Friday, February 21, 2020

Weird Revisited: Hard Science Fantasy

This post first appeared in 2013, though I revisited the idea with some other details in the years since...

Art by Bruce Pennington

Genre titles are really imprecise things, so let me explain what I mean: A setting that looks like fantasy, but is in fact sort of post-technological science fiction. What would make it "hard" as opposed to the usual science fantasy is that it wouldn't resort to what are essentially fantasy concepts like extradimensional entities or psionic powers to do it. The fantastic would come from at least moderately more possible sources like near Clarketech ("any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") nanotechnology, cybernetics, and bio-engineering.

I haven't really seen this out there in gaming. Yes, Numenera presents a world utterly drenched in nanotech that can be tapped like magic by the masses, ignorant of it's nature. But Numenera still has psychic powers and extradimensional monsters. What I'm envisioning is more like Karl Schroeder's Ventus (where the "spirits" animating the natural world are AI controlled nanotech) or the Arabian Nights-flavored Sirr of Hannu Rajaniemi's The Fractal Prince where spirits in ancient tombs are digital mind emulations and the jinn are made of "wildcode" malicious nanotech.

Beyond nanotech, monsters would be genetically engineered creations of the past or descendants thereof. Or perhaps genuine aliens. Gods would be post-human biologic or AI entities--or often some combination of both. Or figments of human imagination. Or leftover bombs.

Why a more "rigorous" science fiction masquerading as fantasy world than the usual Dying Earths or whatnot? No real reason other than it seems to me starting with far future science fiction and figuring out how it would be rationalized by a more primitive mindset might yield a fresher take on the standard fantasy tropes.


  1. Champion of Mars by Guy Haley features a fantastic setting that gives an Edgar Rice Burroughs feel with an underlying hard SF background that has the rigour of Kim Stanley Robinson.

  2. I really need to get around to reading that. You are not the first to recommend it.

  3. Need to check that out as well ... been hungry for more sword and planet since finishing SM Stirling's In the Courts of the Crimson Kings. By the way, my current project Swords of Maruzar is in a similar vein. Lots of genetic engineering and importation of exofauna from other planets, which then escaped.

  4. I've been meaning to link to that project of yours. Good stuff!

  5. Thanks! Just did a playtest in Manila and it went quite well. One of the players suggested a new mechanic that ended up having a huge impact on the system so we're setting up to playtest that soon.

  6. @Dariel, funnily enough I've been geeking out on Gods of Gondwane recently.

    As a result, I've been digging out and reorganising a bunch of relevant books on lost worlds and other radium age fiction as well as fringe science and the occult.

    Good times!

    Would be great to see some new material/mechanics for your Vivid System.

  7. I didn't know this was a genre so to speak. I had started working on skinning my BX setting to be just that. All the near-humans would be descendants of genemodded humanity, and so on.

  8. @evangineer, thanks, glad you like Gods of Gondwane! Swords of Maruzar is definitely a radium-age tribute (I often say I have red sand between the ears ha ha). If you'd like to playtest Swords of Maruzar I can share a playtest adventure with rules and pregen characters with you.

  9. Exiled in Eris is a RPG with a background somewhat similar to what you have in mind, in terms of having mysterious powers in the setting actually having a technological basis.

    It's been quite a while since I read it so I can't tell you if it is actually Hard Science Fantasy.

  10. Looks more Planetary Romance in the presentation.

  11. I really enjoyed "Ventus". I felt for the queen who was trying to bring more equality to her kingdom, and was besieged by the neighboring royals as a result. Schroeder's "Sun of Suns" is also quite good, and is another setting where the world's low tech-level is enforced upon them.

    Aside from Vance's "Dying Earth", Harrison's "Viriconium", and Wolfe's "New Sun", it's difficult for me to think of many examples of the genre, despite how clear an image I have of it, thanks to those touchpoints.