontologists only get to work with bones 99.99% of the time. Thing is, we don’t need to clone the whole thing. We can clone pieces. For example, we were able to clone segments of mammoth DNA associated with blood chemistry, and discovered an antifreeze in their blood that we didn’t expect. Doing something similar with dinosaurs would provide tremendous insight to their ecology and physiology, while at the same time avoiding any cruelty issues. It may also have practical benefits, as it could open the door to new medicines (same concept as looking into the Amazon for new drugs).

      Some animals we can bring back, and probably should. Dodo birds, for example, would be relatively easy to re-introduce to the wild. Mammoths, gomphotheres, sloths, and the like could also be attempted. The world wasn’t so different back then (I’ve studied paleoclimatology; our current climate matches OIS-11 close enough that it’s used to test GCMs), and we’re the ones who killed them. We could also try to clone some nearly-extinct critters, to shore up the numbers. It’s a bottleneck, sure, but those happen more than people realize in the wild.

  14. Kat

    Completely agree on Ninefox Gambit – it really threw me that knowing what tech could do wasn’t enough to be able to predict what could happen outside of those bounds. It felt a lot more like a fantasy than a Sci fi to me as a result – and a soft magic system at that!

  15. Leon

    Just the other day i was thinking of doing lotr with modern tech (inspired by The Goblin (my toddler) running around with my wedding ring that i now ware on a chain because im developing tradesman hands).

    It would poba ly make a cool setting because dwarves and elves wouldn’t share tech and magic so there would be a lot to rediscover in fallen cities.

    • Cay Reet

      It does sound interesting, I always loved stories which mix up technology and magic.

      • Leon

        I just can’t find a suitable solution for an A.I. that uses drones. If you can’t move without being seen, and a Dog robot with a gun (or even a micro drone with a bomb) can kill anything, then the only way into a controlled area is to have massive cosmetic surgery (or very good make up), and blend in to a mass of unknown people such as illegal immigrants or refugees – which would very very grim dark.

        Though, if you had the skills, you could probably build a good story around unknown people dealing with adventurers bringing trouble to their underground communities.

        • Cay Reet

          The question is would you have drones? Sauron’s eye has blind spots, that is how Frodo and Sam get that far … and then there’s the army at the gate which is only there to pull the attention. You could have a camera network instead of drones, which would be an ‘all-seeing eye’ in a way – but where there’s no cameras, there’s a way to get around.

          Also, there could be a technological (or magical) equivalent to the elven cloaks – a cloaking technology which either makes the wearer invisible to technology as well as the human eye or a technology that makes people not see the person who is right in front of them (they would see the person, perceive there’s someone, but they would not recognize them for a wanted fugitive).

          • Dinwar

            The other thing to remember is that “Sauron’s eye” is at least partially metaphorical. Yes, he has the Seeing Stone and his own powers, but he’s not omnipotent (thus the need for the One Ring). He has to pick what he’s looking at.

            One important detail that the movies left out of LOTR is that Elrond sent out multiple parties, some of which looked MUCH more threatening than the Fellowship. There were scouts, messengers, and random groups of warriors that were intended to look an awful lot like a group that had the Ring. You also have to remember that the battles at Gondor and Rohan were little more than diversions. Important, yes, but fundamentally their primary function was to keep Sauron occupied. Aragorn and Gandalf state this openly in “Return of the King”.

            Giving Sauron drones instead of birds wouldn’t change those aspects of the story. If anything, they make these aspects more critical, as they’d be needed to explain the drain on the Dark Lord’s resources.

        • Kenneth Mackay

          Perhaps the One Ring functions as the emergency override device for the A.I. It can temporarily jam any drones or bots that come into range (making the wearer ‘invisible’), but it needs to be physically interfaced with the main data banks (Mount Doom) in order to activate the shutdown sequence…!

          • Leon

            Its actually impossible to interfere with real military hardware. To physically tamper with it you first have to defeat it or those who are holding/guarding it. You can’t ‘hack’ it because encryption can not be cracked. The enigma machine was never defeated, the code was compromised by a operator using his wife’s birthday, instead of new numbers each day.
            If you controlled the internet every phone or device with a microphone could be used to track persons of interest.

            Of curse this is only if you forget about magic.

