Sunday, April 26, 2015

Raygun Fantasy and Scientifiction

I'm working on a more complete essay on the subject, but I wanted to get some initial thoughts down about the difference between what I am calling "raygun fantasy" and "scientifiction". The basic idea is that raygun fantasy takes ideas and themes that are most common in fantasy stories, such as spirituality, heroism, and other human concerns, cloaking them in imagery related to technology but without concerning itself too closely with the actual plausibility of those images. Scientifiction (the term is taken from Hugo Gernsback's preferred term for science-oriented fiction), on the other hand, tends toward matters of the sciences, dramatizing either scientific concepts or technological speculation, without much concern for realistic human issues. I use the term specifically for "retro" forms of SF, which are based in forms of science, technologies, and hypotheses that have not proven to be useful or practical, from theories of the luminiferous ether to ideas of negative mass. Of course, there is a certain overlap where raygun fantasy fades into scientifiction, and certainly other terms could be coined to more precisely situate various stories along a continuum between the two poles.

For example, many episodes of the original Star Trek series were basically raygun fantasy. The various episodes in which powerful aliens - or computers! - who masquerade as gods, angels, or who act in much the way that spiritual beings are said to act here on Earth are especially indicative of this. "And the Children Shall Lead", "Metamorphosis", "Wolf in the Fold", "Arena", "Who Mourns for Adonais?", and many other episodes of that series typify that sort of approach. Northwest Smith encountered many beings that were from other dimensions or planes of existence and were no different than otherplanar beings in fantasy fiction. Star Wars is notable for its fantastic elements, especially the various manifestations of the Force, and draws many of its plot concepts from myth and legend. The Lensman stories tend toward scientifiction, but the Arisians resemble occult concepts of Ascended Masters to a great degree, the Eddorians invade our universe from an alien space-time continuum, and the telepathic powers of the Galactic Patrol are largely similar to magic.

Another frequent element of raygun fantasy is the use of swords. This can be either unexplained, as in Flash Gordon where fighting with swords just happens or Krull where the presence of swords is taken for granted, or else given a rationale of some sort, such as the interaction of light sabers and the Force in Star Wars or the shield belts of Dune. This happens often enough that I had considered calling the subgenre "sword & blaster".

That last brings up an important area of crossover in subgenres of SF. The SF New Wave frequently drew inspiration and concepts from the era that gave us the core of raygun fantasy, and as a result often fits well into the concept. In fact, the influence occasionally went the other way as well, after a fashion, as when the 1980 film of Flash Gordon featured an Emperor Ming who controlled and enhanced his soldiers with drugs, a common New Wave motif.

To my way of thinking, the ideal of raygun fantasy stories are C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories, Flash Gordon, and Star Wars. Those form the core around which I am building my ideas of the subgenre. There are many other examples, from Lost in Space and Battlestar Galactica (the 1978-79 series more than the 21st century remake) to Richard Corben's "Den of Earth" stories and Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark tales, plus the Masters of the Universe toy line and television series, not even to mention videogames like Final Fantasy. One of the most recent manifestations of the idea is found in the blockbuster film Guardians of the Galaxy. I'll discuss this all more completely later.


  1. By "Raygun Fantasy", do you mean "Sword and Planet" or "Planetary Romance", or is this a different category?

    1. There are certainly some shared themes and motifs, and many crossovers between sword & planet, planetary romance, and raygun fantasy, but I think that it is identifiably a new category.