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Science Fantasy’s Faded Grandeur

More books, movies, etc., should combine swords and starships.

I thoroughly enjoyed this Jason Heller essay from 2015 about “science fantasy,” or that weird amalgamation of science-fiction and fantasy genre tropes that hit its peak in the early-to-mid ’80s.

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.

Heller mentions a lot of great works, from Thundarr the Barbarian and ThunderCats to Viriconium and The Book of the New Sun to Krull. The mention of Thundarr the Barbarian, in particular, really took me back, though.

I’m sure the series would be quite painful to watch now as an adult, but I was pretty awed by it as a kid. I didn’t know what “post-apocalyptic” meant at the time, but Thundarr’s world (not to mention his Sunsword) was pretty mind-blowing to my younger self.

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