            Magic with hard limits on duration of use and respect for the laws of thermodynamics would give the Fellowship options. And if different races/cultures/professions have different magic you could have a lot of fun with it.

  16. Dinwar

    Jurassic Park can’t lose the dinosaurs. That’d be like “Lord of the Rings” dropping the rings.

    What Jurassic Park can lose, however, is every movie after the first. The first movie worked because the stakes were, let’s face it, very small. The risks faced were personal risks–the people on the island needed to get off. These were scientists, a hunter, computer folks, kids, and a venture capitalist; the dinosaurs were a threat because the humans had no weapons, and had to face the dinosaurs on their own terms.

    If you want to make the dinosaurs a threat, drop the park. The original book had dinosaurs getting loose, and this can cause ecological problems–see kudzu in the South for an example of invasive species! They should be thinking more “Predator” or “Jaws” than “Park”; send in a small group to deal with some unknown threat, and only slowly reveal that it’s a dinosaur that got loose.

    You COULD do a fantasy thing with this premise, but I think the main thing holding back the Jurassic Park franchise is the focus on the park at this point. Honestly, it should never have been a franchise; it should have been a stand-alone movie. People need to realize when the story is done.

    • Cay Reet

      What keeps people returning to the park aspect might be the Jurassic PARK in the title.

      I agree that it would be perfectly possible to make a movie about what happens when dinosaurs (perhaps not the biggest apex predators like T.Rex, but there’s always the raptors) get into the regular eco system and do to it what other species have already done – only with the added danger to all humans in the area.

      • Dinwar

        “What keeps people returning to the park aspect might be the Jurassic PARK in the title.”

        Maybe. But I’m not certain. The park idea gives you a chance to put ridiculous combinations together (dilophosaurs running around with T. rexes? Stegosaurs and galimimus?!). It gives you an excuse to show a LOT of dinosaurs. And it’s built-in merchandizing–any props you build for the Visitor’s Center can be sold as licensed merchandise without changing a thing!

        Still, I think that there’s a market for more subtle uses of dinosaurs. Like I said, this isn’t a unique idea. It’s the idea behind “Predator”, “Alien”, and a host of monster movies. It’s also fundamentally the idea behind the first two parts of Beowulf, a story that’s endured for centuries.

        Jurassic Park is, at its heart, a monster movie–one about monsters you can’t even hate, because they’re just animals. If you play that angle, I think audiences would embrace it.

  17. Rachel Rushefsky

    Regarding the lightsabers in Star Wars…I think my assumption has always been that the lightsaber predates a lot of the other technology, that they’ve “always” been the weapon of the Jedi, and as the other technology advanced, the Jedi came up with reasons to justify hanging on to the light saber (with the real reason being more about identity than efficiency).

    There was something about the way Obi-Wan spoke about them to Luke in A New Hope that made me assume that, but obviously it wasn’t anything explicit. Something about “an elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.”

  18. Kenneth Mackay

    Is there going to be a ‘Fantasy Stories that would work better as Sci-Fi’ article?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Maybe, if I can find enough examples. Right now that just doesn’t seem likely though, and the reason is that scifi is more restrictive in its worldbuilding expectations than fantasy. You can do a lot in scifi, but there are certain expectations that create more limits than there are in fantasy.

  19. Rose

    I really don’t think shadowrun should be straight up fantasy- its whole premise is “magic in the near future of earth”, take that away and it’s just another interchangeable D&D clone clogging up the back shelves of RPG stores.

    Less appropriative, sure, but that’s a different design choice unless you think all urban fantasy is inherently appropriative. Other then that social justice issue, I don’t think the buy in of “magic goes away and comes back” is inherently insurmountable (i feel you can literally just say that’s a thing that happens and move on with no problems in most campaigns)

    I just don’t see the point of throwing out the entire setting and premise rather then simply tweaking the magic system so it doesn’t ape native americans and doing some sensitivity checks every so often.

    • BeardedLizard

      I absolutely agree with you, What make Shadowrun what it is, it’s the real world 20 minutes into the future mix with the fantastical. If everything becomes fantasy, it just wouldn’t have the same feel and draw.

      Moreover, it would be super easy to correct its many flaws or create a version that wouldn’t have them (especially the statistical racism toward the orc and trolls. You don’t need to give them a huge penalty in everything intellectual or social. 5e D&D with that by giving them a bonus to physical stuff without taking away their intelligence).

    • Jasin Moridin

      I’ve been working on a crazy RPG project that’s mostly Shadowrun, but with a whole lot of other stuff thrown in, like the Dresden Files, Nasuverse, Harry Potter, and Assassin’s Creed (along with several other things). And not using the Shadowrun rules, but FFG’s Genesys ruleset (which I admit is mostly because I tried making a Shadowrun character and it took me six hours and two Excel spreadsheets).

      I’ve actually downplayed the whole “Native American shamanism is actually real magic” angle a bit, by having that tradition be one of many different extant forms of magic, several of which aren’t even accessible to the player characters. I’m also going with the Dresden Files solution of actually having Gods walking around and interacting with everyday folk, which lessens the problematic, appropriative aspect of Canon!Shadowrun’s take on Shamanism by having ALL of the world’s spiritual practices have power and be demonstrably valid.

      Basically, it’s kind of applying Syndrome’s “If everyone is super, no one is” logic from The Incredibles to the problem, but I think it works a bit better than only having one culture with a viable magic tradition and that culture being one that has had to deal with horrible shit from actual genocide, to cultural appropriation, to the mere fact that people think it’s ONE culture.

  20. Neapolitangirl

    Wouldn’t a fantasy Nine Fox Gambit be hard seeing that the story takes place almost entirely in space? Even if you replace every ship scene (and there’s a lot of them) with everyone riding giant birds they would feel super off.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Like I mentioned in the last paragraph of that section, you can keep all the space ships and make it space fantasy. The main thing is changing up the calendar tech to be calendar magic.

  21. Daniel

    “The whole film is about how we shouldn’t let science go too far, which is already pretty problematic since what does science going too far even look like?”

    Knee-jerk reaction but…the atomic bomb. It looks like the atomic bomb.

    • Dinwar

      Why? I mean, the atomic bomb is impressive, sure, but it does exactly the same thing that a bomb such as the MOAB or a bunker-buster does: kill people and destroy enemy resources. It does so more efficiently than other weapons, but the concept isn’t new. Nor is the destruction as vast as people think. You could fire every nuclear weapon (and every conventional one for that matter) and it wouldn’t be 10% the scale of the K/Pg impact (which killed the dinosaurs but which otherwise was a fairly minor mass extinction). I mean yes, it’s a tremendously powerful weapon–but it’s a difference in scale, not in kind.

      On the flip side, controlling nuclear power gave us the cleanest energy source in history. Nuclear reactors produce less radiation than coal power plants, have a smaller environmental footprint than wind turbines per kilowatt hour, and the waste is easily disposed of, either by recycling (which most of the world does) or by burying it (which the USA would do were it not for purely political reasons). Yes, I’m familiar with Chernobyl–I’ve done a fair amount of research on it, in fact–and honestly, it’s not that different from other industrial disaster sites that I’m familiar with. People over-estimate the dangers of nuclear power plants and are woefully ignorant of the dangers of “normal” industrial processes. I’ve been in remediation for a decade; I’ve seen things that would make you never swim in a river again!! And bear in mind, modern reactors simply cannot have a meltdown like Chernobyl; they are built so that the physics won’t allow it. (Chernobyl was an administrative disaster, by the way–had certain administrators not intentionally circumvented safety protocols, it would have been a minor inconvenience.)

      For my money, “science going to far” would be more biological: a super-bacteria that lacked the density-dependent limiting factors that most living cells have (cancer doesn’t, which is part of what makes it so nasty) and which can use a wide variety of organic matter to sustain itself and reproduce. I call it the “green goo”, after the gray goo of science fiction. Or we could produce a perfect vacuum, which could end up expanding and destroying the entire universe. Each would be fundamentally different in kind from what is currently happening in the world.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Commenting cause I think this is super interesting.

      Despite both being explosive, nuclear weapons aren’t in the same category as conventional explosives, even something as powerful as an air fuel bomb.

      The radiation they leave behind is a big part of that, but more importantly, it’s a completely different scale of destruction. The relatively easy way of causing mass destruction that nukes provides leads to dangerous calculations where it’s very easy to end up in an extinction level war despite all parties involved not wanting said war.

      That said, whether nukes are an example of “science going too far” is very complicated, and not super relevant to Jurassic Park, which is about dinosaurs.

      • Dinwar

        “The radiation they leave behind is a big part of that…”

        Radiation isn’t the issue. Fallout is a concern, but we’ve mitigated that via the ubiquity of iodized salt (radioactive iodine is one of the big problems with nuclear fallout because it’s so bioavailable; having iodized salt provides an alternative source, reducing the amount that people absorb). People are once again living in Hiroshima and Nagisaki today. Scientists routinely visit nuclear testing site–they’re a great site for testing ideas on asteroid impacts.

        The area affected by nuclear weapons is not significantly larger than that affected by conventional bombing; the difference is that the individual atomic bomb does more damage than the individual normal bomb.

        There’s a website where you can actually see how big an area various nuclear weapons would damage. It’s big, sure–but you can’t wipe out all of LA with one bomb, not even close. The bigger issue with a nuclear attack is the panic and collapse of infrastructure, but again that’s the case with any attack.

        “… it’s a completely different scale of destruction.”

        That’s simply not true. Individual atomic bombs can do more than individual bombs, sure, but that ignores tactics, which is something like judging a story based on font while ignoring the plot. The Axis and Allies flattened entire cities during WWII via conventional bombing methods, and subsequent wars did the same thing. Okay, it took longer–but again, the results (death and destruction of enemy assets on the scale of entire cities) are the same.

        As far as “extinction level war”, I have two comments. First, as someone who’s done extensive research on mass extinctions, I can say that no one studying them uses this term. They can’t. Mass extinctions simply don’t have a single cause, or even a common cause; we don’t even know what caused most of them! We’re dealing with five unique events that are extremely difficult to generalize about. (I could go on about this for a while, so I’ll cut it short here….)

        Second, as I said, we can’t cause a mass extinction with the weapons we have. Estimates are necessarily difficult to establish with any certainty, but it’s generally agreed by paleontologists that the K/Pg impact was something like ten times (or more) the explosive power of every weapon (not “nuclear weapon”, but weapon as such) going off at once. If we broadcast the explosions it’s worse, but while it will shut down modern civilization (via EMPs and infrastructure destruction) it won’t even cause the extinction of humanity. See Peter Ward’s “Future Evolution” for a fairly in-depth yet accessible discussion.

        For weapons different in kind, mustard gas is a better option. Chemical weapons such as mustard gas were designed to kill and maim people without destroying enemy assets (so you could turn them into allied assets). There are also weapons designed specifically to maim, because while a dead soldier is at best just a dead soldier, a maimed soldier is a drain on enemy resources (via medical bills) and a drain on enemy psychology (it brings the horrors of war back to the home front in a way that a dead soldier simply doesn’t).

        • Dave L

          >I could go on about this for a while, so I’ll cut it short here

          Maybe you could offer to do a guest post here

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Oh boy I do love talking about nuclear weapons. Wonder if that says something weird about me?

        Anyway, the problem here is that you’re trying to brush off critical differences between nukes and conventional explosives as mere trivialities.

        First, their destructive power. It’s true that in WWII, both sides devastated each other’s cities through conventional bombing, with Germany and Japan getting by far the worst of it. But that destruction was wrought over weeks, months, or years. It required huge numbers of planes and bombs.

        That kind of endeavour is not embarked on lightly, and while horrific, it is possible to defend against such attacks. Nuclear weapons on the other hand, can do the same job in days, if that, and they’re much harder to stop. Even with just bombers, only a few planes have to get through in order to cause massive devastation. Nuclear missiles are almost impossible to stop, so they pretty much guarantee destruction.

        A single B83 bomb is about 1.2 megatons (the largest conventional explosive is about 39 tons), enough to devastate 80 square miles. You’d need 6 or 7 of those to wipe LA off the map, something that would be much harder to do with conventional explosives. Nuclear weapons are simply way more efficient at delivering explosive energy than any other means we currently have.

        Worse, because nukes are so effective, they encourage a first strike mentality, with the idea that your side might be able to survive if it can attack first and wipe out most of the enemy’s ability to retaliate. This leads to a hair trigger environment which is way worse than we’d get with purely conventional weapons, where both sides are terrified of not getting their nukes in the air fast enough.

        Two, radiation. You’re right that radiation isn’t magic and that it’s possible to decontaminate affected areas, as seen with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it takes a lot of resources to do so, something that would be notably short in a full scale nuclear war. I’m not sure what you mean about iodized salt, but I haven’t been able to find anything to suggest it presents an easy solution to wide spread radioactive contamination.

        I agree that I used the term “extinction” too freely, but a full scale nuclear war is still an apocalypse by any reasonable standard. Beyond the people killed in the initial blasts and fallout, the collapse of infrastructure would kill far more. This is a situation we simply wouldn’t be in without nuclear weapons.

        Again, whether that means it was a mistake to invent them or not is highly debatable, but it’s important to recognize the facts for what they are.

        • Dinwar

          I’m not brushing off anything. I’m putting nuclear weapons into context. The goal of both nuclear and conventional weapons is identical: To kill people and destroy enemy resources. Your discussion about carpet-bombing merely demonstrates that nuclear weapons do this more efficiently; the result of both is the same.

          Again, contrast this with mustard gas. Mustard gas was NOT intended to cause destruction. That’s a difference in kind–it’s a fundamentally different way of dealing with war.

          The problem of fallout is greatly exaggerated in media. The problem of fallout is radioactive particles. On the short-term you have particles that stick to you and zap you through your skin (thus the decontamination scene in “Crystal Skull”–that’s one of the more realistic scenes). Most of the dangerous radioactive isotopes (gamma ray generators) created in a nuclear explosion are short-lived, so they’re only a threat for a short while. This contrasts with a meltdown situation, where the radioactive material is NOT short-lived and can continue going for centuries; there are natural nuclear reactors that demonstrate this. On the longer term you have long-lived isotopes like iodine, which are less energetic and therefore less dangerous. Keep those out of the body (again, iodized salt and the like) and they’re not much of a threat; the skin is resistant to alpha particles, and the wall of a building is resistant to beta.

          Nuclear weapons are actually safer than dirty bombs or the like, specifically because the conditions involved in generating the explosion convert long-lived radioactive material into shorter-lived radioactive material, and any long-lived material that’s left is scattered over a wide area. I’m not saying fallout isn’t an issue, to be clear: I’m just saying that the reality of nuclear fallout is very different from the way it’s portrayed. And I should say that anything times ten to the ninth is significant–meaning that if you carpet-bomb with nukes obviously the cumulative effect is going to be much greater than the effect of an individual bomb.

          Okay, it’s a LOT more complex than this. We’re both simplifying a vast amount of information here.

          What I’m saying isn’t speculation. We have data points here. People are living in areas where nuclear bombs have dropped–both wartime bombs and testing explosions. That alone tells us that they aren’t going to contaminate the area to an unendurable degree. It may not be the healthiest place to live, but I believe they compare favorably to areas where there’s a lot of hydrocarbon processing plants.

          As for psychology, it’s complicated. On the one hand, your enemy having the ability to wipe out a big chunk of your capital city (and therefore your entire government) in an instant is understandably terrifying. On the other, I think you’re under-estimating the psychological horror of carpet bombing. It’s not something most of us have experience with, and it’s impossible to understand fully unless you’ve endured it. Frankly I’m not sure which is worse.

          If anything, nuclear weapons create, not a first strike mentality, but a Mutually Assured Destruction mentality. So did conventional bombs (see WWII Europe), but the slower pace meant that there was more room for tactical maneuvering. Nukes remove that from the equation–you either prevent the strike somehow (treaties, missile defense systems, or something), or you take the blow. Sic vi pacum, para bellum; the best way to prevent the blow from landing is to ensure that everyone understands that whoever strikes first gets wiped out completely.

          “…it’s important to recognize the facts for what they are.”

          We are in agreement. Where we differ is in what we take to be the reality of nuclear weapons.

  22. Leigh

    I just discovered this site and have been reading compulsively since, thank you for all the thoughtful discussions and I REALLY appreciated you using this idiom “feeding two birds with one hand” rather than the common speciest version!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yay, glad you’re enjoying it! If you like that saying, you may also enjoy “there’s more than one way to pet a cat.”

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